Another rant

The day after we were married, my in-laws hosted a brunch at their home for family members. We opened our wedding gifts that morning. I don’t remember all of the details, it was more than 45 years ago. It seems to me, looking back, that there were a lot of gifts. Dishes and linens and silverware and a few small appliances. One gift I remember, and I also remember the family who gave it to us, was a brightly colored tea kettle. It was really nice. I didn’t drink tea. My family members didn’t drink tea. We always had a coffee pot in our kitchen, but I didn’t know the difference between a kettle and a pot when it came to tea. The main use for the device in the first year or so of our marriage was to sit on the stove and cover up the burner that we didn’t need. We were college students. We kept cooking to the simple. We made casseroles. We boiled spaghetti. Spaghetti and sauce only take two burners and our stove had four. There was always an extra burner for the kettle to sit on and it added a splash of color to our kitchen.

A few years later, when we were expecting the birth of our first child, the churches we were serving threw a baby shower for us. I can’t remember the event. It is possible that it was mostly an event for women. I do remember that there were a lot of tiny baby clothes that came to us as gifts. I remember much more clearly the showers held for us when we adopted our daughter. We weren’t expecting such an event. In those days baby showers were primarily reserved for the first child in a family. We, however, had ended up with an infant girl with very little warning. I remember going straight from the adoption agency to a shop to buy supplies for the trip home. I remember repurposing the dining room buffet into a changing table/baby clothes storage area when we got home. The drawers in that unit were filled up with gifts from the generosity of the people we served.

We have often been the recipients of the generosity of others. As such, I am cautions about what I am about to write. Because we are definitely in a place to pay forward that generosity to others who are starting their families. And I know the joy that giving a gift can bring.

When we got married, I’m sure that there were gift registries at some of the stores. We, however, didn’t think of such a thing. It would have seemed presumptuous for us to tell others what they should give us. And we would never have thought to put a tea kettle on the list.

These days, however, it is pretty common for an invitation to attend a wedding or a baby shower to include a list of stores where gift registries have been set up. We’ve received invitations that have instructions for making online purchases at stores that will wrap and deliver the gift for you. A couple of times, we’ve used the systems, going to the sites and selecting from a list specific items that are within our budget. We’ve received invitations with very specific instructions: “Don’t buy a card, instead give a book.” Since we often give books as gifts, it seems a bit strange to learn that a book is an add on gift and not a primary gift. Then again, there are lots of things about contemporary culture that we old folks don’t understand.

I’m sure that there are advantages to gift registries. They help avoid duplicate gifts. They help givers to select items that are truly wanted. With people being conscious about not over consuming and not over cluttering their lives with items, it makes sense to avoid the risk of purchasing the wrong item or having multiple gifts that are similar or the same. There probably was some duplication in the wedding and baby gifts we received. I don’t remember it being a problem. Our daughter did a lot of spitting up when she was tiny. I’m pretty sure that no one would have noticed if she had two identical outfits. We were changing her clothes so often we might have seen it as an advantage to have two outfits that were the same.

It isn’t for me to judge whether the new way of doing things is better or worse than the old way. Popular culture doesn’t hinge on my opinion in the first place. And a rant in this journal isn’t going to change the popularity of pre-designed invitations that are ordered over the internet with cute graphics that tend to look a lot like the other ones you get. But I may have a tendency to go for an occasional tea kettle as a wedding gift. And I suspect that there are plenty of baby showers where the book “When We Were Very Young” by AA. Milne doesn’t show up. I hope I can be forgiven for ignoring the gift registries and going off on a whim. I’m more likely to do so with someone I know very well.

Which brings me to another topic: More and more we receive invitations to showers that are being held in large public locations, such as community centers and even hotel ballrooms. I think of such events as being a bit smaller and a bit more personal - something to take place in someone’s living room. Then again, we have been the recipients of at least one event that was held in a church basement, so it isn’t fair for me to complain about others’ events. We do, however, receive invitations to showers for people with whom we haven’t had a conversation in more than a decade. It’s not that we mind giving a gift, but it is harder to know what to give when you barely can remember the recipient’s personality.

When in doubt, I suggest you go with the tea kettle. Bright colors seem like a good idea.The folks who gave ours are lifelong friends whom I'll never forget.

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!

Winter continues

It is 3 degrees Fahrenheit this morning. The forecast is for a high of 17 degrees, which calls “much warmer,” than yesterday. It has been a relatively long spate of cold weather and the snow and ice still have a good grip on our town. I have noticed some changes, however.

Not everyone is staying inside. Folks who bundle up and get out report that they feel better than they felt cooped up in their houses. Meetings that were canceled due to the weather in the first few days of cold temperatures are now progressing. We’re slowly adjusting to the realities of colder temperatures.

This isn’t the coldest winter in my experience. I’ve lived through years with colder absolute temperatures and long stretches of cold. Things might be a bit unusual for this location, but mostly it is just a case of living in South Dakota in the winter. It gets cold.

Next week is spring break at our local university and I’ve got friends who are heading off to various warmer places. One friend is going to Las Vegas for the weekend. Another is heading to Florida next week. Other friends are coming home from a vacation in Jamaica this week. The weather will definitely feel cold for them when they get off if the airplane. And, of course, we have quite a few snowbirds in our congregation who have retreated to warmer places for weeks or months depending on their schedules and budgets.

I’m not unhappy dealing with the cold weather. It can be a bit of a hassle. Some days I’ve had to shovel twice in the same day. I forget the many days when I haven’t had to shovel at all. The wind picked up yesterday and some snow blew back into the drive, but not enough to cause a problem. One of our garage doors seems to be suffering from the cold and is a bit quirky when it goes back down. It will probably need a service call sometime in the spring, but it is working enough to open and close so the car can spend the night inside.

Things are much easier with modern cars equipped with electronic ignition and fuel injection. We have gotten used to just going out and starting our cars without having to plug them in. The batteries in the cars have sufficient energy to crank the engines when they are cold and so far we haven’t had any major vehicle issues. I did have a little gel in the diesel in the pickup, but I was on my way to the shop for routine service and once the filters were changed and a bit of additive poured in the tank, thing are going smoothly. The shop did say that they are seeing a lot more diesel vehicles with gelled fuel. They had to go rescue a tow truck last week when it experienced the problem.

And I have been keeping track with the blog of a person who lives in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, where is is consistently colder than it is here. It’s been down to -40 there this winter and most of the time it has been below zero. Yesterday it got up to 8 degrees Fahrenheit and he described the weather as balmy and posted a picture of himself outside in a cap and t shirt. I still need a sweatshirt when it is only 8 degrees. I’m likely to keep my parka even if it gets up to 17 degrees today. I’ll probably shed it tomorrow if it gets to the forecast 28 degrees and we are loading firewood.

This weekend will be the last firewood delivery of the season for us. We’ll be out of firewood and when the weather gives us a break we’ll start splitting for next year’s deliveries. I think the pile was a bit smaller this year than it has been in some years, but we had a good stock. But the cold weather has increased demand and we’ve done our best to keep up. We know that we aren’t the solution to everyone’s heating problems, but we like to do what we can to help. A couple of our volunteers have been going above and beyond the usual and have really helped people who were hurting for firewood. They keep their equipment operating in the cold weather and seem to keep themselves warm by loading trailers. I’m really grateful for their dedication and selflessness.

Helping neighbors has long been a part of winter survival on the plains. When it is below zero you don’t drive past a breakdown without checking to see if help is on the way. I’ve got my winter survival gear in my car. And we are way more connected than we were years ago. Cell phones work in most places and almost everyone has one. I remember driving on Dakota roads in the winter back in the 1970’s and hoping that there would be a ranch nearby with a good CB antenna if I were to slide into the ditch. The CBs that we had in our car were only good for 3 to 5 miles, but we carried them anyway because they could be helpful in a pinch. I don’t think I’ve used a CB radio in the last 25 years. We don’t own one anymore.

So we get through winter. Spring will come. Friday is March. The old saying that is if March comes in like a lion, it goes out like a lamb and it appears it will come in like a lion. The high temperatures probably won’t make it into the teens over the weekend and the lows will be more than ten degrees below zero. Then again, the old sayings don’t always apply. The groundhog didn’t see his shadow this year, which is supposed to mean an early spring. And even if he had seen his shadow it is suppose to mean only 6 weeks more winter and we’ll be at that date in a couple of weeks.

So lace up your boots and zip up your parka and get outside and get some fresh air. We can’t wait for warmer temperatures to get on with our lives. In the meantime, the seed catalogues have arrived and the crops advertised look delicious and i’m hungering for a real home-grown tomato. It’ll be a while.

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 Political Rant

I try to avoid politics in my journal posts for the most part. I am no expert in policy, and my calling is not to governance. That doesn’t mean that I ignore politics. I don’t. It doesn’t mean that I don’t have political opinions. I do. I am careful, however, in my public statements to be inclusive of many different perspectives and I believe that it is important for the church to have room for those who disagree. My position in the church is one of power and I choose not to use that power to unduly influence those I serve.

But today’s journal entry is political. So, if you don’t like that kind of thing, you might want to just skip this one and come back tomorrow.

Yesterday, by one vote, the South Dakota House of Representatives defeated HB 1230, which would have added clergy to the list of mandatory reporters of child abuse. It is already the law in South Dakota that teachers, doctors and social workers are required to report to authorities if they suspect or know that child abuse is taking place. The bill would have added clergy and comparable spiritual leaders of religions other than Christianity to the list of mandatory reporters.

I wasn’t present for the debate. I read that the opponents of the bill used a “slippery slope” argument. One representative said he once met a Chinese foreign exchange student who said churches in China have cameras and microphones so the state can monitor activities in the churches. It seemed scant evidence. A rumor at best. But even if it is true, that is a far cry from saying that people in leadership of churches and other religious institutions have a responsibility to society to protect children.

It is nearly impossible for members of the legislature to be unaware of the crisis in contemporary churches caused by the abuse of children and the coverup of that abuse by church leaders. Have they no concept of the pain and suffering that abuse has already caused? Is there any excuse for not doing everything in their power to protect children?

The First Amendment to the US Constitution guaranteers freedom of religion. It does not give churches or religious leaders the right to commit crimes. The state clearly has the right to protect our members by requiring that our buildings meet minimum safety codes. We have safe wiring, emergency exit signs, fireproof glass, and many other systems in place to assure the safety of those who enter our buildings. Our congregation will be undertaking the expensive step of adding fire suppression sprinklers in our building in the next two years to bring our building up to code. These are not seen as a restriction of the freedom of religion.

For the record, our church policy requires all church leaders, lay or clergy, to report any abuse or suspected abuse to the Child Protection Services of the South Dakota Department of Social Services. We explicitly require outside investigation of all allegations. Our pastors carry the title of pastor and teacher and I have made it clear that it is my expectation that they treat the teacher side of their title as requiring them to be mandatory reporters. We have a preschool in our building and all of the adults working in that program are mandatory reporters. I do not consider this to be debatable. We are under obligation to protect every child who comes into our building, and there will be no coverups of any kind.

The bill defeated in the South Dakota House yesterday would have made an exception for the seal of the confessional. It is a long standing tradition in the Roman Catholic church that it is the absolute duty of priests not to disclose anything learned from penitents during the sacrament of penance. In protestant churches, including the denomination I serve, maintaining confidence is an essential element in the code of professional ethics. It is not, however, in our tradition, considered to be absolute. I inform people with whom I counsel that the threat or report of violence against self or another person is too great a burden to be kept confidential. If I discover such a threat, I consider it my professional responsibility to protect an individual from violence. I have maintained that practice when working with individuals who were at risk of dying from suicide. I have never encountered direct evidence of child abuse in my work as a pastor, but when suspicion has existed, I have made report to Child Protective Services. It has been many years since I have encountered a report, but I know exactly what I would do should another report occur.

No abuser is helped by keeping the abuse secret. And there are predatory abusers who will continue to abuse until outside authorities stop the behavior.

Just last week Pope Francis convened an unprecedented summit in Rome of senior bishops and church figures to call for an absolute end to the victimization of children. The Pope has acknowledged that sexual abuse of children and adults has occurred repeatedly in the church and that the church has shielded predators who have had multiple victims. Videos of testimony by victims were shown to church leaders to inspire compassion and to signal a change in behavior. But the summit was not and will not be the end of scandal in the Catholic Church. Yesterday Australian Cardinal George Pell, until recently the third most senior figure at the Vatican, was convicted and faces a prison term for the sexual abuse of minors in the 1990’s. Pell was defrocked by the Pope just a few days ago. There is an active trial going on in France in which Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, archbishop of Lyon, is caused with five others of covering up sexual abuse. The scandal continues and it is clear that some of the highest authorities in the church have been guilty. The use of a tradition of sanctity of the confession as a tool to cover up abuse cannot be tolerated. And not all knowledge of abuse within the church came from the Sacrament of Penance in the first place.

A future legislature of South Dakota will one day pass a bill requiring clergy to report sexual abuse of children. And when it comes to pass there will be many who will ask, “why did it take so long?” 34 members of this year’s South Dakota House of Representatives owe them an answer.

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!

Left speechless

A friend told me a story that I’ve been mulling in my head over and over. Before I write the story, I need to write that this particular friend is a very compassionate and caring person. He has gone out of his way to help others for much of his life. He has served as a teacher and mentor for many. He has chosen to live a modest lifestyle so that he is able to share and help others. I don’t think that there is a mean bone in his body. He also has a wonderful sense of humor and a way of connecting with folk quickly. He has many other qualities that are admirable. I look to him as a model for how to live.

Not long ago this friend was walking down the street. He saw someone approaching him. The person looked a bit like a panhandler - someone who might ask for a handout. My friend has a lot of street smarts and good instincts about others. The man caught my friend’s gaze and came over to him. He said, “Can I ask you something?” My friend, who has a great sense of humor said, “I was just going to ask you if you had a couple of bucks.” The man replied, “I was going to ask you if you had a light for my cigarette.” There was a pause and they looked at each other. My friend thought about saying something about how cigarettes were dangerous and would kill a person. The other man looked at him again and said, “Man, are you homeless, too?”

That’s where the conversation stopped. My friend, who is brilliant and educated and quick-thinking, had no words to respond. He felt the blood rushing to his cheeks in embarrassment as he turned to walk away. He hadn’t meant to make fun of a homeless man. He knew he was returning to a warm home and comfortable evening. He knew that it was bitter cold outside and that the man to whom he had just spoken would have to spend the night in a shelter in order to avoid freezing to death. He knew that the man would be given something to eat at the shelter. He knew that what little he had to offer would not solve the man’s problems. He knew so much.

Our town is having a problem with its homeless population. We have a shelter. We have a new care campus with additional shelter beds. We have trained police officers who know how to get people to shelter in the cold weather. They get through the night and then, because homelessness isn’t a crime and they aren’t locked up, they go out of the shelters the next day and try to figure out how to make it through another day. Some cluster around the day labor office hoping that there might be some short term work with a day’s pay at the end. Others wait for the library to open, knowing that it is safe, clean and there are bathrooms that they can use. Others stop by Trinity Lutheran Church to get a bit of food from the pantry there. Others head over to Hope House to spend part of the day in the day shelter. A few try their hand at soliciting donations from strangers. Some make signs. Others try to learn how to read the faces of the people walking on the street to determine who might part with a few coins or a couple of dollars. $2 will get you a cup of coffee or a bottle of water at Hardees and if you buy something they have to let you sit inside at their tables for a while, until they ask you to leave.

