I have attended only one high school reunion since I left for college. One year around our 25th or so they held an all-class reunion. I was on vacation and visiting my mother in our home town and so I participated in several events including a reunion band and a barbecue. I found that I was hanging out more with my sister’s classmates than with my own. The deal with me is that I didn’t graduate from high school. I went to college after my junior year of high school. For several years the high school records showed me as a drop out. After I earned my doctorate and was out in the world the record was changed and I now am shown as a student who transferred out of the school. It hasn’t proven to be a problem for me in my life. No one has ever asked to see my high school diploma and most of the time the subject simply doesn’t come up.
The result, however, is that I never went through graduation with my classmates and I went away to college without looking back. For what it is worth, I have never attended a college or seminary reunion, either. Those were important years in my life and I have life-long friendships from those years, but I’m not one for big events and mass gatherings. The three congregations that I served prior to coming to Rapid City all celebrated their 75th anniversaries when I was their pastor. I made it to all three centennial celebrations. It was fun to return and visit with folks.
My sister texted from one of her reunion events: “Having a blast. Like these people much better now that we are all old!” I’m sure that some of the old rivalries and competitions have pretty much faded after half a century. I sort of keep up with a few of my high school classmates by reading their facebook posts from time to time. I’ve sent condolences to them on occasions such as the deaths of their parents. The truth, however, is that I don’t feel particularly close to those people. I’m one who chose a career path that means that I’ve never lived close to the town where I grew up. After attending college 80 miles away, the closest I ever lived was 400 miles away from my home town. That is a different experience from those who stayed in our home town. And both of those are different from someone like my sister who moved away, but moved back after 30 or more years.
My life has been so full and interesting and challenging that I haven’t had much time for nostalgia. The future continues to beckon me and attract my attention more than the past. I read about history from time to time and I don’t think I’m completely uneducated about historical matters, but I am more excited about the present and future. When I have some time for quiet contemplation, I don’t often think about the way things were. I was fortunate to grow up in a loving family in a very beautiful part of the world in a time when we had lots of freedom to live and explore and grow and learn. Now my life continues to be filled with family and the joys of living in a place where I can spend a lot of time outdoors.
If my sister and her friends are feeling a bit old after 50 years, the thing that makes me feel a bit old is the fact that this summer is the year of our son’s 20th high school graduation anniversary. How did we get to be the parents of a son who has been out of high school for 20 years? Those years seem to have gone by very quickly from my point of view. They included a few momentous road trips. I helped him move back home from Los Angeles for a brief stay before he returned to the west coast. I helped him move from Portland, Oregon to Chapel Hill North Carolina - a 6,000 mile round trip. Then after moving across the continent, he did it again, moving from North Carolina to Olympia, Washington. That move was paid for by his employer and I didn’t help with it, but I did fly out and help him move from Olympia to Mount Vernon. By then he had two children and a third on the way.
Our daughter is currently living in Japan. It isn’t her first time of living over seas. She also lived in England for two years after she finished high school. Neither of our children are the stay at home type when it comes to sticking with their high school classmates. Their high school experience was different from mine in many ways. We moved as a family as our son was starting high school and our daughter was beginning middle school. Their elementary school classmates were left behind and their high school friends were new friends to them. They also attended a very large high school where they didn’t know all of the other members of their class - it was quite different from my experience with a class of about 50 students.
Since my sister is two years older than I, I expect to hear about a 50th reunion in a couple of years. I don’t know if I’ll attend. Time will tell. Right now, I don’t feel quite as old as my sister.
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!
One such person is Leonard Mlodinow. He is a physicist, specializing in quantum physics, but among his books are at least three significant volumes of philosophy: “The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives,” “Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior,” and “Elastic: Flexible Thinking in a Constantly Changing World.”
I am not a physicist and I struggle to understand even the vaguest outlines of the topic. My friend Luke Corwin, a physicist and professor is very good at explaining basic concepts to me, but I don’t always follow the mathematics as well as I might have had I studied calculus when I was younger. What I do know is that creative thinking is essential to the process of inquiry into physics. So much of how this universe operates is unknown that one has to advance theories and work to either prove or disprove those theories as a method of understanding why things happen the way that they do. Mlodinow has been involved in that type of inquiry long enough to be comfortable with randomness. Sometimes things just happen the way that they do because that’s what happens, not because that is what had to happen. Mlodinow has studied Brownian motion. As early as the 19th century people noticed that little grains of pieces of pollen would jiggle around for no apparent reason in liquid. The original theory is that there was some kind of life force or energy contained in the pollen. In the 20th century, Einstein explained the motion asserting that the jiggling comes from the impact of the molecules of the liquid on the pollen, pushing it this way and that way.
Mlodinow studied Brownian motion and considered it in the context of his own life. In “The Drunkards Walk” he tells the story of his own father, who was imprisoned in Buchenwald concentration camp, where he stole a loaf of bread from a bakery. The guards were called in and they lined up all the people who had access to the bakery. They asked for the thief to identify himself. When no one stepped forward, they threatened to start shooting people one by one until the thief identified himself. Mlodinow’s father stepped forward before the first shot was fired, figuring that his time to die had come. It was a purely practical decision. If there is going to be death, his stepping forward would decrease the number of people who died that day. He wasn’t however, executed. Instead he was given a job in the bakery and survived. He went on to become a father. It was a random action by someone in authority in the midst of a terrible injustice carried out against people because of their religion. In the midst of extreme cruelty, there was randomness that allowed his family line to survive.
When I look at my own life, I see examples of randomness. A banker declined to loan money to my father when he wanted to purchase a business in Oklahoma. As a result of not obtaining the loan, he returned to Montana and started his business there. Because of that, I was born and raised in the state where I met my wife instead of a location where we would have never met. One of my brothers experienced a heart attack while at work and died before emergency medical technicians could be summoned. One of my sisters experienced an aortic aneurism in a hospital where immediate surgery saved her life. The randomness of location of the events resulted in dramatically different outcomes. Our son met his wife at college. Had either of them chosen to attend a different college they would have never met. Their three children would have never been born. Our daughter met her husband while he was stationed at Ellsworth Air Force Base in Rapid City. She had returned home to work after attending college. Had he been stationed elsewhere or she decided to pursue a different job they would have never met.
As much as we plan and prepare and try to control the major events of our lives, there is always present the reality of randomness. Things happen. They may be good things. They may be bad things. How we react to the events in our lives determines the direction that our lives take. When we moved to South Dakota, I didn’t expect that I would serve this congregation for 20 years. I thought perhaps ten years and then I would move on to another location. In fact I applied for another job about ten years into my time of service here. I didn’t get that job and I don’t regret it for a moment. Staying here was a good thing for me and for my family. But who knows? Perhaps things would have turned out well had I moved on to another position.
Philosophy still matters in our technical and scientific world. I’m grateful that there are scientists who are willing to ask the bigger questions and to study the realities of randomness in our lives.
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 congregation features three worship services each Sunday. One is a traditional service, the second is a jazz service and the third a quiet meditative service. The services feature three different styles of music, each with very talented professional musicians. As a big fan of church music, I’ll tell you what really stood out to me as a first impression: In that brand-new sanctuary is a Fazioli F308 10’2” grand piano. The instrument is clearly one of the world’s greatest pianos, hand-crafted in Sacile, Italy. Such a piano doesn’t come cheap. Our congregation is very proud of our 9’ Bluthner grand piano, but it wasn’t added to our congregation’s musical instruments until more than 40 years after we moved into our building. In defense of our congregation, the first pipe organ, about 2/3 of the existing organ was installed early in the life of the congregation. Countryside, while having clearly made provisions for the installation of a pipe organ has yet to start building their instrument.
What i have seen in new church buildings recently follows one of two patterns. The first, and most common is a building that is not designed for long-term use. These are often steel framed buildings that resemble warehouses on the outside. They are built with large volumes of interior space and outfitted with some of the fixtures one expects in a church building, but they are definitely not cathedrals. They are designed for 25 or 50 years of use with the expectation that the congregation will move beyond the building in that amount of time. You won’t find pipe organs or concert pianos in those buildings. What you will find is theatre-quality sound equipment and space for a small folk or rock band. There will almost always be a drum set in that type of church.
The second pattern for new church buildings is the phase-build building. A design exists for a complete church, but it is not all built at once. The congregation undertakes a series of capital funds drives, adding to the building as funds are raised.
Countryside stands in stark contrast to either pattern. They build from scratch a complete church building designed to be a lasting location for their church. I was told by a member of the building committee that they had invested over 24 million in the building. Our congregation undertook a similar adventure when they moved into our current building in 1959. Our congregation was, at the time, about half the size of Countryside, so they built a smaller building, but the idea was the same: build for the future, using the best materials and techniques available. In the case of our congregation the venture paid off. 60 years later we have a very functional and workable building, no debt, and are freed to engage in significant ministry together.
Again, I am struck by the musical instruments. Music plays a critical role in the life of a congregation. It is more important and deeper than just accompaniment for congregational singing, though singing is important. As long as there have been humans, there has been music. Music is an expression of our spiritual lives. Because humans are a very diverse lot, our music is also very diverse. There are a lot of different styles of music and most styles have found their way into worship experiences. A congregation that ignores music as an essential element in their life, fails to live up to its full potential. Christians are people of the book and we are people of the word, but we are not just people of dry words and dusty books. Our faith is a living faith that is expressed in music.
It is essential to note that there is a place for amateur music in churches. Not all musicians need to be professional in the sense that they are paid for their contributions. The word amateur comes from the same base word as love. Amateurs pursue their passions out of love. An amateur musician is someone who makes music for the love of music. Those musicians bring great quality to church music. Amateur does not need to mean poorly presented. Amateurs are capable of practicing and presenting polished music. Having high standards for musical quality doesn’t mean that people need to be excluded from the program. Rather individuals need to be matched to musical opportunities that are appropriate for their skill level.
Excellent music has been a hallmark of our congregation and one of the reasons we continue to attract new members. There are plenty of congregations that have ignored music in their plans and it almost always is a problem with the long term health of the congregation. A healthy congregation is a musical congregation
There is no magical formula. No one style of music is appropriate for every congregation. In our congregation classical music has long been one of the hallmarks of our worship life. In another congregation it might be jazz or rock or another style of music. Some, like Countryside can have more than one specialty of musical expression.
Our spirits and our music are entwined in a way that can’t be pinned down. Music is an essential part of the life of a congregation. As we continue to plan for our future, may we always keep music in our hearts.
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 know this well because I built a row boat for our grandson when he was an infant. I have a sea kayak in my garage that is nearly finished with the name of my five-year-old granddaughter on it. I’m likely to build boats for our other grandchildren as well. None of my grandchildren have ever asked me to build a boat for them, except the model boat that I built for my grandson. None have yet expressed an interest in paddling or rowing or becoming boat owners. The boats that I have been building are best suited for adults.
There is something powerful and mysterious about being around children that gets one to thinking about legacy. What will I leave behind when I am gone. A child is powerful proof that we are mortal. We know that the child is likely to outlive us. Life will go on after we are gone. The child inspires a desire to be a part of that future. We are attracted to what which lies beyond the span of our own lives.
Making something with our hands that is capable to lasting longer than we will is one way of participating in the future. Perhaps the boat will even be a part of the future of the child. We humans are interesting creatures in that way. I know of no other animal that has a conscious desire to make an offering to the generations that come after its life. Of course all creatures do participate in that future. They offer their genetic material to future generations. In most cases evolution is not a process of a single generation, but an on-going process that continues through many generations.
Building a boat is a way of participating in a multiple generation process. There are many boatbuilding techniques that have been passed down from generation to generation. The simple lap strake boat that the author of the article built involves cutting planks for the boat that lap and are joined with copper nails that are clinched to form a permanent and strong connection. The wood swells when it gets wet, but the copper nails hold it next to the adjoining board so that the boat becomes watertight. That way of building boats has been around essentially unchanged for 2000 years. The boats I build are hybrid. I use traditional materials and skills, fitting pieces of wood together in patterns that form the shape of the boat. I also use contemporary materials such as epoxy and fiberglass to strengthen and seal the boat.
All boatbuilders take from the past. Humans have learned about boat designs and know which shapes move through the water offering the greatest stability and ease of travel. They have learned about paddle and sail design in ways that enable us to travel efficiently without having to completely reinvent the boat in every generation. Building a boat is a way of bridging generations. We take the skills, techniques and materials of the past and offer them to the future in the shape of a boat that, if properly maintained, will last for many generations. The boats that I build have an effective service life of about 50 years, but they can be made to last much longer with proper care and storage. Their lives depend in part on how often they hit the rocks and how hard the impact is. A rock strike that is hard enough to make a hole in the boat can be repaired with proper techniques. Among the boats in our collection is a 60 year old cedar and canvas canoe that could easily last another 100 years. It will be donated to a Nature Conservancy Preserve where it is likely to be used infrequently, properly stores, and might last for many decades.
Perhaps the presence of a child is a reminder of how small and vulnerable all of us are. An accident or illness can change everything in a moment. We can go from people with skills and abilities to ones who are in need of the care of others. Our capacity to build things is ours for only a little while. Holding an infant in our arms is a reminder that we all share this life for a short amount of time. Things change. We age. We are granted only a short time to make our contributions to the world. That realization inspires creativity. We want to produce something that is lasting - that will be around when we are no longer here.
