January 2019


Last night I was up in the pipe chamber in our church’s organ. I climbed in through a short door and under a deck of oaks of pipes, opened another door into the lower part of the great organ behind a huge air chest, climbed a short latter and through a third door into the swell organ and rom there climbed up onto a narrow catwalk, all the time being careful not to touch any of the pipes that surrounded me. The purpose of my trip was to stop a cipher. There was one pipe, a C in the rhorflute, that was sounding continuously. In an organ with over 4,000 pipes, this isn’t a problem if you happen to be playing in the key of C, but if the music calls for a B flat, there is a dissonant sound. Ciphers are caused by a wide variety of problems in the instrument. A bit of dust or an insect can get into the valve, crating a mechanical issue so that the valve at the bottom of the pipe does not close fully and some air is allowed to travel into the pipe. The problem can also be electronic, with the solenoid that operates the valve sticking or not getting the right amount of current. Many times the problem resolves itself, which is what happened last night. As I was trying to discern just which pipe as sounding, the sound went away. Most likely there was a little bit of sticking in the switch, perhaps caused by a buildup of lubrication or some other substance. As the instrument warmed up the heat freed the stick valve and it closed properly.

The next step for me was to carefully reverse my path, turning off lights and closing doors as I went back through the instrument. As is typical for me, I bumped my head on a low passage. No serious injury occurred, but it was a reminder that I am not as agile as once was the case. There was just enough of a bump on my head to remind me, later in the evening of what I had done. It got me to thinking.

The word organ comes from the Latin and it simply means “instrument.” We use it in a wide variety of different ways.

I have a cousin who is a lifelong farmer, rancher and steward of land. Over the years, he departed from the way the previous generation farmed dryland wheat in the Missouri Breaks. Influenced in part by the indigenous Blackfoot who roamed the region before settlement and farming practices, and in part by his deep love for the land, he observed that the long term health of the soil was threatened by agricultural chemicals and the intense extractive practices of modern, large scale farming. Slowly and persistently, he turned the land into an organic farm, establishing crop rotations, refining tilling procedures, and carefully observing what was best for long-term sustainability of the land. He met with and learned from other organic farmers and formed cooperatives for marketing the food they produced. He managed the repair of machinery and developed machines and techniques that enabled the farm to continue to produce, while reducing the consumption of chemicals, fuel and other limits resources. A lifetime of investment has created an organic farming and ranching operation. Its management has been passed to a new generation who appreciate the philosophy of organic farming and have the skills and tenacity to continue sustainable practices.

My cousin is an organic farmer. The word comes from the same root as the name of the instrument whose workings I was investigating last night.

This week, I have been especially sensitive to the larger tasks of enabling the church I serve to move into its future. Churches are often good at choosing leaders who possess some of the technical skills required. Someone who was not a good preacher would not last long in my job, nor would a person who was not good at providing pastoral care. My positing also requires the skills of a teacher, who is a competent Biblical scholar and who knows the techniques of teaching and learning. But technical competence is not the only set of skills required. There are plenty of people who are good a preaching, calling and teaching who have sought careers in other fields after leaving the ministry. A successful minister needs to also be good at caring for the structures and systems of the institution. They used to call us “bricks and mortar” pastors. I count myself in that category. Every congregation that I have served has undertaken major investments in its building and infrastructure during my time of leadership. We have kept up with the needs of the property as well as the needs of the people. Every church I have pastored has undertaken a major rewriting of the church constitution and organizational structure during my pastorate. We have devised new systems of organizing ourselves for the mission to which we are called.

There is that word again: organ, organic, organization.

We never fully know the origins of language. Our words have been in use for so many generations that we have forgotten when they were first used. However, it appears that the term first was used in reference to a simple set of pan pipes. The tubes, probably reeds, were cut to different lengths to make different pitches when the user blew air through them. The organ wasn’t the sound it made. It wasn’t the air that was forced through the pipes. The organ was the tube through which air passed. It was a carrier of sound. We have a lovely instrument. It is actually quite beautiful in a visual sense. The gold and silver and wooden pipes are amazing. I love to look at the instrument. But it exists not for its visual appeal, but rather for the sound it makes. A pipe organ is a unique instrument. It delivers sound waves on moving air in contrast to an electronic speaker, which delivers sound waves on static air.

The organ is treasured for the air that passes through it and delivers sound. The farm is treasured for the nutrients that pass through the soil and are delivered as food. The church is treasured for the love that passes through it and is delivered as service to others.

Some are called to be organizers, whether they are musicians, farmers or leaders of an institution. Music, nutrition and service. We need all of them.

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 so Super Bowl

One of the advantages to being an elder is that I get to tell “I remember when” stories. “I remember when” stories have been my stock and trade the last couple of days as a cold wave has swept over the midwest. Sure, it’s cold, but I remember when Reeder, North Dakota was the coldest location in the nation on Christmas Eve with -34. Sure, it’s cold outside, but not -40. I can remember -40 when I was a kid, before they started reporting wind chill. I remember when it was so cold that running the furnace full bore for 18 hours wouldn’t get the church above 56 degrees. It’s a wonder we didn’t freeze the pipes. I remember when I had to climb up on the roof and break he ice out of the sewer vent at -25. Live long enough and you’ll collect a few “I remember when” stories.

So, I remember when baseball was America’s pastime. The game that isn’t played against a clock, that can last into the wee hours of the morning, that can go inning after inning was our national sport. I remember sneaking radios into the school to listen to the World Series when every game was a day game and the grand stadiums like Fenway Park and Wrigley Field didn’t have lights. I remember when the series was the Pittsburgh Pirates against the New York Yankees and if there was a Yankee fan in our little town, I had no idea who that was. We listened to the end of the winning game in my dad’s ’53 dodge because the reception was better on the hill than it was at our house.

Then there is football. I remember when the Super Bowl was a big deal. We’d pay attention to the playoff games and choose our teams. The kids in our church today are amazed that I can remember the first Super Bowl. For a dozen years or so, I would write little commentaries for game day with a few biblical references and a lay member of our congregation would read them to the congregation at the beginning of worship on Super Bowl Sunday. In those days the Souper Bowl of Caring was a bigger fund raiser than these days. The youth used to haul the donated canned goods to Church Response in a pickup truck.

It doesn’t seem the same these days.

I have to admit that I don’t care who wins this year. The new England Patriots used to be interesting before they had been to so many Super Bowls that it seems like it is a requirement of the sport these days, even if it requires them to cheat by adjusting the air in the footballs, or spy on the other team’s plays or just have the dumb luck of incredibly poor officiating which was the reason they beat the Kansas City Chiefs this year.

And speaking of lousy officiating, how could the referees have missed such a glaring case of pass interference in the game between the New Orleans Saints and the Rams. But then again, no one can remember which city the Rams represent. There are probably people in Los Angeles who are saying, “Oh, do we have a football team? I thought they left us.”

And if you believe that the NFL is serious about preventing head injuries of its players, you probably believe that the Brooklyn Bridge is for sale, that the Grand Canyon is man made and that the President won the most recent standoff with congress.

OK, I didn’t have to bring politics into today’s journal entry, but I suspect that the state of politics in the United States has affected how we feel about sports and a lot of other things. Despite last year’s protests and condemnations of the NFL over players who thought that taking a knee during the singing of the National Anthem was a sign of respect while bringing attention their cause and the fans who boycotted the games because they thought it was a sign of anti-patriotism, we don’t seem to really care about the game in the way that once was the case.

Two years after our Presidential election that was colored by if not corrupted by unfair advantages, undue meddling, disrespected rules, and a host of lies and false claims, we seem to be getting ready for a weekend of football that is colored by if not corrupted by unfair advantages, undue meddling, disrespected rules, and a host of lies and false claims.

Maybe football has become America’s sport. If so, it is a sad day. We used to talk about good and bad luck. Luck was always a factor in all of our sports games. The luck of a home team crowd, the angle of the sunlight, the distance to the center field fence were always factors in the game. The luck of what the referee did and did not see used to be factors before instant replay forced us to examine every call over and over and over again. I know i don’t need to see that helmet to helmet crash again.

I’m not convinced that a bad call in a football game is the cause for a lawsuit. Yes one has been filed claiming New Orleans fans are entitled compensation because they have suffered “mental anguish,” and “loss of the enjoyment of life.” I’m not convinced that it is a reason for a congressional hearing, though one of Louisiana’s senators has called for one.

I know I have no enthusiasm for investing three hours of my Sunday sitting on couch, eating too much unhealthy food and arguing with my friends about whether or not what I saw on the television was what really happened. If I wanted to argue about that is and what is not real, I could always talk to them about politics and the claims of television news programs.

I don’t want to think this way, but it seems that in a post-truth America, we’ve found a post-truth game.

I’ll be meeting with The Well at kickoff time. I’ll probably get home around halftime. I’m pretty sure we can achieve national unity over the cheesy nature of the half time show. After that I think I’ll find a good book to read during the rest of the game.

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!

Cold weather

Today really is winter parka temperature. It is cold out there. But the weather channels seem to think that there is a need for sensational headlines. I’ve read that this week could being the coldest temperatures in a generation. Another place said the coldest temperatures in 20 years. I know that the pace of change is accelerating and that things happen at a quicker pace than used to be the case, but 20 years is a generation? We used to say that a generation took 40 years. I know that generations aren’t the same length in every family, but still.

And while it is true that there are going to be some cold temperatures, I think that the headline are a bit exaggerated. It is 9 degrees out right now and the wind has died down at the moment. It is forecast to warm to about 16 degrees today with winds up to 30 mph. the winds are supposed to die down over night and the forecast overnight low is 4 degrees. That’s cold. People need to bundle up, but it isn’t as cold as it can get around here. It has gotten to -20 since we’ve lived in this house. That was several years ago.

Minneapolis is currently below zero and the National Weather Service predicts it could stay that cold until Friday. You don’t have to go that far to find places that are colder than we are. Bismarck will dip below -30 and Minot is forecast to go as cold as -42. Sioux Falls may see -20. We can keep telling North Dakota jokes for a few more years. I claim that right because I spent seven winters in North Dakota and it got down below zero every one of them. I remember one time when it stayed at about -30 every night for several days.

We’re protected here in the hills and our temperatures are generally a bit warmer than the neighbors on cold winter days. We generally escape the most extreme hot days in the summer too. It isn’t a bad place to live.

I do worry, however, about teens. I observe neighbors and others who head off to school without heavy coats. Sure the heaters in their cars work better and are more reliable than was the case with cars a few decades ago, but it doesn’t take long in a ditch for it to get cold inside of the car. A minor break down can turn serious pretty quickly without help. And even though cars are more reliable than once was the case, things still can go wrong. This time of the year I carry a sleeping bag in my car just in case.

The good news is that I don’t need to take any road trips. We had dinner with a friend last night who is heading across Wyoming today. He’s going towards warmer temperatures and may see 20 above by the end of the day, but still it will be cold and he needs to be prepared. He’s a Wyoming native and will be prepared.

It seems that we have passed the peak of televisions everywhere. I’ve noticed that the televisions in the doctor’s office are sometimes turned off and other places I visit regularly have the sound turned off. Still, it is common to find a television in a nursing home with a half dozen people parked in front of it. Many are hard of hearing, so the volume is usually turned up. I think that it is a challenge to stem boredom in those places and the television is seen as one way to occupy attention. But I’m positive that there is no good that can come from making some of our most vulnerable citizens watch The Weather Channel. The channel seems like something that might interest them, but it is always focused on disaster. And if you spend your entire life inside it isn’t always clear that the video being shown is of a different place or a different time. It all seems pretty real at the time.

Since our nursing homes all have modern heating seasons and the residents are protected from the most severe weather, I think it is best not to have them watching the announcers standing outside in the wind with their parka hoods tied tightly around their faces.

People have been living in the regions not far from the poles for millennia. They have developed systems of survival. It is nearly the end of January, the coldest part of the year for those of us in the northern hemisphere. We ought to be expecting cold temperatures.

My grandchildren live near the coast where the weather never gets below zero. The cold weather gives me stories to tell. In fact, having lived in some pretty cold places, I find that storytelling is a much better way to spend time with an elder than watching television. I turn off the television and someone says to me, “How’s the weather out there?” I respond, “It’s cold, but I’ve seen it colder.” And they are off and running with stories about times when the weather was really bad. When they are telling me stories they know that they are talking about a different time and usually a different place. They don’t have to fear the encroaching weather because they are reminded that they have endured things that were worse.

“I remember when it was so cold the door knob came off in my hand.” “We used to tie a rope between the barn and the back door so we wouldn’t get lost in the blizzard when we went out to feed the animals.” “One time the snow was so deep we couldn’t get out the door and had to go upstairs and go out a window.” “We used to melt snow on the stove to water the horse.” There are a thousand stories and every one of them is better than what you can see on television.

Maybe this week will give us all a few more stories to tell.

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 ancient and modern

587 was a pivotal year in the story of our people. After two years of nebuchadnezzar II’s siege, Jerusalem fell. The city was destroyed, including the temple. Babylon was victorious. The Kingdom of Judah was no more. The people were carried off into exile. it was very nearly the end of the story for our religion and our people. The Babylonians conquered by assimilation. The people were divided up, cut off from one another, and forced to live among the Babylonians, who imposed their culture, language and religion upon their new neighbors. Of course I would not be writing this little bit of history had that been the end of Jewish culture and religion. Our people survived, but barely. In the process they were exposed to a universe of new ideas and ways of thinking.

Prior to the exile, our origin story was the story of where our people had come from and how we came to be a distinct group of people. The way we told our story is recorded in the book of Deuteronomy these days, but before the time of the exile, we had need to have it written down. It was a strong oral tradition. Each generation learned the story word for word: “A wandering Aramean was my father, he went down to Egypt and sojourned there, he and just a handful of his brothers at first, but soon they became a great nation, mighty and many.” The story went on to record the Exodus from Egypt and end with the liturgy of offering to God: “And he brought us to this place, gave us this land flowing with milk and honey. So here I am. I’ve brought the first fruits of what I’ve grown on this ground you gave me, O God.”

But when we got to Babylon, we heard the organ stories of our new neighbors. They told an epic poem from ancient Mesopotamia about gods locked in struggle and the formation of humans from their adversarial relationships. The stories were fascinating and speculated about the origin of the earth itself and the beginnings of time. But the stories did not ring true for our people, so they dug deeply into their own origins and the most ancient stories of our people. As our people emerged from Exile and began to trickle back into Jerusalem and the surrounding lands they brought with them the origin stories that we have been teaching our children ever since: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void and darkness was upon the face of the deep, while the spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters. Then God said, ‘Le there be light’ and there was light.” Alongside this story was another about the Garden of Eden and the formation of Adam and Eve. We have used those stories and the one about the wandering Aramean to explain our origins. They have formed the basis of generations of teaching, of intense debates about who we are and where we have come from, and of the way we think of our world. When we tell these stories we think of God and we speak of God. Since Roman times we have used a Latin word to describe this thinking: theology.

Who knows why, in recent times, there has developed a kind of false divide between the study of science and the discussions of theology. Some claim that the two ways of knowing are opposed and that they cannot be reconciled, but for most of our history, science and theology were partners and sought the truth together. Personally, I cannot buy the divide. I find nothing in my theology that requires the rejection of scientific method and i find nothing in science that refutes my theology.

What I do find is that my scientist friends actually enjoy theology and sometimes they even engage in a kind of thinking that reminds me of the conversations our forebears had with the Babylonians so many generations ago. I like to listen to Science Friday on NPR. The conversations about science are enlightening and challenging. So it was only natural that I would pick up and read the story that is the current selection of the Science Friday Book Club. N. K> Jemisin’s book “The Fifth Season,” is part of her triple Hugo-winning Broken Earth trilogy. The novel ponders seismology, volcanology and how societies respond to disaster. The book is, however, a novel. A story based in some healthy research of geology and plate tectonics and volcanoes and the flows of magma, but a story nonetheless. It is one writers speculation about what might have occurred long ago, before the ancient supercontinent Pangaea began to break up and migrate into the current configuration of continents on our planet.

What I find fascinating about the book selection, now that i have read the book, is how much the conversation is a form of theology. Like the people of Israel carried off into Babylon and exposed to a different origin story, I find the speculation about societies reaching for meaning to be fascinating even if I cannot believe that there ever were creatures with the power to control volcanoes and the movement of the plates of the planet. My scientist friends don’t believe in such creatures, either. They would not posit that Orogenes ever existed. Although Jemisin tells a compelling and complex story of a character with the ability to control energy and temperature, it does not change our core beliefs. The novel gives the scientists a way to talk about the ancient processes of geology and the span and scope of geological time. And when they do, i find the discussion to lead to God and the realities and powers that are far beyond our human nature.