Some of the owners of downtown businesses say that the homeless people on the street drive away business. It’s hard to make it in retail trade in a town full of retired people who have access to computers where Amazon Prime will deliver in two days. The stores rely on tourists which are in short supply when the temperature dips below zero. Anything that might deter a tourist from wandering around downtown and keep them from looking in store windows seems like a threat. So even though homeless people aren’t dangerous and the store owners know they are not, there is a fear that some one else’s fear might drive away business.

But we don’t want to live in a town where people are told they can’t walk freely down the street. We don’t want to live in a place where those who don’t have money to buy aren’t allowed to look. The city council has tried several different “solutions” to the problem of solicitation of money. They have tried to make a distinction between aggressive panhandling and regular begging. They’ve been advised that many of their proposed ordinances wouldn’t stand up to a serious court challenge. There are limits on what you can do with rules and laws and police officers.

So we think of ways to get food to hungry people. And we work on providing housing for the few who qualify for certain programs. And we support the shelters and occasionally volunteer to serve meals. But we know the system is broken. People get caught in the gap between minimum wages and high housing costs. People suffer from addiction and a host of other diseases that prevent them from following the routines that others use to support themselves. Treatment is hard to come by and often incomplete. Disease and addiction are mysteries that we haven’t yet solved. And some of our neighbors don’t have homes. A few are transient and will move on to other places where they won’t have a home. Some remain. Once in a while we have a conversation. Sometimes we even get to know their names.

My friend may well run into the same person again one day. My friend often talks to strangers on the street. He volunteers at the mission. He is an intelligent man and he will find the right words if he is given another opportunity. But the silence remains. Even the best of us is occasionally left speechless in the face of the tragedy of homelessness in our community.

May our silence be an invitation to reflect more deeply and seek connections that transform our community.

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!


For a decade our son worked for Providence Health, a system of 50 hospitals and over 800 clinics. It is a huge organization where he started out as the director of the library in a single hospital and eventually became the director of libraries and health information systems for the organization. The name comes from an order of Roman Catholic Sisters who dedicated their lives to caring for the sick and providing healing. It is an ancient theological concept and one that has been used both seriously and lightly over the years.

The term comes from Latin through Old French. Pro means advance or future; vid refers to sight. It literally means foresight. Theologically, it is used to refer to God’s spiritual care. Sometimes it is also used to mean preparation for future eventualities. At times, however, most notably during the height of the Protestant Reformation, some theologians and church leaders put the emphasis on the power of the divine to predict the future. Providence became predestination, the concept that God already knows the future and therefore human action isn’t truly free will, but rather acting out that which has already been predetermined.

Calvinist theologians asserted God’s control over all of human enterprise and developed the concept of “equal ultimacy.” The concept is that God works equally to keep the elect in heaven and the reprobate out of heaven. The concept was somewhat watered down in popular usage and is sometimes referred to as “double” predestination. The interesting thing about the concept is that one might think that if you taught people that all was predetermined by God they would simply go on with their lives without attempting to change their behavior. However, at least in some communities, people worked doubly hard to behave to community standards to prove that they were among the elect and not predestined to be excluded from heaven.

The concept, however, has been misunderstood by some religious leaders. It seems to be better understood when it is presented with less emphasis on foresight. We know that we cannot predict the future. There are things that are yet to occur that are beyond our ability to know. But providence is not exclusively reserved to God. Created in God’s image, humans do possess a certain ability to make timely preparations for future eventualities. We don’t know the details of next winter’s weather, but we know enough to understand that having a supply of food and fuel on hand is a good choice. We don’t know which illnesses will strike us or when, but we do know that we will suffer illness in our lives. We don’t know the timing, but we know that we are all mortal. Having the knowledge of certain things that are likely to occur in the future can give us perspective that helps us exercise caution and reasonable judgment. We can share in providence.

We are not totally controlled by instinct or automatic reactions. We can apply reason, think things through and gain enough perspective to take a bigger picture of life events. This ability is critical in human relationships. If we operated only out of a sense of anger, response and revenge, the cycles of violence would accelerate to the point where everyone would be killed. But, in fact, we have the ability to forgive and to work to the larger benefit. We can refrain from violence and seek other solutions to problems. Communities can develop systems of justice and work together for the common good. It is all a part of providence.

What God does possess, and we can attain to a lesser degree, is the ability to see the big picture - to understand that the human story is not just a single generation. There is more to humanity than what is happening to me. Sometimes sacrifice for a bigger cause is a noble investment of a life. When we begin to see this bigger picture, we are capable to acting in ways that extend our influence and contributions to the human enterprise. It is a theme of many of the stories of the Hebrew Scriptures. Abraham and Sarah receive a promise from God and believe that it is personal and will apply to them quickly. They set out to find their promised land only to discover that the promise is a multiple-generational process. They are surprised to discover that their role is to produce a new generation and that it will take several generations for their people to fully receive the promise. Along the way, other family members gain a narrow view of the process. Joseph focuses on his own survival when he is sold into slavery by his brothers, but somehow he captures a vision of a bigger reality that allows him to forgive them and not simply destroy them in a fit of vengeance, thus assuring the continuation of the lineage into a new generation. But Joseph’s role does not bring about the fulfillment of the promise. Generations later Moses leads the people out of Egypt. He, too, does not live to lead the people into the promised land. Again and again in the stories of our people, we have had to discover that the enterprise of God and the relationship of our people with god is bigger than any individual and bigger than a single generation.

In this sense, the Calvinist image of providence reminds us that when we act for our own personal well-being without considering others, we fail to participate in God’s bigger picture. Providence is that ability to discern that life is more than our own personal story and that the life and health of the community is a higher value than the success of a single individual.

It is a big idea - one that has taken generations to be developed and will take generations to become understood. For now, it is of value to remind ourselves that ours is not the last generation in God’s enterprise with humans and that we are called to invest in the future. How we treat God’s creation and our neighbors can have a big impact on the future. And God, in God’s providence always has an eye to the future.

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!

Stories of identity

I’ve never gotten very deeply into genealogy. I like hearing family stories and I have some of the notes my mother and aunt made when they were researching family roots. It is a little bit interesting. I find old family pictures to be the most interesting part of the information they discovered. I can look at the portraits and think about the individuals pictured and imagine bits of what their lives must have been like. I know a few less stories from my father’s side of the family, but there are some fun ones, too. My father’s father was born in a soddy on a homestead before the family was able to construct a more permanent home. He grew up and lived for much of his adult years on that farm, but finally sold the farm and moved to another state. That kind of story is fairly common on my father’s side of the family. There aren’t many stories o people who lived in the same place for several generations. They kept moving on with their lives. Both of my parents knew their grandparents on both sides of their families, however, so family connections were important and they lived within reasonable proximity to their families of origin. Both families, however, have stories of family members who came to the North American continent from Europe in the days when they were cutting themselves off from the families they left behind. Both families contain stories of family members moving west across the continent in times when return trips weren’t common.

Lately I have had several conversations with friends who have decided to have genetic testing. One friend received a genetic testing kit for Christmas. Others have purchased kits from private companies that offer genetic testing to determine health risks and family ancestry. I don’t know much about the process but I believe that the process costs a hundred dollars or so and involve collecting a saliva sample and sending it to the testing service.

I also have friends who have had their DNA tested as part of treatment of a major disease. There are several diseases, including forms of cancer where treatment is customized based on the genetic characteristics of the diseased cells.

Collection of DNA evidence is routine in jails and prisons and DNA testing has been used both to convict guilty criminals and to exonerate those who were wrongly accused and, in some cases, people who were wrongly convicted and imprisoned.

There are positive reasons to engage in DNA testing and I am not opposed to it, but I haven’t felt any need to have my DNA tested at this point. I’m not sure it would make any difference for me to know what other ethnic and cultural groups were a part of my mostly English and German heritage. Both sides of my family have ancestors who moved around quite a bit and it makes sense that they would have come into contact with people with different backgrounds and I suspect that my DNA more resembles a pound mutt than a kennel club purebred. That’s OK with me.

My appearance, ethnic identity, and gender have given me a great deal of privileges in this life. I am aware that there are many people who have been the victims of discrimination and that my life has been relatively free of me being in the role of victim. So far my life has given me many breaks and opportunities and I don’t need to identify with a particular minority group. Having said that, there are a few occasions where I have declined to put down my race on questionnaires or forms. I simply leave the question blank and so far, no one has ever given me any grief over the practice. There are quite a few forms that ask the question in situations where I don’t see any need for the question to be asked. The annual report form that we clergy fill out for church records, in which we report our continuing education, experience and other job-related activities asks our race. I just don’t give an answer. I can’t see any reason why the question is being asked. And, since they never say anything to me about it when I don’t give the answer, I suspect that it doesn’t make a difference. On the other hand, it is quite possible that someone in the office sees the form and thinks, “Oh, he missed that one” and checks the box for me. My skin is pretty pale and I’ve never had people mis-identify my race.

On the other hand, a year or more ago I looked up my facebook profile and under the advertising profile read that according to some facebook algorithm I was listed as African-American. I checked with a couple of my African-American friends and they don’t think that I am African-American. I am not active on Facebook at all, though I do have a page. I understand that there is a way that you can change your ad preferences, but I have no interest in pursuing it. I’d rather ignore it. I have some friends who are on Facebook with made-up names, so I’m pretty sure that it isn’t the best source of accurate information in the first place.

So I guess that I’m genetically ignorant. I have no plan to pursue DNA testing as a recreational activity. It isn’t that I don’t waste money. I’ve spent $100 on things that I should not have in the past and I’ll probably do so in the future. But I don’t seem to see any attraction in having some laboratory including my DNA information in their database. I’ve never had a physician recommend such testing for me, so I’ll let my DNA remain a mystery along side the mystery of how Facebook determined my ad settings.

Having been raised in a family with adopted children and living in a family with adopted children, I’m convinced that there are things that are more important than genetics when it comes to family and relationships. I’m capable of deeply loving those with whom I don’t share DNA.

I’ll collect the family stories and let others keep track of the technicalities of genetic specifics.

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!

Reading fiction

I’ve been reading a bit more fiction lately. I’ve probably always gone in streaks with my reading. I read a lot of different kinds of books. Although I’m usually at least a month behind in writing my reviews for the book blog on my website, it shows a lot of different kinds of literature. What I am reading these days isn’t the world’s greatest fiction, just some good stories. Sometimes I catch part of Science Friday on NPR and I heard about their book club, so got a copy of N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season and read it. It is the first book in a trilogy, so I’m about halfway through the second book and I suspect I’ll pick up the third book. The Science Friday folks discussed he book as science fiction, and I guess the moniker is accurate, though it isn’t a book about the future, space travel, or other planets as is the case with many science fiction books. Rather it is set in a planet wracked by earthquakes, volcanoes and other tectonic tumults. A group of people are able to control some of the forces of what is called “Father” earth in the books.

I’m pretty sure the books aren’t going to rank up there with C.S. Lewis, JRR Tolkien, or even Elie Wiesel, Ernest Hemingway or John Steinbeck, but they are engaging stories and I’ve been drawn to them enough to keep me reading. Of course, I always have a theological book or two in the works and most of the time have some book I’m reading that takes a look at church leadership or nonprofit management. I’ve also been re-reading sermons by Walter Brueggemann, inspired by the memory of sermons he wrote and delivered during a long Epiphany in the C year of the lectionary cycle. Brueggemann isn’t particularly a lectionary preacher, but he has followed the discipline on occasion.

So my choicer of reading materials is pretty varied.

I am fascinated by the human imagination. I remember a time, when I was a student, when I hardly read any fiction at all. There was so much reading that was part of my student lifestyle and I had plenty of reading that needed to be done for my schoolwork. I mistakenly thought that fiction was a waste of time. I didn’t completely avoid poetry, but it certainly wasn’t the focus of my attention. Somewhere along the line, I discovered that the Bible is filled with poetry. Imagining the writers of scripture, trying to describe experiences that were beyond the power of language, struggling to find just the right words, editing for rhythm as well as for content, gave me a deeper appreciation for the poet’s skill. Grasping part of the role of the prophets in Biblical history gave me a fresh appreciation for poetry and I began to wonder who the prophets of our time might be and whether or not they, too, turned to poetry to express their experiences with God.

Our brains are incredibly complex. Somewhere in our minds is the capacity for imagination - a reflection of our inmost nature. The book of Genesis proclaims that humans are created in the image of God. God, being the Creator, created beings who themselves were capable of creating.

My mind doesn’t seem to produce the rich and wild fantasies on the scale of the broken earth trilogy that I am currently reading. When I allow my imagination to wander, I tend to think of scenarios that involve the work I do or a particular obsession I have. I imagine boats that I might build, and a few that will never be built. I imagine solving particular problems in the life of the church and often the solutions I imagine turn out to be rather impractical when exposed to the light of day. I once read that one ought to write down the portions of the dreams one has and read them later to look for insights into one’s problems, behaviors, and personality. I’ve never subjected myself to the discipline of remembering very many of my dreams, but for a while I kept a notepad near my bed to write down ideas. I abandoned the practice after deciding that what I was writing was nearly gibberish, and not helpful solutions to whatever problems I was trying to solve. When I was working on professional writing near the end of my seminary career, I would often go to bed pondering a particular problem in the writing, was up with what seemed to be a good idea and upon later reflection realize that the idea that seemed so good in my semi-sleeping state was usually one I’d had before and had discarded because it wasn’t useful.

I’m not likely to ever become a fiction writer. My fantasies just aren’t that interesting. But I am intrigued by the minds of those who can write fiction. Elie Wiesel once said that writing stories was, in some cases, the best way to tell the truth. He didn’t see his fiction as fantasy, but rather as an attempt to tell a bigger story and report on experiences that defy language and human expression. Sometimes the only words available reach beyond simple description of facts to reach for deeper meanings.

So I shall continue to read all kinds of books, including fiction. I’m not sure that it informs my preaching or makes my writing more dramatic. It does, however, teach me about the incredible diversity of human experience and human expression. Occasionally it gives me an illustration for something I write or say. It teaches me about the great power of human imagination. We are literally able to imagine worlds that are different from our own. And that may be why I’m reading more fiction these days. Some days the world in which we live is filled with real events that defy reason. We’ve come to the point where some accept lies from our leaders as if that were normal behavior. So much incredible behavior is reported that we accept things that once were considered to be beyond the norm.

Sometimes the world of the novels makes more sense than reading the news of the 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!