Enough of us are crazy enough to turn that energy into building boats that there are magazines with articles about our creations. The problem for me is that I’m not a fast boat builder. While I finished the row boat with our grandson’s name on it while he was still an infant, he soon had a sister. She is five years old now and I’m just finishing the boat with her name. In the meantime, we’ve had another granddaughter, whose boat has not yet been begun and there will be another grandson in a month or so. I guess I need to really take care of myself and remain healthy. It appears that I have a few more boats that need to be built and each one seems to take longer than the last. At this rate, I’ve got more than a decade of building boats ahead of me.
That doesn’t mean that everything about the building is the same as it was when originally constructed. Over the past 25 years, we’ve made substantial investments to maintain our church home.
As a bit of background, I came to this congregation from serving a congregation that had experienced two fires in their church just a decade apart. The first fire was in 1942. The church was essentially destroyed. The congregation succeeded in building a new concrete block and brick structure. This was a substantial effort in the midst of a World War. Then, in 1952, a fire destroyed the roof the their new church and left substantial water damage throughout the rest of the structure. They rebuilt again and added a classroom wing and parlor in the process. This left them with a modern building to face the baby boom, but it also left them with construction and fund-raising fatigue which was still evident when we arrived in 1985. For a decade we worked at catching up with building repairs and needs caused by decades of deferred maintenance. We invested years in capital funds raising to enable the congregation to purchase additional land, develop plans and construct another addition to the building to provide a modern elevator, new bathrooms on all three levels of the building and expand the sanctuary and office spaces.
After that experience, I was delighted to tour the church building that we currently serve. It was well-maintained and didn’t show the signs of deferred maintenance that we had known. When I asked the interviewing committee about planned building projects they said that none were planned. This was very attractive to me. I thought that I would be able to invest my energy in other areas of ministry and not have to focus on the building.
Of course a well-maintained building becomes that way by constant work. So within the early years of my ministry, we engaged in a major remodel of an existing classroom to make new bathrooms that meet ADA standards and are accessible to all. Then we tackled a fire code update and installed door closers and magnetic hold open devices on doors throughout the building. We had a builder create insets in the fellowship hall so that the doors would not swing out into the hallway space. Shortly afterward we excavated next to the building and installed new drain tile and a stormwater drainage system that piped water away from the building. Three building permits in five years reminded me that no building is maintenance free.
I was reminded of that yesterday. At one point we had 15 workers in our building and six vehicles from various contractors in our parking lot. In the basement, workers were installing large chiller units into the air handlers for our two largest rooms. In the kitchen a crew was cleaning out a drain pipe, replacing a food disposer and associated plumbing. In the entryway, metal fabricators were welding in a new steel beam to provide for an elevator shaft so that a lift can be installed to enable those who use canes, walkers and wheelchairs to safely access our choir loft. A skilled carpenter was constructing ramps to provide wheelchair access up in the choir loft. Much of my day yesterday was building-focused. Decisions had to be made about carpet and paint and a half dozen other issues. What would look best in this place? Can you authorize an additional expense for this?
We have been planning for about 5 years for the current round of building improvements, which included an additional new bathroom to provide for family access and space with privacy for those who need assistance, a new fireproof roof for the building, air circulation fans, new heating controls and valves and the current projects. We have also banked the funds for replacement of our boiler when that is required. This summer we will be installing a new, larger water line into the building in preparation for the installation of fire suppression sprinklers in the building next year. The expenses of this are substantial - over twice the amount required for the building addition that was done in the last year of our previous call.
I believe that the Christian ministry, at its heart is about relationships. My job as a pastor is visiting the sick, comforting the grieving, bringing hope to those incarcerated, reaching out to serve those who have needs and providing for worship that is engaging, relevant and meaningful. I spend a large amount of my time maintaining an institution, making sure that the building is cared for, the payroll is met, the employees supervised and supported, the reports filed, communications with committees and task forces arranged and the like. I am, in a large part, the CEO of a small but very complex organization. And I go home every day with work that has been left undone because the work is expansive and the hours are too short. I didn’t set out to be an administrator of the institution, but a certain level of administration is simply required. I’m not complaining, just being realistic about what is required.
My hunch is that when I have moved on from this call and the church interviews the candidate for its next pastor the question about building will come up and the answer will be, “We have no plans for expansion or remodeling.” The new candidate will be relieved to see a building in such good shape and focus on other areas of church life. Then that person will come to understand that caring for the building is an everyday task in the church. I don’t need to warn the candidate. That person will find out what is required without my assistance.
Some days it seems like the game are all hiding. When we drove the game loop, even the donkeys were about a half a mile from the road. I decided that a walk with the children just to see the donkeys probably wasn’t worth it, so we had a lovely drive and spotted a couple of antelope and a lone elk. I’m not sure that the 2-year-old saw either. She still rides in a rear-facing car seat and it is hard for her to tell what the others are looking at. Our luck changed when we turned onto Iron Mountain road. I could see a group of buffalo heading to the top of the hill and by slowing down just a bit, I timed our arrival so they crossed the road right in front of us. It isn’t quite like herding cattle, but if you watch, you can often tell where buffalo are going to go.
The two-year-old was saying, “Me see! Me see!” Then a yearling walked right by the side of the car, so close you could have touched it if you rolled down the window. Suddenly she said “Oh!” and it was clear she knew what we were looking at. The five-year-old declared, “I like buffalo. They’re cute!” Then she added, “They probably don’t behave cute.” I had told the kids that we don’t get out of the car when buffalo are near because they are big and faster than they look.
The tunnels on Iron Mountain Road give spectacular views of Mount Rushmore even if the tourists from the flatlands who are driving it in the wrong direction for the views can’t understand the concept of one way tunnels and end up stopping their cars right in the middle of your picture. I know I have a bias against “flatlanders.” As usual for driving in the hills when they are full of tourists, we encountered several who crossed the centerline of the highway, their fear of falling off the edge of the road being greater than their fear of a head-on collision. Fortunately traffic moves slowly on the winding roads of the park and we have more patience in that setting than we do on other days.
We didn’t see as much game as I had hoped, but once again South Dakota didn’t disappoint. That is one thing about living where we do. We’ve always got a lot to show guests. Just the joy of a walk through the pine trees is enough to give energy to your days. We’ve been able to find opportunities for the grandchildren to see the baby deer in our lawn, which was one of the goals for the trip.
Mostly we had time to be together. I’ve learned to accept that we live far apart. We encouraged our children to become independent and to explore the world and they’ve done both. We are very proud of our children and the lives they are forging for their families. That means that the times when we are together are incredibly precious for us.
In the evening we gave the parents a “date night” to go out to dinner and we got the grandchildren all to ourselves. After the youngest was in her pajamas, Susan offered to read her a story. She announced, “I go up to grandpa.” She had her ups and downs reversed. I was actually down stairs, but she came to me to have me read. I’ve made some speeches to some big audiences in the past, but I’ve never found a better audience than my grandchildren, who all seem to enjoy it when I read to them.
Life is good and I count myself among the most fortunate of people in the world.
That particular restaurant has a bonus program and since, we’ve eaten there before, I was registered in their program, which meant that I had a coupon for a free dessert. We didn’t really need dessert after our meal, but it seemed like a special night and a good occasion for a special treat, so I ordered a dish with ice cream and cookies - just one item from the dessert menu and asked for seven spoons so each person could have a taste. The dish that appeared in the middle of our table was huge! There was more than enough for seven people. I have no idea what would happen if that whole dish was delivered to one person. I wouldn’t have been able to eat that much at one sitting, I’m sure. I suppose it is possible that the restaurant prepared a special dish for our family because they knew how many were sharing the dessert, but I suspect that the portions at that restaurant are always very generous.
Having children in our home again reminds me that it takes a lot of food to keep such a large number of people fueled. I went through about the same amount of grocery certificates shopping for this week as we normally use in a month at our house. But it also reminds me that it is important to pay attention to portion size. Sweets and desserts need to be just a taste and a treat. Children need to be taught to eat balanced meals and to try a variety of foods. I am impressed with our son’s family and how careful they have been to help the children develop healthy eating patterns. Of course their normal patterns are disrupted by travel and being in a place where grandpa and grandma indulge a few special desires. They aren’t in their everyday patterns, but I’m impressed that the children are good eaters, without giving overboard.
I’ve decided that the restaurant expects people to share desserts. Otherwise the portions are extreme.
I don’t spend a lot of time or energy thinking about food. I love to cook and I do quite a bit of grocery shopping, but we fall into patterns. It is not at all uncommon for me to eat the same menu for breakfast for an entire week or more. I know how to cook things that taste good and give me energy for the day. We keep the groceries stocked in our home. I put a little more effort into dinners, planning menus and introducing variety. We like tasting new foods and when we travel we almost always return with recipes for new foods that we tasted on our journey.
You are probably not going to see recipes as a part of my journal, however. I’m not an evangelist when it comes to eating. I have no desire to make others eat the way that I do. I frequently read articles about people who have discovered a particular food that they enjoy and then set out to convince others that eating that particular food is the best thing for everyone. I don’t want to convert others when it comes to food and I don’t think the world would be better if everyone was the same.
Recently, I read an article about Dave Asprey who says he plans to live to be 180 years old. That’s ambitious for a 45-year-old. he claims the secret to longevity is his special recipe for starting the day with coffee that has butter and coconut oil added. He claims he discovered the beverage while on a trip to Tibet to learn meditation techniques. Of course in Tibet they used tea, not coffee. And the butter was from yaks not from cows. And they didn’t add the coconut oil. Otherwise the beverage is pretty much the same. He claims that starting his day with the beverage has enabled him to lose 100 pounds and changed his life. He started selling his “bulletproof” coffee and the component ingredients. It has been a successful enterprise for him.
I struggle with my weight, but I’ve never been 100 pounds overweight. I’ve pretty much given up coffee in recent years, though I have nothing against it and occasionally have a cup of decaf. But I have no need for butter in my coffee. I’m not a good candidate for conversion to Mr. Asprey’s beverage. And, I suspect, I won’t live to be 180 years old.
But I hope that Mr. Asprey one days knows the joy of eating with his grandchildren and watching them learn to make their own food choices. I’m pretty sure it is a pleasure that greatly exceeds the taste of butter in your coffee.
Yesterday our grandson got the hang of the game. He reported having hooked the ring 7 times and kept playing. Soon it was 12 and then 15 and 20. I was there when he hooked it the 23rd time. It made me think of Bill and his joy at having campers come to camp so many years ago. So many things have changed since those days, and yet there are many things that are just the same.
Spending the weekend at camp with our grandchildren was a special treat for us. It seemed to be a way of passing down an important family tradition of church camp. It was also a visible link between generations of faithful people who have gone before and the youngest generation of our family. Our faith has always been a process of living in community and understanding our links to the generations who preceded us.
The manager’s cabin at Placerville has the name Pogany on a sign. All of the buildings at Placerville have names. Some bear the names of Congregational Pilgrims of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Our family stayed in Bradford cabin. We didn’t get around to telling our grandchildren about William Bradfaord. It was just a name for them. It is quite possible for children and teens to go to camp and the name Pogany wouldn’t mean anything to them. After all, the Poganys have been gone for many years. And Kerry Steever, the current manager of the camp has been a wonderful leader for longer than many of the current campers have been coming to camp. Going to camp doesn’t invoke the same memories for today’s campers as it did for those who went decades ago. There are new people, new experiences, new games and new relationships to be built. But for some of us oldsters, the name Pogany brings back a lot of fond memories.
My wife’s mother grew up during hard times in Isabel, South Dakota. In that country, trees are few and far between. Life can be harsh on the prairies, and her family was thrust into poverty when her father died. Her mother took in laundry and did what she could to survive and Susan’s mom didn’t have the advantages or luxuries that some others had. She did, however, get to go to church camp at Placerville once. She hung onto a postcard received from a missionary who attended the camp and later wrote her for the rest of her life. She was able to return to Placerville several times. Her sister became Mrs. Pogany and the Poganys became managers at Placerville in 1960.
We don’t know all of the stories, but we know some of them. And we know that the experience of Church camp is one that has been passed down from generation to generation in our family. I grew up in a family with a long camp tradition and married into another family with such a tradition. I met my wife at church camp - at family camp to be precise. It is a good match.
The decline in participation in religious institutions is well documented. It isn’t just local congregations that have experienced decline amidst an increasingly secularized society. Church camps have experienced declining numbers as well. It can be a real challenge to raise the funds required to keep a camp going. We know the stories of many church camps that are struggling. The camp where my wife and I met faced a major crisis this summer when the Montana-Northern Wyoming Conference of the United Church of Christ decided that it could no longer afford the expense of large subsidies each year to keep the camp open. There was talk of selling the property. A new non-profit corporation has been formed to take over the operation of the camp, but its future is uncertain as it faces huge economic hurdles just to get the camp into operation for next summer.