The book hasn’t shaped my worldview, thought it probably has taught me a little bit about geology. Still, it has been fun to read and I’m looking forward to discussing it with the scientists and listening to their interpretations of what is clearly an origin story. Maybe, like ancient Israel in Babylon, it will give me perspective from which to refine and reshape the stories I tell.

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!

Learning from others

Once, when traveling in Australia, we witnessed a minor car accident in a city. No one was hurt, but there was a little damage to two cars. The driver of one of the vehicles was saying to the other, “No worries, mate.” It struck us and we talked about it later. In many American cities the scene would have been different with the drivers shouting at one another, declaring and denying blame. The calm acknowledgement that there are things more important than a bit of bent sheet metals a good way to think about things. Our son was especially touched by the event and has tried to emulate the attitude in his life. Decide what is most important and focus on that while allowing the things that don’t matter to slip away. His attitude has been tested in the last couple of weeks when both of their cars were involved in accidents caused by other drivers. I have been impressed with his calm and reassuring attitude as he tackles and solves the problems of sorting out insurance, getting things repaired, arranging for rental vehicles and getting on with their lives.

It isn’t a very extreme example, but there are lessons that we can learn from other people. Sometimes there are cultural lessons that can be learned through travel. I’m sure that there are ways to learn to be calm in a stressful situation that don’t require a big trip, but we’ve learned that travel can be a good way to learn.

I’ve spent a lot of my life rushing from one thing to another. I packed a lot into the years when I was a full-time student, completing multiple internships while studying full time and earning my degrees in a short amount of time. I continued to keep up that pace as I entered the pastoral ministry, often being able to accomplish more than some of my colleagues. In the early years of my ministry I always had one or more part time jobs on the side while working full time at the church and learned to balance all of those activities without trouble. Visiting Costa Rica on church mission trips taught me something important about my tendency to rush about. Sometimes it makes sense to simply slow down. I noticed that I walk faster than most people on the street in Costa Rica. I noticed that I sweat more than some of the locals. I started to learn to slow down just a bit. I had to learn the value of the term mañana. Having studied Latin, I thought that the concept was based in the term mane or “in the morning.” I expected the term to mean “tomorrow,” and perhaps even “tomorrow morning.” But that isn’t at all the way it is used in Costa Rica. It doesn’t mean tomorrow in the sense that we use that day - referring to the next day. It simply means “not today.” It isn’t used as a prediction of when something will occur, just as a statement that it isn’t going to occur today. When something is mañana, you don’t have to worry about it now. Learning to put off events or activities to a nonspecific time is not something that occurs naturally to me. When I delay something, I like to know when it will be completed. But the concept of mañana can be liberating. It can free one to relax and not worry. Things will work out in their own time.

Leaning calmness is something that I have gained from our Japanese friends and our trip to Japan. There are several Japanese concepts that have great value for someone with a personality like mine. Mugon-no gyō is a specific meditative practice and I am not trained in the discipline, but the basic concept is that one develops and practices the skill of pausing to reflect before taking action. Instead of reacting in the instant, a pause allows for deliberative action. We train ourselves to be able to act quickly and decisively. When I was training to be a pilot, I memorized emergency checklists and procedures. The goal was to make them so much a part of my identity that they didn’t require reflection or conscious thought - I would be able to act decisively and appropriately in the event of an emergency. I never really experienced such an emergency in my flying, but I tried to keep my skills honed. In much of life, however, such an ability to react without reflection isn’t required - and in many cases it can be a detriment. Teaching myself to pause, listen and reflect before speaking can greatly enhance communication. There are times when conversation is deeply enhanced by a slower pace. When I spend time with people from Japan, I am grateful for the slightly slower pace of conversation.

Japanese culture also has specific terms for assuming a courteous attitude, for taking time to appreciate the beauty in nature, and for caring for detail. Learning Japanese words does not come naturally to me and I need to take more time to fully incorporate Japanese cultural concepts, but I can see the value of may of those ideas. In recent years, Japan has endured many tremendous disasters and strains. Huge earthquakes, tsunamis and typhoons have battered the island, caused many casualties and necessitated large changes in lifestyle for many people. In Japanese, shōganai is a concept that involves accepting things the way that they are, or accepting that there are things we don’t have the power to control. Like many deep cultural concepts, a dictionary doesn’t work to translate the concept. The dictionary definition is “there is no means or method,” but Japanese people do not use this to express a sense of hopelessness or loss of control. I suspect that the concept has deep roots in Shintoism which emphasizes living in harmony with nature. Accepting the massive power of nature and forces that are beyond human capacity is part of this concept.

There is much that I have yet to learn and there are many teachers. Travel and meeting people form other places is one of those teachers. I need to learn to appreciate the journey at a slower pace.

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!

Hanging up the phone

It is not natural for me to ignore people. I like to be polite and to pay attention to what they have to say. But I have larked to hang up the phone on some callers and I allow some emails to go unanswered. Here are a few examples.

I used to listen to part of the sales pitch for extended car warranties. I just hang up and usually block the number from which I received the call. That doesn’t seem to stop the sellers from calling me again. Here’s the deal. I drive a 20-year-old car with over 277,000 miles on it. I think it’s trade-in value is about $1. Its private party sales value may be $500 on a lucky day with a desperate buyer who has no way to buy a better car. I might have to put $300 worth of new tires on it to get that much. I don’ think they really offer extended warranties for this kind of car. And I’m not likely to purchase an extended warranty that costs more than the value of the car. Our “new” car is 8 years old. I’m willing to pay for repairs when they are needed. One of the advantages of older cars is that you can often anticipate major repairs and you have adjusted to the cost of on-going maintenance.

I don’t mean to be rude, but I spent a few months working on a telephone poll once. I know that a hang up doesn’t hurt and it allows you to go on to the next call without wasting your time. One of the worst types of call to receive is one that talks to you and goes on and on and takes a lot of time, but doesn’t answer the necessary questions. So I just hang up.

At work, I have little patience for people who are trying to save our “business” money on credit card processing fees. Those callers are live persons, but they seem to have no concept of how a church works. I guess they imagine that most of our income comes from credit cards. We do allow members to use credit cards to make donations and I wish the processing fees were lower so that more money went directly to our ministries, but the callers never seem to understand that we need a way to integrate our credit card processing with our financial management software and they have no concept of how church financial management is done. I’m thinking they have a 0% chance of a sale and so I hang up and let them go on to a conventional business.

As to emails. No, I don’t want to write a review about your product that I purchased online. I’m a professional writer. I think my words are worth something. Here’s the deal. How about I charge about what I pay for a service technician. I think the going rate is around $120 per hour with a minimum charge of 1/2 hour. I could write a lot of product reviews at $60 each. Rave reviews that require dishonesty would have to cost more, however. Actually, I’m not sure I want to sell my honesty. I don’t think they’d want me to write: “I like the product. I’d give it 5 stars, but purchasing it means I get weekly emails requesting product reviews. I’m so tired of those emails and the constant post-sales harassment that I have to give it 1 star. I’m considering never purchasing from this vendor again.”

I’ve routed all of the emails from one company in Burlington Washington to my spam folder. Yes, I did give them my email address to make a purchase without a paper receipt last summer, but no, they don’t have any bargains worth a 2,600 mile round trip to pick them up. I thought not using paper bags and paper receipts was a good way to reduce paper waste. It is a good thing I don’t print out my emails to read them. In a way I guess they are better than the company from whom I made a single online purchase. That gave them my shipping address, so they send me paper catalogues in the mail every month. If I were interested in paper catalogues, i wouldn’t have looked up their products online. I actually do care about paper waste and the challenges of recycling in our location. They aren’t helping and their attitude doesn’t make me want to spend my money with them.

Note to my dentist: If an actual person called to ask me how I was doing after an appointment, I might think it was nice. The robocall about my recent teeth cleaning is not necessary. It did make me think of a great product idea for a clever computer programmer. I’d like them to develop a robocall program that I could install on my phone that would detect incoming robocalls and wait until the opportunity to leave a message. I could record a message to leave on their machine. “Your robot has contacted my robot. If I cared about your message, I would have answered your call in person. Then again, if you had cared, you would have called me in person.” I don’t know how much my dentist spent on the robocall program, but I wish he’d offer a discount to customers who decline to receive robocalls. Actually, I’d be happy if he’d simply offer the option of not receiving the calls. Then again, the last three times I’ve had my teeth cleaned the dentist hasn’t been in the building. I’m told he reviews my x-rays and would call if there was a problem, but I’m beginning to wonder if he is a real person. Maybe they only have robots except for the hygienists who clean your teeth and the clerk who takes your payment.

Do you remember Andy Rooney, who used to offer a rant at the end of CBS’s program 60 minutes? I could do that job.

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!

Being a pastor

On the on hand, my job is about managing systems. I am the pastor of a congregation that is large and complex enough that it requires careful budget management, ways to account and report, multiple committees and complex planning. As churches go, ours isn’t a mega church. There are far larger and more complex institutions. It is, however, a well-established institution with 140 years of history. It takes a computer network to turn on the heat in the building and technicians to keep things running. I’ve had talks with three different vendors this week regarding contract renewals. I have to be able to think in terms of systems and patterns of organization.

On the other hand, my job is about individual relationships. I have to admit that what I like best is conversation with individuals and getting to know them better. My work day comes to its end and I finally get home and I find myself sitting on the stairway inside my house talking for more than an hour with a young man who is discovering new depths in his spiritual quest. This isn’t someone whose face other church members see. He hasn’t attended church more than twice a year for more than decade. But he feels the need for a community. He has come to the point in his life where he wants to be a part of something bigger than himself. He may be the church member of the future. I don’t know that much. What I do know is that he is engaged in an honest struggle with his personal spiritual quest. I end the phone conversation by making an appointment to meet him after office hours on a Friday. I wouldn’t have to do this to keep my job. It may not pay off in terms of worship attendance or donor dollars, two numbers that are used to judge my job performance. But it is genuinely fascinating to me.

I’ve paid thee visits this week to a hospital room where another young man is adjusting to a life-altering medical diagnosis. He’s going to be in the hospital for a while. He’ll probably go to he rehabilitation hospital next week for a couple of weeks of physical therapy. He’s probably a month or more out from being able to return to work and when he does it will be on a reduced schedule. It is as yet unclear whether he will be able to return to his pervious levels of performance in a challenging career. He’s got a tiny baby at home - their first. He has big responsibilities and big questions. I helped him find a daily devotional application on his cell phone and the lesson yesterday was about not worrying. Jesus said, “be not afraid,” a lot. This young man has never attended our church. He may not ever join. But he has reached out to me to walk with him through his season of his life and he holds my attention.

I ate lunch with a long-time church member who could be in the last year of his life. I have no special powers to predict the future, but both he and I know that his medical condition is not something from which people recover. I’ve watched him journey from a life of 12-hour days and incredible energy to someone who can barely muster the energy to get dressed, use his walker to make his way to the car and from the car into the restaurant and talk for a little over an hour over lunch then go back home. That is all he was able to accomplish that day. We both know it won’t be long before he won’t have that much energy. His thoughts about life and death and the meaning of it all interest me. The conversation seems very worthwhile.

We invite a young couple over to our home for dinner on our day off. They have just been through a very frightening episode with a sibling who experienced a mental break down and exhibited suicidal behavior. Fortunately they were able to get him help and his condition has stabilized, but it was a frightening event and they need to talk. Their story commands my attention.

One of the tasks of today is to make a phone call and set up a meeting with a man who has just been forced to change careers. He loved his old job, but he also loves living in this place and there are no more jobs for a person with his skillset in this community. He has to either find a new way to earn his living or move to a much bigger city. It is more complex than that because his wife has connections and obligations in this place and right now they are dependent on her income while he searches for a new way to earn a paycheck. This family will not be writing the checks that address the deficit in the church budget this year or any year in the near term future. They are not well known in our congregation. However, I can’t escape my gut feeling that somehow they represent a piece of the future of the church and the relationship is worth pursuing.

I could go on and on with my list. I can easily come up with five or more conversations that I will pursue that are not directly related to the job of administering our congregation, yet are about the larger business of bringing the good news of Jesus Christ to the world. While keeping the institution of the church going, the spiritual community of seekers of faith continues to be an important aspect of my ministry. These conversations are not included in my annual report. They are not reported to my official board. Running an institution and assuring its future requires other skills, other tasks and other energies.

I am, however, nurtured by genuine conversation with people who are honest about their faith. They keep me going and give me the energy to keep the institution’s doors open for another day.

I can give you the numbers on return on investment of replacing the fluorescent bulbs in 114 fixtures with LEDs. I know how to negotiate a trade out agreement with a construction company. I can tell you what size donation offsets the energy costs of turning up the heat in one wing of our building two hours earlier than usual. But those things don’t excite me the way a phone call from a person who was in a confirmation class 15 years ago and who hasn’t been to church more than a dozen times since. I’ll be out of the office for an hour - maybe two - even if that means I’ll have to come in on Saturday to finish the paperwork. I need to have coffee with this person and hear his story.

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!


85 years before I was born a man named Christopher Sholes created one of the first commercial typewriters. I suppose it is worth noting that Sholes was not only an inventor. He was also a politician. His first attempt used a keyboard that was arranged in the order of the alphabet. The top row had the numbers 2 through 9. The second row the letters A - J. he next row K - S and the bottom row t-Z with punctuation. The machine had a shift key and a shift lock. The problem, however, was that when one tried to type at any reasonable speed, the keys would run in to each other and their arms would collide and jam. The solution was to split the most commonly used key combinations. The result was what we call a QWERTY keyboard, the arrangement of keys used today. Of course none of use use mechanical typewriters any more. There are no metal arms to collide, but the arrangement of letters on the keyboard remains.

I learned to use a QWERTY keyboard on a manual typewriter. I got fairly good at typing, honing my skills until I could type without looking at my fingers and working my speed up to about 60 words per minute. I sometimes say that the high school classes I us in my everyday life the most are typing and Latin. That isn’t quite accurate, as I couldn’t get along without basis algebra, either. But I did learn to type and I do use that skill every day.

In 1936, two lawyers, August Dvorak and William Dealey patented a keyboard layout that kept the most used keys in the middle row, where your fingers rest when you start to type. On a QWERTY keyboard, there are usually indicators that you can feel on the F and J keys to bring your left and right fingers to their home positions. on the Dvorak and Dealey keyboard, those keys are U and H. The vowels are all in the middle row, assigned to the left hand in this order: AOEUI. The right hand gets DHTNS. For English writers, this brings 70% of keystrokes to the home row, at least when typing common words, compared to 32% for a QWERTY keyboard.

Obviously the Dvorak and Dealey keyboard hasn’t caught on. The keyboards used on most modern computers for programming and for data entry are based on the QWERTY system. Change is difficult. Learning a new keyboard would be intimidating for most of us, to say the least. One of my first smart phones (although on that particular device “smart” was a bit of an overstatement) had an alphabetic keyboard. I couldn’t adjust to that system at all. My current phone displays letters in the QWERTY order. I know where to look for the letters I need when entering text.

But change is coming. Speech recognition is becoming more common and more refined. In tests, it has been demonstrated to run about 30% faster than keyboard entry. So far, for me, the error rate with speech recognition is too high to be acceptable. Whenever I use it, I find myself spending more time going back through the text and making corrections using a conventional keyboard. It doesn’t seem to be faster for me if one considers arriving at an acceptable finished product.

I use a keyboard a lot. Just my daily journal entries constitute a large number of keystrokes. I use external keyboards with my laptop computers at home and at work for the simple reason that I wear out keyboards at a faster rate than the rest of the computer. One of my former laptops was on its third keyboard when I replaced it. I don’t take my external keyboards with me when traveling, but use them in he office.

When our children were in high school, we experimented with a variety of alternative keyboards. We had a split keyboard that allowed for wrists to be straight when using the keyboard instead of bent as is the typical position. We tried at least two different systems designed for one-handed data entry. Our son, who uses computers daily in his work, types with only one hand and we thought that one of those systems might work for him. As it turned out, he uses an conventional keyboard and has developed his own system that yields remarkable speed and accuracy.