Growing edges

There are mentors in my life whom I have never met face to face. Some have inspired me by their writings, others by their actions in the public sphere. One who has touched me primarily through books, articles and blog posts is Parker Palmer. He is the founder of the Center for Courage and Renewal and one of the persons who continues to inspire me. I’ve written about him in my journal several times. He has teamed up with musician Carrie Newcomer to offer a series of online conversations, podcasts and face-to-face retreats that ask the question, “What is the Growing Edge in Your Life?”

The question has me thinking about my own life. I have had a meaningful career and my job continues to pose new challenges and new opportunities as I pursue my ministry in the midst of the people I serve. I know, however, that I stand, to use another of Parker’s phrases, “on the brink of everything.” Aging presents new opportunities and new challenges and the time will come when the leadership of this congregation will need to pass into other hands.

I became aware of a new growing edge yesterday and it took me by surprise. Members of the Department of Stewardship and Budget in our church, in response to declining attendance and contributions, have been working on ideas to promote church growth. Yesterday the congregation launched a new advertising campaign. The ads are beautifully designed and provoke a moment’s thought. We’ve been talking about them for weeks. Yesterday the donations matched the cost of the ads and we went live. I got into my car and drove to a location near one of the electronic billboards to look at the ads, appearing for eight seconds, every four minutes. They are up on seven electronic billboards in key locations around our city and will remain there for three months.

The surprise, for me, was a strange nervous in the gut feeling that I haven’t experienced for a long time. I remember feeling that way as we drove into Chicago for the first time, having made a commitment to attending graduate school there. I felt that way when we closed on the purchase of our first home. I felt that way when our son was born and when we adopted our daughter and when we dropped each of them off for their first day of college. There have been other times as well. I’m not saying that the church launching a few advertisements is the same thing as adopting a child. But it does seem that we are embarking on a big adventure together.

I know very little about advertising. I’ve relied on the expertise of others throughout this whole campaign. Left to my own sensibilities, the church probably wouldn’t be running any advertisements. But it isn’t the ads that make me nervous. It is the commitment to providing a response to the visitors that the ads will generate. I know that not every visitor who walks through the doors of the church will find what they seek. Our congregation averages 2 - 5 visitors each week and some never come back for a second visit. I’ve learned to pray that they find a church home that is meaningful for them and to go on with the task of serving the people who do find a home in our church. But somehow seeing the church on the giant billboards has demonstrated to me the responsibility we have for reaching out into our community.

140 years ago our congregation was the first Christian congregation organized in our community. For a brief period of time, ours was the only show in town, so to speak. The community was small and those who were interested knew where to go and how to find the church. These days there are hundreds of congregations in our community, with lots of different flavors, musical styles, theological perspectives, leadership roles and commitment expectations. We have maintained a unique position among churches, emphasizing the power of the laity and an extravagant welcome. Maintaining that welcome will be an extra responsibility as we increase the number of visitors.

That nervous feeling in my stomach was more than the anticipation of new work and extra challenges. I love challenges and I’m no stranger to work, either. To be honest, I also wonder what will happen and how I will feel if there is no response to the advertisements. What if the people of our community see the ads and think, “so what?” and go on with their lives without responding at all? What if all of that effort and money don’t affect the course of our life together at all?

I suspect that the reality will be neither extreme. We won’t be overwhelmed with visitors and guests and we won’t go on as if nothing had happened. My powers of prediction have never been keen. Theologically, I’m not a big fan of prediction. What I do believe in is providence. That is a big theological word for the concept that God is always looking at the big picture. We belong to something that is much bigger than ourselves. The ads on the billboards and the life of the congregation isn’t just about me. This isn’t primarily about my growing edge, but rather the growth of the community of God. My life is a part of a bigger picture and I can see only part of the vision that God holds for our community and for the world.

Maybe the feeling in the pit of my stomach is a reminder that this isn’t about me. It isn’t about my successes or failures or even my vision of the future. It is about God’s providence. Throughout the history of our people, leaders have been able to see a bit of that providence. They have understood how they are a part of something that is much bigger than themselves. I certainly don’t know everything that God is up to with our congregation, but I’m convinced that God sees a future for our congregation’s service in this community.

My challenge is to look past the advertisements to the people. Surely God is present in the relationships we build.

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!

Meanwhile at city council

As has been my custom, I attended the regular meeting of our church board last night. It wasn’t the only meeting going on in our town. I have considered it to be a blessing that for 24 years, my church board meetings have conflicted with the meetings of the homeowner’s association for our neighborhood. So far, I’ve lived peacefully with my neighbors without feeling the need to become active in the homeowner’s association. I read the newsletter, make a conscious effort to abide by the covenants, and try to be a good neighbor. I don’t feel a need to make additional rules and regulations for my neighbors. Frankly, I’m not very concerned about where they park their boats or what color siding they put on their houses. Some of my neighbors are more interested in such matters and have served on the HOA board and its various committees, including the architectural control committee, which approved both my addition of a shed in my back yard and an extension on our deck without any problems. I don’t think they’d let me put a barn in my backyard, but I haven’t asked. They seem to spend many of their meetings arguing about fences and where people park their cars.

Another meeting that I missed by being at a church meeting last night was the regular meeting of the City Council. I’ve attended several City Council meetings over the years. I delivered the invocation at the meeting before our neighborhood was annexed into the city and no one protested that an outsider was speaking at the meeting. Mostly, I’ve gone to the city council when they were discussing city subsidies for the arts or for human services agencies about which I care. It is an interesting process. I’m sure that those who attend more often than I become familiar with how to get on the agenda and when to speak. Mostly, I find it entertaining to watch.

Last night our City Council voted unanimously on a proposed ordinance, which is something that doesn’t happen too often, though votes are rarely close in the council. The new ordinance is replacing one that probably was probably going to be ruled unconstitutional. The “aggressive solicitation” ordinance banned panhandling near vehicles and automatic teller machines and I think also basically outlawed begging for money when you are intoxicated. The new ordinance is called “unlawful behavior in public places.” It says you can’t obstruct the public right of way. I haven’t read the ordinance and I’m not a lawyer, so I might miss some of the nuances of he change, but it seems mostly like the attorneys have tried to make a new law that does what the old law did, but does so in a way that might help the city avoid a lawsuit.

The basic conversation has been going on around the city for some time. Some people are uncomfortable around homeless people and those who suffer from addictions. They want to be able to go about their business without being asked to give money to another person. Some people even feel afraid of the people who are asking for money. I’ve never felt threatened by any of the folks who ask for money on our streets and I walk in the downtown area a lot. Some argue that pan handling makes tourists feel less welcome in our city. Since I travel around quite a bit, I’d observe that most tourists probably come from cities where there is at least as much panhandling, or perhaps more, than is the case in our city. I’ve been in cities of a similar size that have a person with a cardboard sign at nearly every intersection.

That aside, there is another side to the problem. If you are homeless and have no money, and if you use a gentle approach, some people will give you money. You can probably get enough to buy a meal or do a little shopping at a thrift store by standing in the right place and asking enough people if they can spare some change. It probably isn’t as lucrative as busking with a musical instrument, but a “homeless veteran needs help” sign will usually net you a few dollars an hour. If you are homeless and have no money, asking others to give you money seems like one of the few options that you have.

The problem with the old ordinance, and I suspect with the new one as well, is that if you are homeless and have no money and you violate the ordinance by asking for money in the wrong place or at the wrong time, you receive a citation. The maximum penalty for violating a city ordinance in Rapid City is $500 an 30 days in jail. If you are homeless and have no money, the fine goes unpaid, which results in a warrant which makes you prone to arrest and earns you another court date and a possible additional $62.50 for court costs. After a while the money you owe adds up. People who started with a $60 fine plus court costs and cannot pay the fine, often find themselves in jail when they seek help. Additional fines just compound the problem. Jail time is usually suspended with initial offenses, but repeated offenses end up with the person being labeled as a habitual offender, which does result in jail time being attached to subsequent convictions.

The result is that homeless people develop a suspicion of law enforcement and fail to turn to law enforcement officers for help when they need it. They are assaulted and robbed and the offenses go unreported. Sometimes they fail to seek shelter in severe weather because they fear arrest. And if you are homeless and have no money and you are afraid of being arrested, you tend to ask for money in dark corners and alleyways and other places that make the people you ask nervous. New ordinance or old, I think we still have a problem.

I don’t have the wisdom to know the answer. It is probably a good thing that I wasn’t at the meeting, I’m not sure I have much to add. But I’m confident that this is one issue that will come up at meeting after meeting because our systems of helping those who are homeless and have no money don’t provide sufficient help for our neighbors.

I won’t be running for city council. I have enough challenges at the meetings I do attend.

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!

Always on call

When we moved to North Dakota in 1978, there was only one company, a subsidiary of the Bell Telephone Company, that provided telephone service in our town. They, in turn, worked with AT&T subsidiary Western Electric to provide telephones. The phones were leased and a small monthly charge for equipment was included in each bill. We decided that we needed three phones for our home: a wall phone in the kitchen, with a 25’ cord so that we could walk around with the handset, a desk phone for the study, and a small princess phone for our bedroom. When the installer came to hard wire the phones, we had him disable the ringer in the princess phone. We could easily hear the bells in the other phones, but the phone on the headboard of our bed allowed us to answer without getting out of bed. Disabling the ringer made it a bit less jarring to wake to a phone call in the middle of the night.

In 1982, when the courts forced the breakup of the bell companies, Western electric offered the phones in our home for sale. We purchased that baby blue princess phone with a dial and had the cord converted to a plug-in style. The phone still works and we still use the same phone.

For more than 40 years, now, I have slept with a phone next to my head. It doesn’t ring every night. In fact, I don’t even use our home phone number as the first point of contact when I am on call for the LOSS team. I use my cell phone, which also rests on a charger on the headboard of my bed.

Lately my work schedule has been such that I have been volunteering to take call for the team at night. There are many occasions during the day when I am in meetings or other situations where I cannot be interrupted. The LOSS team needs quick response and ignoring phone calls from dispatch is not a good idea. At night, I am able to respond and give my full attention to the situation. I’m not a big fan of having my sleep interrupted and on cold nights, it takes a bit of a push to get out of a warm bed and go out to respond to a call, but it fits my current lifestyle to take my turn of coordinating the team when I am available to take a call. The system is more complex with text messages and other forms of communication, but the point for the purposes of this journal entry is that I have adopted a lifestyle of being available to receive a phone call during the night.

I’ve taught myself to wake up and to be coherent on the phone regardless of the hour. I keep a small notebook and a pen handy so I can write down addresses and other information as needed.

I’ve read about all of the potential health risks to living a constantly connected lifestyle. I know about the necessity to take a break from time to time, and I try to identify times when I can distance myself from my digital lifestyle. I’m pretty good at taking a vacation and when we are out in the camper, I have a cell phone available most of the time, depending on the signal wherever we are, but I am unlikely to receive a call in the middle of the night unless there is a genuine emergency.

It wasn’t that long ago when wilderness travel meant disconnecting from communications. We used to backpack and most of our trips were short, with one or two nights out, but I’ve taken longer trips. We went off into the mountains, with someone knowing our general destination, but without any way of being contacted or any way of contacting others. If an injury had occurred, we would have to deal with it until someone could hike out for help. We didn’t suffer from our lack of communications. These days, however, wilderness travelers often buy or rent satellite communications devices. There are small, hand-held devices that can be charged with small solar cells that will send and receive text messages, provide for a daily check-in, including a GPS position and provide a panic button that allows for calling emergency rescue services from any point on the globe. These devices can be rented for wilderness travel and many outfitters now recommend them for all backcountry trips.

I realize that such devices provide a safety margin and it makes sense to have one if you are the one responsible for guiding a group. But there is also something lost when we are unable to disconnect and know that we are completely dependent upon our own devices and the support of our teammates. The wilderness isn’t quite as wild with a satellite phone tucked in your backpack.

My grandchildren will never know the experience that I had for the first three years of my college education, where the dormitory phone was down the hall and we had no phones in our rooms. I doubt they know what a phone booth is or how to make a call on a coin operated phone. Actually, it’s getting harder and harder to find a coin operated phone. They have public phones in some airports that don’t take coins and require a credit card, but there are far fewer phones in airports these days. I remember when the banks of phones at O’Hare Airport in Chicago could accommodate hundreds of callers.

These days we are simply connected. I can send a text message to my daughter from the device in my pocket right now. She’s in Japan where it is after 9 at night, so if I’m going to do so, I need to do it quickly or my message will arrive when she is sleeping. We’ve even learned how to think in terms of the time zone differences when connecting via our many devices.

So I’ve adjusted to a constantly connected lifestyle and being on call 24/7. I’m not complaining. There are advantages. But I am aware that there are some things that we have lost.

In the meantime, I still have that blue princess phone with a dial. It still works. I bet my grandchildren don’t know how to operate a rotary dial phone, though. I’d better keep it long enough to show them how phones worked in the old days.

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!

Kids and smartphones

There is an automatic feature built into the operating system on my tablet computer that gives a weekly report on my screen time. I haven’t figured whether it refers only to the amount of time that i am using that device, or if it also is collecting data on the amount of time I use my cell phone as well. I’m pretty sure that it isn’t connected to my computer, because the numbers it reports are too low for that to be the case. I know how to go into the settings and view my screen time on my devices, but it isn’t something that I’ve given much attention. I just checked my cell phone and it says I’ve spent 2 minutes looking at it this morning, which is 2 minutes above my average for this time of day. I think the 2 minutes was all invested in checking my screen time.

The silly thing about the weekly report is that it is somehow set up to make the report at 10 am on Sunday morning, which is right in the middle of a worship service. I use my tablet for all of my worship notes, including music, so I am often looking at the device when the screen time report pops up. I am almost always focused on something else so I click to close the screen without reading it. For my lifestyle, the feature is useless. I’m pretty sure that I could figure out how to change the time of the report, but that in itself would require more screen time.

I’ve been interested in the phenomena of screen time, especially how it affects teens, for some time. I’ve encountered some teens who seem nearly unable to put their phones away. They are constantly on their phones, even when participating in youth events. They use the phone as a medium of communication even when they are right next to another teen and face to face communication is readily available.

There have been a lot articles about teen and addiction. A report released by Common Sense Media found that 72 percent of teens feel as though they need to immediately respond to notifications from their phone, and 59 percent of parents feel their teens are addicted to their mobile devices. The term addition is not really used in a technical sense in the report. I suspect that the number of parents who would say their teens are addicted would be lower if they were probed specifically about the distinction between compulsive behavior and true addiction. Is the young person getting enough sleep? Exercise? Actual face time with family and friends? Is homework being done? Does the compulsive behavior displace other things?

But actual addictions do occur and there is now a diagnostic code for such an addiction: “Problematic Internet Use” (PUI) is recognized by health care professionals. It is related to another diagnosed condition, Internet Gaming Disorder. According to the statistics I’ve seen PLI affects 8% of teens, a far cry short of the 59% of parents who feel their teens are addicted. The big difference means that there is a real problem that is something other than technical addiction.

Last year the journal Child Development presented a study showing that teens today are experiencing a slower path to embracing adult responsibilities than ever before. Researchers concluded that cell phones and tablets are at least partially to blame for the condition. Because social connections are just a few clicks away, teens are less likely to leave their homes and seek face to face connections. Even when they are out in the world, many still experience a difficult time detaching from their devices.