People, however, still are experiencing spiritual hunger and wanting to make connections with that which is beyond. I can sense this spiritual hunger when I scan the lists and lists of podcasts on spiritual themes that have become popular across the world. I know a number of people who don’t attend church, but who speak regularly of their hunger for community. One of the best ways to learn about community is to live in community. Church camp gives that opportunity. It may only be a weekend or a week-long camp, but the experience can be life-transforming. Church camp has as much to offer to the current generation as it had to offer to generations past.
I’m not able to predict the future, but I am confident that the children who attend camp this weekend, including our grandchildren, have learned life lessons that will serve them well as they grow up and become leaders. I’m confident that church camp is still an enterprise worthy of our support. And I suspect that will be true long after my time on this earth has reached its conclusion.
What I remember was that for some reason that set of birthdays gave me a sense that my parents were getting older. I hadn’t thought of them as old before. My great Uncle Ted, who lived in our town and joined us for all family occasions and celebrations was much older. So were my grandparents on my father’s side. My mother’s parents were no longer living. For some reason, I decided that 45 was somehow the beginning of old age. Being 66 myself now, that seems like a strange notion, but I thought differently when I was a kid.
The years go by and all of a sudden even 45 years doesn’t seem like all that long of a time. It was 46 years ago today that I stood with Susan in the sanctuary of Mayflower Congregational United Church of Christ in Billings, Montana and promised my love and faithfulness for as long as we both shall live. I enjoyed the feeling of being a newly wed and I hung onto that designation for several years. Looking back this morning, it doesn’t seem like it was so long ago.
There have been some wonderful adventures. Our first year of marriage we set up housekeeping in an apartment in an office building on campus. We served as janitors for the building in exchange for our rent. It was light duty. There were carpets to vacuum, office garbage cans to empty, bathrooms to clean and a few other light housekeeping chores. I don’t think it took us more than 4 or 5 hours a week to do our work. The apartment was small and we had to adjust to both being students with only one typewriter and the desk with the typewriter was in our bedroom which also was our living room. I learned to go to sleep when Susan was studying, but I never got the hang of sleeping through her arhythmic typing. I would sometimes get up and type her papers for her on the belief that I could get more sleep that way.
The next year we moved to Chicago for four years of graduate school. We had several apartments during our time in Chicago, all tiny, all adequate for our needs.
And somehow, the years have flown by and we have become parents and our children have grown up and we have made several moves across the country and now we are grandparents and our family is spread from South Dakota to Washington to Japan.
As I begin this day of our 46th wedding anniversary, the dominant emotion is gratitude. I’m not even sure that gratitude is an emotion, but it is what I feel. I’m grateful that she took a chance on me. I’m grateful that we forged a life together. I’m grateful for her partnership and leadership and strength and intelligence.
We have plenty of friends and family members who have experienced divorce and family reconfigurations. We’ve been blessed to have found the right partners early in our lives. I know that not everyone is so fortunate.
In the first couple of weeks of our marriage, we attended a 50th wedding anniversary celebration for some elders in our church. The typical questions were asked of the couple, including “to what do you attribute your long and successful marriage?” I remember part of the answer that was given at that gathering and I’ve been to plenty of similar gatherings over the years and heard a lot of different answers the the question. It won’t be long before people will start to ask me the question. I don’t know the answer. Part of it is good fortune. I went to church camp and I met the right person. I was fortunate to be in the right place at the right time. The story of how we met entertained our grandchildren at bedtime last night as we are all at a different church camp this weekend. Part of the answer comes from other things that are beyond our control. We’ve been blessed with good health. We’ve had careers that have paralleled and supported each other. We’ve had children who are loyal to and supportive of family.
So I don’t have an answer to why we’ve been married so long. I guess that it is just a matter of having lived to this age and having always wanted to be with each other. We have so much fun being together that neither of us would want to try to go it alone.
It seems to me that there is no better place than church camp and no better activity than introducing our grandchildren to the camp experience with which to celebrate 46 years of marriage. Church and camp have been central to our lives together and will be important to us as long as we are around.
I told my grandchildren last night that when I first met their grandmother she was tall and quick and she took my hat. She returned it, but I wasn’t impressed. I didn’t think she should have taken my hat in the first place. She quit taking my hats a long time ago. The gesture, however, did get my attention and we did become friends. And to this day she is my best friend forever.
Now, thirty years have passed. The little boy who lived in our home at that time and who wore that blue t-shirt is now grown up and a father of three wonderful children. He is now a librarian - director of the Mount Vernon, Washington city library. He has a staff to direct, a foundation to staff, a library to run, programs to plan and a huge building program just getting underway. And, on his days off, he is often found with a t-shirt that sports a library or librarian theme. Those t-shirts have sort of become his trademark. He likes to be seen in his town with a librarian shirt while playing with his kids at the park or taking them to a movie.
My wife, who is more organized than I, got out that 30-year-old t-shirt as we were preparing our home for the visit of our son and his children. At the bottom of the stairs she placed a small bookshelf and filled it with children’s books. She has a very good collection of children’s books. She selected titles that are appropriate for read aloud to the younger children and reading by the oldest. And, above the bookshelf she hung the blue t-shirt.
Ah, the memories that shirt invokes. I suggested that perhaps the shirt should go home with our son and his family, either as a garment worn by one of his children, or perhaps on its way to being part of a display at his library, or both.
The children were all ready for bed. They’d had supper and time to play. They’d gotten into their pajamas and brushed their teeth. They’d gotten a drink of water and were all set. I started to head to the basement to get ready for this morning’s busy activities and I heard a voice, “Poppa Ted, would you like to read me a book?”
Of course the answer was yes. I really do enjoy reading to the children and I really am grateful that they still ask me to read. One book became three and soon two little girls were listening intently as I read to them. Their brother was reading a book to himself while lying on the couch in the same room.
I’m a huge fan of books. I have surrounded myself with books all of my life. I have recently been sorting books and have filled several boxes with books that are headed for the rummage sale. I have another stack of books that will be heading to a used book merchant. I’ve sold some books to amazon.com. I’m trying hard not to collect more books, reading most of my new titles on our tablet computer. One of the things that convinced me to learn to read on the tablet, even though I love real paper books in my hands and turning real paper pages, is that I can carry a dozen books with me on the tablet. It is great for traveling. One of the great memories of my life includes hours upon of hours spent at the Joseph Regenstein Library at the University of Chicago. The magnificent building is five stories plus a basement of books and at the time we lived in Chicago it seemed as if I could fine any book I could ever want in that library. I could spend hours just leafing through the full multiple-volumes Oxford English Dictionary. The library owned multiple copies. It was amazing!
A few years later and I found myself taking our children to the Boise Public Library with its distinctive sign on the face of the brick building that said, “LIBRARY!” That exclamation point was an important part of the culture of our town.
A few years later and our son is a librarian and his children ask their grandpa to read to them. It is a pleasure that is so exquisite that it is hard to express in words. The love of reading and of books has made it to the third generation. Only it is much deeper than that. My mother loved books and her father before her. I come from a long line of people who loved language and letters and books. I can see a bit of my mother in my granddaughters. I know that my grandfather would be delighted to see my grandson perched on the sofa with his nose buried in a book.
I don’t know what the future will bring. I know that one of the big jobs of the next few years will be to downsize our library and choose which books are the most precious and therefore the books that we will keep and move with us to the next place where we will live. I also know that 1989 indeed was the “Year of the Young Reader.” It was an important year in our lives and in the story of our family. The t-shirt is just a symbol of something much more important. Reading is a joy that is worth passing on to our children and grandchildren.
Let’s make every year “The Year of the Young Reader.”
The day started with a good sign. Susan went into the living room to open the blinds and she said, “Come quickly.” I walked into the room and could see right out the front window, a new baby deer. The little critter was probably about 2 days old. It’s hard to say, but it was up and following its mom as she was trying to graze in the lawn. The little one had pretty much mastered the skill of walking. Deer learn that early in their lives. They can stand within 10 minutes or so of being born and they are up and walking within a few hours. It was fun to pause in a busy morning and watch. I have to admit that it is a one of the luxuries of my life to have turkeys and deer for neighbors, who stop by our yard every day.
From there, the day had a few ups and downs - a kind of “bad news/good news” day. The bad news was that the tire on my car was going flat. The good news was that with modern tires, you can fill them with air and drive to the tire shop. The good news was that it was early in the day. The bad news was that the tire shop wasn’t open yet and by the time it opened, I had other things I needed to be doing. The good news is that the air I added to the tire lasted until I got to the tire shop. The bad news is that at the tire shop they were so busy it took an hour to fix the flat. The good news is that it was just a nail and the tire is good for many more miles. You know that kind of day.
I knew in advance that it would be a long day. The arrival time for the plane that had our children and grandchildren was listed as 11:03 pm. That’s late for me. It is also late for the children. My “to do” list was long and the day went by quickly. It began to slow a bit as the time to leave for the airport approached. I have an application on my phone that gives regular updates on flights, so I knew that their first flight had left the gate about 5 minutes late, which would present no problem with the change of flights because they had plenty of time. I checked and they only had to go four gates in the airport to get to their connecting flight and they had more than an hour. Traveling with three children can be a challenge, but their first flight was on a 757, which has six-across seating, so the whole family could be in the same row, if they got their seats assigned that way.
Their second flight was on a 717, which is an old Macdonald-Douglas design to which Boeing assigned a number when it assumed production. The 100-seat twin engine jet has an unusual off-center aisle with 2+3 seating. Five seats in each row is just right for their family. My phone app showed that they should arrive a few minutes early, so we headed out to the airport. We don’t own a car big enough for the whole gang, so we headed out with two cars, with the appropriate children’s car seats borrowed and installed.
The lightning was putting on a good display and it was raining enough to get wet as we rushed into the terminal at the airport. We had seen an airliner make a successful approach and landing as we got close to the airport, so we know that the airport was still open. The app on my phone showed that they were getting close. Then the app showed that they had arrived, but they hadn’t. The thunderstorm cell that was over the airport let loose with a lot of rain and a few dramatic lightning flashes as they approached and the pilot had to do a go around. It is a good safe procedure and the right choice when visibility is severely restricted.
As we waited, we noted that the monitor in the airport that showed the arrivals was a bit confused. For starters, no one had updated the clock display to daylight savings time, so in the place where it showed the current local time, it was really showing the time in Seattle, not the time here. Then the flight carrying our family was listed as having arrived as the pilot shot the first approach, just like the app we hand. A bit later it shows the flight as having arrived ten minutes in the future. They don’t have the same restrictions on cell phone usage that once was the case, so we were getting updates from our son on the plane and knew what was going on.
The plane made a big loop and set up for the second approach about 15 minutes after the first one. By that time, the storm had moved off and they had no problem with a safe landing. Rapid City being Rapid City, of course, they then had to wait on the ramp for the ground crew to be available. The rain had probably slowed some of the work that the ground crews were doing unloading the previous flights. Another five minutes of waiting seemed like an hour and then the passengers began to come through security.
A family of five pretty much goes the pace of the two-year-old, which isn’t as fast as some of the tired business people eager to get off of the plane and get home. Nonetheless it wasn’t long before we could see them coming. After hugs all the way around we claimed their luggage and loaded up the cars.
It was well past their bedtime (and mine too) when we finally got to the house, and it took a few minutes for the excited kids to explore the house and settle down. The day ended even better than it began.
It has been different for us. We have only two children and though we had periods when our parents lived in our home, we’ve never had more than a few of us. And our home is arranged with one more bedroom than the home in which I was raised. Our basement has a finished apartment with its own kitchen, bathroom, bedroom and a small living area. For several years we have lived in the home with just two of us and an occasional guest or two. But we’re going to have a full house this weekend. Tonight our son’s family of five arrive and tomorrow Susan’s sister, her husband and granddaughter arrive. That will make ten. We have enough bedrooms and we have enough bathrooms as well.
There have been some preparations for the rush of people.
Four of our guests are children, ranging from 2 to 8. They are all arriving on the airlines, so we had to borrow four car seats and boosters of the appropriate size and shape for the visiting children. Parents can take child car seats with them when they travel and they aren’t charged to check them with their luggage, but the seats are large and difficult to carry. We know a lot of grandparents, so borrowing the right seats was not a problem.
I remember a couple of airline trips we made with our two children when they were 2 and 4 years old. We didn’t even consider taking their car seats with us. We drove 180 miles to get to Rapid City where we boarded the airliner which flew us to Denver where we switched planes for the flight to Boise. The process was repeated for our return. We made two trips to Boise in the spring of that year. Our daughter was prone to ear infections and on one of the trips she suffered when the pressure changed with the flight. It was a challenge for us to care for the kids. We only had two. Our son is traveling with three. And they arrive very late at night. They’ll have tired kids and probably will be in need of sleep themselves. Our guests arriving the next night will be traveling with their granddaughter and it will be her first overnight away from her parents. So it is a big deal fo our guests. We want them to feel welcome, comfortable and at home when they arrive.
Of course one of the rooms in our basement has been transformed into play room, filled with toys that our children used when they were little. Gone is the ironing board and sewing machine that usually are the centerpieces of the room, replaced by a lego table and a shelf of dolls and the big doll house and a host of other toys. It is something that was a tradition in my wife’s parent’s home. Whenever children visited, there was a room in the basement dedicated to toys and playing. It surprised me the first time we came, with friends from seminary who had two children. My mother in law had spent a lot of time making a welcome space for the children. When the same group got to my family’s home, they were just added into the usual full house. Beds were found for sleeping and there were a few toys to be found under the eaves in the upstairs bedroom, where they had been since they fell into disuse with our growing up.