I doubt that I will ever get away from a QWERTY keyboard. I don’t have any reason to do so. I’ve learned it and my experience for all of my professional life is that I am one of the quickest keyboard entry persons in my office. I’ve never had a secretary or administrative colleague who was quicker on the keyboard than I. It simply takes less time for me to do my own “typing.” The skills of my colleagues can be invested in other tasks.

There is another thing, however. I think that the QWERTY keyboard is paced correctly for me. Dvorak and Dealey may have come up with a system that is technically faster in the hands of a trained and experienced operator, but I don’t think I need that much speed. Even if I could speed up my keyboard skills, I cannot speed up my thinking. In fact, my thinking may be slowing down as I age. There is no need to be able to type faster than I can think.

Words are important to me and they are important in my vocation. What I say and what I write matters. For important events such as funerals, weddings and weekly worship, I need to write, edit, re-write and refine. That takes time. It is also worth the time. Because I write in my journal daily and do not edit these posts, I am well aware of the difference in the quality of my writing. Even without the hassles of machine-based autocorrect, I make mistakes in my first draft writing. When I catch the errors, I correct them, but as regular readers know, mistakes appear in nearly every journal entry.

The bottom line is that I don’t need to type any faster. Typing a bit slower might improve my work. I’ll stick with QWERTY.

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!

Intergenerational living

I remember a trip as a young adult. I was driving my car in Eastern Montana when the water pump seized up. I managed to get the car to a shop where it was say to see what the problem was, but there wee no parts available in that town. I had to wait for a new water pump to arrive on the bus and delay my trip until it arrived. It wasn’t the most difficult problem I’ve ever faced while traveling, but at the time it was daunting. At one point in the process, I called my father, who was sympathetic to my problem, but who said, “I can’t fix a car over the phone.” Somehow that phrase stuck with me long after the issue was resolved and even long after that particular car had been replaced. It came to my mind when our children were young adults and I found myself in a similar situation to that of my father many years before. I was not where the problem that they were facing was. They had to come up with their own solution because I was in no position to solve the problem for them. I think I even used my father’s line once in a phone call with our son.

I have been impressed with our children and their abilities to face and overcome problems. Our daughter and her husband sold their cars and bought different ones when they were transferred from Missouri to Japan. They drive on the other side of the road in Japan and cars with the steering wheel on the right hand side are the norm. They made their decisions and managed the transactions without need input from me. Our son is currently dealing with having both of their cars damaged in accidents. Neither accident was caused by them. One car was damaged when a left-turning driver didn’t allow enough room to complete his maneuver. The other was hit from the rear when stopped by a driver who was impaired by drug use. No people were injured in either accident, but both cars need t0 b in the shop at the same time and so, in my son’s words, “we’re into the rental car lifestyle.” I can’t help but wish I were closer and able to help, but my help isn’t needed. They know how to set priorities, make decisions and solve problems.

I am an incredibly fortunate person to have such capable children. We raised our children in love but we also raised them to be independent. We allowed them to make decisions and even to make mistakes when they were growing up. We talked to them about responsibility and they took their lessons to heart.

It doesn’t mean that we no longer have a role in their lives. We are kept in the loop. We have plenty of communication. We are consulted on some decisions. And we enjoy great freedom in our relationships with our grandchildren. But I am aware that my role in my children’s lives is changing.

The flow of generations is an amazing thing. We had the good fortune of having a period of caring for aging parents after our children were grown. Instead of going directly to the empty nest stage, we had a time when my mother lived in our home and we had substantial responsibilities for my father in law. That was a rich and meaningful time in our lives.

Now, in a way that seems to have come quickly, we are the oldest generation in the family. We have become the elders. When I was younger and thought about this phase of my life, I imagined that I might feel wise, having collected a lifetime’s worth of experiences. I imagined that I would be able to pull the right book off of my shelf and recommend it to a child or grandchild. I’ve got lots of books on my shelves that probably need to be pulled off and sold or given away. I read more books off of my tablet computer than I do in paper form these days. And I receive more recommendations about what to read from others than I hadn’t out. After all, our son is a librarian.

Moreover the world is changing so quickly that much of my experience and knowledge is not directly applicable to the situations that younger people face. Knowing how to diagnose a failed water pump in a 1966 Opel Kadette isn’t a skill that my grandchildren are going to need. Electric cars don’t need water pumps.

All the same, living in a multiple generation community is an amazing experience. The exchange of information and wisdom is not a one-way street. We learn as much from those who are younger as we contribute to their learning.

Our society has a tendency to segregate by age. There are very few true multiple-generation institutions. We tend to gather into groups of people who are of a similar age to our own. The church, however, offers a true intergenerational community. My life is enriched by nearly constant contact with people who are older than I and those who are younger. In my own family, I’m the oldest generation. At church, I get to have conversations with a man who is 30 years older than I. When I’m feeling a bit lonely for my grandchildren, who live a long way away, there is always a young parent with a baby that I can hold. Our community has people at all stages of life.

Of course we share common beliefs. We are drawn together to worship together. We are a church. But we couldn’t be the church if we were all the same age. One of the stories we share is about Moses and the people of Israel wandering in the desert for 40 years before they entered the promised land. Maybe that they had to learn the lesson that the promises of God are never to one generation only. Maybe they had to learn to listen to those who were younger and had new ideas. Maybe some members of the community had to grow older and wiser.

Our lives take place in time and span generations. How fortunate we are to have others to help us see that there is more to life than just our own experience.

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

The myth of closure

Throughout my career, I have put a lot of energy into funerals. I have honed my skills of visiting with grieving people. I have read books and given a lot of thought to the process. I still attend a lot of funerals at which colleagues officiate. Talking with other pastors, I’m pretty sure that i attend a lot more funerals than most of my colleagues. It isn’t some kind of morbid fascination with death. I don’t gain pleasure out of the loss of others. I do have a genuine attraction to serve those who are grieving, however.

I’ve been told that funerals at which I officiate bring comfort to people. I hope that this is the case. A few years ago I wrote a book length manuscript on the funeral process that I never refined to the stage of being ready to publish, but the exercise was helpful nonetheless. It got me to thinking freshly about the process of walking through grief with families and the role of the ceremony in the long process of healing.

Because of my work with he LOSS (Local Outreach to Survivors of Suicide) team, I am i contact with many people who have experienced sudden and traumatic loss and who are learning to live with the social stigma that comes with mental illness and suicide loss. On occasion I facilitate meetings of a suicide loss support group and listen to the stories of those who have walked this perilous pathway not because of their own choosing, but because of the circumstances that life had handed them.

And because I officiate at and attend a lot of funerals, I hear a lot of what people say about grief, loss, and funerals. I know that there are some pious pronouncements that get made by people trying to ease the grief of family and friends that are not helpful. I know that sometimes people say things that increase the hurt, even though they do not intend to do so. I know that there are some myths about the process of grief that can get in the way of healing. One of those myths is that you have to find the right thing to say to a grieving person. I frequently find myself in a situation where there are no words to convey the sadness that exists. I also know that when people are in the depths of grief, their memory functions in a different way. I often say things to people in the midst of their grief that they will not ever remember. The grief isn’t focused on my or my words and it should not be. Presence is more important than words when someone is grieving. If you visit a grieving friend, you don’t need to know what to say. “I’m sorry,” is enough. Acknowledging the loss and the sadness is sufficient. You don’t have to offer words of wisdom. You don’t need to speed up the process of healing. You don’t need to make everything better. Just be present.

Another myth is the societal myth of closure. I hear people talking about closure all the time. Some say that viewing the body helps to bring closure. Some say that the burial ceremony brings closure. Some say that time brings closure.

I say that there are wounds that never heal.

I say that grieving people aren’t seeking closure. They don’t want to be over the person they have lost. They don’t want the relationship to end.

I often tell people just the opposite. I tell them that the death of their loved one is not something that you can get over. It is something that you get through.

The myth of closure has brought about some very strange notions of justice. In the case of accidental death we have turned to litigation to provide recompense. Judges and juries try to offer some relief for wrongful death by naming and punishing the person at fault - or at least that person’s insurance company. The problem is that grief and loss cannot be measured in dollars and cents. There is no amount of money that will bring healing. There is no judgment that will bring an end to suffering. Is the loss of a loved one worth $100? No. Is it worth $1 million? No. There is no amount of money that is the right number to compensate for the loss of a person. Often the numbers appear to be random precisely because we cannot assess the value of loss. Those who receive large financial settlements continue to suffer. Money does not ease suffering. But society has imposed an expectation that closure will occur. The court will sometimes formally state that the settlement is to bring closure.

In a similar way proponents of the death penalty sometimes will claim that the death of a murderer will bring closure to the family of the victim. I don’t know what emotions those who have lost a loved one to murder experience. I know that every case is different. I know that the sense of injustice is deep. But I don’t know that their suffering is eased by the death of another person. I know a family whose son was brutally murdered over 25 years ago. They have been attentive as the murder case has worked its way through the courts, attending every court hearing and every appeal in person. They have focused their energies on the convicted killer as he waits on death row. They have been reminded of the circumstances of the death of their son over and over again. They have seen the pictures presented in the courtroom over and over again. They have read the transcripts of investigators over and over again. I wonder what will change for them when, as appears to be the case, the state will finally execute the murderer. Will they feel vindicated? Will they feel that it is over? Will they feel that the time and energy invested in the last 25 and more years has been valuable? I doubt that they will feel that it is over. I doubt that they will feel closure.

Some wounds are too deep for closure. Some pain remains forever. It is true that memories shift and the pain changes its role in your life. But I think we do not help those who grieve by promising them that closure will come.

I’ve stopped using that word with those who grieve. I offer a funeral as one step in a lifelong process. It may be an important step, but it is definitely not the final one.

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!


Who knows why, but I’ve long been fascinated with cold places. I’ve lived in some places where the weather gets very cold, but never in a place that is continuously cold for long periods of time or where the sunlight is so low that winter darkness becomes oppressive. But I’ve read a lot about the people who have endured in the north country and about explorers who have spent time at the South pole. I’d love to visit some of those places and may one day do so. At the same time, I feel lucky to live in the place that I do. It will get chilly here, but we don’t have to endure the very cold temperatures that have been the part of some of the places I live. Three or four days of -30f can make survival seem like a bit of a struggle. You have to cover up your face just to go outside for a few minutes. Metal is more brittle in super cold temperatures and you have to be careful because things break more easily.

For example, take Yellowknife, the capital city of Canada’s Northwest Territories. It is on the north shore of Great Slave Lake. It is a great place to go to watch the Northern Lights. It is home to Buffalo Airways, an airplane operator that hauls freight to remote locations using World War II era piston airplanes. They also operate a scheduled passenger run between Yellowknife and Hay River on the other side of the lake. It is one of the few places where you can get a ride on the rumbling old airplanes. And it is a place where it gets cold. It’s fairly warm in Yellowknife this morning, only -6f. There is plenty of cloud cover and it is snowing. That’s the thing about the north country. When it is cloudy, it is warmer. The clouds insulate the ground and help keep things warm. When the air gets clear and it is bright and sunny, it will also be cold in the winter. It is forecast to clear up in Yellowknife and be -30f tomorrow morning.

At -30f, there is an entertaining activity that has been the focus of a lot of YouTube videos. What you do is to boil some water and then take it outside while it is still very, very hot and throw it into the air. You’ll get instant snow. The water droplets will freeze and there will be a flurry of snow. It only works when it is cold than -25f and when the water is boiling hot. It is entertaining, but it is also a demonstration of one of the very strange properties of water. Very hot water freezes more quickly than cold water. If you take cold water outside at the same time, the water droplets will remain liquid as they fall to the ground. I’m no chemist and I’m not up on physics, but here is my layperson’s explanation of the phenomenon: The water is close to vapor at boiling temperature. The liquid is ready to become gas. When the water is thrown into the air, the hot molecules separate from one another because they are nearly vapor already. Separated, they quickly cool and freeze. Cold water, on the other hand, forms droplets of liquid that stick together and take longer to freeze because they have more surface area.

Water is a very strange substance. It is made of two gases, oxygen and hydrogen. It would appear that at the temperatures and pressures of the earth the two, when combined, would continue to be lighter than air, but they are not. Instead, the combination forms a liquid. And that liquid has some other strange chemical properties. For example water expands when it freezes. You would think that cooling a substance would make it contract. That’s the way it works for other things. Water, however, expands and so ice floats. Instead of the warmest part being on top, the coldest part rises to the top. It is almost as if it is defying the rules of physics. All around the hills there are lakes with a layer of ice on the top that insulates warmer water below that is teeming with life that would not be able to survive if it were trapped in ice. If the lakes froze from the bottom up, the fish could not survive. As it is, the ice layer protects the life below from super cold temperatures.

Water is very stable. It maintains its chemical integrity through all kinds of transformations. The water on our planet - all of it - including the water that makes up most of our bodies has been in its present form for as long as there has been water on our planet. the same molecules that are inside of us right now have been inside of other life forms. The same water was inside of dinosaurs and bacteria and ancient animals. It has been in the polar ice caps and then recycled as snow and rain. It has fallen on tropical rainforests and flowed down ancient rivers. All of the water on our planet is being constantly recycled and used again and again.

Water is the thing that makes life possible, but our planet wasn’t always wet. When it was first formed there was no water. All of he water that is currently on Earth came from outside of the planet. It came on asteroids and comets that traveled from the outside edges of our solar system. They were bits and pieces of the universe that didn’t form into planets but traveled independently. From time to time one of these bodies would strike a planet or other object and water was transported to that object. Over the millennia, the earth collected enough water to cover most of its surface. Oceans and lakes and rivers and ice caps all formed. Water isn’t rare in the universe. There is water on other planets. It has been discovered on Mars and even on the moon. But the quantity of water on the earth makes our planet a unique object, at least in our solar system. And the water gives us life.

Without it we wouldn’t exist. Without it we wouldn’t have formed human brains to look at, recognize and marvel at the wonder that is water. Hot or cold it is a miracle.

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!

Mac the Moose

I’m not sure how it got started, but there are several towns in North Dakota where there are some big sculptures. I’m not sure when it all started, but the big buffalo at Jamestown has been around since 1959. It is 26 feet tall and 46 fat long and is made out of 60 tons of concrete. That probably explains why it stands with its hindquarters towards the Interstate highway. He faces the old highway, but they put the Interstate behind him and, well, he is just too big to move, so there he stands. When you live out on the prairie in North Dakota, you have time to think about things and one of the things they were thinking about in Jamestown was how to get tourists to stop and spend some time and some money in their town. The world’s largest buffalo seemed like a good idea. There are plenty of opportunities to see real life-sized buffalo in North Dakota, but even those who don’t stop remember the big buffalo in Jamestown.

Not to be outdone, the good folks of new Salem, North Dakota raised $40,000 in 1974 to have a fiberglass statue of a Holstein cow made and mounted on a foundation on top of a hill overlooking the town. Sue faces the Interstate and towers over the town up there on the hill.

Garrison, North Dakota isn’t on the Interstate, so when they decided to get into the giant sculpture contest they went with the thing their town is known for - walleye fishing. Wally Walleye is in the city park and has a sign underneath proclaiming Garrison as the walleye capital fo the world. Wally is 26 feet long. The problem with Wally is that Garrison North Dakota isn’t the only Garrison in the world that has claims to great fishing, so Garrison, Minnesota also erected a statue of a walleye. The North Dakota town still has claims to the biggest walleye. their statue is 11 feet longer than the one in Garrison, Minnesota. That should have settled it, but Rush City, Minnesota has a walleye made out of concrete where as the two Garrisons have fiberglass fish. Rush City claims that the 2,000 pound fish was hooked by Paul Bunyan, who was using a 35 pound Tiger Muskie as bait.

I guess the big sculptures are just a part of the culture of the plains. There are some notables all across the prairies.

Moose Jaw is in Saskatchewan, a little west of Regina. You sort of have to go there on purpose, although it is on the way from Minot, North Dakota to Calgary Alberta. I just don’t know how many people drive from Minot to Calgary. That part of Saskatchewan is big wheat country. You drive through miles and miles of wheat fields all green in the spring and golden in the late summer. The big combines hit the fields at the end of summer and they haul away the grain in semi trailers. There are a couple of different explanations for the name of the town. Most agree that the area already had the name of moose jaw when European settlers arrived. Some say that it is because the wandering of the local creek which has the same name resembles the outline of a moose’s jawbone. Others say that the Cree word for “warm breezes” sounds like moose jaw and the name come from English speakers trying to pronounce the Cree name. Whichever theory is correct, the name has stuck.