The Wait Until 8th pledge empowers parents to join together to delay giving children access to smartphones until at least the 8th grade. Organizers believe that if at least 30 percent of parents in an area agree to delay smartphone usage the peer pressure on children is significantly decreased. When a cell phone is necessary for safety, a basic phone that just makes calls and sends text messages without a data plan is available form all cell phone carriers.

At least one German legislator has taken this a step farther by proposing a total ban on smartphone usage by children under the age of 14. The ban has not yet been adopted, but serious discussions are being held.

Compulsive smartphone usage is having an impact on childhood. Playing outdoors, spending time with friends, reading books and hanging out with family happens a lot less when children are spending hours snap chatting, instagramming and catching up on You Tube.

Elementary and middle school teachers have noticed that smartphones are an academic distraction. While access to the Internet can promote learning and computers and tablets are being adopted for their educational value, smartphones assume a different role in a child’s education. Phones interrupt in a similar fashion to that message on my tablet that reports screen time during a worship service. They demand attention, when attention should be focused elsewhere. Studies show that children receiving smart phones often have lower grades and test scores. Schools with smartphone bans have demonstrated higher test scores.

Smartphones also impair sleep for children and teens. They will wake up in the middle of the night to check texts or social media. And sleep disruptions in childhood affect diet, immune system, growth rates and mental health.

The list of possible negative effects of smartphone use is long and ranges from cyber bullying to exposure to pornography to increased rates of anxiety and depression in children.

I love receiving pictures and texts about our grandchildren and I am grateful that our son and daughter in law send us updates. But I know that even such positive phenomena can have negative effects. According to Healthline parents sending frequent texts to their children can cause anxiety and interruptions to the child’s day because of a perceived obligation to respond immediately to parental messages. When we send messages, we are rarely focusing on what the recipient is doing at the time and how our message might interrupt important work.

I’ve learned to ignore messages at the time I receive them and respond later. It is just one of the adaptive behaviors I’ve had to employ. Certainly we ought to teach adaptive behaviors in relationship to devise usage as part of introducing children or teens to the use of the devices.

I know it is a problem and I don’t have the answers, but it certainly is worth thought and more study.

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

Another wedding

In between short burst of shoveling snow yesterday, I spent quite a bit of time sitting at my computer writing a wedding service. I take every worship leadership opportunity seriously, but I am especially careful when preparing for weddings and funerals. They are “once in a lifetime’ experiences and it is important that I speak with accuracy and care. I know pastoral colleagues who are able to go into a wedding service with a copy of the book of worship and the names of the couple and feel that they have done a professional job of officiating. For me, however, each wedding requires careful thought and deliberation. I use the vows from the book of worship. I might even use a blessing or a scripture recommendation. But I craft prayers and a wedding meditation that are unique to the occasion and the couple who have come to me for the celebration of their marriage.

Weddings have changed a lot since the days when I began serving as a pastor. In general, I work with a lot of couples who are older than was the case decades ago. The average age of first marriage has been steadily going up and the couples with whom I work reflect that change. And couples don’t do things in the same order that was once the common way of doing things. Many couples who come to be married these days have their careers well-established. They may have purchased a home and achieved a degree of financial success before marrying. We married while we were students and had very little in the way of financial resources at that point in our lives. It was common at the time for couples to live very modestly in the first few years of their marriage. These days, becoming established before marrying is common.

I’ve officiated at the wedding of a couple who decided to get a marriage license and make their formal vows on the 20th anniversary of their moving in together. I’ve officiated at weddings of couples who have multiple children before marrying. There are more models of family organization and more options for couples than were common when I began my career as a minister.

Each couple is unique and yet there are some things they share in common. They are at a point in their lives where they are taking their relationship seriously. They are reflecting on a shared past and committing to a shared future. They are aware of the importance of love in their lives. They have discovered the fact that isn’t completely intuitive: no one can be truly free until he or she learns to make lasting commitments. You have to know to whom and with whom you can be true in order to be truly free.

Sometimes when I work with a couple the words for their ceremony come to me with less effort. Sometimes I have to “slog” through a period of feeling less creative before I discover the right words to say. Some days I find myself reading out loud to determine the proper cadence and sound of the words. I always work from a manuscript for weddings and funerals. They seem to be important enough occasions to merit word for word precision.

Yesterday was a “slog” day. I would make myself work for a certain period of time and then I’d allow myself to run an errand. At one point in the day, thinking that I had brought home all that I would need, I made a trip to the office to get a quote that I knew I could find on the office computer. I don’t keep the files that belong to the church on my home computer. Being at the office, I discovered a few small tasks that I could complete that would make the flow of today a bit easier. With a potluck lunch and a wedding sandwiched between the morning worship and the afternoon meeting of The Well, my day needs to be organized to keep moving. Making sure that I have the resources for each event helps the flow of the day.

At the same time I knew that I needed to finish writing this wedding service. Then, in the afternoon I got going and there was some flow to the words I was writing and I was interrupted. In needed to speak with a person and that took the remaining time before needing to cook dinner. After the dishes were done, the driveway needed to be shoveled one more time. It saves me a lot of time if I shovel late on Saturday and don’t have to shovel on Sunday. The boots I wear when I’m dressed up are too slippery on the bottom to wear when shoveling snow. Changing shoes takes time. At any rate it was early evening when I finally got back to the wedding service and completed it. Then I had to read it out loud to make sure that it fit together since I had been working on it in bits and pieces. A few trips up and down the stairs to remember where I had left my tablet computer and a quick check to make sure that I had all of my notes for the various services on the tablet and it was nearly time to get ready for bed.

I once thought that the process of writing weddings and funerals would become easier with the passage of time and the gaining of experience, and I am sure that this is true to some extent. But it isn’t completely the case. Even though I have a wealth of experience and a large number of wedding services on the computer, each service requires a certain amount of effort and energy to prepare. Sometimes I have more time for preparation, especially time for thinking and mulling, than I had in this case. My first meeting with the couple to discuss their wedding was just a couple of weeks ago. Some things just require hard work. My job is, after all a job. Time and dedication are necessary.

But today is a day for celebration. I pray that I’ve found words that will be meaningful to the couple and their guests. And, as a bonus, I’m deeply grateful that last week in the face of the weather forecasts the couple decided to move their wedding from an outdoor venue to the sanctuary of the church. Life is good and my feet will be warm all day 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!

Not an angel

Yesterday I did a small favor for a neighbor. It was nothing special, just the usual kind of thing that neighbors do for one another. She came rushing up to me and said, “You are an angel.” It seemed to not be the right time to correct her theology, so I just said, “No problem.” But if she would like to know the truth, I am NOT an angel. If you don’t believe me, just ask my wife or either of our kids. They are all very honest people and they would tell you the truth. Or, if you’d prefer, ask my sister or one of my brothers. They aren’t quite as honest as my wife and kids, but they do have some stories that the others probably don’t know and if they do know them, my siblings would tell more graphic versions, I’m sure.

If you have any doubts about me being an angel, read on. I’m pretty sure that no angel would use some of the language that comes to my head.

As I walked back to the house, however, I thought to myself that it might be fun to be an angel, at least once in a while. It would have been fun to be the angel that got to scare the shepherds on the night that Jesus was born. I’ve lived around sheepherders all of my life and I would get a real charge out of scaring a bunch of shepherds until they peed their pants. I know that the Bible doesn’t say that they peed their pants, but I’m pretty sure that “They were sore afraid” is fancy King James speech for “they peed their pants.” I would get a kick out of scaring the shit out of a bunch of sheepherders some day. I can name several who really deserve it if you know what I mean. I know, the Bible doesn’t actually say shit, but if you read the story it says, “So they went with haste . . .” Do you know any sheepherder who did anything “with haste?” I know a sheepherder who arrived as I was locking up the church one morning. It was two and a half hours after the appointed time for worship. He calmly said, “Heck,” (OK he used another word, but I’m pushing it already in this journal entry.) “Heck, I knew I was running a bit late, but I thought at least I would make it in time to get a cup of coffee.” He seemed a little miffed that we didn’t keep some coffee and cookies for him when he got there.

I’m not sure that every job that angels get are the easy ones. There are a couple of angel jobs that I’d just as soon leave to others. We know that Gabriel is among the unlucky angels. When all of God’s angels were sitting in heaven and they drew straws to see who had to go tell Mary that she was preggers, Gabriel must have drawn the short straw. Talk about a tough job! She was a virgin, after all. How do you tell a virgin that she is in a family way without getting all embarrassed yourself? You know she isn’t going to be happy with this news and the first thing she’s going to do is ask you how the heck this could even be. She’ll probably think you are lying, or that you are the worst joker in the pantheon of angels. Is “pantheon” even the right word. What do you call a group of angels? A flock? They do fly. Or a flight, or assembly, or collection. The Bible speaks of a multitude of the heavenly host, which I assume means a whole pack of them, scores of them, a crowd of them, a bevy. I’ve heard of an army of angels, too. And I think legion is also a Biblical term for a whole convoy of them.

But Gabriel might not be the most unlucky of the angels. After all the angel that had to tell Jospeh that his girlfriend was “in a family way” isn’t even named. So I guess we can assume that it wasn’t Gabriel. Though If it was Gabriel I can see how he might have used his power to scare the Gospel writer out of using his name. “Ha ha! Look at you! You peed you pants! I sure scared the shit out of you! Now just put down the pen and skip the part where you put down the name of the angel and no one will get hurt. You don’t need to put any name there. Just say, “an angel of the Lord.” I’m watching you! If you so much put a capital G in front of anything except God, I’ll be back.”

And six wings or no, being able to fly or not, I sure wouldn’t have wanted to be the seraph who had to take a coal with tongs and touch the mouth of the prophet Isaiah. That would have been no fun at all. Burning flesh really stinks. And most of this Biblical prophets had beards. Have you ever smelled singed beard and mustache? I have. Trust me. You don’t want to.

I sometimes have to diffuse or run a debriefing for a corrections officer who has been assaulted by an inmate. It isn’t an easy task because those people are professionals and they know what they are doing, so they don’t let their anger get the best of them until the situation is all over. Then they can yell and sometimes they do. Imagine having to be one of the angels who had to take care of Jesus after he was tempted by the devil in the wilderness. Sure he was all nice and polite when he was in the situation, but I bet afterwards he had some choice phrases for that blankety, blank, blank devil. I would have. I would have been ready to tell him to go straight to . . . well you get the picture.

Nope. I’m not an angel, and I don’t think I’d make a very good one.

I’ll stick to small favors for kind and gracious neighbors.

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!


There is new snow and cold temperatures. It is going about the way it was forecast. In other words, it is typical for February in South Dakota. We’ve had cold weather and snow for enough days in a row that it isn’t disrupting things the way it does on the first cold day or the first snow day. The kids have a day off from school today as a part of a four day weekend. There have been a few of them this year. Since Monday is a holiday, they can get a four-day weekend by taking off on Friday. I’m not sure how many families are in a position to take advantage of the long weekends, but it must be nice.

I think that four day weekends actually say something about the pace of life for high school students. They are so busy with sports and theatre and band and chorus and all of the other extracurricular activities. It seems like the teens in our congregation are constantly on the move and rarely have time for church activities. Just getting an event on their schedule is a real challenge. I don’t think my high school schedule was as intense.I don’t remember four day weekends when I was in school and I’m not sure what we would have done with them if we had them. I probably would have enjoyed the extra time off from school. I wasn’t especially focused on my studies when I was in high school.

High School students do, however, set patterns that continue for all of their lives. I first experienced a sense of call to the ministry when I was a high school student. I became interested in my wife when I was a high school student. I started pledging financial support to the church when I was a high school student.

Many years ago I had the good fortune to introduce a member of a youth group in the church I served to a youth from another state. We were all attending a meeting of the General Synod of the United Church of Christ. The delegation from our conference was sitting next to the delegation from another conference in the visitor’s gallery because one of the advisors of the other state’s delegation was a seminary classmate of mine and we were enjoying catching up alongside of our duties as youth group leaders. That was well over a quarter of a century ago. That couple is still married. Their marriage has endured through some very difficult times. They have faced challenges that have broken up other marriages, but they have endured with grace and joy and deep love for one another. They are an inspiration to me. And part of the people they are today stems from experiences they had when they were high school students.

This week a crew of us were loading firewood into trailers. The cold weather means that folks who heat with wood need more. We had received a call from one of our reservation partners and we decided to get the wood to them ahead of the predicted snowy weather and slippery roads of this weekend. As we stacked wood into the trailer a pizza delivery person came with two pizzas. They had been ordered and paid for by a young mother who lives in a nearby town. She had heard that we were loading trailers and was unable to come and help, so she sent warm food. It was a real treat and it put a smile on all of our faces. I met that young woman when she was in high school. She went on one of our mission trips and got a hands-on view of mission and outreach. She also formed lasting relationships with lay members of our congregation through that trip and other experiences. She is an amazing and wonderful person as an adult. She is an inspiration to me. Part of who she is today has to do with the experiences she had when she was in high school.

I have hundreds of other stories that I could tell about the impact of decisions and experiences in youth have shaped lives.

Knowing those stories, I worry about the youth of today. Studies have shown that high school youth are far less likely to be involved in church than was the case a decade ago. Many of youth are the children of parents who do not participate in the church. Their lack of knowledge about the church is generational. And I wonder where they will be 10, 15 or 20 years from now. Will we know them? Will we be able to reach them?

I am not saying that youth who are not involved in the church are less moral or less likely to be good citizens or less caring or less inspirational than youth who were involved in the church in years past. But it is the simple case that one of the points of meeting of different generations is the church. We have taken four mission trips from this congregation that have involved teens, 20s, 30s, 40s, 50, 60s and 70s. Seven decades of people in a single mission trip. And we repeated the experience. The connections made between the teens and the other people on those trips are lasting and significant. I know and value all of those people. Not all of them are involved in the church as adults. But all of them have contributed to the attitude towards young people in our congregation.

The numbers in our congregation are down. We are not alone. There is a Roman Catholic parish in our community with over 200 names on its roles of children who grew up in the church to confirmation age. Their average attendance at confirmation preparation classes this year is seven. Attendance is down in church youth groups across the board in our town and in many others. Obviously we need new thinking and a new understanding of who we are and how we build relationships. We are aware of the problem. We care. But we don’t know what to do.

So we will keep trying and we will keep reaching out and we will continue to do what we can to connect with youth today and tomorrow.

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

Valentine's Day

The history of Valentine’s Day is a bit confused. The earliest list of Roman martyrs, compiled in 354, does not include the name Valentinus. It does appear in a list that was compiled between 460 and 544 from a collection of different lists of saints. The feast day of February 14 was established in 496 by Pope Gelasius I, who commented that the acts of St. Valentine were known only to God and that nothing was known about his life. Modern scholars speak of three different people declared to be saints with the name of Valentine. One was a priest, another the bishop of Interamna, in Italy, and the third was said to have been martyred on the same day with a number of companions in Africa. Some claim that the the first two were really the same person, with reports of different events in different phases of his life. So we really don’t have a complete historical record of who Valentine was.