In the midst of all of this, I find myself to be very excited about the arrival of our guests. We’ve been anticipating this for a long time and today has finally arrived. I don’t remember being so excited about guests when I was younger. I can hardly wait, even though my list of things to do today is a long one.
There’ll be plenty of ideas for the journal for the next week.
A day or so later, I headed to the courthouse to register the boat. The clerk asked me what the serial number of the boat was. I said, “I guess it must be 1. I made the boat and it is the first one I’ve ever made. That wouldn’t work. In fact the State required a nine-digit serial number that followed a formula, which, I later discovered, the clerk gave to me incorrectly. I wasn’t happy doing so, but I found two places to comply with the regulation and wood burned the number into my boat. I returned and learned that the numbers had to be inspected by a law enforcement officer. I found a willing deputy who inspected the numbers and returned with the form at which time it was discovered that the numbers were in the wrong order according to the formula. I told the clerk that I had done exactly as instructed and that changing the numbers, permanently wood burned into the boat, would be a huge job. Finally after much back and forth, I was allowed to use the serial number burned into the boat and was allowed to register the boat. I then had to display a hull number on both sides of the bow of the boat in just the right size along with the registration sticker issued by the state. I complied and have had many years of happy paddling.
Each time I built a new boat, I registered it according to the regulations. I learned the formula for serial numbers and I made friends with deputies for inspections and I got used to the rules. I learned that boats under 12feet are exempt from the regulation regardless of how they are powered, so I built a boat that was 11’6” long just to escape the formalities.
Each year the license on the boat needs to be renewed, so I go to the courthouse with my paperwork, pay the fee, which has risen over the years to $18 per boat. I obtain a new sticker and affix it to the boat. At some point along the way the state updated its computer records, which I’m assuming involved someone manually entering data. I imagine that that data entry clerk had longs days and got tired and that the work was boring, because I noticed one year that the make of my canoe, which at one time had been “homemade” was changed to “hugh glass” I know of no boat maker with the name hugh glass, but that’s what the paperwork says. I have a title to that boat, because they used to require titles for canoes, something that seems to be unique to South Dakota. My title says it is homemade, regardless of the registration. I inquired about it and was told that it is a big hassle to change the manufacturer.
All of this creates confusion when I travel to other states. Due to invasive species, all boats need to be inspected at state lines. Depending on the route I take, I have been inspected in Wyoming, in Montana, in Idaho, in Washington and in Oregon. We never have trouble with inspections because I keep my boats clean and I have no propellors or bilges or live wells for muscles and plants to hide and affix themselves. A quick visual inspection and a recording of the boats and I’m on my way. However, at most inspection stations, I have a conversation with the inspector that goes something like this, “Why do you have a hull number on a canoe?” I respond, “In South Dakota it is required on every boat over 12 feet.” The inspector continues, “But it is a canoe.” “I know, but that’s the way it is in South Dakota.” Usually the response is something like, “I’ve never heard of such a thing.”
There are many states that require the registration of canoes. Our neighbor, Minnesota is one of them. Residents obtain stickers which are affixed to the bows of their boats, but they are not required to display Coast Guard hull numbers to human-powered craft. One of the state inspectors told me that if I moved permanently to his state, I would be required to remove the coast guard numbers from the hull to avoid confusion.
One of the quirks of living in the United States is that individual states have authority to make their own rules. With canoes and kayaks it is assumed that the boats will stay pretty much close to home. My boats, however have lived more exciting lives. I’ve paddled one of my home made boats in both east and west coastal waters of Canada and the United States, in three of the Great Lakes and in countless lakes, ponds and rivers all across the US. I estimate that a couple of my boats have more than 50,000 miles travel on the top of my vehicles or my trailer. They get around.
The bow numbers don’t seem to be a big problem when I travel, just a point of curiosity and a topic of conversation. It becomes one more chance to tell people that we in South Dakota are unique, a bit different and sometimes quirky. We like it that way.
The day that we picked up our daughter in anticipation of her adoption, I stayed up most of the night. I had driven a long distance and we had stopped for the night in a motel. We had a motel crib in the corner of the room and my wife and son were sleeping, but I was too excited to sleep. I kept getting up and looking at that tiny baby sleeping in the corner. I wasn’t really afraid that there was a problem, but it was reassuring to watch her breath in and out. In the weeks to come, she was to prove herself very capable of disrupting sleep. Unlike our son, who had learned to sleep all the way through the night early in his life, our daughter woke frequently. Because he was adopted, we fed her formula, which meant that I was as capable of night time feeding as her mother. So there were lots and lots of night when I would be up with the baby, changing, feeding and rocking her.
She was keeping me up at night well into her early twenties when I would worry when she didn’t return home at the time I expected. For much of my life, I have associated interrupted sleep with the role of being a father.
Father’s Day is always a Sunday, so I have always associated Father’s Day with our life in the church. Our celebrations usually were in the afternoon or evening and mainly consisted of some special activities with the children. We’d go to a park or take a walk or sometimes take a canoe to the lake.
These days the high point of father’s day usually has to do with the telephone or computer. Our children live far away from our home, but they are very attentive to their father. They know how much I love their calls. And we have the technology of video on our phones and computers which makes the experience even more fun. Yesterday I could watch as our son was playing with his two daughters at the park. His father’s day involved having special time with each of his three children, and his son and wife were doing an activity together to give him some time to be with his daughters at the time we called.
Our five-year-old granddaughter is now capable of holding the phone and having a conversation with us and she will hold the phone up to the two-year-old so we can see and speak with her as well.
One of the deepest pleasures of being a father is he joy of watching my son be a good father to his children. Not only is he attentive and responsible for their care, but, like me, he really enjoys his children and takes great delight in being with them. He always has really fun stories to tell me about his children and their activities and adventures.
And now our daughter is expecting and soon we will have a grandchild in her home as well. I have no doubt that she will be an excellent mother and that watching her in the role of parent will be a deep pleasure for me.
The thing about being a father or a mother is that it is a 24 hour a day, 365 days per year job (366 in leap year!). And it is a role that once assumed never ends. When our children grew up and launched from our home into their adult lives, I didn’t feel any less distant, any less responsible or any less caring. I don’t feel a need for a special father’s day because every day is filled with the joys of being a father. I’m grateful that our children are always very good about wishing me a happy father’s day when the holiday comes around, but they are also very good about keeping in touch and giving me their love on other days as well.
I never experienced raising children as a sacrifice. Yes, our children were high priorities in our lives, but I never felt like caring for them was something I didn’t want to do. I got up in the middle of the night because I wanted to. I spent time with our children because it was a very good way to spend my time. I can’t think of any investment I’ve ever made that gave me more pleasure than investing in our children’s education. I’ve bought vehicles and equipment and books and a couple of houses over the years, but nothing has given me continuing pleasure and pride of ownership like our children’s education. I see the return on the investment every day. I’m so glad our son got the education that he did. I’m so proud of our daughter’s education and vocation. Nothing I’ve ever invested in has given a deeper, longer-lasting or more impactful return.
When our children and grandchildren wished me “Happy Father’s Day” yesterday, I thanked them and I told them that I am a really happy father. Life has been good to me. Our children have been good to me. Our grandchildren have been good to me. And I know that whatever is to come nothing will take away the joy of being a father.
All the same, if you have some experience, you can spot opportunities to leave the room or excuse yourself to get a bit of a break. Yesterday’s agenda included an unscheduled hour at the end of the business sessions followed by a social hour. I knew that the business session would run over due to the number of people who needed an audience, but I also knew that after the adoption of the budgets, the remaining business, which included elections with no nominations from the floor, so the outcome was unaffected by my vote, could be missed. And I knew that no one would miss me from a social hour. I’m not a big drinker and I’m no good at balancing a drink in one hand while trying to carry on a conversation in a crowded room where there are so many people talking that I have trouble hearing.
There was an opportunity to pay a visit to a family member of a member of our congregation so we ducked out of the end of the business session and left the meetings to pay the call. It was a delightful visit, just two couples, in their home and we wished that we had had more time.
Earlier in my career, I was worried about appearances. I wondered who would miss me if I skipped part of a meeting. I didn’t want to appear as if I was standoffish at a social hour. But these days, I don’t need to make impressions. I’m not gunning for any of the jobs in the conference. I don’t have anyone I need to impress. I know that there are many tasks of real ministry that go unnoticed, but are important.
For a person with a disabling disease who needs constant care and for that person’s caregiver, showing that the church cares about them, even if it is the church of a relative, can make a big difference in those persons’ day. For us, reminding ourselves that we are called to serve, and not called to make an impression on others by having clever words, was important.
One of the things that always surprises me about conference meetings is the number of retired pastors who can’t imagine ever missing one. They attend the meetings ever year long after the end of their active careers. These days, retirement can be a long time. We sat at table with a friend whose father was a minister who lived to the age of 100. He had retired at 65. That’s 35 years of retirement! He probably didn’t attend all of the conference meetings during his retirement, but even if he only attended 20, that would be a lot of meetings. When I contemplate my retirement, I think to myself that perhaps I would never again need to attend a conference meeting. I attend because the connections with my congregation are important. I don’t see it as a recreational activity.
At the meeting was a colleague who is on sabbatical this summer. I commented to him that I didn’t think of attending conference meetings as a sabbatical activity. He said, “Oh this isn’t work!” That’s the difference between him and me. I think that the meeting is really hard work. Visiting lonely folks, calling on the sick, planning and leading worship, and being a pastor are parts of my life that I love. I’d much rather do those things than attend meetings any day. On our sabbatical, we avoided meetings in favor of travel, prayer, reading and writing.
Not all pastors are alike, and that’s a good thing.
So for the members of my congregation who are reading this journal entry, I attended every worship service and business session of the meeting. I represented our congregation to the best of my ability. But I didn’t make any floor speeches. I didn’t address the assembled group and I didn’t extend the evening into the wee hours with my storytelling. I’ll save those things for another time and place. I did, however, find an opportunity to make a visit that extended care to the extended family of a member of our church. I did offer the love of Jesus to a family who sometimes feel a bit lonely and isolated from the community. I did pray with a caregiver who has extended herself as far as anyone could. I probably didn’t impress any of the people who were attending the meeting.
At the end of the evening, the person who was sitting next to me asked me about a colleague who was on the stage telling a story after having been visible in font of microphones several times earlier in the day, “Is he always this full of himself?” I smiled and responded, “Yeah, I used to be that way.”
Somewhere around the middle of our career, the United Church of Christ began an effort to provide recognition to and encourage the development of young clergy. There began to be meetings of 20 and 30 year something clergy. There were even t-shirts at a few gatherings of the Synod that identified clergy who were in their twenties and thirties. By that time, I’d been a UCC clergy person for 20 and 30 years and so I joked about being a member of that group. What I didn’t share is that I was a bit of a phenom when I was in my 20s and 30s. Since it is by birthday today, I guess I can brag a little bit and be a bit nostalgic.
I completed my Doctor of Ministry Degree before I celebrated my 25th birthday. At the time I was one of the youngest people in the United Church of Christ to have earned that degree. And Susan and I had attended seminary as a married couple, both completing our degrees. The phenomenon of clergy couples was fairly new at the time, even though the United Church of Christ and its predecessor denominations had led the world in ordaining women clergy over a century before. Ordination of women was a new phenomenon in other denominations and our own didn’t have very many women clergy. We became a part of a UCC clergy couples group and quickly discovered that there weren’t many clergy couples who both served the same congregation. Upon ordination, we served the same parish and have done so throughout our career.
There were quite a few years when we were among the youngest clergy at the annual meetings of our denomination. Once in a while we’d be recognized for our accomplishments and we enjoyed the attention. Often we were told that we were a bit too young and a bit too inexperienced for particular roles within the church. Back when we finished seminary, I was the youngest counselor at a Wholistic Health Care Center and had my eye on specialized health care ministries. I had served as a licensed minister in a small rural church for 9 months, I had taken CPC in a different counseling setting and I had interned for two years as a health care counselor in a church clinic setting. I was working with some ground-breaking ministers and leaders. But I was told by others in the field, including Granger Westberg, that I needed to accept a call to serve as pastor of a local church. He wanted me to gain at least three years of parish experience before going full-time as a minister in a health care clinic. I accepted the challenge and Susan and I sought a call. We were called by two small congregations in rural North Dakota. We fell in love with the work of a parish minister and, as I’ve been known to say, it seems to have taken more than 40 years to gain those three years of experience.
Somewhere along the way, I went from being too young for many positions in the church to being too old. Today as I celebrate my 66th birthday, I have officially reached the age of retirement with full social security for my age cohort. I have visited at this meeting with clergy who retired at 62 and 65 and I have heard from friends in other vocations about their retirement. The urge to retire hasn’t captured me in the way that it seems to have done so for others. I hear them describe a sense of losing their call, but I don’t feel that at all. I feel like I am still called to the ministry. I feel like I still have much to offer. I feel like I’m still a capable preacher and pastor and servant of the church.