Moose Jaw has long winters, which gives folks who live there a lot of time indoors to think about things. It’s below zero up there this morning, even on the Fahrenheit scale, and it won’t make it above zero on the Celsius scale all week. And the good people of Moose Jaw have a lot to think about this winter. Here’s the story:

Mac the Moose is a steel and concrete sculpture of a moose that stands right next to the Trans-Canada Highway. Not far away there is a red and white airplane mounted on a pedestal to give a bit of scale to the giant moose. Since 1984, Mac has been one of Moose Jaw’s claims to fame. When you’ve got the world’s biggest moose, you’ve got bragging rights. After all, Mac is 32 feet tall.

However, in 2015 some people in Norway erected Storeigen or “Big Moose,” a sculpture that stands between Oslo and Trondheim. According to the Norwegians, their moose is taller by 30 cm or about one foot.

Now the people of Canada are know for being mannerly and respectful, but there are certain places where they will draw the line. According to Fraser Tolme, mayor of Moose Jaw, “You don’t mess with Mac the Moose.” To make matters worse YouTubers Justin and Greg posted a video urging the city to add 31cm to Mac or to rename their city simply “Jaw.”

The residents of Moose Jaw have come up with a lot of suggestions. One person thought that dressing the giant moose in stiletto heels would do the trick. Consensus among Moose Jaw residents, however, is that it is time for Mac the Moose to get a bigger rack of antlers.

In an online pole, Mac is still the world’s most popular moose, beating out the Norwegian animal by 20,000 votes.

The cost of glory won’t come inexpensively. It has been estimated that the good people of Moose Jaw will have to raise $50,000 for the taller antlers. Just to taunt them, the Norwegians have threatened to make a new moose twice as big as the current one. No one has mentioned what that might cost.

The battle is reminiscent of the people of Shediac New Brunswick who have a concrete sculpture of a lobster that they claimed was the world’s largest, only to be overtaken by Rosetown, Australia.

I’m rooting for Mac and the people of Moose Jaw. They had the idea first and theirs is a striking sculpture as it is. And, a few years ago, when the jaw fell off of the moose, they rallied and raised $30,000 to repair it. I’m sure they’ve got a new set of antlers in them.

After all it is cold up there and folks have to spend a lot of time indoors and that gives them time to think.

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!

Older Drivers

I obtained my driver’s license on my 15th birthday. Since that time, I’ve continuously had a driver’s license. I’ve had licenses issued by four different states and for many years had a commercial driver’s license, though I have only an operator’s permit these days. I’ve driven in several different countries, including England and Australia where the traffic flows on the other side of the street than in our country. I’ve had a few fender-bender accidents, and have been fortunate to have never been in an accident where someone was injured. I’ve received tickets for three violations, all for speeding, the most recent being 35 years ago. My driving record is pretty clean.

The truth, however, is that to keep that clean driving record, the day will come when I have to stop driving. Right now, at this age, I’m comfortable driving a heavy duty pickup truck pulling a heavy trailer. I can maneuver trailers into parking and operate them in traffic without being dangerous. That skill, however, will only remain if it is practiced and as long as my mental acuity and physical abilities remain.

Over the years, I’ve collected a lot of stories about older drivers. There is the one about the grandmother who defended herself in court after an accident saying, “He’s lived in this town for 45 years, if he doesn’t know I go to get my mail at 10 every morning by now, he’s never going to learn it!” She still had to pay the fine for not yielding the right of way. There’s the story about the parent who ran a red light with her child in the car. When the child pointed it out she said, “I’ve been stopping at that light for years. I’m tired of it.”

Then there is my own mother, who frequently told us when she was younger that we should simply tell her when it was time for her to stop driving and she would willingly give up her keys. When the time came, there were no family arguments or problems. A few years later, however, she would tell several different versions of the story. Sometimes she would tell people that I took her car away from her. I did buy it, but I paid full book price for it.

I was thinking about how I will be able to make that decision, when the time comes, with my family. Part of me is hoping for increased automation to save the day. Perhaps driverless cars will be common enough that I won’t have to worry about it. Already there are cars with lane assist and adaptive cruise control that help avoid accidents and alert drivers when they are being inattentive. We recently rented a car that beeped a warning when crossing the lines on the highway and automatically slowed down to keep a safe distance from a car in front. It was easy to adapt to the new technology.

My thoughts about safe driving and how long to keep driving were stirred this week by the accident in England in which the 97-year-old husband of Queen Elizabeth II was driving. He was alone in the car. He has access to round-the-clock bodyguards and royal chauffeurs, but Prince Phillip prefers to drive himself. He drives an armor-plated Land Rover, and was uninjured even though the vehicle rolled onto its side. There were pictures in the British press of a new Land Rover being delivered to the royal residence, indicating that the Prince doesn’t intend to give up driving quite yet. There was a 9-month-boy in the other car involved in the accident. Fortunately he was protected by an infant seat and was uninjured. a passenger in that car suffered a broken wrist and the driver had knee cuts. The prince told police that he had been “dazzled by the sun.”

We have a minimum age for drivers, but the law does not specify a maximum age at which drivers must cease to operate vehicles. As our society ages, the number of older drivers is increasing. We baby boomers represent a large slice of the population and as we get older there will be more and more older drivers on the roads. Fortunately for us, the statistics aren’t too bad for older drivers. People older than 70 are half as likely to be involved in an injury accident than drivers 25 and younger. There re many cases of people being able to drive safely well into their 90’s.

Still, the story was big enough to distract at least some of the news media in Britain away from the Brexit story, which, given the chaos ensuing form Parliament, is saying quite a lot.

In my own case, I believe that I still have many years of safe driving ahead of me. I hope that I will have the foresight and ability to limit my use of larger vehicles as I age. I’m sure that the point will come when I’m safe driving a small car and it is time to stop driving trucks and pulling trailers. I hope that I will have the wisdom to make those decisions safely before any accidents occur. One of the keys, I believe, is keeping an open line of conversation with my family. I frequently ride when traveling with one of my children, but I try to also drive some of the time so that they witness my driving. Both of our children are very safe drivers and both drive in heavy traffic from time to time, so I respect their skills and their judgment. I value any feedback that they can give me. Still, I know that there is a curmudgeonly streak of independence in me. I can associate with the 97-year-old prince who just wants to get out and go for a drive by himself, without having to arrange for others to drive him.

On the other hand, I’m unlikely to have access to an armor-plated Land Rover, so I’ll need to be a bit more cautious when I’m 97.

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!

Chilly winter mornings

For the record, I lived in North Dakota for seven winters and so I feel like I have earned the right to make a joke or two about the weather in North Dakota. When we lived there, we did not own any vehicles with 4 wheel drive and we didn’t have any significant problems getting around. We served two churches that were 17 miles apart in the days of the 55 mph speed limit. One many Sunday mornings, we’d find the state snowplow sitting at the edge of town, knowing that we were on our way. We’d follow the plow to the town where our early service was held. While we were in church, he’d plow 12 miles west to his turn around point and then plow 12 miles back and be sitting alongside the highway for us to follow him back to the town where our house was located in time for the second service.

Attendance went up when the weather got cold and nasty. The joke was the North Dakota farmers don’t want their neighbors to think that they can’t start their cars when it gets cold. Besides, once you’ve gone through all the trouble of starting a vehicle, you might as well drive it enough to really get it warmed up before you shut it down. Neither of our churches had enough plug ins for all of the cars that came to church, so there were always a few that were left running during the service. At -30 in the days before fuel injection and electronic ignition, cars can get a bit cranky about starting.

One story I like to tell about North Dakota is about a North Dakota graveside service. Now, bear in mind that when it gets really cold the frost line sinks too deep to make it practical to dig graves and the cemetery would declare itself closed until things warmed up, so we’d delay committals until a warm day, when we’d bury several bodies in a short amount of time. These days there are enough power machines to dig in the cold weather, but back then waiting wasn’t uncommon. Anyway, when we did have an occasion for a committal service, the people would gather around. There were a lot of men in our part of the country who didn’t have dress topcoats. They had work parkas, but nothing for dress up. So they’d put on a tie and a sport coat and head out for the committal service. No one wanted to admit that they were cold, so they’d all stand around pretending that they weren’t cold and then rush to the fellowship hall for coffee as soon as they could. I used to joke about adding in an extra long prayer, but I never did it. Those are really good people and they deserve a break from time to time.

Another North Dakota story is the sense that if you start wearing your winter parka too soon, you’ll end up being cold. The joke was that if you wear your parka before it is 20 degrees, it will stop working when it gets to 20 below. And that isn’t warm enough - at least it wasn’t during the time we lived there. -30 was common and there were times when it would get that cold and stay that way for four or five days. Any colder than that and things really start breaking. You have to be careful with door knobs and hinges, because the metal isn’t as strong at -35 as it is at a more normal temperature. And you had to check your sewer vents for ice. The moisture in the air rising up the pipe would freeze. Sometimes it would freeze before it got out of the pipe and an ice clog would form. You don’t want sewer gas to build up in your home. And crawling up there to chip out the ice isn’t much fun.

I think it was about 20 degrees when I came home around 6:30 pm yesterday. It is the kind of weather when I can’t seem to wear the right coat. Keep in mind, I spent those winters in North Dakota, so I have an extra coat in my car and a sleeping bag there, too all winter long. If I’m heading out of town, I’ll carry a survival bag with enough food for several days as well as flashlights, batteries, wool socks, space blankets, a small camp stove for melting snow and making tea, candles and other items. Anyway, I try to pick a jacket or vest based on what I think the weather will be like. I don’t wear my parka very often. I also have a good dress duster that is long and very warm. I don’t pretend at funerals any more. I dress for them. Most days, like yesterday, when it was bright and sunny, a good insulated vest is just right. Then, when evening comes, I discover that I’m out without the right coat. If, on the other hand, I wear my parka, you can be sure that I’ll have a mid-day meeting and it will be so warm that I’d feel silly wearing such a heavy coat.

This is, I am well aware, a very strange thing about which to complain. There are a lot of people, even in this country, who don’t have more than one coat. And for many of them the coat they do have probably isn’t warm enough. An insulated sweatshirt is fine for a while, but not sufficient for when the wind gets blowing, which is what the forecast is calling for tomorrow. Its snowing lightly and we’re supposed to see snow showers through the morning and some pretty cold temperatures. The wind won’t be too strong, but 15 mph can move a lot of light snow around. It’s supposed to be much more severe conditions off to the east.

So, I’ve got to remember to bring my parka with me. After all, I’m no longer a North Dakotan. Down here in the South, we aren’t afraid to wear our winter coats.

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


When I was growing up, I thought that we had a big house. It was about the same size as the house in which I live now, but we had more people in that house. My father was a big fan of making additions to the little house he and my mother bought not longer after they arrived in our town. A second story was added. A cantilevered wall bump made room for a remodeled bathroom. A family room stretched the house into the back yard and was combined with a kitchen remodel on the inside. When they got finished, the house had four bedrooms and perhaps five, depending on how you counted. There were two bathrooms, a luxury for the time. There was a detached garage in the back yard, that received a small addition in 1969, when the station wagon we bought was too long for the building. I grew up with sawdust in the air and the sounds of hammers pounding nails. I learned about power tools in part because they were inside of our home being put to use.

After moving from that house, my family continued to live there for a number of years. The younger children grew up and moved out. My father died in that house. My mother continued to live there and after she moved to a smaller place my brother and his family lived there for several years. When we finally sold the house it served as a temporary parsonage for a church, as a boarding house for workers and was remodeled back into a family home. The last time I visited our hometown it was for sale again.

I really didn’t live in that house all that long, but I lived in the same house for my entire life through high school. The first time I moved other than packing a suitcase for a summer job was when I went away to college.

After that, I went through a period of moving on a regular basis. I had four different dorm rooms my freshman year in college. I lived in a different dorm my sophomore year and yet another one my junior year. I was married an in an apartment my senior year. During the four years of seminary, we lived in five different apartments. After graduation we slowed down. Our first call to ministry was seven years, during which we lived in a parsonage. For the next ten years we lived in a home about a mile from the church we served. Both of our children lived in that house for the most years during their growing up. They were teenagers when we moved to the house in which we live now, so didn’t stay too many years here, but we have put down roots. We’ve been in this house more than 23 years, the longest either of us have lived in any single house.

I have never been homeless. I’ve always had the luxury of having a place to cal home and a placer where i could sleep secure.

But I have had the gift of having met quite a few people who have been forced to live in substandard conditions. I’ve visited homes where you could see the bare dirt through the rotting boards in the bathroom. I’ve seen houses where blue tarps were used to try to keep water from running through the roof. I’ve visited places where mould was creeping up the walls and where leaking windows made it impossible to stay warm. I’ve visited with people who have no place of their own and have worn out their welcome in the homes of family and friends. I’ve sat down to meals with folks who live in their cars and folks who sleep in the parks.

I got started volunteering with Habitat for Humanity about 35 years ago. At first I’d show up for a work day from time to time. I served on a couple of committees. I raised a few dollars for he cause. Later our congregation sponsored houses and I was intimately involved with an entire build from pouring the foundation to turning over the keys to the new owners. I’ve preached about God’s finances and the value of a nonprofit builder in our community. I’ve sat through board meetings and retreats and worked on dozens of houses. I’ve gone home with mud on my shoes and sheetrock dust in my hair and gone home and cleaned up to go back for a meeting with bankers and real estate people.

One of my favorite parts of the process is the home dedication. I’ve attended a lot and I’ve served as the officiant at many. When I have the privilege, as I will this afternoon, the first thing I do when I arrive at the house is to look for the youngest person who will be living there and ask that person to give me a tour of the house. That way I get to see the inside of closets and the view from the windows and the sparkle in the eye of an excited tour guide. I also get to see the process of a house becoming a home. Boards and wiring and plumbing and roofing are transformed into a dwelling place for the human spirit, where people can meet and think and grow. For me the house dedication isn’t primarily about ceremony and housewarming gifts, though we do both of those things. It isn’t about handing the keys to the new owner, which we do in a special way. It is about people finding a safe place to lay their heads and a secure home in which to raise their children.

There are too many who dwell in insecure places and who have no home to call their own. I’ve been blessed to have known far more privilege than they. But I have also been blessed to know some of them. I don’t have the power to provide for everyone who has a need. But together with others, I can work to provide a home to a few - one family at a time.

Today is a day of celebration for one more family. May it inspire us to make more days like to day come for more families.

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

The pursuit of happiness

The journalist/philosopher/writer Pico Iyer uses the word “absorption” when speaking of happiness. His point is that people are happiest when they forget themselves. The process of becoming happy involves focusing attention away from self and get caught up in something bigger or other than ourselves. Consider the effects that music can have. When we experience music that moves us, we forget about the passage of time, we forget about our own pain and discomfort, we focus our attention on the music and it sweeps us away. Iyer would say we are absorbed into that music. I’ve discovered a very similar effect in a deep conversation. When I am truly listening to another person and experiencing their world through their words, my own concerns seem to fade into the background. There is something joyful about truly connecting with another person and allowing their life to enter into my own. Watching a sunrise from the surface of a lake in my canoe can be an experience of the vastness and beauty of the universe. I become almost unaware of my own body as I listen to birdsong and the quiet lapping of water on the boat and am surrounded by the glory of nature.

For me, and I think for Iyer, true joy is found in focusing one’s attention beyond the self. When I focus on my pain or my problems or how I am feeling, I experience whatever the opposite of transcendence is. Joy, therefore, is in part, a state of mind and a discipline of turning on’s focus away from the self.

The United States Declaration of Independence includes the often quoted phrase, “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” It is listed as one of the inalienable rights of humans. I think that we often miss the deeper meaning of this founding document because we think that it somehow means that we are owed feelings of pleasure. We turn our interpretation into a kind of selfish and self-absorbed vision. If I’m not happy, no one’s happy. I deserve to be made happy. What we miss in this way of thinking is that the true path to happiness is the path of paying attention to others - and becoming part of something bigger than oneself.

Paying attention to the wider community and its needs, understanding that there are some things that take generations to unfold, sensing that blessings may come to other people in other places - all of these foci are paths that might be taken in the pursuit of happiness. Imagine how differently we would think of our common life if we understood that the pursuit of happiness is he process of losing oneself in something bigger than the self.

I, you, and all of us, according to the framers of that Declaration, have an inalienable right to put the common good ahead of personal gain. There’s an idea worth pondering.