The common story given about Saint Valentine is that he was a 3rd-century Roman who ministered to Romans during the time of the persecution of Christians. The story is that the Romans attempted to curtain the rapidly-growing Christian movement by declaring marriages between Christians to be illegal. Valentine continued to perform weddings in defiance of the law and was eventually martyred for his actions. There isn’t much evidence, but the story persists.

One can’t help but wonder how someone who was a dedicated Christian of the fourth century might react to the contemporary holiday of Valentine’s Day as celebrated in the United States. It is the major marketing holiday between Christmas and Easter. The stores are filled with candy, flowers and stuffed animals. I’m not sure how Teddy Bears got associated with Valentine’s Day, but there certainly are a lot of them lined up for sale in the grocery store. I wouldn’t think that a grocery store would be the first place to shop for a gift for one’s loved ones, but the stores where I shop the most often both have entire aisles of red and pink items for sale. Valentine’s Day is a big day for florists.

Here is Rapid City, Valentine’s Day is the biggest annual fund raising event for the Mount Rushmore Chapter of the Barbershop Harmony Society, also known as the Shrine of Democracy Chorus. The chorus of all men deploys in quartets to deliver singing valentines. Their web site declares “There’s no more romantic way to show your special someone your love.” For $50 per song a quartet will deliver a card, a rose, a box of chocolates and sing a romantic song to the person you designate. The accept cash, checks, credit cards and PayPal. The quartets will be out from 9 am to 9 pm today and it may be too late to get your preferred time. They usually are pretty booked up well in advance of the day.

I’ve never sent nor received a singing valentine. Somehow it just doesn’t seem like the best way to tell someone of my love. I prefer to do it myself, face to face when possible. With a daughter in Japan and a son and grandchildren in Washington, I’ve learned to say “I love you” over Skype and FaceTime, but it is best when delivered with a hug.

We haven’t gotten too much into chocolates, flowers or even cards at our house. My wife’s birthday, which comes the week before Valentine’s Day and our grandson’s birthday, which is the following day, often have some items that are decorated in red or pink. The best ice cream cakes of the season are already done up in valentine’s colors.

A few years ago, I was going through some medical tests. One of the tests was an echocardiogram. The procedure is simple for the patient. You lay on your back and on your side as a technician slides a device across your chest and an image appears on the screen. The technician then takes measurements of the images on the screen and saves them to be read by a trained cardiologist. What is interesting about being the patient is that you can see a picture of your own heart in real time. You can watch it contract and expand, sending blood throughout your system. It is just slightly creepy at first, then fascinating, to think that the image is what I look like on the inside. The image doesn’t look much like the heart symbol that is in common use today.

According to the history channel, there are several theories about the symbol that we draw and send as an emoji on our phones. One theory is that the shape is similar to the plant silphium, a species of giant fennel that once grew on the North African coastline near the Greek colony of Cyrene. The ancient Greeks and Romans used the plant as a food flavoring and as a cough syrup. It’s most famous use, however was as birth control. Ancient writers and poets hailed the plant for its contraceptive powers. It became so popular that it was cultivated to extinction. The trade in the plant made the ancient city of Cyrene rich and the heart shape of its seed pod was stamped onto the money of Cyrene. One legend is that the Roman Emperor Nero was presented with the last surviving stalk of the plant.

The History Channel article, however, discounts the plant theory of the origins of the symbol in favor of early artists’ renderings of the shape of the heart. Aristotle described the heart as having three chambers with a small dent in the middle. He was close, but not quite right. The human heart has four chambers.

People have long associated the heart with emotions and the shape, whether inspired by fennel or early medical drawings, has been co-opted as the symbol of romance and love. It appears on many Valentine’s cards and we can send the shapes in text messages as emojis.

I have no plans for a spending spree to celebrate the day. As I said before, I prefer to tell people that I love them face to face. The great thing about giving a hug is that you get a hug in the process. Happy Valentine’s 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!

Fear and hope

The French philosopher, scientist, and mathematician Rene Descartes, in The Passions of the Soul, his final published work, explores the relationship between fear and hope. At the risk of oversimplifying a very complex argument, he proposes that a balance of the two is essential. Too much fear can drive out all hope and leave one paralyzed and unable to act. Too much hope renders a person complacent and also leads to inaction. the basic argument is sound and has influenced many thinkers in the generations since the time of Descartes. I have struggled with Descartes since my college years, striving to understand, but not quite accepting all of the arguments presented. I’m sure that part of the issue is language. Descartes wrote in Latin. I was studying French in college and read some of Descartes in French, but my command of either Latin or French is very incomplete. I am an English speaker and i think in English. There are good English translations of Descartes available and I may be reaching the stage in my life where I need to return to his work and read it again.

I have been thinking of Descartes balance recently as I think about the future of the Christian church. it is clear that we are living through a season of dramatic change in the church. Christian institutions are in decline around the world and while there are some areas of growth in Christianity and even some places where congregations are experiencing dramatic growth, more prevalent are congregations and denominations like the one I serve, that have been experiencing gradual decline.

Institutions have strong self-preservation instincts and a great deal of energy is being invested within the church in the area of institutional survival. It doesn’t happen to be one of the areas of ministry that arouses much passion from me. I’ve been known to comment that I don’t quite understand how an institution that proclaims the power of the resurrection can spend so much of its time living in fear of death. I have understood my role in the church to be one of service. I am called to serve in a particular place in a particular time and my role is to serve as faithfully as I am able in that time and place. I don’t have the power to change the course of history. I am just one small part in a very large system. It doesn’t hinge on my actions.

But I am a person of deep hope. And that is where I think I vary from the thought of Descartes. I think I see hope differently from the way it is presented in his writings. Descartes generally writes of hope as optimism - the ability to see good in the future. He writes, “Hope is a disposition of the soul to persuade itself that what it desires will come to pass, which is caused by a particular movement of the spirits, namely, by that of mingled joy and desire.” I think that genuine hope is deeper and more than just a desire for joy.

Setting aside the definition of hope for a moment, I do, however appreciate Descartes sense of balance. You have probably heard the old joke about the couple who had twins. One was an incurable optimist and the other a complete pessimist. Seeking to change their boys’ perspectives, they gave the pessimist a pony for a birthday gift. He greeted the gift with a sigh, “It will be too much work to care for the animal and it will soon get sick and die.” The other boy was given a box of manure. His response was to jump up excitedly and rush outdoors, exclaiming, “There’s got to be a pony out there somewhere!” There is little profit in always looking for the worst outcome in every situation, but sometimes you have to learn that a box of manure is just a box of manure.

Hope, however, is more than optimism. And I would go farther to say that hope is not the opposite of fear. Hope doesn’t exclude fear and people of hope experience real fear. I read the stories of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane and can sense his fear about his coming arrest, torture and death. I think Jesus really experienced fear. But the fear did not incapacitate him. He proceeded in spite of the fear. Hope can come to the places of fear.

The letters to John cast a different image declaring that the opposite of fear is love: “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. Love is perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgement, because as he is, so are w in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear . . .” (1 John 4: 16b-18a)

Just as hope is more than mere optimism, love is more than a puff of emotion. These are substantive realities that can shape human experience.

Descartes might say that the vision of 1 John results in complacency. He sees fear as an essential element in life. Passion and desire are born in anxiety. If you are certain that what you desire will come to pass, you lose the energy to pursue your desire. It is the anxiety that it might not come to pass that gives energy to life. Casting out fear, however, does not mean that fear ceases to exist or that only desired outcomes will come to pass.

The argument may be one of semantics. But when I apply it to life in the church I know that dealing with fear is an essential task for church leaders. Change brings loss and loss brings grief and people fear change and loss and grief. Leaders need to enable those who follow to face change and loss and grief. Hope is born not by eliminating them, but by facing and acknowledging their reality without allowing them to incapacitate the community. A true leader must lead with love.

E.B. White wrote a letter to a man who said he had lost faith in humanity. The closing of that letter may be an appropriate way to think of hope: “Hang on to your hat. Hang on to your hope. And wind the clock, for tomorrow is another 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!

Remembering Russ

There was a time when every auctioneer in Montana knew Russ Salisbury. They knew that they could get a dollar or two from him for a bucket of unsorted junk from a farm shop. They knew they could get a bit more if they stuck a Craftsman tool in the top of the bucket. They also knew that he was a savvy auction buyer. If they tried to pass something off on him that he didn’t intend to buy, he’d turn his head or hide his auction card so they couldn’t get his number. Auctioneers learned to memorize Russ’ number at the beginning of the sale.

There was a time when every Highway Patrol Officer in Montana knew Russ Salisbury. He would have a severely overloaded trailer behind a sometimes-too-small truck, both in questionable operating condition going down the road at a pace considerably slower than the typical traffic. They might be able to pull him over and give him a warning ticket for a taillight that didn’t work, but they wouldn’t do that too often, because he would stop on the spot and fix it, even if it took him half an hour to find another bulb or the problem with the ground. He was known to swipe a bulb out of a clearance lamp to make a tail light work. He’d even swap out the entire lamp if he could find something to make do.

There was a time when every organic farmer in Montana knew Russ Salisbury. He had driven his old Toyota Tercel to the home of each one of them and spoken to them about organizing a cooperative for marketing their produce. He had hand delivered feed sacks to them. He had provided the first flour mill for the cooperative and kept it running with parts he purchased at auctions.

Russ never showed any interest in fame or being known. He was interested in the Blackfeet Nation also known as the Siksikaitsitapi people. He formed friendships over decades, learned from their elders and observed their ceremonies. He never tried to become one of them, simply to learn from their wisdom.

He was interested in the stewardship of the land. He brought together the pieces of land along the Missouri River in Montana that had formerly been the homesteads of family relatives, purchasing a few acres here and a few acres there until he had assembled a single ranch that was a legacy for the extended family. He patiently worked to have all of the ranch certified organic and to find the proper crop rotations and farming and ranching practices that had the least negative impact on the land.

He was an inveterate inventor, making machine and tools that he needed. He studied auto body repair after high school and made custom vehicles from the garage of a gas station in Carter Montana for a few years. He crafted a pickup from a 1948 Kaiser and gave it a beautiful blue pearl paint job. He took a 55 chevy and cut the top off to make a hard top convertible, with a system to reattach the roof when needed. He rebuilt several vehicles purchased from salvage sales. For several years he had a 1962 Mercedes diesel that had been resurrected after being declared a total loss by the insurance company. Russ was an expert at taking things that others discarded and turning them into useful tools. Russ took the front wheels off of two 830 John Deere tractors and fashioned an articulating connection to make them into a single four-wheel drive tractor The tractors had to be started separately and gear selection had to be made independently. He had a long steel bar that enabled both clutches to be engaged simultaneously, and another to operate the throttle on the front machine while he rode on the back one. There were a few bugs, but that tractor could pul once you got everything running.

50 years ago he moved from his parents’ ranch yard to the river bottom. Moving was quite an adventure because his “double wide” was really two regular mobile homes that had been remodeled into a single house. The two mobile homes weren’t even the same length, so there was considerable adaptation. A few years after the move to the river bottom where water came from a hand-dug well, he put a continuous roof over both trailers and solved the problem of water coming in through the seam between the trailers. There were decades in a home that was designed as a double-wide and placed next to the original home before a proper straw bale home was built.

Russ went through phases with vehicles. There was a time when he’d buy any Jeep Forward Control pickup that showed up on an auction regardless of its condition. He usually be able to keep one or tow running by salvaging parts from the row lined up in the yard. There was the Volkswagen beetle phase. There was a stack of parts cars lined up. After that it was the 4 wheel drive version of the Toyota Tercel. In recent years it was Dodge diesel pickups, 1 ton preferred. He did the same thing with farm machines. John Deere R tractors, John Deere 830s, Steiger tractors, Cat motor graders, John Deere 95 combines. After a while the area where the junk machines rested was so crowded that the devised a corral by staking up used machines all around the area where the cattle were kept.

Alan Watts wrote, “We do not "come into" this world; we come out of it, as leaves from a tree. As the ocean "waves," the universe “peoples." Russ Salisbury taught me that we all come from the earth. Our bodies are made of the elements of the soil that produces the crops that we eat. Russ was a man of the earth. He always belonged to the earth. So his death is not a surprise. It is a sadness, but not a surprise. His memory will never leave us and we will all one day be reunited in the elements of Creation.

Russ was my cousin. I am a lucky person to have shared this life’s journey with him.

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!

Yellowstone dreaming

The New York Times has an article this morning about Steamboat Geyser in Yellowstone National Park. I haven’t paid to get past the paywall at the New York Times website, so I haven’t read their article and I haven’t been to Yellowstone for several years. The headline, however, is enough to make me want to make a trip.

Yellowstone is magnificent all year around, but it is especially dramatic in the winter. The west side of the park is open to snow coach travel, so the way to get to the Norris Basin in the winter is to take the snow coach from Mammoth to Old Faithful. Snowmobilers often go in the West Entrance by West Yellowstone and head over through Madison to Norris Steamboat is in the Norris basin. It is, to my memory, the tallest geyser in the park. Unlike Old Faithful, the geyser is mostly steam for a lot of the time, but occasionally has very dramatic eruptions. I’ve see it once. The best way to see it is to camp at the Norris campground. The geyser is so loud that you can hear it in the campground.

Back in 1963, my family had a new car and we made a trip to Yellowstone the following summer. It wasn’t very far for us and we went into the park almost every summer. In the summer of 64, the geyser was being very active and I think it set a record that year for the highest and longest eruption. Then, a few years later, it went completely dormant until the early 1980’s. Since then it will go silent for six months or even a few years and then produce an eruption, but last year, it started erupting much more frequently. According to a brief article on, it erupted 29 times last year.

This is especially welcome news for me because the Norris Basin is home to some very beautiful geysers and pools and was, until recent years, one of the less explored regions of the park. The area is dangerous with lots of unstable ground and it is important to stay on marked trails and walkways. There are stories of people perishing in hot water because they ventured off trail. Getting boiled doesn’t seem like a good idea to me.

Yellowstone is a fascinating place and one of the places where we can be aware of the rapid pace of change in our planet. We know that geological time is a different pace than the way we normally think about the passage of time, Volcanoes will erupt. Earthquakes will occur. Predicting those events, however, is difficult because things can move very slowly when you are thinking about tectonic plates and the movement of rocks. Yellowstone, however, is a place that is capable of surprising you.

There are other ways that Yellowstone changes. The fires of 1988 and 1989 transformed areas of the park. There were hillsides around the Madison area that were completely denuded. It was said that the soil was sterilized by the intense heat. Yet a couple of years later those same hills were green with new growth and rebirth. Down closer to the lake, there were vistas opened up by the fires. There are places with beautiful views of the lake that used to be just walls of trees. At the time, especially when the news cameras were using very long lenses to take pictures of fires near Old Faithful, when it seemed like the whole park was going up in flames. Visiting 5 years later was a delight because the park had put on a great display of rebirth and regrowth.