It isn’t that I haven’t thought about retirement or moving to a less demanding call. I have. Some days are very long and exhausting and sometimes I feel like stepping aside so that new leadership can emerge would be good for the church and good for me. I know that there are ministry settings with lighter work loads and more free time for family. I know that I have a lot of options. As I look around the room of clergy gathered for the conference annual meeting, I’m aware that conference meetings are settings that attract a lot of retired clergy. I’ve spoken with quite a few in the first day of the conference. I can’t imagine what it would feel like to go to a conference meeting without some sense of obligation to the church. I go to these meetings because I feel a need to remain connected for the sake of the congregation I serve, not because I am addicted to the meetings themself. When I think of retirement, I think of retiring from meetings like this one. Perhaps I will attend conference meetings after retirement, but I doubt it.
What I do know is that I’m keeping my record of not being quite the right age for my role in the church. Somehow I went from being too young to being too old without ever being exactly the right age, but that’s OK. I’m willing to accept my age and even wear it proudly. My health is good and I’ve got a few more good years and a few more good sermons in me. I get great joy in seeing younger people assume leadership in the church. For now the fact that I’m eager to get through this meeting, go home and get back to work in the church is a good sign.
When we served in Idaho, our Conference Office was in Portland, Oregon, 415 miles away. We routinely drove to meetings there taking one day to drive each way. When I would attend national meetings and my colleagues from other conferences complained about the time they took to travel to meetings, I would just roll my eyes and tell them some stories.
Moving to South Dakota, we didn’t blink our eyes at the distances. The conference office in Sioux Falls was only 350 miles from our home and many meetings of the conference took place in Chamberlain, only 210 miles. The year we moved to South Dakota the national 55mph speed limit was lifted and I could get to Chamberlain in 3 hours instead of four. I sometimes joke about meetings in Chamberlain. Because of the time zone change, I have to allow four hours on the clock to get to a meeting there. If the meeting starts at 10 am, I have to be on the road by 6. But when I go home, I only have to allow two hours on the clock. I can leave Chamberlain at 5 pm and be home by 7. I tell people that if they had all of the meetings in Rapid City, all of those folk would be coming the two hour direction and would save all that time. Another joke I make about meetings in Chamberlain is that it is a perfect place to meet. We drive 210 miles and the folks from Sioux Falls drive 140 and they truly believe that they came half way.
These days, our Conference is the combination of what once was three Conferences spanning the states of South Dakota, Nebraska and Iowa. Our conference office is in Des Moines, which is 625 mils from Rapid City. It can be driven in a day, but it takes all day. This weekend we are attending a conference annual meeting in Omaha, NE, which is 525 miles from Rapid City. Rapid City is one of the most distant congregations from the location of the meeting. Because of the number of members and the number of authorized ministers in our church, we are entitled to a large number of delegates to the meeting, but the distance and time involved meant that only four from our congregation are attending. The more distant conference office combined with other changes in denominational life have meant that it is harder to recruit delegates to conference meetings than was the case years ago. Three days of conference meetings plus two days of travel is a big chunk out of a week. It means that I have to be gone on a Sunday, which is always a challenge. I also had to miss important meetings at our church last night.
I remember the days when going to a Conference meeting was an exciting adventure for me. I’ve always loved traveling, so I didn’t mind the miles. And I would meet friends and mentors at Conference meetings. It was a good time to worship as a member of the congregation instead of as the leader. I also was involved in Conference committees, so had business to conduct at the meetings. These days there is less of a family reunion feel to Conference meetings for me. I will see folks who are old friends at the meeting, but there will be plenty of folks whom I’ve never met and whose life and work are very distant and different from mine. I’m sure I will enjoy the worship, the collegiality and other aspects of the meeting, but I have less enthusiasm than I did earlier in my career. I miss my congregation and its worship when I am gone. We have a strong music program and I often miss our musicians when I am worshiping in other settings.
Mostly, however, I have a strong sense that the real work of the church is what we do in local congregations. The body of Christ is built and maintained in local congregations, not in Conference meetings. I’m not saying that the Holy Spirit is absent from Conference meetings, that isn’t the case. However, the future of the church is not determined by judicatory meetings or the actions of Conferences. The future of the church is the ministries we do at home, serving those in need, caring for our congregation, worshipping faithfully, inviting others to join. As we were driving yesterday, we were going over the list of new members who will be received into our congregation on the first Sunday of July. That conversation was more exciting to me than anticipating the meetings that will take place over the next three days.
Maybe I’m just getting old. Maybe the world is changing. Probably both are the case. At any rate, I’m a pastor who belongs with his congregation and I’m glad that I’m not a Conference Minister who has to plan these meetings.
A few years ago, after attending a workshop on social media and the church, I started a facebook page and a facebook group for the church. I had hoped that others would take over administration of the church’s social media and there are now several members of the church, including church staff members who take the lead on facebook. For a while I was making daily posts to the church’s facebook page - just inspirational quotes and other upbeat notes. When we went on sabbatical in 2018, I stoped the daily posts. I received no comments, either good or bad, about the cessation of the posts. Since there was no request to continue, I never picked up the process.
Whether good or bad, I mostly ignore facebook. I post once a week when we send out a weekly email of news and information about the church and I post a link to the church’s monthly newsletter. I duplicate the facebook posts on twitter. For the most part that is the extent of my social media activity.
From time to time I scan my facebook feed. Because my facebook friends are people I know from real life and from a variety of different phases of my life, their comments are very diverse. Some have political opinions that are very similar to mine. Others make posts that I think are completely out of line and I wonder how they can think what they think. My own family is pretty diverse with many different political opinions. I just let the comments and posts slide by. I’ve no time for engaging in arguments over facebook. Most of the time I don’t follow the conversation threads that follow posts. I prefer to pursue conversations in a more one-on-one forum than post comments that are likely to be read by strangers. I have no need to argue with people I’ve never met.
Facebook, however, is an important communication tool in reservation communities. With few people having land line telephones and many people using track phones and changing phone numbers frequently, facebook has become a preferred way of exchanging messages. I have learned to use facebook messenger to contact people and work out arrangements for firewood deliveries and pursue relationships. I’ve been a bit more active on facebook when connecting with reservation friends.
I know my attitude is a bit out of touch with the realities of our times. Social media is a major way that people communicate and the church is in the business of communication. If we want to reach people, we need to use the media that is available to us. Social media is the source for much of today’s news coverage. Every time the President of the United States posts a tweet, it is repeated on television and in other media over and over again.
Because my facebook account is relatively inactive, it has been seen as a target by scammers and imposters. There is nothing on facebook to prevent someone from visiting the public portion of your page, copying the pictures and even the text and creating a fake account. Then that person pretends to be you as they contact your friends. Usually a complaint to facebook administrators and a change of password, just to be sure, will handle the problem. This week, my facebook account got hacked in a bit more serious way. When I received complaints from friends who were being contacted, I went to my facebook security page and discovered that there was a computer in Hull, Iowa logged on to my account. I quickly took all devices off line, and changed the password, thus blocking the hacker, but for a while the hacker had access to my list of facebook friends and information on my facebook page that I don’t make generally available to the public. There is no real personal data there other than the list of friends, but still it was a real invasion. Facebook later confirmed the hack and said they had taken down the fake page and stated that the hacker no longer has the friends list. Still it was an inconvenience and took time from my day that I might have chosen to invest in other ways.
Meanwhile, a friend alerted me to a facebook conversation involving members of my church were there were some pretty intense feelings being shared. It is so easy for someone’s feelings to be hurt by a comment made in haste. The poster of the original comment may not have intended any hurt, and might think of the post as a joke or just a clever turn of words, but soon the stream of comments begins to take sides and tempers flare. People become defensive and the situation seems to spiral out of hand. By the time I caught up with this particular line of conversation, more than 50 comments had been posted in half a day. I knew from my scan of the comments that I couldn’t add anything positive to the conversation without appearing to take sides. It was clear that feelings had been hurt. So I did my pastor thing and contacted some of the involved persons face to face, one on one. I don’t think I succeeded in soothing the hurt feelings much but at least I didn’t make the situation worse.
The experiences make me even more reluctant to dive into social media. It is so easy for things to go wrong. The best comment I got from the last couple of days was a private text message from my sister who said she knew the fake facebook messages weren’t from me: “You normally know how to write proper English.”
I was thinking of that summer yesterday as I dashed from the car to the church during a rain shower. It didn’t rain all day long, but it did seem to rain at the moments I needed to go from one place to another. In the middle of the afternoon I was returning from having made a pastoral call and the water was pouring off of the roof of the church right only the sidewalk that leads to the East door, where I usually enter the building. I was thinking of the rainy June of my childhood, for another reason.
One day, when it was raining, we headed outside anyway. We were at our river place, where the water rises up into the yard when the river is high. The driveway is gravel, but the gravel is always being pushed off of the edges revealing the dirt underneath. One of my brothers was digging in the road with a stick and declared, “We’ve got mud!”
We’ve got mud in the church neighborhood. There are two streets that lead from West Boulevard up to the church. Fulton Street, which we sometimes call the back way, is completely closed and part of the road is trenched very deep as they install new water and sewer mains and a new storm sewer system. The work has been slowed by the nearly constant rain and the hole in the street is filled with mud. On the other side of the church, a new house is being built high on the hill. On Monday they started to bury the sewer and water lines for the new house and got far enough going down the hill to have a very muddy path going. I
ve been trying to figure out how they are going to make the various connections since the water main runs through a utility easement that the city has on our church’s side of the street. It is clearly marked by the utility flags put up by the people who have marked all of the utilities in advance of the construction. In order to get to it, they will have to trench across the other street that leads to the church. I don’t know the timing of the connection, but they are going to have to figure out how to bury the water line without totally disrupting traffic. I suspect that they are hoping to be able to dig under the street without having to tear up the surface.
At any rate, “We’ve got mud!”
I suspect that those who work in the mud and dig in the streets have less appreciation for the effects of rain than my brother had so many years ago.
Having grown up in a family whose business was dependent upon agriculture and having lived in the dry corner of North Dakota and the tip of the great desert in Boise, Idaho, I know that you always pray for rain and you don’t complain when it comes. I’ve lived through some pretty scary fire seasons here in the hills and I like to see the green grass. A mature ponderosa pine, the most common tree in the hills, can consume 30 gallons of water a day when the water is available. A spruce tree can suck up even more. Right now the trees are all being watered and there is plenty left over to run off, filling all of the streams and creeks to overflowing.
I know that the rains won’t last forever. They won’t even last the Biblical 40 days and 40 nights. And I’ve been conditioned not to complain. I think that one of the reasons that we talk about the weather so much is that it is one of the things in our lives over which we have no control. Despite studies in seeding clouds, making rain, and trying to affect severe thunderstorms, the results have been that what we are able to do has a very small effect on the scale of the weather. When we do impact the weather, such as human consumption of fossil fuels and global climate change, the effects are not specific to the exact weather in any one place. When you talk about the weather the only sure thing you can say is that there isn’t much you can say about it. Which, of course, doesn’t keep us from talking about the weather. I don’t know how many conversations I’ve had in the past few weeks that have started with comments about the weather. I’m thinking of responding to the next one with “We’ve got mud!” though I probably won’t remember to do so when the time comes.
I own a good raincoat and I’ll wear it if the showers settle in for a day of rain, but on the days when we receive showers, but have times when it isn’t raining, I’m likely to leave the rain coat at home. As a confirmed river rat and small craft boater I’ve already been wet. I know that there are worse things than getting wet. Sometimes I get wet on purpose. As I often say when someone apologizes for crying, “We’re waterproof. a little water doesn’t hurt a thing.” I don’t mind a few raindrops on my shirt.
And one thing about living in South Dakota is that the weather changes quickly. If you don’t like the weather, stick around. It’s bound to change.
One of the things I do to maintain balance in my life is to rise early and go to the lake to paddle. I don’t go every day, but I have been known to paddle on a work day on occasion. For the most part, paddling is how I begin a day when I do not plan to go to the office. I paddle for exercise. Human-powered travel is good for the heart and muscles. And exercise is important for endurance in many fields. As a pastor, I know that there will be some long days and short nights. Being in good physical shape helps me deal with the everyday pressures of my job.
As I paddle, I am aware of the world around me. Fish rise to the surface of the lake. An occasional beaver is sighted, working alongside the shore, usually near the inlet where the creek enters the lake. Osprey and eagles soar overhead, fishing the lake. I carry a simple point and shoot camera with me. I don’t often take my larger and more capable DSLR camera out of fear of taking a spill with that particular expensive piece of equipment. My eyes can see far more than I can record with the camera. Occasionally, However, I do capture an image that reminds me my paddling adventures.
Part of the allure of paddling for me is that the process is very accessible. My canoe is hand made from simple, readily accessible materials. The canoe I paddle the most is nearly 20 years old and I’m sure it will last longer than I will. A little routine maintenance with a little sandpaper and some good varnish is all that is needed to keep it ready for the water. This particular canoe is very light and easy for me to handle without assistance, whether carrying it to and from the roof of my car or directing it through the water. The lake in which I paddle most is close to my home.