Some of the most joyful moments in my life have come not from my own accomplishments or talents, but rather from the realization that I’ve been swept up in a much larger enterprise. Holding our infant children was as close to pure joy as anything I’ve ever experienced. One of the great pleasures of this life is the honor of being enabled to hold a tiny child. Every baptism in which I participate is an experience of deep joy. There is something about being responsible, if only temporarily, for the safety and security of this tiny being that turns my attention away from myself and my problems and connects me with the flow of life through many generations. The past and future are bridged by the awareness that we are not created to be alone. We belong with other people. We belong to other people. Life is about something much greater and much more precious than a burst of emotion or a flash of personal pleasure.

Joy is a communal experience. That doesn’t mean that I can’t experience joy when I am all alone. I’ve already cited moments of being alone in nature in which I have experienced joy. The truth is that we are never alone. We are always in the presence of God. Our very bodies are made up of the elements of creation. Our genetic code has been residing with humans for millennia. To be human is to be comprised of bits and pieces of life that have been part of other life forms and have existed in other generations. Those elements will continue long after our lives on this earth.

One can become aware of the vastness of this universe by looking through a telescope or a microscope. You don’t have to focus on far away to discover the incredible complexity and interconnectedness of life. And it doesn’t require that you be a trained scientist with access to all kinds of fancy equipment, either. Simply hold a child and look into her or his eyes. Think of all of the incredible processes that are gong on inside of that tiny being to move the hands and toes and facial muscles. Digestion, respiration, circulation - such a complex system in such a tiny and fragile package. Imagine what this child might experience. The places it will go, the things it will see are far beyond the experiences that I will have. And when this child reaches old age a whole new generation will come along and open the future even wider than we can perceive. All of the elements of the past transported to a future that extends far beyond the span of my own life - it is a miracle indeed. And I feel joy.

Our lives would be richer, fuller and more joyful if we would simply remind ourselves that the source of joy is beyond our selves. Imagine how much more joyful we would be if we thought of our declaration as promising life, liberty, and the pursuit of a less selfish lifestyle.

If we would indeed pursue happiness, the first step is to place others before self.

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!

Confusing calendars

I’ve often written in my journal about the problems associated with the shift in calendars from the Roman or Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar, instituted by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582. For the record, you’ll note that Gregory used Roman numerals following his name. He wrote his proclamations in Latin, too. Gregory wasn’t rejecting Roman culture. Rather, he was trying to make a calendar that was more accurate and easier to follow. The ancients notices the phases of the moon and measured the flow of time through the year by counting phase of the moon. The problem with a strictly lunar calendar, however, is that our days and years are marked by the rotation of the earth and its revolution around the sun. Observations of individual days, however, doesn’t give a calendar of seasons, and people still notices the phases of the moon that seemed to have a connection with the weather and the passing of seasons.

The Julian calendar was the product of quite a bit of experimentation. The original idea was for 12 equal months of 30 days each. The problem was that such a calendar came up short by five days. Some proposed a five day festival at the end of the year to make up the difference. Then the emperors thought that they ought to get special recognition. If julius got 31 days, so should Augustus. The competition for extra days got so intense that February ended up losing two days in the shuffle. The 365-day calendar appeared to work, but periodically, it got out of sync with the equinoxes. The Romans came up with the concept of the Ides to bring the calendar back into sync with the movements of heavenly bodies. Of course they didn’t know at the time that the earth was moving as well and so figures into the formula. The Roman terms for the phases of the moon were: Kalends, or new moon when no moon can be seen; Nones, or first quarter moon; and Ides, or full moon. When the Romans fixed the length of the moons, they also fixed the date of the Ides, so the full moon no longer lined up exactly with the Ides. In March, May, July and October, months with 31 days, the Ides was on the 15th. On the other months, the Ides was on the 13th. I’ve never learned the reason for this, but I assume it had to do with an attempt to reconcile lunar and solar calendars, though it didn’t work.

Reading calendar dates in Roman numerals took a lot of characters, especially since days were counted in terms of the number of days prior to Kalends, Nones or Ides. The day prior to one of these was called prindle. To save characters, they used appreciations. Id. was for Ides; pr. was for prindle. March 8 would be written like this: ante diem VIII Id.Mart.

If you are not already confused, look up a chart of Julian Dates on the Internet and try to find the patterns reconciling them with the Gregorian Calendar. The Gregorian Calendar, by the way didn’t work out exactly, either, thus the need to add a leap day every fourth year to the month of February. They didn’t catch this error for a while, so in 1752, officials in Britain ordered the “loss” of 11 days from the month of September and officially added a leap day to February every 4th year. Each adaptation of the calendar retained elements from the prior calendar. The names of the months come from the Roman calendar. But each introduced innovations.

As a note of trivia. the first use of the term leap day preceded the introduction of the term into the official calendar. In 1692, the first arrest warrants in the Salem witchcraft trials were dated February 29, 1692.

And, to make matters even more confusing, the calendar doesn’t even work out to whole days, so leap seconds have to be added to the timing periodically to bring the entire system into sync with the actual movements of the stars and planets.

The bottom line is that mathematics is a system of numbers that have been worked out from the imagination of generations of humans to explain observed phenomena. People wanted to count days and they wanted to be able to predict certain phenomena, such as the changing of seasons or the phases of the moon. The systematic study of mathematics and the development of formulas for figuring out mathematical problems dates back at least to the 6th century BC and the Pythagoreans. Around 300 BC Euclid introduced the axiomatic method still used in mathematics today. Modern mathematics developed in western Europe with Newton and Leibniz contributing to the concepts of calculus.

Even the most brilliant mathematician is operating within the framework laid down by centuries of thought by many different people.

The bottom line is that we all daily use concepts that took centuries to develop. Our current calendar is not perfect, but it is vastly refined from the Julian version. We didn’t get here in one generation, however. There are plenty of ideas that are bigger than oneself and bigger than the capacity of a single generation. Each generation builds upon the knowledge and concepts developed by previous generations.

The modern focus on STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics) is an acknowledgment of the need for people educated in these fields, but the concepts that are being taught are ancient. If we neglect the teaching of history in our rush to teach technical content, we run the risk of failing to pass on complete information. Like modern people navigating the quirks of the Gregorian calendar without knowing a bit of how we got to this point, we run the risk of students who are brilliant technicians yet lack an understanding of why things work or what to do when they do not work.

I continue to get on my soap box for humanities education on a fairly regular basis. Without the humanities, science becomes hollow. The future of humanity depends upon our capacity to teach and learn a broad range of subjects and ideas. In the future we’ll need to know from whence we came.

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!

Remembring a great flood

Tomorrow would be his 90th birthday had Martin Luther King, Jr. lived. As it was, he was assassinated when he was 39. His family wanted his life to be remembered rather than the events of his death and his birthday to be a day of remembrance. The official holiday is now the third Monday of January each year. Because the day of the month travels around the calendar, last year we celebrated on the actual day. This year we are as far as possible from that date, with our celebration landing a week from today on January 21. It is clearly important for us to remember the minister and activist who was the nation’s most visible spokesperson and leader of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s. His insight and leadership was born in deep religious traditions and his memory is an excellent opportunity for us to rededicate ourselves to the cause of justice.

But, since the holiday moves round the calendar, I thought that it might be worth a journal entry to note another anniversary that occurs on January 15. A lot of people in this part of the country don’t know that tomorrow is the 100th anniversary of the Great Boston Molassas Flood. The tragedy killed 21 and hurt 150. And that’s just the people. Horses, domestic animals and other creatures also perished in the sticky mess.

According to an article by Robert S. Davis, published in the Washington Post, Boston was enjoying a bit of uncharacteristically warm weather. The temperature was 40 degrees after having been only 2 degrees earlier in the week. A group of firefighters were settling down to a game of cards when they heard a strange staccato sound. It turned out that what they were hearing were the rivets failing on a 50-foot-high storage tank. A dull roar followed. Firefighter Paddy Driscoll took a look. “Oh my god!” he exclaimed, “Run!” A torrent of dark molasses sewed from the tank and engulfed Boston’s waterfront in a 25-foot tall tidal wave. The tank, holding 2.3 gallons of molasses, belonged to U.S. Industrial Alcohol.

It was a wave of sugary doom, traveling at 35 mph. That much molasses weighs 26 million pounds. It was enough force to rip the fire station from its foundation and rip away a support beam from the elevated train tracks. It took only seconds for two city blocks to be inundated. Some buildings had molasses as high as the third story. Public works department horses were smothered in their stalls. Boston harbor was stained brown for weeks. The USS Nantucket sent rescuers and sailors who struggled through the muck to assist people. Many were so coated with molasses that rescuers couldn’t tell if they were human or animals.

Theories about why the tank failed began to circulate by rumor. Some said that a bomb had doomed the tank. Others said that the tank had been leaking prior to the failure and that the company had painted the tank brown to disguise the leaks. Others theorized that the previous record-setting warm summer weather had lead to rapid fermentation of the molasses and increased pressure in the tank. The lawsuits that followed led to a court ruling in 1925 that the tank suffered a structural failure because the walls of the tank were too thin and that the owners, U.S. Industrial Alcohol, was liable for $628,000 in damages to victims and their families.

A flood of molasses was followed by a flood of lawsuits.

The aftermath was grim as rescuers struggled through the glop, tried to clean it up, and find all of the victims. It took four months to find the last victim of the flood.

According to journalist Edward Park, “the smell of molasses remained for decades as a distinctive, unmistakable atmosphere of Boston.”

When I think of Boston, I think of baked beans and the main ingredients in baked beans are beans, salt pork and molasses. The molasses is what gives the beans their distinctive flavor and aroma. It hardly makes me think of disaster.

I once dropped a quart jar that was nearly full of honey. The jar didn’t break, but it had no lid and the sticky stuff ran out in a messy puddle on the floor. It was harder than you might think to clean up the mess. I tried spooning the honey into a bowl and got some of it that way. I tried using a rubber scraper to get the next layer. Then it was soap and water and elbow grease. It took several scrubbings to get the stickiness off of the floor. I’m pretty careful with jars of honey to this day. We buy molasses in even smaller quantities, usually less than a quart. I’m having trouble imagining 2.3 million gallons of molasses. That’s a lot.

So tomorrow is the centennial of the flood. I haven’t heard of any special commemorations of the event. I’m thinking it is about time that we stood up to all of those chocolate cookie elitists and teach them the truth about why real molasses cookies are hands down the best cookies of all. I’m talking about the chewy ginger molasses ones. You mix the dough and then put it in the refrigerator until it is very cool. Then you roll out balls and bake. The result is a wonderful super-soft and chewy cookie that is irresistible.

Let’s see. From Martin Luther King, Jr. to a tank failure to baked beans to molasses cookies. That’s a strange progression of thought for a journal entry. Maybe it is a sign of a flawed thinking process. I prefer to think, however, that many good thoughts lead to good food. At least I think about food a lot. I think, however, that someone who survived the great Boston molasses flood might have lost their appetite for molasses in general - at least for a little while.

Thank goodness we have laws and safety inspectors to protect us from another similar flood.

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!

Rice and beans

Arroz y frijoles. Rice and beans. It is a staple food in many different places. I’ve seen recipes that are for cajun rice and beans or Cuban rice and beans or Jamaican rice and beans that are all very similar. I didn’t pay much attention until a sister church relationship enabled me to make a few trips to Costa Rica. We joked after one trip that sometime we ate rice and sometimes we ate beans and sometimes we ate rice and beans and when we wanted to be fancy, we’d have beans and rice. In many parts of the world it is easy to grow simple black beans and rice. You have to live in a place that has plenty of water to grow rice, but there are lots of places like that. Having lived all of my life in places where the staple grain crop is wheat, I don’t know as much about rice, but with connections in Costa Rica and connections in Japan I have learned to cook and eat rice and we always keep rice in our cupboard, available to add as a side dish or a main ingredient in a meal.

A nutritionist could give details, but there is something about vegetable proteins that makes certain mixes of foods more complete nutrition than a single food. Bean s and rice with a few added vegetables make for a complete meal. As I met more vegetarians and vegans, I started to become interested in learning to cook for our friends and I learned a few staple vegan recipes. My rice and beans recipe was easy to convert. I had been using butter to sauté the garlic and onions. Substitute olive oil. I had been cooking the rice in chicken stock. Substitute vegetable stock. Or cook the rice in water. The ingredients are pretty simple. Onion, garlic, a bit of jalapeño, some green pepper, tomatoes, rice and beans. I use canned beans when I forget to soak the beans the night before. And don’t forget the cilantro. Like some of my favorite recipes, the ingredients vary depending upon what is in the cupboard. Sometimes I have some prepared pico de gallo made up and add it. Sometimes I have a prepared packet of chili spices, sometimes I just add spice to taste from the cabinet. A little lime juice is nice when I have some.

It makes a great dish to take to a potluck. At least with the groups with whom I share potlucks these days there are more and more specialty diets. I watch people who need to eat gluten-free or who are vegan or who have food allergies struggle with decisions about what they can and what they cannot eat. Cooking something that is vegan, gluten-free and doesn’t contain nuts is a good starter for many people.

And you can always add some other food to rice and beans. In Costa Rican restaurants an egg on top of the rice and beans is common. We also have enjoyed rice and beans with a variety of different meats, depending on what is available. Chicken is common, but we’ve also had pork and beef with rice and beans.

I guess I woke up thinking about rice and beans because I do have to prepare a dish for a potluck this afternoon. The Well, a small group of spiritual seekers, meets weekly in our church and I usually meet with them. They hold a potluck once a month and it is a small group, so I know that food preferences of most of the regulars. I enjoy the challenge of coming up with a dish that others enjoy. But I think I’ve taken about every variation of rice and beans that I know to potlucks recently. At Thanksgiving this year I found a great recipe for cranberry rice (no beans) that I made on several occasions over the holidays, but I’ve already taken that dish to the potluck. I’ve done baked beans with a lot of different types of beans. I’ve done variations on three bean salads.

It certainly seems like all of my vegan recipes have either rice or beans in them. I’ve brought hummus and chips, but hummus is mostly garbanzo beans even if we call them chickpeas.

Once I made little appetizers with a bit of phyllo dough, tomatoes and fresh basil, but that isn’t gluten-free and it is quite a bit of work.

I’m thinking some variation on rice and beans may be in order for today because the ingredients are already in the house and there is no need to make a grocery run. And, frankly because rice and beans have become comfort food for me. It isn’t comfort food in the sense that it is something that was served in the home where I grew up. For that you’d have to turn to macaroni and cheese or grilled cheese with tomato soup or waffles. I remember my mother experimenting with recipes that used rice after an aunt and uncle visited India, but it was a less-used grain in our household. We brought wheat home by the bucket from the ranch and ground it course for cereal and fine for flour. No one we knew raised rice. But these days I do think of beans and rice as a comfort food. We’ll make beans and rice when we’ve had a busy day and neither of us has enthusiasm for thinking what to make. We often make beans and rice when we are traveling with our camper. One pot dishes are nice when you are woking in limited space. I can add a can of tuna and make it seem special. And I know the Spanish, Arroz y frijoles, to make it sound exotic.

When you get the stock boiling, add the rice and stir, turn it down and let it simmer. Rice doesn’t like to cook too quickly. Then you can prepare the other ingredients at your leisure. Of course that means using a frying pan and a pot, defying the one pot principle.

And I still don’t know what I’m taking to the pot luck this afternoon.

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

Strategic Planning

In 1975, I was appointed as a student representative to the President’s Commission on the Future of the Seminary. The title sounds impressive, but the president referred to in this case was the president of our theological seminary and the commission was a group of board members, faculty and students convened to go through a strategic planning process. It was as a participant in this process that I first went through a process that has now become routine in many organizations.

Strategic planning is an organizational management activity that is used to set priorities, and focus the energy of the stakeholders around common goals and objectives. The process has been refined over the years and customized to specific organizations or applications, but the basic five steps are pretty constant:
Set goals and develop a vision.
Gather information
Formulate a strategy
implement the strategy

In the decades since that first experience, I’ve been through dozens of formal strategic planning sessions in dozens of organizations. I don’t know the complete history, but I was once told that the technique was developed by the Rand Corporation during the Vietnam War, and that makes some sense. If you’ll remember the Vietnam War wasn’t exactly a success and it didn’t go according to plan. That’s pretty much my experience of strategic planning. We’ve crafted some pretty lofty plans over the years and none have resulted in achieving the goals we set. Things generally don’t work out according to plan.