Today, however, I’m remembering and dreaming of a winter visit to Yellowstone. It fills up with people so dramatically in the summer that it you have to be willing to walk in order to get to places of peace and quiet. It is hard to fully appreciate natural beauty when you are surrounded by a noisy crowd. It is frustrating to drive in traffic when you are in remote country. In the winter, however, the tourists are confined to snow coaches and congregate in Mammoth, Old Faithful and West Yellowstone. They do plow the road from Mammoth over to Cook City, so you can drive to Tower junction. From there it is a two mile ski to tower falls, which is absolutely gorgeous in the winter. A frozen waterfall is worth the effort to take a look. And winter or summer any foot travel of more than a mile will get you away from the crush of tourists.

Hot springs and geysers are even more dramatic in the winter when the steam turns to ice crystals and the fog creates a mist over the land. It is no exaggeration to think of it as a wonderland.

During our years in Chicago, we made journeys to Yellowstone at least two of the winters. My family would have a gathering right after Christmas at Chico Hot Springs in the Yellowstone valley and then we’d drive down through Gardner and Mammoth to take a look at the park. We could count on being able to show Big Horn Sheep, Antelope, Elk, Deer, and Buffalo to guests. Taking our friends from Australia to the park was a delightful adventure.

I’m probably suffering from a bit of cabin fever. Although i’m getting outside to go to and from the church and various meetings around town, I’ve been spending a bit too much time inside during this cold weather. I own appropriate clothing to go out in the very cold weather, but sometimes I get lazy or just stay inside because it is warm and convenient. The past week has given us the gift of snow which means I need to shovel the driveway and that at least gets me outside, but it isn’t the same as a walk in the woods. Perhaps today will give me the chance to get out and take a look around.

I won’t make it over to Yellowstone in person, but nothing can keep me from paying a visit in memory. Happy skiing!

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!

Espresso - The Parable

25 years ago espresso culture was just beginning to spread from the coasts across the nation. In those days Rapid City had no Starbucks, no Dunn Brothers, and only a couple of parking lot espresso stands. In those days the language of espresso wasn’t on the tip of every tongue and there wasn’t an espresso shop on every corner. Back then my friend and colleague Farley Maxwell was pastor of 1st Congregational Church in Vancouver, Washington. He wrote about the experience of going through a drive-up espresso shop with his daughter. He might not have been fully up-to-date with the lingo. He referred to the barista as an “espressista.” He commented that the drive up had once been a fotomat booth. Then again, youth of today certainly wouldn’t know what a fotomat is. He did, however, get a pretty good representation of the lingo of espresso in his quote of his daughter’s order: “One double tall decaf latte with skimmed milk nutra-sweet and no whipped cream; a single caffeinated cappuccino with light vanilla whipped cream and nutmeg.” He spoke of the newly evolving espresso jargon. He also reported that “as the clerk made change, the person in the car behind us honked impatiently - caffeine deficiency no doubt.”

He ended his little report in the church newsletter with a parable: “The kingdom of God is like an espresso bar . . .” Then he added this commentary: “What? You don’t get it? That’s alright. People didn’t always understand Jesus’ parables either. Next time try you latte with a twist.”

For some reason that isn’t entirely clear my colleague’s article on the front page of the church newsletter is something that I’ve kept for over 25 years. I know that is a sign that I’m a hoarder. In my own defense, we are going through the paper in our home and decreasing the inventory significantly. File cabinets are being emptied and recycling bins are filling up.

Once in a while, however, it is interesting to look at some saved piece of paper. In the case of the newsletter from the Vancouver church, it was a reminder of an old friendship and the collegiality of another job in another place at another time. It was also a reminder of how much times change. My grandchildren, who have been through the drive-up lane at coffee shops many times and who know the difference between Whidbey Coffee and Woods Coffee and Bigfoot Coffee, wouldn’t understand the impatience of someone waiting while change was being counted. Their parents don’t pay for coffee with cash - they use cards and sometimes just hold up their phone to a scanner.

The shifts in language and culture affect how we talk about a lot of things. When I started in the ministry I never imagined that I would be working out a deal to have a credit card kiosk in the church for people to make donations. Such a thing was in the realm of fantasy. Credit cards were for buying gas on long trips and were seldom used in everyday life. I also would not have been able to imagine paying more than $5 for a cup of coffee. These days, I meet people in the high-end coffee shops, not because I need expensive coffee, but because that is where the people I need to meet gather.

Jesus went out to the people and met them where they were - in their everyday lives. And he used images from their everyday lives such as the care of animals, travel in dangerous territory, the ways seeds grow and the like to speak of the nature of God’s realm. He used symbolic language because there are no direct words adequate to describe God.

I visited two different people in the hospital this week who were at a loss for words to describe their experience. Both had experienced life-threatening circumstances and could have died from their medical conditions. Both were grateful not only to be alive, but also for the love and support of family and community. Both were grateful for the scientific and technical advances of modern medicine. As they struggled to find the right words to express to me how they were feeling, I became aware of how important it is for us to be able to use language as symbol. Metaphor and simile are language tools that help us to speak of that which is beyond the reach of our language.

We know that God’s realm isn’t the same as hidden treasure in a field. It isn’t the same as a pearl of great price. It isn’t the same as the old and new treasures in a household. It isn’t the same as bread dough with leaven or a mustard seed, or a farmer throwing seed on the ground, or the net thrown into the sea by a fisherman. But all of these metaphors were ways that Jesus talked about God’s realm in the Bible. We know that God’s realm isn’t the same as an earthly kingdom, but we often use that language to speak of something that is beyond the power of our words to express.

My friend’s parable of an espresso bar is one of the images that probably won’t be meaningful to those of another generation. It probably requires one to have lived through the rapid growth of espresso as a product and a culture in the Pacific Northwest in the 1990’s. At least some knowledge of that culture helps. Many of the words we use to talk about God make sense only in a particular context. I say prayers in the hospital that are different from the ones I say in other locations and other contexts.

The kingdom of God is like the community that gathers for worship: diverse and wonderful and sometimes a bit fragile. We know that our worship isn’t perfect. We know that we aren’t the only expression of faith. But our gathering points us towards something that is bone ourselves and to our part in something bigger than ourselves. We don’t always understand how this works, but we return again and again because we know that we are more faithful together than we would be as separate individuals.

And, by the way, if you bring your espresso to church, that’s OK too.

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!

Eight years

Eight years ago, according to my journal, it was cold and snowy. I didn’t record the temperature on February 9, but on February 8, it was -8 with four or five inches of new snow. I had officiated at a funeral on February 7 and the snow made just getting to the church a challenge for some drivers. We have reliable all-wheel drive vehicles and rarely have a problem. I remember staying at the cemetery after the committal service while the cemetery workers completed their tasks and being glad to get back into the warmth of the car afterward. On February 9, I wrote about a herd of domestic buffalo that were being fed by a county sheriff while court action was being taken agains the owner for animal abuse. I have to go back and read my journal to remember the day.

I don’t have any problem remembering February 9, 2011, however. My journal entry the next day is the first of what now is a series of letters written to grandchildren. Our first grandchild was born eight years ago today. In that letter I mentioned the fact that it would take years before reading and writing became skills that he would possess. Those years have passed. He is quite a reader these days. We still read to him whenever we get the opportunity, but he now reads to us as well. He has discovered the joy of words and Last night when we were talking with him over FaceTime he was listing his favorite books of the year.

One of the things I wrote in that journal entry was, “You will only know us as old people. Our family doesn’t cram its generations very closely together. That is of no worry to us because being old is not a bad thing.” I also wrote, “In time our family will have others of your generation. You are the first grandchild for all of your grandparents, but we have a sense that there will be more.” I was right with that prediction. He now has two sisters and we are all eagerly awaiting the birth of a cousin for him this July.

One of the things that amazes me is how quickly the eight years have passed from my perspective. It isn’t quick from his point of view. It has taken a lifetime to get to be an eight year old who can read and write and ride a bicycle and build with Lego bricks. It has taken a lifetime to get to this point. But for us, the time has passed very quickly.

Eight years is the amount of time that it took me to earn my undergraduate and graduate degrees. Four years of college and four years of theological seminary. When I finished I had learned to think in terms of four years. After my first four years as a pastor, I got the itch to move on. It was only the strength of the relationships in that small town and a bit of good fortune on my part that kept me from moving to another church at that point. Most of my seminary classmates were into their second call after four years. We remained seven, but not eight. Our second call lasted for ten years. There was a time in my life when eight years seemed like a very substantial amount of time.

Our perspective changes. Still, in some matters eight years can seem like a significant amount of time. two terms in the office of the president can seem like a long time if the person who occupies the office isn’t the one you wanted to see elected. In South Dakota eight years is the maximum amount of time one can serve as governor. Well, there was an exception, but that particular governor was exceptional in a lot of ways. I suppose that eight years in a job that you didn’t enjoy would seem like a terribly long time, though I’ve been blessed to have work that I enjoy for all of my life. Well, a summer spent tipping garbage cans into the back of a truck wasn’t the most fun, but it wasn’t a bad time either. It made me glad to go back to school in the fall.

When our grandson was born eight years ago, we had to wait eleven days before we got on the airline to go to meet him face-to-face for the first time. Those days seemed like a long time to us then. Time doesn’t always pass at the same pace from our perspective.

Looking back eight years is also an opportunity to look ahead eight years. In eight years, our grandson will be eying his driver’s license. He’ll be a teenager and have a teenage sister. The schedule in their home will be substantially different than it is today. And we will be eight years older. I doubt, however, that we will seem much older to our grandchildren. I think that my observation in our grandson’s birth letter was accurate. We will always seem to him to be old people. He was born in the season of saying good bye to our parents’ generation. My mother had just died when he was born and Susan’s father, the last of our parents, lived only a couple of months longer. We experienced the passing of the generations in a dramatic way that year.

Today is a great day of celebration. And it isn’t just because the new Lego movie was released in theaters yesterday, which it was as our grandson has informed us. Eight years of amazing parenting by our son and his wife are worth noting. Eight years of growing in wisdom and stature, to use the language the Gospel uses to describe Jesus childhood. Eight years of learning to live in a family that has quite a tangle of extended relatives is an accomplishment. And there is so much that is yet to unfold.

For us it has been eight years of joy and surprise and wonder. The next eight promise to be as rich and these have been.

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!

Yokes and phones

It has been said that there are two seasons for canoe builders: paddling season and building season. Right now, however, is neither season for me. My unheated garage isn’t warm enough for much building. I have a space heater, but it is inadequate for below zero temperatures. So I have three seasons: paddling season, building season, and dreaming season. In this dreaming season, I’m not thinking of a new boat at present. The nearly-completed kayak in my garage should see the water early in the summer. What has been occupying a bit of my consciousness is an unwritten list of repairs that need to be made. I have a kayak that needs a new cockpit coaming. It also could use a sanding and a few coats of varnish. My favorite canoe, a 16’ Chestnut Prospector woodstrip, needs a new center thwart. It could use some varnish as well. The thwart was hand carved out of a pice of mahogany that I had in my shop. I had never previously carved a portaging yoke and I got it a bit thin. It served well for a long time, however. Then, last summer, we encountered some severe winds when driving home from Washington. When I unloaded the canoe, I noticed a fine crack in the yoke. It was still strong enough to carry the boat to its storage cradle, but I want it fixed before doing any serious paddling. I have a nice piece of Black Hills spruce that is air dried and ready for carving and this time I could get the shape just right.

That got me to thinking about the names we give things. The center thwart of a canoe is called the yoke because when portaging, we pick up our canoes and put them over our shoulders. The ones that are easiest to carry have curved indentations in the center of the thwart to make them fit on our shoulders with room for our neck. This thwart is called a yoke. I’m pretty sure that the name yoke comes from the wooden yoke used to secure a pair of oxen together enabling them to pull a load when working as a pair. Yokes have been used in agriculture for thousands and thousands of years. There is evidence of agricultural yokes as ancient as 4,000 BCE. With that long of a history, it makes sense that the term has been used in a variety of different ways. We say things like under the yoke or the yoke around someone’s neck to refer to a wide variety of burdens.

Historically, a yoke was used to measure a specific amount of energy. An oxen can pull its own weight, which runs between 1,500 and 3,000 pounds. In pairs, however, oxen can pull much more. A well-trained team can pull 12,000 pounds, a significant amount. My diesel pickup produces 800 foot pounds of torque. The amount of plowing that can be done by a pair of oxen has been used to measure land. The original definition of an acre is the area a pair of oxen yoked to a single-beam walking plow could till on the longest day of the year. This measurement was used in land transactions and finally was refined to the present definition of an acre, which is 43,560 square feet.

A team of oxen plowing all day long on the longest day of the year is an entirely different matter than me picking up a 70-pound canoe and carrying it on the trail between two lakes. My yoke doesn’t need to be so strong as to take the strain of oxen exerting 12,000 pounds of pull. The same word has significantly different meanings.

As a pilot I also know the term yoke from an airplane. In planes with a control wheel instead of a stick to operate the elevators and ailerons, the wheel is called a yoke. It bears little resemblance to the yoke that fits across the shoulders of an animal or person and using it properly doesn’t demand heavy lifting. I’m not sure how we got to using that name for it.

Then I could go into all of those elementary school jokes that amuse my grandson. What do you call a mischievous egg? A practical yolker. I know it isn’t spelled the same way, but it sounds like the same word.

Things that seem the same aren’t always so. My wife Susan and I have the same brand of phone, with several of the same applications. Last summer while traveling in Japan we got into checking how far we had walked each day. My daily average is usually between 2 and 4 miles, but in Japan I was walking more, usually more than 6 miles each day. But when we compared, her phone was giving her more distance. One day we spent the entire day together, going the same places and doing the same activities. At the end of the day, my phone recorded 6.8 miles. Hers said she had gone over 8 miles. I teased her of swinging her purse to add false mileage, but that wasn’t the case. Her phone was riding in a backpack part of the time. The difference between our phones became a joke between us. I accused mine of false reporting to make me feel bad. It isn’t a big deal to either of us and we haven’t sought a more accurate way of measuring distance. It is just a kind of joke that we enjoy.

Then, last night, we got into the car after being out in the evening and she checked her phone. It said that it was nine degrees below zero. I was positive that it couldn’t be that cold. I’m sure it wasn’t really below zero at all. So I checked my phone. It reported sixteen below. No it wasn’t 7 degrees colder on my side of the car. My only explanation is that my phone is picking on me again. It makes me feel colder than I am and less well exercised than I think I should be. It is almost enough to get me to suggest trading phones with Susan.

I’m keeping my phone, however. If it remains cooler than hers, it will be an advantage in the summer when the days are really hot. Like all canoeists, I’m always looking forward to the change of seasons.

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!