At the same time, paddling is a unique experience for me. Most days I am the only boat on the water at 5 or 5:30 am. When there are other boats, they are fishing craft, powered by outboard motors. I see lots of canoes and kayaks on the roofs of cars, but I guess most of them don’t belong to those who rise early in the morning.
I am not alone when I paddle and the adventure is never lonely. Yesterday morning was crisp, a bit chillier than I expected. The rule of thumb is to dress for the temperature of the water, not the temperature of the air. The water in the lake is always very cold, but in the summer I don’t suit up with a dry suit. I wear clothes made for the water and keep my boat near the shore so that self-rescue is as simple as walking out of the shallows onto the shore.Yesterday, however, I wished I hadn’t left my stocking cap in the car. My ears were a bit cold. Even that discomfort is minor and is just enough to remind me that I am alive and that the world is a fascinating place. Not long after I got off the lake I was sweating and hot as I mowed the lawn.
Spiritually it is renewing to be reminded that I find God in the ordinary. I don’t have to make a pilgrimage to a distant shrine or engage in a complicated prayer and study discipline. Those are meaningful activities, but God is everywhere and so every location is a good place to look for God’s presence and guidance. As I write, I am aware of how often I write about paddling. It probably seems repetitious for those who read my journal each day. But not all repetition is bad. Finding God in the ordinary is a blessing.
My wish for my readers is that each will find an activity that brings them closer to God.
Whatever You Are
If you can’t be a pine
On the top of a hill
Be a shrub in the valley, but be
The best little sub by the side of the rill.
If you can’t be a woods
Be a tree.
If you can’t be a highway
Then just be a trail.
If you can’t be the sun
Be a star.
It isn’t by the size that you win or you fail.
Be the best of whatever you are.
Be the best of whatever you are.
We were talking over Skype with our son last night. He’s a librarian and he knows books. He’s also a father who reads to his children a lot. Almost every time we talk, I ask him about what books he is reading for himself and what books he is reading to his children. I select a lot of the books that I read from his recommendations. After all, it is a great treat to have a son who is a librarian and I like to take his advice.
Last night he was telling us about “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood: The Poetry of Mister Rogers.” He saw the book in a store, while shopping with his children and decided that he would like to own it, so he bought it. Buying books for their home isn’t a really common thing for their family. After all, they have access to a whole library full of books and they check out many books each week. The whole family goes to the library at least once a week. But there are some books that you just want to own, and this was one for him.
Who can crawl under a table?
Who can sit under a chair?
Who can fit their feet in little shoes
And sleep most anywhere?
Who can play very much longer
Play much harder than grownups ever dare?
You’re a child so you can do it.
You can do it anywhere!
Who can wake up every morning
And be ready right away?
Who can notice all the tiny things
That other people say?
Who can make the things they play with
Something different for every single day?
You’re a child and you can do it.
You can do it any way!
Roll in the grass
Squoosh in the mud
Lick and ice cream cone
Sing to a bass
Splash in a flood
By a stepping stone . . .
Who can put your hand in my hand
And be ready to feel all safe and strong?
You’re a child and you can do it.
Children do it all life long!
If you’ve had children, I guarantee, you’ll find a tear in your eye as you read these songs as poems. I’m not sure how our son reads them to his own children without having to stop and wipe his eyes - maybe he can’t.
What Do You Do with the Mad That You Feel?
Take My Time
I’m Busy Being Busy
Sometimes Isn’t Always
Everybody’s Shy Sometimes
I’d Like to Be Like Mom and Dad
Mr. Rogers had a way of speaking to children - and singing to children - without being childish and without talking down to children. He had a skill for talking about important and emotional issues in ways that gave children permission to express their feelings about the things that are going on in their lives.
It Hurts to Be Lonely
Are You Brave?
It’s You I Like
It’s you I like.
It’s not the things you wear
It’s not the way you do you hair
But it’s you I like.
The way you are right now
The way down deep inside you
Not the things that hide you
Not your toys
They’re just beside you.
But it’s you I like.
Every part of you
Your skin, your eyes, your feelings
Whether old or new.
I hope that you’ll remember
Even when you’re feeling blue
That it’s you I like
It’s you yourself
It’s you —
It’s you I like!
I used to read fairy tales to our children on occasion and it sometimes struck me that the stories I was reading weren’t very appropriate for children at all. Evil stepmothers, poisoned apples, princesses who need princes to do anything, a wicket witch who lures unsuspecting children with a gingerbread house - there are a lot of themes in fairy tales that don’t seem to be the right stories for children. Sometimes I wonder what it is about fairy tales that have made them last so long and still be stories that we tell to our children. I think part of the reality of those tales is that they tackle distinctively adult issues in ways that are intriguing for adults and adults read the stories to their children not so much because their children need to hear the stories, but because the adults need to read them.
The poetry of Fred Rogers is very different from fairy tales. These are poems that are very appropriate for children and they are poems that adults will enjoy reading again and again.
Many Ways to Say I Love You
There are many ways to say “I love you.”
There are many ways to say “I care about you.”
Many ways, many ways, many ways to say
“I love you.”
There’s the cooking way to say “I love you.”
There’s the cooking something someone really likes to eat.
The cooking way, the cooking way, the cooking way to say
“I love you.”
There’s the eating way to say “I love you.”
There’s the eating something someone made especially.
the eating way, the eating way, the eating way to say
“I love you.”
Cleaning up a room can say “I love you.”
Hanging up a coat before you’re asked to.
Drawing special pictures for the holidays and
There are many ways to say “I love you.”
Just by being there when thing are sad and scary, just by
Being there, being there, being there to say
“I love you.”
You’ll find many ways to say “I love you.”
You’ll find many ways to understand what love is.
Many ways, many ways, many ways to say
“I love you.”
Thank you, Mr. Rogers, for a book of poems that we love to read to our children and grandchildren.
Here is how it goes. Jesus dies on Good Friday. Three days later, on Easter he rose from the dead. For 40 days, his disciples enjoyed the physical presence of the resurrected Christ. They ate with him, they listened to him teach. They touched him. Things were back to normal - almost. Then on the 40th day he ascended to heaven and left them behind. He promised the gift of the Holy Spirit, but nothing happened for ten more days. Then on the 50th day after easter, Pentecost, they experienced the presence of the Holy Spirit in dramatic and exciting ways as each was enabled to communicate in the languages of the hearers.
I have often spoken of Pentecost as the church’s very beginning as a multi-cultural, multi-lingual institution. I have also observed that there are plenty of examples from our history of times when the church forgot that multi-lingual, multi-cultural heritage and attempted to export language and culture along with the faith. Examples of that are easy to find from the strange New England dress codes Christian missionaries tried to impose on native Hawaiians to the distribution of English Language Bibles in China. It seems that many of the lessons of the early church are lessons that need to be taught and learned over and over again.
In general, however, we isolate ourselves from the intense emotions of the Easter season if for no other reason than that it is familiar to us. We know the routine. Six weeks of Lent, Seven weeks of Easter. Then Pentecost Sunday with all of the red clothing and a special service followed by the longest season in the Christian Year. Pentecost lasts until Advent begins, culminating with Reign of Christ Sunday, which this year is November 24, the last Sunday of November.
The season of Pentecost is not an empty season, however. Even though the Sundays are often called “ordinary time,” it is a seasons of telling the stories of the life of Jesus and exploring the depth of other scriptures. In contrast with the intensity of Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent and Easter, Pentecost allows the pace to slow slightly and gives the opportunity for us to process the stories of our people.
There is another dynamic that makes cycle of the Christian year powerful and meaningful. A little known festival day occurs on the day after ascension. We often ignore it in parts of the church because our attention is focused on Pentecost Sunday and a Friday holiday a week before pentecost just doesn’t get much of our attention. But each year, on the day after Ascension Day is Annunciation Day, the day that we celebrate the coming of the Angel to Mary to inform her that she is going to be the mother of Jesus.
Perhaps it is like every pregnancy. The world takes little notice of the miracle that is occurring inside of the mother. It is too soon for public announcements, too soon for things to show from the outside, but something important is going on inside of the mother. A quiet holiday seems to best reflect this season of waiting and contemplating and preparing. In the Christian Calendar, we largely ignore Mary’s pregnancy until the final month. We tell the story of the Annunciation at the beginning of Advent and sometimes repeat it on Christmas Eve as if the pregnancy was a short time and an easy experience. The stories of Matthew and Luke, however, remind us that it was far from easy for Mary. She spends time with Elizabeth and the two expectant mothers share their journey. She experiences the doubts of Joseph and his process of making a decision about the continuation of their relationship. We don’t tell these stories often or focus our attention on them in the normal course of our explorations of the life of Jesus. Like any family, some stories get more attention than others.
We call Pentecost the birthday of the church. The event when the first disciples began to reach out and make significant contact with other people has become an important story that we tell to remind ourselves of our unique identity. The Christian movement grew rapidly in its early days. Many were convinced that Jesus is the Messiah and that following Jesus was a way to discover deep meaning for their lives. Like many stories that we tell, it may have become a bit exaggerated in the telling and retelling. We know from other texts that the church did not become a mega church overnight. There were plenty of struggles in small groups. Early missionaries did not have support systems or even solid plans to guide their travels. They went from place to place responding to the circumstances in which they found themselves. They were often greeted with skepticism. They were jailed and abused and others attempted to force them to abandon their beliefs. It took nearly three centuries for the Christian Religion to become anything more than a minority and outlier religious perspective.
We also know that the faith was strong in those early disciples who faced persecution and abuse. There was something about their faith that was contagious enough that others picked up the beliefs and carried on in small groups until finally Christianity emerged into a mainstream religion. And there were compromises of the faith that came from becoming the religion of those with privilege and power.
So today is a sort of a birthday for the church. It is a good time for us to tell some of our origin stories. It is a good time to remind ourselves of the multicultural and multilingual nature of the beginnings of our faith. It is a good day to celebrate the faithfulness of early disciples and to recommit ourselves to caring for and nurturing the church.
There are different ways of measuring the passing of the seasons. Scientists speak of the distinction between meteorological summer, which is our current season, and astronomical summer, which starts on June 21. Then there is the school year - and we are definitely on summer vacation in our schools. In the church, we usually think that our summer programming begins with Pentecost, which is tomorrow, but our church school is already on summer programming, the preschool is out for summer break, and the church office is running summer hours. The choir is on its summer break and there are lots of other indicators that summer has arrived.
The weather has warmed up around here, too. I’ve been resisting using the air conditioner in my car - it is an annual ritual with me. I drive around with the windows down, just enjoying the fresh air. Eventually, it will get so hot that I’ll give in and start running the air conditioner, but I like to wait. I notice that so few people have their windows down as they drive around town. It is something that i really enjoy. I’ve been that way for a long time, which might explain why I had to have skin cancer removed from my left elbow last summer and the dermatologist always takes a very careful look at the arm that I leave hanging out of the car window. At least I’ve gotten smart enough to wear long sleeves most of the time since the episode with the spot that had to be removed.
The frequent rain showers have combined with the warmer days to make all of the green plants in the forest grow like crazy. Our lawn seems to be constantly in need of mowing and the grass is growing quickly. Fortunately, I’m a bit more disciplined about mowing than the neighbors to the immediate east and west of o our house, so at least our lawn isn’t quiet a long as theirs, but it will be a chore when I mow. I could mow today, but I am waiting until Monday because I will be one next weekend at the Conference Annual Meeting and I don’t want to have it go too long between mowings. Once a week will have to be sufficient.
We’re counting down to the visit from our son and his family. With three children they don’t get here all that often, so it is a special treat to have them coming this summer. Their trip was planned to coincide with grand camp at Placerville, so we’ll get to attend with two of our grandchildren. Passing down the camping tradition to our grandchildren is an important priority for us.
We are hoping, of course, to be able to how our grandchildren a deer fawn or two when the arrive as well. Of course they will like the rabbits and turkeys, and we’ll be able to show them deer, but a baby or two would be extra special.
There is too much in the hills to show our grandchildren everything in a single week’s visit. We’d love to take them to Bear Country and Reptile Gardens and Storybook Island and Dinosaur Park. Then, of course, there’s the Custer State Park Game Loop and a paddle on Sheridan Lake. A trip to Sylvan Lake is always fun and there are plenty of hiking and walking trails that would be interesting, even to the littlest one. We won’t get everything done in one visit. Our hope really is that our grandchildren will recognize that we live in a very special place and that we are happy with the life we have in this place. We certainly want them to have reasons to come back and visit again and again.
Every place we have lived has had its share of natural beauty. We have always been eager to share our home with family and friends. We have been fortunate to be able to share. Our experiences with our own children have taught us that in today’s world, people travel great distances. Since our two children don’t even live on the same continent, it seems likely to us that as they grow, our grandchildren will have experiences in distant places. Sometimes we look with envy on families who all live in the same area, but we know that we raised our children for adventure and exploration and that we wouldn’t want to hold them back.
This summer, however, is a good summer because we will be together both her and at their home. And the relationships we share are stronger than the distances that divide us. And that is the most important lesson of all. Love transcends. Love is not limited. Love never dies.