In the case of the seminary, the institution that exists today is vastly different from the one I attended as a student. In place of a campus with buildings that ranged from an apartment building to a gothic cathedral, the seminary now owns no real estate and is housed in a single building leased from the University of Chicago. In place of a residential educational institution that required students to live together as well as study and learn together, the institution is primarily a commuter institution with an increasing number of online students. Within a few more years it is predicted that online students will be the majority of those earring degrees. In the place of an extensive specialty theological library, students have access to an internet based resource center that is operated by other institutions and for which the seminary pays a fee to access.

We couldn’t see that coming in the days before the internet. The vision we had for the institution was nothing like the reality that exists today. I don’t even remember the goals we set or the objectives we enumerated in that process. What I do remember is that the tenure of that particular seminary president was short. He didn’t last 5 years in that position and the biggest legacy of that time is the selling of irreplaceable assets for short term gain. That individual went on to other institutions and left behind similar legacies of decline.

Strategic planning comes and goes from church life in waves. There seems to be a new wave of strategic planning among younger clergy in our church these days. I’ve seen some new mission statements and been informed of new goals set by congregations. I’m sure that these have been undertaken with the best of intentions and I’m sure that the processes that produced these documents have been meaningful for at least some of the participants. I am less confident that any organization can control enough of the variables to assure any outcomes. More is accomplished by luck than by plan in most nonprofit institutions.

One of the questions I remember from the early brainstorming sessions we had in that process so long ago was, “If we had unlimited funds, what would we do?” A lot of wild ideas came out of that session, including International travel and study for all students, a fully functional lab school for children through high school, a complete religious arts department with a full music program. None of those dreams was practical. The truth is that nonprofit organizations never exist in the environment of unlimited funds. Daydreaming might stimulate the imagination in certain cases, but it takes more than wild imagination to come up with practical solutions to real world problems.

When I look back on my career as a pastor, I have been involved in starting a lot of programs that ran their course and are no longer being pursued. I have written curriculum that was published and used and now is considered obsolete. I have developed partnerships that functioned for a while and now have faded. On the other hand, the new roofs and heating and cooling systems and remodeled bathrooms and reworked parking lots seem to all be in use. I’ve never thought of myself as a pastor focused on the physical buildings of churches, but some of the physical changes that occurred on my watch have outlasted the program changes. Things don’t always work out the way you anticipate.

So I’ll invest half a day today in a strategic planning session for one of our community’s nonprofit organizations. I will try to pay attention and contribute positively to the process. But I don’t enter it believing that we will set in motion earth shattering changes. Perhaps we can emerge with enough energy and resources to survive for a few more years. Perhaps we can exhibit enough enthusiasm to involve a few new volunteers. Perhaps one or two new ideas will take root and turn into programs for our organization. I’m not holding my breath for a clear vision that will guide the organization to unprecedented growth or complete financial stability. I’ll be happy if we can come up with a budget that is achievable in the next 12 months.

I don’t mean to be a cynic, but I am grateful that there are some who will participate in the process who are younger and a bit less jaded than I. If only they could come up with a new process that is a bit less boring than strategic planning. You’d think they could at least come up with a new name for the process.

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 have a colleague who has been an early adopter of technology. He was one of the first people I knew who had a portable GPS unit in his car. In those days his work required him to travel to cities around the United States o0n occasion and I was with him on a trip to St. Louis. We arrived at the airport and picked up a rental car. I had gone to AAA and obtained a map of Missouri and another of the city of St. Louis and was prepared to serve as navigator. He had planned to rely on his new device. As we made our way to the Seminary in Webster Groves and later from the seminary to the Arch on the riverfront, I observed as the GPS gave directions to travel a less than direct route and brought us close, but not quite exactly to our destination. At one point the unit was directing left and right hand turns within a few blocks of the arch and I pointed out that we could see our destination and perhaps we should just drive directly to it. He persisted in following his device for another 10 or 15 minutes, finally parking three blocks short of our destination and walking the rest of the way. His device worked, sort of, but I was unimpressed.

No long afterward, a relative was participating in a family gathering at a ranch in Montana and he, too had a new GPS unit. He was proud to announce that the database had been expanded to include rural areas and showed us how he had programed the ranch as a landmark into his device. Then, one day, he proceeded to go to a nearby town and disappear for a couple of hours. We kept wondering what was delaying him. When he finally arrived, we got a wild story about driving on gravel country roads that dead ended at the river. Finally he found the Carter Ferry and was able to cross the river and eventually find his way to the ranch. We were mystified at his adventure, because the ranch and the town are on the same side of the river. Surely he had noticed when he crossed a bridge over the major landmark in the whole area, but somehow he had not.

It wasn’t long before I had a GPS of my own. I learned to trust it in big cities. A trip with our camper to a church meeting in Hartford, Connecticut taught me that it was a useful device. While we had obtained the necessary maps before our drive, going into the unfamiliar city with the camper in search of a particular hotel was eased significantly by the machine’s directions and moving map display. We arrived without problem and I vowed to take the device with me on more trips. When we had the opportunity to travel in England, I downloaded the appropriate maps and loaded them into the device and it worked very well as we toured the area northeast of London by rental car, visiting Cambridge and Norwich and several rural towns and villages.

Meanwhile, back in South Dakota we continued to collect stories of how GPS directions had gotten people lost. The same colleague who had used his GPS in St. Louis one day headed out to a cabin in the hills and ended up more than 20 miles away from his intended destination, which was only about 15 miles away. He managed to travel more than twice the intended distance before becoming alarmed that the device was misleading him. I remember commenting to someone else at the time that a small amount of awareness of setting and common sense might be a good addition to the navigational device.

These days the database is greatly improved. Most rural addresses are in the system and I routinely use a GPS unit to find an unknown address in the middle of the night. I’ve learned to trust the unit. Of course, most of the time when I venture out in the middle of the night I have the back up of a cell phone and the availability of dispatch operators who can give directions when needed. I rarely have to use them these days, however.

That original GPS unit - the first one we owned - seems to have quit functioning lately. It displays the map accurately, but the touchscreen won’t take input. I even upgraded the software and did a hard restart on the unit, but it just isn’t working. By now, of course, my phone has GPS built into it and can be used as a navigational device. Our children both use their phones exclusively for navigating and both travel in large cities much more often than I.

Traditional map reading skills are becoming obsolete. I think that we can still get paper maps from AAA, but we don’t seem to bother carrying them any more. A week ago when a flight was cancelled and we ended up renting a car to come home, I simply said to my phone, “Hey Siri, navigate home,” and I received directions sufficient to manage the tangle of freeways from the airport around Denver and onto the freeway. From there I didn’t really need directions, so I stopped using the phone’s turn-by-turn directions, but I knew that I could get directions if I were to need them.

The thing is that the electronic devices still can take you on some pretty obscure routes. We have a unit that is programmed with the length and height of our pickup when it is pulling our camper. It is supposed to warn you of any possible obstacles, or dead end streets or other areas where you could get into trouble with the bigger unit. It continually wants to take me on routes that are much less direct than I want to go. It will flash “recreational vehicle accessibility unknown” when I am driving in campgrounds. I know the accessibility of campgrounds for recreational vehicles. And it panics when I pull the camper to our house because we live on a street that ends in a cul-de-sac.

I hope I can retain some skills for reading maps and navigating the old fashioned way if for no other reason than that it might one day amuse a grandchild who wants me to talk about the olden 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!

Old jokes

Contrary to the image I had of him, William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania, didn’t just emigrate from Europe and stay in the colony he founded. He appointed governors and spent much time in England, where he was a titled Lord and enjoyed a rather luxurious lifestyle. His management style was rather “hands off” leaving great amounts of power to the one the ground leaders he had appointed to govern the young colony. In 1697, Penn was in England while Governor Markham was in charge in Pennsylvania. Lord Randolph reported to the House of Lords that Pennsylvania was a haven for pirates and accused Markham of malfeasance. Penn defended his governor, but in December 1699 he traveled to Philadelphia where he discovered that the situation in his colony was very much as described. The city and the colony were well in the hands of the pirates. The wealth of the pirates had made them important parts of the local economy and many pirates enjoyed the favor of governmental officials. Pirates who would have been quickly arrested and tried in England walked the streets openly and without fear of arrest. At that time pirates arrested in the colonies, were transported to England for trial. Conviction of piracy carried the death penalty and pirates were hanged.

Penn was horrified at the state of affairs in his colony and issued a decree declaring that all colonial official should “use their utmost diligence vigorously to pursue, apprehend, and secure every” person accused of piracy. He pushed an act through the Assembly the Act Against Pirates and Sea Robbers. And he fired Markham and assumed the title of governor himself. He enlisted the neighboring colonies of East and West Jersey to help in curbing the promotion of piracy. Pirates and those who supported them were put on notice that the authorities were watching and waiting to catch them, arrest them, and ship them to England for trial and execution.

It is a bit of a different image of William Penn than the one I had in my mind of a portly and gentle man who came to the colony to establish a new order of peace and tolerance that was distinct from what existed elsewhere in the world. Pennsylvania may have been a unique colony, but it wasn’t just a fresh start in a new place. It began in the mix of history and actions that were occurring around the globe and was, from the founding of the colony, a part of a world economy that had victims as well as beneficiaries.

Not long after assuming the role of active governor of his colony, Penn was confronted by another small crisis. It seems that two sisters of his mother were engaged in a pastry shop that some claimed charged excessive prices. An investigation was launched into the pie rates of Penn’s aunts.

OK, OK, that was a long and complex set up for such a simple pun. My apologies to Gilbert and Sullivan and others who helped to produce the comic opera, The Pirates of Penzance. For the record, however, the lead paragraphs are based on historical research and are, I believe accurate, so I’m delivering a bit of history along with the joke.

One of the distinct pleasures of working in the church is that I get to witness the coming and going of generations. It can be painful and sad to say goodby to the elders of the church when they die and the duty of providing last rites for them can seem like a burden some days. But I also get to baptize the new babies that are born and watch the children as they grow. The current generation of school children who participate in our church’s programs were all born after I became pastor of this congregation. They have known no other person in my role. There are points in their lives when they discover my humanity and get to know me. At last night’s family night at the church, I made a paper crown as the children made their own crowns and we began to explore the meaning of Epiphany and recall the visit of the Magi to the infant Jesus. As we worked the children were telling jokes. I have a few “knock knock” jokes that work when the kids get to just the right age and there were several at the event who were ready to tell and hear such jokes.

They didn’t come up with any that I hadn’t heard before and I didn’t tell any that I haven’t told before. Old jokes in a fresh context can be amusing and I laughed with the children as we spent a few brief moments over supper telling jokes. It is a kind of bonding experience, and I know from previous experiences, that some of the kids will have fresh jokes to tell me when they come to church on Sunday. I’ll see a few in reserve for them. This interplay will continue for a while. It isn’t about the jokes. The jokes are old and worn out. It is about building relationships. The children are discovering that the person who occupies the role of minster is a human and someone whom you can approach. In the cases of previous generations of children, there will be a few who remember telling jokes with me and, when they are teens and have garnered more experience, will find joy in puns and other forms or humor as well.

They’ll have to go off to college, however, before they learn enough about late 19th century comic opera and the rise of modern musical theatre in America to appreciate the Pirates of Penzance joke. And it is likely that I won’t be around during the college days of these particular children. The time will come in a few years for me to move on from this particular calling, and it is likely that will be accompanied by a move to another location.

The jokes, however, will go on and they provide a meaningful way for a positive relationship.

Knock, knock
Who’s there?
Banana who?
Knock, knock
Who’s there?
Banana who?
Knock, knock
Who’s there?
Orange who?
Orange you glad I didn’t say banana again?

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

More clutter

I went to make a routine purchase the other day. The card payment stations at the stores are each a little bit different from the others, so I read the instructions carefully. One of the screens gave me options for how to receive my receipt. I could have a paper receipt, an email receipt or both. I chose the email receipt and the machine printed a coupon on the receipt paper about the same size as a paper receipt. I commented to the clerk that the system isn’t really saving paper if when I ask for email only I end up with a piece of paper. The clerk mumbled something and made it clear that he was straining to be polite to a customer who had found some small thing about which to complain. I took the coupon and my purchase, after refusing the plastic bag that was offered, to the car and placed the coupon in a clip that contained a dozen other coupons received over the past little while. Then I took a second look at the coupons in the clip. Several had expired. They went into the trash can. One could no longer be read because the toner used in receipt printers these days fades quickly. A couple were for stores that I know I won’t enter before the coupons expire. Finally, I decided to keep the clip and throw all of the coupons into the trash.

Our so-called paperless society certainly produces a lot of paper waste.

We try to recycle as much as possible and we do take office paper, magazines and catalogues and types of cardboard that our curbside recycling do not accept to a carry in recycling center.

I have set up my city utility bills to be paid automatically from my checking account. I still receive a paper in the mail each month that shows my billing amount and shows which day it will be drafted from my account. I keep these statements in the glove compartment of the pickup because they can be used at the landfill to qualify for free dumping. Of course I don’t go to the landfill as often as monthly, so the papers pile up until I finally toss out the ole ones.

I’ve gone paperless with the bank, but that still means that I receive multiple letters from them each month. Some are documents that I can readily access online.

I still enjoy receiving letters in the mail. We got a few more letters via this method during the holiday season, when cards and personal notes as well as newsletters from friends arrived. They are worth reading and I enjoy catching up with friends. But even in the holiday season more than half of what we receive in the mail is not needed. Just because my mother once went on a cruise and later had her mail forwarded to my home doesn’t mean that I need to receive a dozen or more flyers advertising boat cruises each year. There are a lot of merchants from whom I have made an online order who believe that I would suddenly stop shopping online and revert to using their catalogues, so they send one to me. After all, they got my mailing address from the order when I made a purchase. If i’m shopping online, what makes you think I want a printed catalogue?

It isn’t just that my house tends to fill with clutter, which is an annoying problem in itself. It is also that it wastes time having to sort the various papers after each venture. And, worse of all, it wastes valuable resources. Let’s save the paper for love letters rather than waste it printing color catalogues of items that I would never order.

According to Erik Erikson’s developmental stages, I’m at the point in my life where I need to be sorting out and discovering integrity. I’m willing to accept that sorting is one of my psychological and physical tasks at this point in my life. I need to sort my possessions and get rid of the ones that I no longer need. I need to downsize my home and my life. I understand these things pretty well.

Trust me, however, another catalogue with storage solutions is not helping me clear away the clutter and get back down to the essentials. Yes, I did purchase a piece of Ikea furniture as a gift to my grandson, but no, I don’t need another cabinet with clever plastic bins to get my life organized. I don’t need to buy anything new when my focus is on what I can get rid of. Donate, Recycle, Trash: these are the categories I’ve been using for sorting. Of course there are a few things that I am keeping - OK I’m keeping far more than necessary - but the focus is on having less and purchasing more doesn’t help that process.

My electronic life is not that much different. My email inbox is showing nearly 200 messages this morning and I’m positive that most of them will not even be read. I’ll do a preliminary sort and then go pack through the few that require a response. When I have time, I unsubscribe form emails lists, but that is a task that often has to be deferred and the spam folder and the inbox continue to be filled in a way that forces me to sort the important messages from those that are of no consequence. I have a friend who simply deletes all messages from his email on a regular basis. When I have sent an important message to him, I have to pay attention. If I don’t receive a response, I know I will have to re-send my message because the original was deleted without being read. It works for him, but makes more work for me.

I guess we are condemned to have to deal with a certain amount of clutter and trivia. It is so ingrained in modern life that we don’t really have another option.

But I’m going to start refusing the coupons at the store. I’m going to leave them for the store to deal with. I may miss some cost savings, but I might also avoid purchasing something I do not need.

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

Constitutional law and pirates

Americans have a history of skepticism about titles. Recently I was working on a funeral bulletin with a grieving widow and we had a discussion over the use of the title “The Honorable” which is given to judges. The same title is sometimes granted to mayors, governors and members of legislatures. The person whose funeral we were planning had been an attorney and had left specific instructions regarding his funeral. In his list of pall bearers, he had used the title “The Honorable” to refer to the judge. However, since we were unsure about the propriety of making a distinction in title between the pall bearers, I suggested that we ask the person himself about the use of the title. He quickly asked us not to use the title in the funeral bulletin, but to use no titles at all for the pall bearers. That is what we did.