Studying logic in an illogical world

I graduated from a liberal arts collage that required a small amount of interdisciplinary study of all of its students. Students with majors in mathematics or science were required to take a religion course. Those of us who majored in the humanities were required to take a science course and a mathematics course. We all were required to take basic physical education courses. I was drawn to philosophy and Christian Thought and declared my major early and focused on those classes, but I also knew that I had to get my basic requirements in order to earn my degree. I found some obscure PE courses to fulfill my requirement. I’m not sure how valuable a college credit in trampoline and tumbling has been in my career, but I did learn some basic safety in regards to falling that probably has reduced injuries throughout my life. I took a science survey course titled, Atoms to Stars during my freshman year. My math requirement, however, was a bit of a challenge until I discovered that the philosophy course Logic was taught by the mathematics department and awarded math credit. I signed up for the course. It was a small class, not far from individualized instruction, which was a good thing for me because I hadn’t studied math much more advanced than high school algebra and geometry.

The course had a fair amount of history in the reading materials. We read about how Aristotle cited laws of contradiction and of excluded middle as examples of axioms. We learned about how in the early 20th century Alfred North Whitehead and Bertrand Russell established patterns for talking about prediction and future events. I understood the basic concepts. If we observe that the sun rises each day and our experience of the past has been that the sun rises every day it does not logically follow that the sun will rise tomorrow. We can draw that conclusion, but our past experience does not constitute proof. Our conversations in the class were often obscure and covered topics that I since have forgotten, but I have a general sense of the existence of some basic rules of thought that enable scientific exploration. Just like basic rules of mathematics, rules of thought help to create a system of interpreting the world that allows for consistent argument and thought shared by multiple generations. Not every observation has to be repeated in every generation. We can learn from the past if we share consistent rules of thinking. We can contribute to the knowledge of future generations if we are consistent in our thought and presentation.

Having taken a single course about an obscure topic in a small college more than four decades ago does not make me an expert in logical thought, but I can be rather quick to judge an argument made by a politician or simply a friend in conversation when it contains obvious contradictions or is based on false of misleading premises.

Sometimes, however, it seems like many others either do not or choose not to observe such basic rules of logic. I am impressed at how people will repeat information that seems to me to be obviously false. I notice that people will frequently vote against their own best interests. They will accept a politician’s promises when there is no evidence that the politician intends anything more than getting elected.

Looking back I now realize how much my college and graduate school years were influenced by the time in which I was educated. My teachers were, for the most part, people who had been shaped by the events of the Second World War. The rise of authoritarian regimes had shaken the intellectual community. Eric Fromm’s “Escape from Freedom,” and Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning,” were serious reflections on how modern societies could slip into such barbarian cruelty. Over the course of my formal education I read countless books that were, in part, trying to make sense out of the violence of the middle of the 20th century. Generally accepted rules of thought and general senses about progress were disrupted by the actual events of history. The development of weapons capable of completely destroying all humans on our planet presented an existential challenge to basic assumptions about the nature of humans and human progress.

Now, nearly a half century later, some of that education seems increasingly relevant. Once again our world is being confronted by the rise of authoritarian leaders. General rules of logic don’t seem to apply to political discourse. We struggle to find meaning in the midst of events that seem to be chaotic and devoid of logical consistency.

I know that I must sound like a broken record, but our society is in desperate need of more people who have been educated in the history and philosophy of science. My college logic course was lightly attended, but at least my college offered a course in logic. Try to find such a course in the catalogues of any of our state universities. We are no longer studying patterns of thought and no longer questioning the conclusions of thinkers and teachers. We are no longer teaching the tools to examine an argument or to analyze the psychological roots of the human choice to yield basic freedoms. We no longer can even have a meaningful conversation about the nature of freedom because we cannot agree on the basic rules of argument. We are condemned to repeat the mistakes of the past in part because we have failed to teach history.

Maybe it is inevitable that I am growing into an old man who is constantly complaining. “You young whippersnappers!” So, instead, I will remind myself of something that Viktor Frankl wrote. H was a Holocaust survivor. He survived Theresienstadt, Auschwitz, Kaufering and Türkheim. He wrote: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

There is good reason for me to pay attention to my own attitude. Despite the chaos of the world, I still have the freedom to choose my own attitude. What I choose can make all the difference in the 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!

Canoeing in the Mountains

I’ve been reading Tod Bolsinger’s 2015 book on church leadership in the modern world. Bolsinger was a successful Presbyterian pastor in California who was hired by Fuller Theological Seminary in 2014 as vice president for vocation and formation. His book was, in part, a response to his new position, but he was already recognized as a leader of church retreats and leadership development before he began his work at Fuller Seminary. It is fairly common for someone who achieves success in one area of the church to be lifted up as an example. We all can learn from the success of others.

But it is also true that not every success in one place can translate into success in another. When I was a pastor in Rural North Dakota during the farm crisis of the 1980’s the “experts” in church growth all had in common the simple fact that they served churches in communities where the population was growing. I was serving in an area where the population was declining. Bolsinger has served two congregations in his career, one as associate pastor, another as senior pastor. He has spent his entire career in Southern California. That doesn’t mean that his ideas and leadership don’t apply in South Dakota. It just means that all leadership must be adapted to specific circumstances.

I admit that one of the things that attracted me to Bolsinger’s book is its title: Canoeing in the Mountains. As one who enjoys and has some experience canoeing in the mountains, I thought that the analogy might be a good one for me. Bolsinger, of course, isn’t a canoeist. He isn’t even a mountaineer. He uses what he knows about the Lewis and Clark expedition as an analogy for going into uncharted territory. The analogy works and his ideas are relevant. For certain readers, however, the analogy can get in the way of his ideas. I’m one of those readers.

So, rather than writing about Bolsinger or his book about church leadership, I want to write a bit about the Lewis and Clark expedition. During the ten years when we lived in Idaho, we regularly visited family in Montana, where I grew up. My home town received its name from Lewis during the return to Missouri. After moving to South Dakota our son studied at Pacific University in Forest Grove, Oregon, so I’ve driven over the continental divide and the subsequent mountain passes in the northwest many times. For a number of years I attempted to cross the border between Idaho and Montana in as many of the drivable passes as possible.

The Lemhi Pass is a dramatic route. The road is dirt and gravel and passable only in the summer months. It is labeled for off road capable vehicles only, but we pulled the pass with our Mitsubishi Montero pulling our tent camper without a problem. The trailer had been lifted and larger tires installed to increase ground clearance. The top of the pass is gorgeous and it is one of the places where you have the sense of standing on a ridge that is a definite divide. The ground slopes dramatically downward on both sides of the pass. Summer in the high country is akin to spring in other parts of the world, with lots of flowers and warm days and cool nights.

Bolsinger refers to Lewis standing on top of the Lemhi Pass repeatedly as a moment of insight, when he realized that there was no water route to the west coast and that the road ahead was vastly different than the route they had come. I think his information about the Corps of Discovery comes mostly from Stephen Ambrose’s 2013 book, Undaunted Courage. The book was widely popular and spins a good yarn, but has been criticized for exaggeration and a lack of historical accuracy. It is clear that Bolsinger has never stood on the top of Lemhi Pass, and doesn’t know what it takes to get from Great Falls to Lemhi Pass if your principal mode of transport to Great Falls was a river keelboat, The Corps of Discovery didn’t use canoes in their travel, except for he crude dugout boats employed on the return journey.

Lemhi Pass isn’t the continental divide, though it is dramatic enough to have fooled the surveyors who mapped the boundary between Montana and Idaho for quite a while. And Lemhi Pass isn’t where the Corps of Discovery finally crossed into what is now Idaho. Had they crossed there, they would have descended into the Salmon River valley, the area known as the River of No Return Wilderness. Instead, they went back into the Bitterroot Valley and journeyed north to a route closer to where Interstate 90 crosses northern Idaho.

These days you can take a modern whitewater canoe, something like my Recon, and if you have enough skill and experience, float the Salmon through the wilderness to the Snake where it broadens before emptying into the Columbia and follow the Columbia to the ocean, portaging around several dams. Lewis and Clark didn’t have the boats or the experience to handle the whitewater.

Ambrose, and Bolsinger don’t give adequate credit to the fact that in fact Lewis and Clark weren’t traveling into unknown territory. It was just territory that wasn’t known to them - or to others of European descent. The Shoshoni and New Perce knew the way across the mountains and they had regular contact with the Blackfoot, Cheyenne, Arapaho and Lakota to the East and the Coastal tribes to the west. They also had the trails and technologies to survive and travel in the mountains. The northern passes over the continental divide are, especially on the east faces rather gentle and there are some very low passes through the mountains. The Columbia provides the easiest way to get through the Cascades. There are some rugged mountains west of the divide.

Lewis and Clark were in over their heads long before they got to the mountains, however. Had it not been for the assistance of the Mandan people, they probably would not have survived the winter in North Dakota. It was through their associations with the Mandan that they were able to use indigenous guides for the rest of their trip. It was a lot more challenging than following a river.

Bolsinger’s analogy, like all analogies, is imperfect. I works best when one doesn’t examine too much detail. I doubt if he has the skill to really canoe in the mountains, so it would be best to take him on a raft trip, where capsize is less likely. Still, I think I could teach him at least as much about canoeing in the mountains as he can teach me about church leadership in the Black Hills of South Dakota.

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


In a recent conversation with a friend, we both noted that there is something about a particular senior residence that makes us feel uncomfortable. Both of us have multiple friends who live in the facility and visit there regularly, but we noted our discomfort when we visit. I feel very similarly about another large continuity of care facility in our town. Both facilities feature apartments, a dining room, exercise spaces, a swimming pool, meeting rooms, a small retail shop, a beauty parlor, a post office, a bank, game rooms as well as an assisted living facility and skilled nursing home beds. Both facilities feature a maze of interconnected hallways and elevators that allow those who know their way around to walk from one area to another without going outdoors. Both facilities can be a bit confusing to visitors, but if you pay attention you can learn your way around the campus. Both institutions are very stable. One has had the same CEO since it opened 30 years ago. The other is owned by the largest health care provider in our state.

It is possible that part of our discomfort is over the way our society segregates people by age. Such facilities are devoid of children, with the exception of an occasional visit. They are much quieter than institutions designed for children.

I think, however, that our discomfort is more complex.

When I look at modern continuity of care senior living facilities they all have many things in common. One thing is that while they have paid great attention to architecture and building, to decorating and creating interior spaces, they all have minimal and very generic landscaping with a few trees and a bit of mowed grass. Your attention is always drawn to the building and a tour of the facility focuses on interior spaces. The brochures, web sites and sales pitches all are quick to state how easy it is to live in the facility and take advantage of all of its services without ever needing to go anyplace else.

The problem is that we human beings didn’t evolve to spend all of our time indoors.

Thinking of these places that isolate people from the natural world, I remembered a NPR Hidden Bran podcast I listened to with psychologist Ming Kuo. After investing decades studying the effects of nature on humans, she has come to the conclusion that wild animals are not the planet’s only creatures that are suffering from the degradation of their habitat. We humans evolved physically, psychologically and socially to live outdoors. Urbanization has only recently become the pattern for the majority of the world’s human dwellers.

Kuo stated that humans living in a two-bedroom condo are in a similar habitat crunch to a 1950s circus zebra living in a cage. Our societies have changed at a rapid pace, but our DNA has not.

Studies have shown over and over again that access to nature has great benefit for people. In one study two identical urban housing projects, except one had mostly concrete surroundings and the other a more natural landscape with trees, rocks and grass. Police records show significantly higher reports of conflict and violence in the paved-over neighborhood than in the more natural one. A similar study of drug store sales showed mood-related medications were far more common in the concrete environment than in the one with more natural elements.

People with regular access to the natural world exhibit fewer signs of dissention, anxiety and depression.

The modern retirement communities understand that people need more than the basics of food and shelter. They also need socialization and contact with others and those facilities try to provide socialization by hiring activities directors and planning events. For those of use whose interests tend toward long walks in the woods and regular paddles on quiet waters, the choice of activities in most senior living facilities leaves much to be desired. The analogy of animals kept in zoo cages and deprived of their natural habitat seems apt when I think of those places. I can’t think of games of cards and bingo and chair aerobics classes as a retirement benefit.

Scott MacGregor, publisher of Paddling Magazine, noted in a recent column how spending time in the natural world strengthens our bodies’ natural immune systems. After spending a few days in nature, researchers find measurable increases in natural killer cells that respond to viruses. Three days in a forest reserve boosted these cells by 50 percent. Three days relaxing in an urban environment produced no measurable change in these cells. The effect of three days in a natural setting increases immune cells in the blood levels so much that the difference can still be measured three months after the exposure.

We need time outdoors in the natural world to be able to resist disease. If you doubt this, try to visit one of those senior living facilities during flu season. You’ll be greeted at the door by a sign and a box of face masks. Viruses run rampant in those facilities.

When I think of retirement, I think of making boats and taking my grandchildren on adventures in the mountains. I yearn for longer hikes at a slower pace.

It is possible that a person like myself can’t really afford to move into a place with twice a month housekeeping services, meals prepared by professional chefs, and all of the building maintenance and snow shoveling provided. On the other hand, that might just be a good thing. It might even help me stay healthy into my retirement years.

We may be thinking too small when we think of human habitat. The size, shape and decoration of our indoor living spaces is only part of what we need. The location of those spaces and our access to the outside world is as critically important as is the indoor space.

It is 5 degrees below zero outside today. I’m going to put on my long underwear. I’m going to go outside and I’m going to breathe in that cold air. The day may come when I am no longer to go outside on cold days, but I’m not looking forward to that 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!


I can still remember the spelling test that consisted of the names of the twelve months. I struggled the most with February. That silent r really got me hung up. Once I mastered that word, I didn’t have any trouble getting the rest of the months right. I wasn’t a stellar speller for most of my elementary school career. I wasn’t particularly concerned with spelling and, after the fourth or fifth grade I didn’t put much effort into penmanship, either. The combination was that I did not think of myself as a top student. I was just average. That changed when I got older and I gained more confidence in my abilities.

Like other months, February kept the same name in the Gregorian calendar that it had in the Julian Calendar. Like January, February was added to the older 10-month Roman Calendar when the shift was made to a 12-month year. Thus its name is a bit newer than those of the other 10 months. This was, in part a semantic shift, as the Old Roman calendar acknowledged that the time passed. They simply considered the winter to be a monthless period of the year. The winter season was placed at the end of the year and the year was thought to start with March.

Once the months of January and February were added to the calendar, around 450 BCE, they kept changing the number of days in the month in an attempt to make the months remain static in the seasons of the year. The idea of leap days and leap years hadn’t yet occurred to calendar makers. At one time the Roman calendar held February to 23 days, with a intercalary month inserted after February to realign the year with the seasons. The number of days of that month varied. The Julain calendar retained the intercalary month, but only three of every four years, with that month skipped every forth month, beginning the concept of leap years.

The name of the month comes from the Latin februa, which means “purifications.” The month was seen as a time for people to undergo rites of purification in preparation for the spring and new life that was to follow. Like many other elements of our calendar, it assumes the climate of the northern hemisphere. February can be the coldest month of the year even though the days have begun to lengthen.

The ancients believed that the month was a time for purification.

It isn’t a bad idea.