We have quite a repertoire of hymns, a few classical brass pieces and a few fun pieces that lean a bit towards jazz. Only a couple of our members are experts. The rest of us struggle a bit to keep up - and mostly we are a bit rusty. However we are learning to blend our sounds and play together as an ensemble.
The thing about ensemble playing is that it forces you to practice and improve your technique. Each person has a unique part, so you are exposed and need to keep up your part of the music. The group needs to stay together. No ensemble can be better than its weeks member, but the better members encourage and help the weaker ones to come up to speed.
I’ve been thinking recently about the ensemble as a metaphor for the church. Those of us who are pastors often hear people making excuses for not attending worship. Because of the range of friends that i have, I hear from my friends about how they hold beliefs, but have rejected some of the structures of the institutionalized church. On my more frustrated days, or when I’ve heard a few too many of those folks in the same week, I feel like responding to them with comments like, “What made you think that those of us who worship together regularly can’t see God in nature? Do you believe that we don’t recognize God’s glory in every sunrise? Do you think that your insights about how worshipful a mountain or seashore makes you feel are somehow unique to you?”
I’m tempted to say, “Sure, you can worship God in a trout stream or the roar of the surf or in mountaintop spender, but after 42 years as a pastor, I’ve never seen a trout stream call on a sick person in the hospital. I’ve never seen a pine tree prepare a funeral lunch for a grieving family. I’ve never know of a seashore to teach children about living in community.” The couples whose weddings I’ve celebrated in beautiful outdoor meetings all need the support of real live people when they encounter troubles in their lives.
Or, as a colleague says frequently, “You can’t be the body of Christ all by yourself.”
A church, at its best, is an ensemble. Every member is valued for their own unique and distinct talents. Each new member transforms the entire group. The group misses each member when they are separated from the group. And together we can make beautiful music that none of us would be able to make alone.
i suppose that you could use the metaphor of a symphonic orchestra when speaking about the church as well. But all metaphors can do is to point towards truth that lies beyond the metaphor. Every metaphor falls short at some point. There is no such thing as a perfect metaphor. That’s why throughout the gospels, we hear Jesus speak of the many things that the kingdom of God is like.
The kingdom of God is like a treasure hidden in a field. The kingdom of God is like a merchant in search of fine pearls. The kingdom of God is like a master of a house. The kingdom of God is like the yeast hidden in the flour. The kingdom of God is like a grain of mustard seed. The kingdom of God is like a man scattering seed. The kingdom of God is like a net that a fisherman threw into the sea. There are lots of things that the kingdom of God is like. None of them offer a complete description. None is a perfect metaphor.
So when I say, The kingdom of God is like a brass choir, I’m not saying that the kingdom of God is exactly the same as a brass choir. I’m pointing to something that is beyond the metaphor itself.
We all remember that Jesus told the story of the good Samaritan in response to the question, “Who is my neighbor?” He never answers the question of the man who asks, but rather asks the man to answer the question for himself.
We each find our own metaphors for life and faith and God and the nature of community. But somehow all of those metaphors point beyond our individual interpretations to a realty that is greater than the particular stories that we tell. And, from time to time, we share common metaphors. The metaphors of Jesus that are in our bible have been shared not only be a lot of people, but a lot of generations. These stories of our people gain value and meaning through the retelling and living of their teachings. We treasure them in part because they have been the foundation of generations of Christian community.
So for five of us, who enjoy playing together, a brass ensemble is one metaphor for God and we are coming to a common understanding of its meaning and its value for us as we seek to combine our love of music with our love of worship. We pray that the music we make will carry meaning for others. We know that not everyone wants trumpets and tuba in worship. We can be rather loud. But we also know that there is some music that expresses our faith in ways that our words cannot convey. We don’t achieve that height of musical excellence each time we are together. We still need a lot of practice. Discipleship involves discipline.
When we play together, however, we can imagine making glorious music together. And sometimes, we sound pretty good.
Not bad at all.
The venerable C-47, known as the Dakota, the Sky Train and other names was a design by the Douglas Aircraft Corporation that was conceived as luxury passenger transport. The DC3 was an enlargement of the DC2, outfitted with sleeper births for transcontinental flight across the US. It couldn’t span the country non-stop, but it was the first commercial airliner capable of allowing passengers to make the trip from New York to Los Angeles in the same airplane. When the war broke out, the airplane received its military designation, C-47, joining the C-45, built by Beechcraft and the C-46, built by Curtis. Cargo doors replaced the narrower air stair door at the rear of the airplane. The doors were large enough to accommodate a jeep. The ships were so heavily loaded that a “hamburger door” was installed just aft of the pilot’s seat so that the crew could get into the cockpit after the cargo was loaded. In order to meet demand, in addition to the California assembly plant, a factory was opened in Oklahoma. C-47s were also manufactured by several other allied countries. After the war C-47s and parts were available relatively inexpensively as surplus. Many operators purchased C-47’s and converted them to DC-3s for passenger service.
In commemoration of the 75th anniversary of D-Day around 40 flying C-47s and DC-3s are taking part in a flight from England to France, where about 250 parachuters will be dropped over the fields of Normandy.
I have a vey small personal connection to the commemorative flight. But, as usual, there is a story behind the story.
My father was already a licensed pilot when war was declared. He enlisted in the US Army Air Corps and served as a pilot instructor and service pilot in California. Most of his time in the military was as an advanced trainer, helping new pilots transition from single-engine to multiple engine airplanes. They used AT-11, a training version of the Beech 18, which was also configured as the C-45 in some versions. The AT-11’s were equipped with a plexiglass dome on the front to train bombardiers as well as operating bomb bay doors. Later in the war, my father flew as an instructor pilot on B-17s and B-29s, and after the war he served as a ferry pilot, accumulating hours in most of the aircraft that flew in the Pacific Theatre. He had a lifelong passion for airplanes with twin radial engines.
Our family’s air service, based in Big Timber, Montana operated mostly very small, light aircraft, but we did own and operate a Beech-18 that started its life as a post-war military C-45. That was our largest airplane. In Missoula, Montana, Johnson Air Service was another Forest Service contractor that operated Ford Tri-Motors and a DC-3. At the time we were working with the Johnson Brothers, their DC-3 was used as a smokejumper plane. It was the airplane from which the 12 smokejumpers who perished on the Mann Gulch fire jumped. During its stint as a smokejumper plane, I was fortunate to have a ride in the plane when it was being flown back to Missoula from Billings.
That particular airplane was manufactured just a bit too late to have seen war service, so it was brand new when it was obtained for civilian use. After its stint as a smokejumper plane, it was the foundation of Johnson Air Service’s brief foray into airline service. The airplane was extensively damaged and the pilot and 12 passengers perished in a weather-related accident in Pennsylvania. The airplane, however, was recovered from the river into which it crashed and rebuilt. After many more years of service the plane was finally purchased by the Museum of Mountain Flying and returned to Missoula where it is the centerpiece of the aviation museum. Because the airplane was win flyable condition, a major effort was undertaken to prepare it to participate in today’s flight over Normandy. A lot of volunteer hours and a lot of donated funds were combined to return the plane to its Johnson Flying Service paint job, complete with its Miss Montana nose art and to make the plane mechanically sound for a trip to Goose Bay Ontario and from there across the North Atlantic to England.
So flying over Normandy today is an airplane in which I have ridden.
Compared to some of the airplanes in the flight, Miss Montana has lived a pampered life except for the accident. The plane is actually just shy of 75 years old. The lead plane in the flight is the actual lead plane of the Normandy invasion. The plane, dubbed That’s All Brother has been restored by the Commemorative Air Force in Texas. Over the years many parts of the airplane have been replaced. The airplanes participating in the commemoration all have upgraded radios and navigational equipment. But none of them have autopilots. All have been hand flown for their entire lives. The pilots are all too young to have flown in the war, but they are being held aloft by rivets and aluminum that are older than they are.
Today is a good day to remember the heroism and tremendous effort that led to halting the spread of fascism and totalitarianism in the middle of the 20th century. It is a part of our story that we must never forget.
I grew up with the planes of the era. I can still tell the difference between a C-45 and a C-47 solely by the sound of the engines. I still run out and look up every time I hear a radial engine fly over. I can only imagine what it is like to be in England and France today with 40 C-47’s flying over. The stories of these planes are ones I will tell my grandchildren and perhaps some of them will linger with them long enough for them to tell their grandchildren.
The same article states that there is no data that shows that successful people get less sleep.
It is, however, fairly acceptable in our society to brag about the fact that you rise early in the morning. I know because I do. I rise early and I brag about it. Well, I try not to brag, but I have always felt just a bit smug about my waking time. In my case, I am aware that it is an imitation of my father. My mother also was an early riser. My father invested at least 25 years of his life flying light airplanes at high altitudes. In order to fly a super cup with a 12,000 foot service ceiling for fire or animal patrols over Yellowstone Park, you need to have the advantage of cool temperatures and calm winds, both of which are part of the early morning hours. My father rose at 4 or 4:30 every morning and went to work. In the winter, when aircraft operations were slowed, he and my mother rose and worked on the books of their businesses. Most days Mom worked for an hour at the office books and billing before she started to prepare breakfast for us kids.
I learned to get up early during the summer when there was no school because I loved airplanes and the airport. I could go to work with my father if I was up and dressed in time.
As I became more serious in my studies, I learned that I was more productive in the morning hours. I could focus on my studies early in the morning with less effort than it took for me to focus late in the day. When I married, I discovered that my wife was nearly the opposite. She liked to rise and get into her day slowly and could be very productive late at night. It wasn’t that she wouldn’t get up early. She could do that, it was that some of her best work was done later in the day. That combination worked well for us because we shared the same manual typewriter through our college and graduate school years. That little portable machine got a good workout, with me typing in the mornings and her typing in the evenings, with the exception that at times, especially when she was frustrated, she could be a really irregular typist. The lack of a regular rhythm would make it hard for me to sleep and more than once I would get up from bed and type a paper for her.
There are plenty of famous studies that show that people who don’t get enough sleep at night have reduced cognitive function. One famous study by the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard Medical School found that reaction times and performance on cognitive tests were severely decreased for those who get less than six hours of sleep. Those who sleep only four hours per night showed significant cognitive performance deficits. Other studies have demonstrated a rise in levels of the tree hormone cortisol, higher blood pressure and decreased effectiveness of common vaccines such as the flu shot.
Dr. Charles A. Czeisler, professor of sleep medicine at Harvard Medical School, calls early rising a “performance killer.”
While the effects of not getting enough sleep are well documented, there is less evidence that shifting your circadian rhythm has a similar effect. Some of us who rise early simply go to bed early. In her senior years my mother often rose early in the morning and went to bed at a similarly early time at night. She was getting enough sleep, but was just out of sync with much of the popular world. She wasn’t bothered by being alone and used her early morning times productively. She finally became aware that her tendencies were providing a challenge to her social life. She couldn’t stay awake for normal evening activities. She then taught herself to stay up a little later in the evening and rise a bit later in the morning.
The issue, from a biological perspective, is melatonin, the sleep hormone. If you rise when your brain is producing melatonin, you can feel excessive daytime sleepiness, low energy and a decline in mood and cognitive performance.
Our society demands that some of us be awake at times when others sleep. Hospitals, fire department and law enforcement agencies need to be staffed with awake and alert personnel 24 hours per day. There are a lot of workers who need to work at night and sleep during the day. Studies show the health dangers to frequent changes in shift work, but are less conclusive on the negative effects of working at night. Some of us have jobs or volunteer positions that require our sleep to be interrupted on occasion. I take overnight on call duties two weeks per month an average. I know i have to be ready to respond to a phone call quickly. I don’t get that many calls, usually only one per month or so, though I have had as many as three in the same week.That does make me tired and affect my performance.
I have by no means found the perfect balance, but I do find that my current lifestyle suits me pretty well. I can perform well at evening meetings and still be time to write my journal first thing in the morning. I don’t however, compare myself to the famous early risers with whom I began this essay. I think I’m a bit more like Thomas Edison who used to say “Four hours are good enough for me.” What he left out of the picture is that he was a prolific napper. I’m good at taking naps. And when I get a good nap, I’m good for both early morning and late at night.
When I was growing up a lot of our hours were spent by and in the river fishing. We got fairly good at catching enough trout for regular fish fries at home. We learned where all the best holes were and even got to know some particularly large fish that lurked in the river and evaded our attempts at catching them. My youngest brother was by far the best fisherman of our clan. He could see and catch more fish than the rest of us combined.
One of the things that we did was to laugh at other fishermen. Especially funny to us in those days were the out of town fishermen who were geared up with all of the latest equipment including hip waders. We fished in cutoffs and old tennis shoes. We believed that hip waders were a definite danger on the river. If the fisherman were to fall down, we reasoned. the waders would fill with water and become so heavy that he’d never be able to get up. I know of no such tragedy ever occurring on our river, but we were convinced that those who had all of that equipment were destined to not catch fish. Ou father never wore waders and his favorite method of catching fish was to put a hook through a grasshopper and float the insect down the river until he got a strike. He was a pretty good fisherman.