The discussion goes back much farther in our history than this generation. The framers of the United States Constitution wrote a provision into the body of the document. Article 1, Section 9, Clause 8 of the United States Constitution states “No title of Nobility shall be granted by the United States: And no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under them, shall, without the Consent of Congress, accept any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State.”

The framers of the Constitution wanted to prevent a society of nobility from being established in the United States. They also wanted to protect our government from being influenced by other governments.

So we don’t have knights or dukes or earls or princesses or Queens or Kings or other titles of nobility in our country. The nobility clause in the Constitution is unique in the fact of being a negative clause. It restricts the passage of legislation for a particular purpose. The anti-federalists argued against such a clause, reminding others that the Constitution granted powers to the government, not restrained them. “Why is it necessary to restrain congress from doing what it has no power to do?” they argued. But titles of nobility were of serious importance to the American Revolutionaries and the Framers of the Constitution. They believed that titles clouded people’s judgment.

There was an attempt to amend the constitution placing further barriers on titles. In 1810 an amendment was introduced that, if adopted, would strip citizenship from any person who accepted , claimed, received or retained any title of nobility from a foreign government. This amendment was not ratified by the required number of states, but had no expiration date adopted by congress, so still technically could be adopted if an additional 26 states ratified the amendment.

I know that my readers don’t check my journal for dry tirades on Constitutional Law, but I learned about the nobility clause of the constitution from my reading about pirates and in general, pirates are far more interesting than constitutional law, even though the person whose funeral we recently celebrated would probably argue with me about that suggestion. He loved constitutional law.

The timing of the proposed amendment to the Constitution just prior to the outbreak of the War of 1812 lines up with the technical distinction between pirates and privateers. A pirate is someone who engages in thievery on the high seas for the purpose of personal profit. A privateer is someone who is engaged by a government to take military action upon the high seas for the purposes of defense in times of war. In the early days of the colonies, funding for ships and a formal navy was not available. Therefore private individuals and companies were hired to use ships to disrupt commerce and prevent supplies from being delivered to foreign troops with whom the government was at war. This practice was employed not only by the American Colonies. Britain also used privateers in its battles against Spain, France and other European powers. Privateers were considered to be pirates by their victims, but celebrated as heroes in the countries form which they received their commissions to engage in privateering. Privateers generally paid for their commissions and frequently shared the gains from their actions with the governors who granted such commissions. In the time leading up to the War of 1812, the possibilities for piracy and privateering in the Caribbean wee becoming less and less lucrative due to the heavily guarded warships Spain was using to transport wealth from Central and South America. The pirates and privateers were turning to the other side of the globe where trade between India and the Muslim countries of the Mideast was more easily and more profitably disrupted. The privateers obtained commissions from US mayors and governors and returned to ports in those cities or states without fear of being arrested for their piracy, often paying large sums of money for the privilege.

New York governor Benjamin Fletrcher was particularly quick to personally profit from the sale of commissions and any emoluments that came his way when the pirates returned after a successful voyage. Despite the nobility clause of the constitution, which is also known as the emoluments clause, the governor became very wealthy from his support of pirates. Fletcher’s actions weren’t isolated. There were other governors and mayors who issued commissions for privateers. Some backed less successful pirates, who lost battles at sea and never returned or returned without the wealth of the successful pirates.

In contemporary times, the clause has been brought up in several cases pertaining to the treatment of presents from foreign states given to the President of the United States. The tradition has ben for the President to seek permission from congress to keep any gifts. The clause has made repeated headlines during the current presidential administration over the acceptance of trademarks and funds funneled through businesses such as hotels that provide direct benefit to the President without consent of congress. It will take years for these charges and their defenses to be argued in the courts and it appears that such debates will range for many years to come.

In the meantime, it is pretty clear that for the most part US governors and mayors have stopped accepting cash for issuing commissions to pirates and it doesn’t appear that any of us are in line for knighthood anytime soon.

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

40 years of prophetic imagination

Walter Brueggemann is one of those pivotal teachers whose lessons reach far beyond the classrooms where he lectured. He taught at a different seminary than the one I attended, but my professors used his books and made reference to this work. 40 years ago, when I was graduating from seminary, he published what has become one of the great books of our generation, “The Prophetic Imagination.” That book and the work that stemmed from it has been a critical element in my preaching and in my understanding of biblical literature. I’ve had the opportunity to hear Brueggemann lecture on the topic of prophets and the prophetic imagination on a few occasions and his power and passion reignited in me the excitement of this incredible book. The book has since been revised and there is now a new 40th anniversary edition available.

In my mind the book conveys several important ideas that are simply bigger than any generation. They are concepts that took generations to develop and that will be relevant for generations to come. The community of God - the people who are faithful to God and to the covenant with God - gives rise to an alternative to the existing social order. This new social order is grounded in ethics and a vision of justice for all people, compassion for those in need and resistance to those who would establish systems that discriminate and oppress. The tools that there employed by this prophetic community are not the weapons of war, but rather the nuances of language. The prophets speak in lament and protest and complaint, but they also unfold a dramatic vision of a new community, faithful to God and dedicated to healing the pain of the people.

I think that part of the power of Brueggemann’s teaching has its seeds in the fact that his father was a German pastor serving an immigrant community. When Walter was growing up his father was wrestling with the meaning of serving a German evangelical congregation at the time when the Second World War forced deep changes in the community. His father continued to preach in German on occasion, but was an ardent proponent of adopting the English language not only for business and education, but also for worship. The old immigrants were used to thinking about God in their native language. It was threatening to be asked to sing hymns and hear sermons in this new language. People needed to hear the sounds of their mother tongue, but they also needed to understand that God is not restricted to a single language. And, if an immigrant community doesn’t move away from its mother tongue it will lose the next generation.

So Walter grow up knowing of the critical importance of not just how words read, but also how words sound. He was raised by his minister father to be a minister himself and in graduate school he studied under the great Jeremiah scholar James Muilenburg. It was from this teacher that he learned that if you study the same texts every day of your life, year after year, you either eventually get bored and give up or you are captured by the texts themselves and become engaged in the power of the poetry and language you are studying. Brueggemann was captured by the language.

His passion for the words, the nuances, the tiny details and for the force of the language was eloquently communicated to students over the past five decades in remarkable and powerful ways.

The message the Brueggemann preaches, inspired by the power and eloquence of Biblical poetry, is very different from the message you hear from advertising and from social media. We live in a world that invites us to define ourselves by our possessions. Acquire things. Become a millionaire. Become a billionaire. Political power should belong to those who have the most money and possessions. Consolidate power. The prophets attack this notion of the world with such persistence that those who study their words experience much of contemporary culture as a wasteland. Brueggemann often quotes Jeremiah 4: “I looked on the earth, and lo, it was waste and void; and to the heavens, and they had no light. I looked on the mountains, and lo, they were quaking, and all the hills moved to and fro. I looked, and lo, there was no one at all, and all the birds of the air had fled. I looked, and lo, the fruitful land was a desert, and all its cities were laid waste . . . before his fierce anger.”

Jeremiah is, in one sense describing the devastation of the exile that descended on the people of Israel. Judah was overrun from 598 to 587. The exile continued until 538. You can read these words as ancient history. But if you study them and live in them and look at them over and over again, you become aware that they are contemporary. The destruction of values and the relationship with God is an apt description of our country today. Read on. Read Jeremiah’s criticism of the handling of immigrants. Try to say that you do not see the current government shut down in the words of the prophet.

He also is fond of quoting Isaiah 43: “Do not remember the former things nor consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” Dwelling on the past comes with the risk of becoming blind to the new things that God is doing. Virtually every problem or crisis that has arisen in my pastoral ministry has been accompanied by faithful church members who lament the passing of the old ways. They complain about the youth of today. They tell stories over and over about how the church used to do things. They make no bones about their desire to restore the way things used to be. And, in my experience, the solution to the problem doesn’t come from looking in the rear view mirror. God is always in the future. God is always doing a new thing.

And the words of the prophet become necessary for the health of the community.

What Brueggemann has done so eloquently for so many years is to call us back to the text. And that text will give life to us now and in 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!

Epiphany 2019

An epiphany is a moment of sudden revelation or insight. An idea or concept that had not been known suddenly becomes clear and understood. The English language probably appropriated the word from Greek though Old French and Latin have very similar words for the same idea. We use the word for a season in the Christian calendar that begins on the 12th day after Christmas and continues until Transfiguration Sunday, the Sunday immediately preceding Ash Wednesday. Because of variations in the different calendars that have been employed, the season of Epiphany varies in length. This year easter is fairly late and Epiphany is longer than some years.

The word epiphany is also used by scientists. I was once at a lecture given by Charles Townes about the process by which he and Arthur Schawlow come up with the theoretical concept of lasers. He used the word epiphany to describe the sudden and striking realization about how light works and how it could be manipulated. People often talk about the differences between science and religion, but I am often struck by their similarities. A scientific breakthrough is described very much in the same way as a burst of religious or philosophical insight.

Over the centuries there have been many who embraced Christianity because of a sudden revelation. Acts 9 tells the story as a third-person narrative. As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard the voice of Jesus asking him why he persecuted him. In that moment he went from one who had been a persecutor of early Christians to a follower of Jesus. It was, from the accounts we have, sudden and dramatic and complete.

I have heard others speak of moments of conversion when in a sudden burst of insight their lives and commitments were completely transformed. There are Christians who can name a date and a time when their epiphany occurred and they became persons of faith.

My own experience has been different. I was born into a loving Christian family. My family participated in church and taught Christianity from myth earliest memories. I was baptized as a baby, before I have a conscious memory of the event. I have the certificate of baptism and I have the stories that have been told of it, but I don’t have a first-hand memory of my pre-baptism life. I don’t think there ever was a time when I wasn’t a Christian. Of course I have made decisions in my adult life that brought me to the preparation for and rite of ordination. There are a few dates that have been significant in my journey as a Christian. But there is no time that I can identify as being before I became a Christian.

The celebration of the day of Epiphany involves the reading of the story of the visit of the Magi from the Gospel of Matthew. The other three gospels do not tell the story of wise men from the east who came to visit the Christ child. Tradition has placed that visit on the 12th day of Christmas, though there is no specific evidence that confirms the timing. Given the story that follows about the Holy family fleeing to Egypt to escape Herod’s infanticide, it is likely that the visit occurred some time later, perhaps even a year or more later than the birth. The traditions of the church have, however, over the centuries, landed the celebration of the event win this particular day. For those of us who follow the lectionary of readings, it is the beginning of a fast-paced reading of the life of Christ that reaches a climax on Good Friday when we remember his death and Easter Sunday when we remember his resurrection. We read through the life of Christ in about a quarter of the year.

The day of Epiphany has had other names throughout the history of the church. It has been called Theophany, Denha, Little Christmas and Three Kings Day. The celebration is connected to the belief that the visit of the magi was the first moment when those who were not Jewish recognized the messiah. The idea of the messiah had been a Jewish religious concept, but Jesus Christ came to the entire world, not just to those who were of the Jewish faith and traditions. Through the magi, the messiah was revealed to those who did not come from Jewish traditions.

Some years we celebrate Epiphany and the Baptism of Christ on the same Sunday because the season of Epiphany is shortened and we have a lot of ideas to celebrate in a short amount of time. This year, we are allowed two distinct Sundays so will recognize Epiphany today and the Baptism of Christ next Sunday.

There is something pleasant for me about having Epiphany day land on a Sunday. It gives the opportunity to recognize the event with the larger congregation that gathered for Sunday worship. It gives us the opportunity to reflect on the many different ways that the ideas and practices of Christianity have spread throughout the world.

We don’t have much original material for our celebration. There are just 12 verses in the Gospel of Matthew that mention the Magi. Most of those verses report about the interactions between the Magi and Herod the king. There are just three or four verses that tell of the joy of the Magi upon reaching the house where Jesus was, their bowing down and worshiping, and their offering of three precious gifts. Most of the time when we tell the story, we add all kinds of imagined details. We assume that the number of Magi is three, though there is never a count given for the number of people, only the number of gifts. We like to tell the story of them traveling by camel, though there is no mention of how they traveled from the east. Our imaginations are stirred by the story and by the many pieces of artwork we have seen depicting the event.

So today we celebrate revelations. New ideas and concepts emerge and become clear. Our understanding is deepened. It is worthy of a celebration.

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

Reflections on travel

For years I have used a line that goes something like this: If you find yourself looking for a bigger boat, perhaps you should find a smaller lake. We have an inbuilt urge to go faster and to use bigger and better means of transportation, but there are other ways to think about how we get around. I’ve been paddling on a tiny reservoir in South Dakota for more than two decades, and there is still a lot for me to explore. I know the shoreline of that lake by heart, but there are always new things to see. Because my boats are small, it takes more than an hour to paddle all the way around the shoreline of the lake, tucking into each little cove and inlet. I can and have paddled directly across the lake when the goal is to get to the other side, but when I have time, I prefer to simply explore. The beavers change the shape of the area where the creek flows into the reservoir. The eagles choose different trees in different years. The fish may be rising in one part of the lake one day and another the next.

Boats lend themselves well to going slow. A displacement hull is most efficient traveling at a relatively slow speed. In boats that don’t plane, smaller engines can move them using relatively small amounts of fuel. Of course, for those who want or need speed, boats can be designed to go very fast, but simply adding more horsepower works only up to a certain point. Traveling through water involves tremendous amounts of drag. The solution for speed boats is to get the hull out of the water, reducing drag. The shape of the hull of the boat can make a great difference. Long and narrow boats travel through the water easier than short and wide ones. Racing boats are designed to hydroplane, rising out of the water. Some practically skim across the surface rather than penetrating deep into the water.

My kayaks are very efficient boats. One of my boats is 17 and a half feet long and only about 26 inches wide at its widest point. It paddles with very little effort. It is hard to turn at slow speeds, but it only takes a few paddle strokes to gain enough speed to maneuver. That boat is slightly unstable when sitting still in the water and rolls easily. However, add a bit of speed and it seems to be very stable. The instability is one of the costs of speed. I have another boat that is only 11 feet long and is several inches wider in the cockpit. That boat is nearly impossible to roll. I can lean all the way over and it only tips slightly. It is easy to turn, but a bit slower in straight paddling. The laws of physics place limitations on boats. All boat owners learn to make compromises. Some of us decide that we need more than one boat to satisfy different conditions. I wouldn’t take my sea kayaks down the creek, and my creek boat is only fun to paddle on flat water when I am playing and practicing. It isn’t much good for just straight paddling across the lake.

I think that the most apt comparison for a technique to go slow on land might be a bicycle. The technology gives mechanical advantage to muscle power, but when it comes to practical speeds for bicycles, somewhere less than 30 miles per hour is most efficient. It takes longer to cover a distance, but the slow pace enables you to see more. My mother and brother both made some epic journeys on bicycles. My brother has crossed the United States at least four times by bike. The price of that kind of journey is time, which I’ve never been willing to invest at this point in my life.

We experienced a bit of the trade off earlier this week when we ended up driving the last 400 miles of a trip we had planned to travel by flying. The route of the roads is a bit longer than the distance needed to fly directly, but a car trip takes roughly six hours while the ride in an airliner takes about one hour. Given the amount of time that is required for airport security and travel to and from the airport, the time savings isn’t quite five hours, but it is significant. I suppose that we accomplished less work because we took more time to travel, but those things are a bit hard to measure. Traveling by car gave us time for conversation that we wouldn’t have had if we had flown. And we got to watch the antelope, spot a couple of eagles, enjoy the vistas of Wyoming and see things from a different perspective than we would have looking out of an airline window.

As energy prices climb, a very practical solution for transportation is to travel a bit shorter distance and to go at a slower pace. There re other factors. Large public transportation vehicles that cary many people use less energy per person than small personal vehicles. But the general rule of going slower and traveling shorter distances still applies.

So far, however, I’m unwilling to restrict myself to the short distances. Our son lives 1200 miles away and his three children are our only grandchildren at this time. For now we want to make that trip as often as possible. And he is the closest of our children. Our daughter and her husband live in Japan, over 5,300 miles from our home. When we went to visit them, We drove 1200 miles, took a long airline trip, then traveled on three different trains. The adventure did nothing to make us want to travel less. Given the restraints of time and money, we’ll do it again when we are able.

There are no simple solutions to our consumption of energy. We try to be prudent, but sometimes the urge for extravagances seizes us.