People suffering from seasonal affective disorder struggle with the months when the days are shorter and February can be especially difficult because it comes at the end of the season of short days. By March we can sense the lengthening of days and the warming of our part of the planet. It makes sense that a month of cleansing and rededication can help lift the spirits.

From ancient times, people have come up with rituals to cleanse and purify the soul. Just as we bathe to cleanse our bodies, certain practices were thought to purify that which cannot be seen. These rituals involved eating or not eating certain foods, ritual baths and other ceremonies that involved water and scrubbing, and practices of meditation and structured thought. The idea is that there are some things that pollute or debase the human spirit and those things need to be eliminated or purged from our lives.

Most of us have experienced a sense of wanting to rid ourselves of a annoying habit or some part of our identity that we want to change. It takes more than a show of will, however, to make lasting change. Perhaps that is why the process of purification became a repeating cycle, something that was done each year as opposed to a once in a lifetime ritual such as baptism. The Christian tradition of baptism, rooted in more ancient rites of purification, does not need to be repeated. Once the sacrament is performed it is permanent according to Christian practice and tradition.

February, however, comes every year. Personally I experience that as a good thing. February is the birth month of several people whom I deeply love. Our family has celebrated February births for all of my life. The great uncle for whom I was named was born on February 2 and I have a niece who shares his birthday. My wife, grandson and a nephew all have February birthdays. And February is the month of Valentine’s Day, a time to celebrate love and the sacrifices people made for love and marriage.

We will, however, need a new tradition for Valentine’s Day this year. Those tiny conversation hearts with the silly slogans printed on them won’t be available this year. The company that makes them says they will be available in 2020, but will not be sold this year. The company went out of business in 2018, but promises to have the product back on the market next year. The candies, however, have little flavor and a long shelf life, so there will probably be some old ones from previous years around and there are other companies that have made imitation conversation hearts, so if you are so tongue tied that you can’t find the right words to express you love, you can probably find another way to get the message to the one you love.

Maybe 2019 is a year for the purification of candy conversation hearts. It is finally time to get all of the old dried up candies out of the system so that we can start fresh in 2020.

Whether we are talking about the weather, spelling or the challenge or remembering its length, February can be challenging. But it is upon us and so I wish you courage in the days to come. I keep reminding myself that spring will come and that there are plenty of reasons to go outside even when the weather is cold. Bundle up, keep moving and be careful. May February be a month of purification for us all.

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!


Language is constantly evolving. New terms are introduced and make their way into common usage and into the dictionary. Old terms shift in meaning and usage. Scholars debate over nuance and minutia of spelling, usage and other technical details. I’m pretty sure that I would not have made a good linguist, but I find some of the studies to be fascinating. I have become aware of how much shifts in the meaning of words has affected our discussions of other topics, including philosophy and theology, the main focus of my scholarship.

The ancients recognized four cardinal virtues. The term cardinal comes from the Latin word for hinge. The cardinal virtues are considered to be the hinges to a virtuous life. Without them virtue is not possible. Those virtues are prudence, courage, temperance and justice. Essentially it was believed that you needed to possess these four qualities in order to be a good person. A leader was expected to demonstrate all four. By the time of Aristotle these four virtues were widely recognized and defined in such a way as to hold common meaning in discussions, though the term “cardinal” was not yet applied to the essential virtues. Modern philosophers often turn to Thomas Aquinas as the one to define Christian virtues. Aquinas started with the virtues outlined by Paul in the first letter to the Corinthians: faith, hope and love. Those three were added to the traditional four giving seven basic attributes of a moral person.

Aquinas spent significant time elaborating on each of the virtues and his definitions remain nearly a millennium after his time. The definitions, however are different from the way these terms are used in common conversation today. For example, consider prudence. We often think of prudence as shyness or restraint. Aquinas assigned eight attributes to prudence: memory, intelligence, docility, shrewdness, reason, foresight, circumspection and caution. His discussions of the subject describe a prudent person as one who has the capacity to think calmly in a trying situation and to weigh options under pressure. One cannot be prudent without the ability to anticipate the possible consequences of an action. And one gains this ability through experience, so memory is an essential function of prudence.

It is hard to look at contemporary political leaders and define them as prudent according to Aquinas’ definition. Our political system is so weighted to short-term success that there are few politicians who are swayed by consequences that are more than a couple of years in the future. When reelection is the primary goal, other things, including service, sacrifice, and the overall good of the people seem to take a back seat.

In a similar manner, our contemporary usage of the term courage varies from its meaning in the history of philosophy. These days courage is often used as another term for boldness or audacity. Historically the definition of the virtue focused on mental stamina and innovation. Courage is the ability to act on one’s beliefs despite danger or disapproval. As such it requires the ability to innovate because it is not the path of least resistance or the path most chosen by others. Courage is the ability to remain consistent in terms of commitments.

One of the disappointments of citizenship in our country today is the lack of genuine courage among our leaders. They seem to have no moral convictions, but rather twist and turn in the face of popularity, polls and funders. They lack the ability to take a stand on their own, but rather vote as members of a block or party.

it is my conviction that part of the current situation is the result of decades of emphasis on technical and scientific education at the expense of teaching the basics of the humanities. When I was in elementary school, we were encouraged to study science and math because our nation was engaged in a space race and technical skills were needed to engage in that competition. These days the emphasis is upon STEM education. These are indeed worthy areas of study and scholarship. Making them exclusive, however, is to deny research and scholarship around critical humanities such as art, music, philosophy, and theology. The failure to study these subjects and the failure to fund research in these fields in universities has resulted in a generation of people who are not familiar with discussions that have been going on for as long as we can remember. What results is a kind of “morality lite” that lists a few virtues without defining them and seems to promote technical skill over discernment and thought. The result is a host of unintended consequences. Driverless cars are not programmed to make moral decisions. Technologies are developed without consideration of their true purpose or value. We do things because we can without considering whether or not we should.

I know this is a topic about which I have written before. It may even sound old and dated to regular readers of my journal. But it is not difficult to see signs of deterioration in the basic building blocks of social order. Politicians debate about the nature of truth without having any resources to judge truth. “Truth” becomes only another opinion as if there were no absolutes with which to gauge reality. The person with the loudest voice or the biggest pulpit is allowed to declare something to be true without any judgment about the nature of truth.

Interestingly in this climate, people resort to very primitive beliefs. They rest their beliefs on what they want to happen rather than what evidence suggests will happen. This brings the discussion back to the definition of prudence. When memory and intelligence, shrewdness and reason are not applied to the discussion, it becomes possible for leaders to deny the reality of climate change for the benefit of short term financial or political gain. The gains are short term because the leaders are short sighted. The consequences of denying reality may be so consequential as to result in the extinction of human beings. Prudence is as valuable in our time as it was in the days of the ancients and it may be even more critical to our future.

So far, however, I haven’t recognized any real philosophers among the candidates declaring their run for the office of President. I’ll keep looking.

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!

Changing jobs in a changing world

Last night over dinner we were talking with friends about our children, the jobs they do, the lives they lead and the adventures they’ve undertaken. We had the good fortune of watching each other’s children grow from teens to adults and are genuine fascinated by their lives. One of their children has a wide range of interests. He has a degree in fashion design, is somewhat of an expert in denim and the weaving and wearing of that cloth, works as a consultant to high-end retail clothing stores in the area of store design, has a custom woodworking business on the side making furniture and other items and has many other interests. His mother describes him as a renaissance man, a title which is appropriate except for the fact that this isn’t the Renaissance. He is a new age person in a new age that we haven’t named. His many skills and interests mean that he will earn his living with many different job titles as the years go by, always adapting and changing to meet changing circumstances. You can’t meet this young man and listen to the things he is doing without thinking that he has a lot on the ball and is the like of person who is bringing forth new futures.

Our conversation led to the rapid pace of change in our world. It seems that few people the age of our children will live their entire lives in a single vocation. Many more will have multiple major vocational shifts as they journey through life. Some will have jobs that don’t yet exist and others will pioneer new ways for traditional careers to remain relevant.

My vocation is set and I know that whatever place or institution, my role will be that of minister of some kind or another. But that vocation is radically different than it was when I began. The church is undergoing huge changes. It is difficult to see what will emerge, but it certainly seems like we are experiencing a monumental change, at least as significant as was the Reformation. I have always known that preaching, teaching and pastoral care were foundational skills for my work, but that there is much more required of a successful pastor. I think that had I known when I began my career how much time I spend administering a computer network or making advertising decisions and negotiating contracts, I might have wondered whether or not I was on the right path. Those tasks and the required skills were accumulated in the process of maintaining the institution within which I preach, teach and provide care.

There are some jobs - or at least some job titles - that are relatively new which intrigue me. I think I might enjoy being a chief storyteller. Maybe other corporations have done it before, but the first I knew of the job was back in the 1990s when Nike employed a chief storytelling officer among their upper management. A quick search on LinkedIn reveals almost 10,000 hits for the job of storyteller, so there are many more corporations who have picked up the idea. Probably the most famous of those whose job is storytelling is Microsoft’s Chief Storyteller. Steve Clayton. He started off with Microsoft as a technical salesperson. Then he started a blog on the side about the adventures of working for the giant corporation. Eventually the corporate executives noticed that blog and brought him on full time as a storyteller for their corporation. He has presented TED talks, written and told stories of the corporation’s successes and is especially good at finding stories of how technology impacts the lives of obscure people in obscure locations. Microsoft has based entire advertising campaigns on some of his stories. You may remember the Microsoft ad that features people in an African village who are celebrating their connection to the Internet.

In a way, I’m the chief storyteller of our congregation. Those stories appear in my journal on a regular basis.

I’m not sure that I’m the right person to be a storyteller for a giant corporation. I’ve watched Microsoft evolve from a bible start-up with a new idea to a giant corporation that is so complex that it may be incapable of true innovation. Microsoft actually hasn’t come up with innovative ideas for a long time. They take others’ ideas and market them. They have a monopoly on a certain part of the market and are able to buy any competitors, and they have succeeded in forcing many of us to subscribe to their office suite of products which provides a steady income for the company, but by and large they have failed in the hardware business. Their phones flopped despite their buying Nokia. Their newer surface tablets are enjoying a modest success. Many industry analysts believe that the company has become too large to be able to change direction fast enough to compete in the tech sector. I’m no business analyst, but I’ve purchased my share of Microsoft products over the years, and I definitely have a love/hate relationship with the company. I don’t use Word to write my blog, preferring a competitors word processing software, but Microsoft software is at the core of our church’s computers.

I am, however, fascinated with the story of the company. I know there are many different ways to tell its stories. Steve Clayton excels in telling success stories and stories of how the corporation has brought positive change. I might want to tell stories about how the company became an “evil empire” with too much power and too much information. I’m pretty sure Microsoft executives knew what they were doing when they chose their chief storyteller. After all there are some stories they would rather have told than others.

So, I’m not likely to become any company’s chief storyteller and that includes the United Church of Christ. My own beloved church would rather have someone else telling its story.

So I propose a new job, one that I haven’t seen in the current corporate world. I might have been good at this job when I was younger. I know some young people who would be excellent at it. The job is prophet.

Prophets don’t win popularity contests. They rarely get paid for their prophecies, though Moses had a good gig going in Egypt for a while. Still, I think there are a lot of institutions in our current society that could use a good prophet.

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


I can’t speak for other religions, or even for other expressions of Christianity, but I certainly run into quite a few people whose ideas about prayer are different from my own. People often think of prayer as a solitary activity - something that you do on your own in a private place all by yourself. There is a good reason for that. Jesus is quotes in Matthew saying:

“Whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, because they love to pray while standing in synagogues and on street corners so that people can see them. Truly I say to you, they have their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret. And your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you” (Matthew 6:5-6).

Jesus’ own words advise us to go into our rooms, close the door and pray in secret. There is a long tradition of solitary prayer in Christianity. From the time of the desert mothers and fathers to the present, there have always been Christian mystics who have separated themselves from the mainstream of society for the purpose of pursuing prayer as a full-time vocation.

Having said that, however, I often experience prayer as a very connectional activity where I am deeply aware of the power of community. A little over years ago I experienced the sudden and unexpected death of one of my brothers. Then my mother died. Our first grandson was born. My father in law died. Our daughter got married. It was supposed to be a sabbatical year for me, but while I was gone on the sabbatical some folks thought the timing was right to launch significant criticism of me and attempt to bring about a change in the leadership of the church. One of the leaders of the critics wrote me the nastiest letter I have ever received. I would have been able to handle any one of these events on my own with grace and dignity. However, the combination and the cumulation of events left me reeling. Some days I would try to pray and I couldn’t even figure out how to do it.

It was then that I became aware that there were a lot of people who were praying for me. It was in that season of my life that I learned an important lesson that I have shared with people many times since: “When you have no words for your prayer, it is a good thing to know that you aren’t the only one praying.” There is no question that the prayers of others upheld me as I journeyed through that year and into the next when I was still picking up the pieces of the year that had passed. I move on. The church moved on. The critics, including the writer of the letter continued to participate in the church and the church gave us opportunities to renew our relationship. I learned to have face to face and supportive conversations with some of the folks who had previously seemed to be attacking me. We grew in faith through our experiences.

My season of grief gave me a deeper connection with those who grieve, but it also gave me a connection with the power of prayer.

I participate in a couple of different prayer chains. One of those prayer chains is made up of just a half dozen of my colleagues - all pastors of churches of other denominations than my own. They are also my friends. We usually ask each other to pray via text message and we keep each other advised with those for whom we pray. I’m pretty sure that we have pretty divergent theologies of intercessory prayer. I don’t think God needs me to tell God that there is a need. And I know that God doesn’t need me to tell God what to do. I pray to raise my own consciousness of God’s power and presence. I pray to surround another person with spiritual support and care. Others may think of their prayers differently. We often pray for situations where the outcome is not what we would desire. A sick person doesn’t recover. An accident victim doesn’t survive. A bitter person makes terrible decisions. An addict abuses worse than before. Of course there are times when we have witnessed remarkable cures and genuine recovery as well. What has occurred through this particular prayer chain, is that I have deepened my respect for my colleagues. I have learned of their great compassion and care. I don’t know what words they use when they pray, or if hey use words at all. What I do know is that there are others with whom I can share my concerns. Even if my prayers take place in a secret place with the door shut they have the effect of making me feel more connected to others.

Of course I have responsibility for leading communal prayers as well. I made a resolution, before I was ordained that I would never refuse to pray when asked. If someone asks me to say grace or to close a meeting with a prayer, I always say, “I’m honored to do so.” And I am honored. I know that others are capable of praying and I am grateful when they do, but I don’t shirk from the responsibility of leading others in prayer. I think that this practice has brought me closer to others. Those leading committee meetings in our church often bring prayers of their own, but they know that I will always say yes if asked and it receives some tension over how to begin or end a meeting. We don’t have to go through an awkward time of everyone staring at their shoes hoping someone else will volunteer.

My prayers are not about informing God. They are about reminding myself and others that we belong to something bigger than just ourselves. We are connected to those who suffer and those who grieve. When we take time to think of those connections, we understand ourselves more clearly.

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!