Still, I’m a big fan of small boats. That’s not going to change. My wife, however, has vetoed plans to paddle to Japan. She’s right to do so. I don’t have that many years left in my life.

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


Yesterday was my first full day back in the office after a week’s vacation. I had hoped to be in the office a day earlier, but the travel delay meant that I had to drive 400 miles before getting to work on Wednesday. No worries, I knew what had to be done and there can always be travel delays. No critical meetings were missed. There was, however, a lot that needed to be accomplished in the day. And, it seemed, everything took longer than I thought.

I was working on a draft of the bulletin for a funereal set for Saturday. I asked the funeral home to email me a picture for the bulletin. That meant that I had to check my email, which had a couple of dozen messages, at least three of which needed a response. I’ve learned not to put off responding to emails. It always takes more time when I delay. So I was dealing with those messages, which required putting dates on the calendar, so I had that application open on my desk. Someone poked their head into the office and asked a question, which required me to take a quick look at the church’s annual report. The easiest way to do that is to open it from the church’s web page. I found the information and started to go back to the emails when the man who we had called to fix the church’s voice mail system arrived. I had to go down into the basement with him, where our voice mail and phone system controller are located. I returned to my desk and had to close several windows on the computer to get back to the email. I retrieved the picture and placed it in the bulletin, closing a few more windows while I was going.

When I think of it is is evident why the desktop on my computer resembles the top of my physical desk. There are several stacks with multiple documents and more than a few things that I intended to deal with, but now can be thrown in the trash because they were time sensitive and I didn’t meat a particular deadline.

I like to think of myself as organized, but my organizational systems sometimes only barely keep up. Sometimes they don’t keep up.

More than four decades ago, I read some of the books by Marshall McLuhan, the Canadian professor who wrote that “the medium is the message.” He also wrote about the accelerating pace of change. I wasn’t a big student of media or media theory, but his philosophical ideas connected with my thinking at the time. I haven’t read his words or even thought about him for quite a long time, but it seems to me that what he wrote about the acceleration of the pace of change has proven to be very accurate. What I don’t know is how much the perception that things are changing more quickly is affected by my age. I have more memories to keep organized than was the case when I was in my twenties. I have experienced more change simply because I have had more years in which to experience change.

A couple of years ago, I read an article in Forbes Magazine about how interruptions at work destroy productivity. An interruption causes you to lose concentration and according to the article (if I am remembering it correctly) it takes an average of 25 minutes to return to the original task after an interruption. The article suggested that the solution was to learn to avoid interruptions at work, thus increasing productivity.

The problem with that is that my job is often the very thing that has interrupted my work. I know that sounds a bit convoluted, but my job isn’t answering emails or producing printed documents. Those tasks need to be accomplished, but my job is being in relationship with the people I serve. Their phone calls and stopping by my office is what my job is all about. Yes, I may be more inefficient at some tasks that others consider to be simple, but the truth is that many of the tasks I do could be done others. There are plenty of people who can manage the church’s software and phone system and sound system and make sure that the Christmas items are put into the right storage area. There are others who can set up the lights and move the piano. My real job is talking to the members and friends of my congregation. My job is serving those in need who come to the church because they have nowhere else to turn. My job is to deal with the interruptions.

Traditional notions of productivity aren’t especially helpful when it comes to the work of a pastor. The books and articles about efficiency and avoiding interruptions and maximizing productivity rarely are about those of us whose whole vocation is tied up in serving people. People interrupt. And in my office they interrupt a lot. There are days when I start a simple task that might take a half hour and I still haven’t accomplished that task ten hours later. While it probably would have made sense for me to delegate that task to another person, I have to remind myself that while I was not accomplishing that task, I was doing other things and most of those things are far more important than the original task.

So I have a messy desk in a cluttered office and each time I try to make order out of the chaos, I am interrupted and don’t ever get all the way through the task. I’ve got more half done projects on my desk than I can count. I’m willing to live with that. I’m willing to go to bed at night with tasks that are unfinished. I’m OK with unfinished business and undone tasks. I don’t know whether or not it is a problem to my congregation, but I can guarantee that the clutter and unfinished tasks bother some of them.

And if they stop by to share their concern with me, I certainly will stop trying to get to the bottom of the stack of papers on my desk and give my full attention to what they have to say. For me, really listening is more important than getting my desk cleared. This way, I have plenty to do tomorrow and the day after that.

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!

Savoring Christmas

There is a relationship between the ways we celebrate Christmas and where we live. That seems obvious, but one of the gifts of my life has been a career-long friendship with a colleague who lives in Australia, where the seasons are reversed from ours. Christianity developed and expanded in the northern hemisphere and our celebrations reflect the changes of season that go with particular times of the year here in the north. Lent, the season which occurs in the spring gets its name from the lengthening days. In the southern hemisphere, the days are getting shorter at that time of the year. Epiphany, the celebration of the visit of the Magi, is filled with images of light and life and reflects ancient ceremonies and traditions celebrating the period that follows the shortest days of the year. On the other side of the globe, the shortest nights of the year are starting to give way to a period of shorter days and longer nights. This phenomenon hasn’t stoped Christianity from being relevant and meaningful in the southern hemisphere. In fact there are areas in Africa and South America where Christianity is growing at a much faster pace than many northern locations such as Europe and the United States.

While I understand these concepts in my mind, my experience is so firmly rooted in the place where I live that I have a hard time thinking of the world in a different way. I don’t really know what it feels like to live the cycle of the seasons in the southern hemisphere. The only substantial time I’ve spent in the other hemisphere was a month in Australia in 2016 during the winter in that place, while it was summer here. Our visit included a trip to the south of Tasmania and a trip to see the tiny penguins south of Melbourne, so we experienced a bit of Australian winter and felt a little cold during the season that was summer at home, but our trip also included a visit to Uluru and Alice Springs, where the weather was warm and similar to our summer temperatures. And a month is too short to get the feeling of the flow of seasons.

It is hard for me to distinguish my feelings about living through the cycle of the Christian Calendar with Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter and Pentecost following one another in a cycle that repeats every year from my feelings about the cycle and flow of the seasons with their changes in weather.

I have loved living in a place where we have four seasons. Having recently traveled to the West Coast where the weather was a little chilly, with some skim ice forming on shallow water to our home, where just a few days ago a major blizzard shut down travel reminds me that I like the winter. I didn’t mind having to get out the snow blower to clear out the driveway. I like seeing the artful curves of the snow drifts that show evidence of the strong winds that moved around the snow during the storm that we missed. I’m comfortable with t being winter where I live. I know that the snow isn’t forever. I get a reprieve from weekly lawn mowing at this time of the year and I am grateful for that break. The garden is resting under the snow and doesn’t need my care and attention. It is a gift, just as it will be a gift when spring invites me to return to the soil and do some planting.

This year Easter lands on one of its later dates. The date of Easter can vary by more than a month, landing between March 22 and April 25. It will fall on April 21 this year. It will be a bit earlier in 2020, landing on April 12. Since Pentecost is 50 days after Easter, its date moves around the calendar as well, so it lands on June 9 this year and on May 31 in 2020.

Just as each year’s weather is unique, so is the experience of the season of Epiphany, which is a different length each year. This year we get 104 days between Epiphany Day and Easter, which seems like a good amount and allows for a slightly slower pace for all of our celebrations than in years when we cram the same number of events into a season that can be nearly a month shorter.

I know, however, that the time will seem to fly by. Here at the beginning of the calendar year, when it is traditional to make resolutions and set goals, I am, as usual, ambitious in thinking about what I can accomplish. There are a lot of things that I want to occur in the coming seasons and I know that it is likely that I will succeed in some of my goals and fail in others. I’ve gotten to the place in my life where i do not expect radical changes in my personality or appearance. I know that meaningful change takes time and that slow changes are often the most lasting ones.

So here we are as we celebrate the final days of Christmas. It is neat that Epiphany Day, which is always January 6, lands on a Sunday this year. We’ll celebrate worship in the morning with the Christmas Tree and then take it down, the final of the Christmas Decorations to be put away for another year. We have just a few delicious days to enjoy it and to revel in the season before moving on.

In some ways Christmas has been defined by our travels in the last two years. Spending a week of Christmas with our grandchildren has been a delightful experience both years. Coming back home after the visit is a bit like ending a season even though there are still a few days of Christmas left. My emotions are tuning to what is coming and I am looking forward.

Today is a good day to take a breath, relax, and enjoy the glory of this season before I push forward toward all that is coming.

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!

Standing in Line

Most of the times our plans go smoothly. Sometimes they do not. Yesterday didn’t go according to plans when our flight from Denver to Rapid City was cancelled. It is a long story and I’m too mad at United Airlines to tell it fairly right now, so the basic outlines are that we are in a motel in Denver with a rental car outside and we have a 400 mile car trip to get home. Needless to say our arrival at home will be delayed and the day will be long. There is work that must be done.

It is simply the case that things don’t always go according to plan and sometimes it takes a Plan B, C, D, or E or even more to figure out what to do. The trick is not losing your cool and learning to adapt as you go. The important thing is that we are safe. We have not experienced any injuries. We are only delayed and we will catch up with our work when we get home. And we’ll go on adventures in the future. This experience is not going to sour us on traveling, visiting our family or other adventures.

I was once told that we Americans aren’t very good at standing in line. Actually the person with whom I was speaking was British, so he said we aren’t good at standing in queue. Since I did a bit of that yesterday, I’m wondering whether or not he is right. The reality is that we don’t have to stand in line very often. Most of the time we are able to get what we need without much of that. There are queue areas in some fast food restaurants, but we don’t tend to go to those places very often. The place where we are used to standing in line is the airport. Most airports have stanchions with tapes to indicate the pattern in which people are supposed to line up as they wait for attention at service counters and at the security checkpoints.

Yesterday we had checked in to our airline online, so there was no line for us at the ticket counter. We did, however, wait in line for about 10 minutes at the security check point. Seattle-Tacoma airport was clearly set up for much longer lines at that point. A huge amount of area in the terminal is consumed with stanchions and tapes to indicate where the lines are to form. We stood in line about the same amount of time while we waited to board the airline. It always surprises me how aggressive some people are when it is time to board the airline. We all have reserved seats. The plane isn’t going to leave without us. But people will be fairly rude about standing in line, trying to gain advantage and get onto the plane before other people who are also trying to board. For my part, I’ve learned to simply let those who are pushy go ahead. I don’t think they get much of a prize. They have to wait while the rest of us board.

While I was waiting in line, it was also interesting to see how many people seem to have trouble with the airlines’ rather simple guidelines about the size of luggage. I too don’t think that the surcharge for checking bags is a reasonable fee, but I’ve learned the rules and am willing to comply in order to reach my destination. I’ve gotten used to limiting myself to a bag that will fit under the seat in front of me because the overhead bins are so crammed with luggage that it is awkward to use them.

Upon arriving in Denver and finding that our flight to Rapid City had been cancelled, we got to wait in line for just over an hour and a half at the customer service counter. It was long enough for me to call the airline’s customer service phone number and receive very bad and very expensive advice from the ticket agent who answered my call. Part of the advice was to stay in line to get a voucher for a room and meals and talk with the agent about possible restitution for the cancelled ticket. Of course when we finally got to speak to an agent the first thing that happened was that we were given a card with a number to call to request compensation for the disruption of our flight, but that is a story for another day.

Standing in line for over an hour meant that we struck up conversations with some of the other people standing in line. We know about the nursing student from Ontario, Canada, who missed her connection to Los Angeles where she was to board a flight to New Zealand. We know a bit of the story of the grandmother trying to get to Alaska to visit her 2 year old grandson and be with her daughter for the birth of a new granddaughter.

We learned that some people really don’t want to talk when they are tired and hassled and have been standing in line for a long time. Others become quite chatty. It was also easy to observe that there are rules people observe when standing in line. Someone who tries to get ahead and cut in front of others is not appreciated. Those who stand in the premier line when they belong in the regular line are turned away from service and forced to stand in the other line.

There was another line in the lobby of the hotel as we waited with others who would have been on our flight to check in. The line there was the size of the number of people who would fit in the shuttle van to the hotel. It was in that line where I invited a mother who was caring for a baby in her arms and two toddlers to go in front of me. She was tired and needed a break. It was there that I noticed that no one else would yield their place in line to her, though it would cause only a very short delay.

I think my British friend is right. We Americans don’t know how to stand in queue. I sure wish others had let the tired mother go ahead of them.

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!

New Year's Swan Song

trumpter swans; snow geese
2018 was a momentous year for us. We were able to travel to Japan, tour with our daughter and son-in-law, reunite with our exchanged daughter of 20 years ago and meet her family. We took what is likely the last sabbatical of our working career. We were able to spend more time with our grandchildren than has been possible in other years. And yesterday, on the last day of the year, we were able to witness one of nature’s most spectacular displays.

Every winter, Skagit County, Washington is a short-term home for migrating trumpeter swans, their smaller cousins, tundra swans as well as their cousins, snow geese. I had seen pictures of farm fields filled with the swans and previously had seen groups of hundreds of the birds as they were feeding in the day. Yesterday, we went to a place that is known as a nighttime resting place for the birds. We arrived in the late afternoon as the sun was sinking off to the west, giving the mountains to the east a wonderful warm glow.

The field was filled with the birds. It was impossible for me to estimate the number. There were thousands. About 11,000 trumpeter swans and as many as 55,000 snow geese have been counted in fields around the one we visited. We walked along the road, photographing the birds, being careful to not disturb them as they came in to rest for the night. Added to the fact that it was a sight I had never before seen was the sound of the birds. It was amazing to hear so many calling out to one another. The riot of sound was entertainment in itself.

Then a few birds took to the air. I was trying to get good photographs of flying birds when something caused a huge number of them to take off. The air was filled with birds. There were so many that I wondered how they could fly in such numbers and not run into one another. The huge mass of birds circled for a while before returning to the same field. The shutter on my camera was going as fast as possible as I tried to capture the moment.

We saw occasional migrating trumpeter swans and snow geese when I was growing up in Montana. The trumpeters are spectacular birds. They are the largest of North American swans and can stand 4’ high. But in those days they were rare. They were thought to be on the brink of extinction before conservation efforts began to support a rise in their numbers.

What we saw yesterday was something nearer to the way the birds used to populate this area, when they numbered in the tens of thousands instead of hundreds. It was one of nature’s miracles and something that I will remember as long as I live. It was a spectacular moment.

As I study the pictures of the evening’s phenomena, I realize that most of the flying birds I captured on film are snow geese. I do, however, have some wonderful pictures of trumpeter swans on the ground.

As I rise on the first day of a new year, I am filled with gratitude at the way that 2018 ended for me. I am grateful that my grandchildren could see such a spectacular natural display. I’m glad that they live in a place where the performance is repeated each year. I’m glad that their parents are appreciative enough of it to take their children to see it. I’m glad I got to see it with them.

I know little of the perception of birds, but it seems quite possible that the ability to see, process and appreciate the beauty of the event is unique to human witnesses. The birds may not understand how unusual and truly glorious their gathering is. It seems likely that it is one of the events of this creation that requires human witnesses to be fully appreciated.

I realize as I write this morning that like many of my experiences, words are inadequate to describe what I have witnessed. Still, it seems to me that the attempt to describe the event is a uniquely human characteristic. The desire to share the experience and publish it for others to be included is something that we humans seem to do in ways that are different from other creatures.

Of all that has been created and all that has come to life throughout the millions of years of this planet’s history, the glory of creation has come together with a witness who is able to recognize it and who tries to put it into words. It seems to me that this is a form of worship.

I know that my spirit is renewed by close encounters with the natural world. I know that my spirits are lifted by experiences with other creatures. The delight of my 18-month-old granddaughter at the sights and sounds of the birds is something that is as impressive and unforgettable as the birds themselves. And somehow, through no merit or earning on my part, I have been allowed to witness such an exuberance of birds and delight and awe and wonder. With the magnificent Cascade mountains rising in the background, the scene was so incredible, so wonderful, that I am just glad that I was there to see it.

And so we start a new year. 2019 holds wonders. I am waking to the world in a location that is not far from where we went to witness the swans and geese as they bedded down for the night. In a little while, when the sun creeps over the mountains, the birds will once again take to wing, searching for water and food and the essentials of their lives. All are available in abundance in this location. Then, following ancient patterns, they will sense the changing of the seasons in the lengthening of days and when the time is right, begin to migrate back to British Columbia, the Yukon and Alaska. The years go round. The cycle continues. And every once in a while, we are fortunate enough to see what is happening.

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!