I’ve never worn waders for fishing. There is something about being able to feel the texture and temperature of the water that makes me feel closer to the environment of the fish. Sure the water in the river is cold and you don’t want to stay immersed very long even in the heat of summer, but you’d be surprised at how much you can tolerate. The cold is invigorating and makes you feel alive. then again, I used to find a very warm place in the pool of a hot springs and when I got all warmed up, get out and roll in the snow before getting back into the hot water. I haven’t felt the urge to do that in many years.
There is, however, something about allowing your gear and equipment to get between you and the world that detracts from the experience of being in the world.
In the winter we made similar fun of skiers who had matched outfits and fancy clothes. We wore coveralls from the shop or doubled up our jeans. We used to say that if a skier lacked duct tape on his or her jacket, he or she couldn’t ski. A good “equipment sale” crash and slide down the mountain was a mark of valor in our world.
I was thinking about my childhood a bit yesterday as I paddled my smallest and lightest canoe on a completely calm reservoir at 5:30 in the morning. I had the lake to my self. The sun was up. The air was beginning to warm, though I was glad to be wearing a jacket under my life jacket. In that particular boat I sit about 2 inches from the bottom of the boat, which doesn’t have much draft, so my bottom is right at the waterline. It gives me a good angle for viewing the geese, who are out with their chicks, and the red-winged black birds who sing along the shore and dance on the trees that have fallen near the water. My wooden paddle doesn’t make much sound at all and I can even hear the sound of the boat neatly parting the water as I paddle.
The world of the water, especially the world beneath the water, is a bit of an alien environment for humans. We can’t breathe under water. Our vision isn’t perfect down there. I enjoy swimming, but I am aware that my survival depends upon skill and keeping my focus. In the cold water of the streams and reservoirs around here you won’t survive long just swimming unless you are wearing a wet or dry suit. So I don’t go out without equipment. On the other hand, I enjoy using a minimal amount of equipment. I have not need for a motor or a big boat. The reservoir where I paddled yesterday, Sheridan Lake, is small enough to explore with a small boat and a paddle. There is no need for more speed than I can achieve by a less-than-strenuous pace.
Our lives are improved by our ingenious machines. I’m not opposed to the inventiveness that has produced speed boats and jet skis. I simply have no need of those devices to enjoy the lake. Something inside of me takes pride in getting around in a boat I built with my own two hands, with modest means and available materials. It makes me feel connected to generations of humans who have made simple machines to solve problems of how to gather food and get from one place to another. Paddles and canoes have moved huge amounts of freight, provided transportation to explorers and been the tools of indigenous peoples for centuries. When European settlers arrived on the shores of this continent in their giant sailing vessels, they lowered their row boats, in which rowers faced the stern and the drag of the boat required significant effort. The discovered indigenous paddlers facing forward in lighter, sleeker craft that were, by comparison to the rowboats, very fast. Before the conquering of the continent, there was an encounter of technologies, each adapted to a different need. More than a few of the settlers recognized the canoe as superior technology and adopted the boats for travel on inland rivers and lakes.
Aside from my thoughts about history and culture and technology, there is a great sense of freedom that comes from paddling a light boat. I can go where I want when I want. I’m not constrained by the need for fuel or support services. If I needed, I could make another boat and carve another paddle and travel by the strength of my own arms. It is the feeling of freedom - a feeling we all need.
I took my driver’s test in a 1963 Chevy Cary-all. Chevrolet didn’t yet use the name Suburban. This particular carryall was a bit unique in that it had only two doors. The passenger seat folded towards the dash to allow passengers to access the middle seat, one third of which folded down to allow access to the third row of seats. There was quite a bit of cargo space behind the third row. The truck was the same length as an 8’ regular cab pickup. I know because we bought a pickup and the carryall in the same order. Same color, same 232 ci six cylinder engine, same four speed on the floor, two-wheel drive with posi-traction. It was the same vehicle in which my sister had taken her driver’s test and the same that my brother drove when his turn came. Our father insisted that we take our driver’s tests in a vehicle with a standard transmission. In fact it was a couple of years after i took my driver’s test that our family got our first car with an automatic transmission.
I was thinking of some of the old cars that we used to drive yesterday afternoon when I was inspecting the hail damage to my daily driver, which had already been totaled due to hail damage, but which is sporting some significant new dents and dings. Worse yet, my pickup got it good on the hood and will have to go to the body shop. I’ll have to remove the ladder rack because the body shop will have to get at the roof of the pickup as well.
It dropped ping pong ball sized hail for about 15 minutes just after lunch yesterday. There was no point in going outside once I realized that it was coming down. The hail was too big and too dangerous. The good news is that the roof looks like it is in good shape and we didn’t lose any windows. The deck was punished, but it needed new stain already.
Hail does funny things. There was a spatula sitting next to the barbecue grill. A hailstone hit the flat part of the spatula and sent it flying into the air. I found it about 6 feet away from its original location. The grill took the hailstones without damage, but I have a roughneck cabinet that I keep a few barbecue supplies in that now has a ragged hole right through the top. My garbage can in which I keep applewood for smoking also took a direct hit and has a big hole in the top.
I try to take good care of my things, but I am unwilling to worry about the weather. This is the second time the truck will be going to the body shop for hail damage. And I intend to wait until the end of the summer before getting the damage repaired simply because the last time it got hailed on three times before I got the damage from the first storm repaired. Might as well do it all at once in the same trip and hail is part of the story of living where we do. In general a hailstorm is less expensive than a tornado, so I’m not complaining.
I was speaking to friends who are contemplating a move to Florida yesterday. I suppose that there are some really nice days on the beaches of Florida, but I’d be worrying about hurricanes and rising water. And I do much better in cold weather than in hot weather. I wish the best for my friends, but moving to Florida doesn’t seem appealing to me.
The hail and occasional spring blizzard are probably the worst weather phenomena we experience around here and both can be endured with a little care. Our “new” car, which is only 8 years old, escaped damage entirely as it was at the church where the hail was only pea sized and caused no damage.
Like other experiences, the hail storm has already given me a good story to tell to my grandchildren. I showed them some of the hail stones over Skype and they seemed to be pretty impressed. After I get the truck fixed up and give a try with my “do it yourself” dent repair on the car, it will be all over. “Do it yourself” involves heating the metal with an electric heat gun followed by turning a can of compressed air upside down and spraying it directly on the dent. The super-cooled canned air on the hot metal will often cause it to “pop” back to nearly its original shape. And it is entertaining as well.
I doubt that this hail would have had any impact on the kind of cars in which I learned to drive. The metal was heavier, the finishes were less impressive, and they already had their share of dents and dings anyway. All things considered, I haven’t got it bad. Our basement is dry and our vehicles are in good running condition. That’s enough for me. I’m not ready to go back to that old jeep.
I recalled that moment last night as we sat on our deck eating supper. The combination of snow and rain and my work schedule had prevented me from mowing my lawn in a timely fashion, and I has spend all morning mowing and getting caught up with outdoor chores. According to my phone, the accuracy of which is suspect, I had walked 5.6 miles without leaving my yard. Bagging the grass clippings makes for a lot of extra steps. The grass was long, which meant a lot of clippings and the capacity of the bag isn’t the best. So I had to stop frequently and empty the bag. Each time, I walked to the compost pile. With many pine needles and other items, the grass is a welcome addition to our compost. It compost fast and it adds heat to the pile which speeds up the making of soil deeper down. The grass also shrinks quickly, so the big piles in the compost will quickly become smaller. I don’t know if I really walked all that much, but I do know that i was tired and it felt good to sit on the deck and munch on a hamburger cooked on the grill and drink a cool beverage. I looked out over the freshly mown grass, noted the deer in the neighbor’s yard and felt the coolness of the shade of the pine trees. It truly is a good place to live and I am fortunate to have been able to live here.
I had real biases about place when I was growing up. I visited the Black Hills as a child and made fun of them. Being from Montana, I found it silly that the locals referred to the hills as mountains. We had “real” mountains that rose above the tree line, that had glaciers tucked into hollows, and that presented a formidable challenge to serious technically trained climbers. The footpath to the top of the highest point in the hills is accessible to most people who are in reasonable shape and it is only 3.5 miles long. It takes only a little bit more energy to go to the top of Black Elk Peak than it did to mow my lawn yesterday.
My biases, like all biases, were wrong.
It is no surprise that the hills where we live were considered to be sacred by multiple plains tribes before the discovery of gold and settlement by immigrants. Indigenous plains people were followers of the buffalo and so spent much of their time on the plains. They came to the hills for ceremonies and some camped in the foothills for shelter during the winter. Certain points in the hills, Bear Butte, Devil’s Tower, Black Hill Peak among them, became meeting points for nomadic people. The gatherings in the hills became treasured experiences and there were many stories of events that occurred in the hills.
In those days there were no lakes in the hills. All of the lakes we enjoy today are human-made reservoirs. In addition to storing water for domestic use and irrigation, the dams are part of a system to mitigate the effects of flooding. They don’t eliminate flooding, and in fact, when a dam failed in 1972, the effects were devastating. The reservoirs are all full and the streams are flowing over their banks, as was the natural process over the centuries. Homes that have never before experienced water are having problems with water incursion. Roads have been closed. A sinkhole has opened up in one the city streets. Spring is being challenging for some of the folk who live in our area.
We sat on our deck attached to our home near the top of a hill in comfort. And there is a kind of relaxation that is even more sweet because it comes after a time of intense physical activity. It was good to linger out of doors in the evening as the sun began to soften the colors around us.
The joys of place, like other joys of this life, are ours for only a little while. Sometime in the next twenty years my yard will become too big for me to do all of the work. I think that I notice the difference in my body after the years i have lived here. My lawn mower is doing well on its 25th summer. An oil change, an occasional new spark plug and sharpening the blades seem to be the only maintenance required. It still starts easily and does the job. I, however, have noticed that I’m not quite as nimble, not quite as quick, and need to take rest breaks more often. Mowing my lawn is good for me and i’m glad I don’t need a riding mower, but I can tell that the day will come when it will be time to turn this work over to another person. None of us goes on forever. Our pleasures are fleeting. The land, which was sacred long before we arrived, will be sacred long after we are gone.
And perhaps, if we are lucky, our stories will be added to the stories of those who have gone before. For now, it feels good, from time to time, to sit and enjoy this place where we live.
The pivotal scene in the production is the famous moment when the teacher Annie Sullivan takes Helen to the pump house and places one of her hands in the running water while spelling out the letters W A T E R into her other hand over and over. Keller’s autobiography describes the moment:
“We walked down the path to the well-house, attracted by the fragrance of the honeysuckle with which it was covered. Someone was drawing water, and my teacher placed my hand under the spout. As the cool stream gushed over my hand, she spelled into the other, the word ‘water,’ first slowly, then, rapidly. I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motion of her fingers. Suddenly, I felt a misty consciousness of something forgotten — a thrill of returning thought; and somehow, the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that W-A-T-E-R meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free.”
There is a great power to words. Language is one of the marks of humanity and the discovery of language can be liberating.
It is easy for most of us to take language for granted. We grow up surrounded by language. Our parents speak to us from the beginning of our lives. Of course, Helen Keller’s inability to hear isolated her from what most of us experience. The result was a dramatic moment, when she was seven years old, that is quite distinct from the slow emerging of language that is more common.
But there are times in life when language must be re-learned, or at least new language is required in order to process our experiences.
I sometimes help with facilitating a support group for survivors of suicide. The group has a structure with a set opening and closing, but most of the time is devoted to sharing stories and experiences. Participants tell me over and over again how important it has been for them to discover a place where they have permission to tell their stories and to talk about their loss. They feel pressured by family and friends to get on with their lives, to get over their loss, and to move beyond their grief. Getting over the loss of a loved one, however, is not what they want to do. They want to examine the tragedy of loss for meaning. They don’t want their loved one to be “over.”
In the support group, it is almost as if the participants are learning a new language - the language of loss and grief. Some days an individual will sit and listen for most of the session. That same person may speak tentatively at another time. Then a day will come when the same person has a lot to say. It reminds me of a child first learning to speak. When that child discovers a set of sounds that works - that gets attention, or yields desired results - the sounds are repeated over and over again in a burst of pure joy. Once a grieving person finds words for their story, they find joy in telling that story. The story may be painful, but there is genuine liberation in being able to speak the truth about their loved one.
I remember, especially at the time of the death of my mother, being at a loss for words. I had known grief before my mother died. It had been more than 30 years since my father died. I remember doing a lot of driving and not speaking after his death. My circumstances were different when my mother died. I was immersed in the complex dynamics of a busy family. I had responsibilities for her care. And then, suddenly, there was a radical change in how I spent my time. I didn’t have the words I wished I had to express what I was feeling. I was a bit guarded with my storytelling. Some of my friends thought that I got over the grief very quickly because I returned to work and got back into the mix of things quickly. It was at lest a year later when I began to understand the complexity of that time. I now tell the story quite freely. I understand what I was experiencing much better. I have a strong sense of needing to learn how to speak of my grief after the loss.
Gregory Orr quotes Wordsworth in has extended poem, “Concerning the Book that is the Body of the Beloved.”
Let’s remake the world with words.
Not frivolously, nor
To hide from what we fear,
But with a purpose.
As Wordsworth said, remove
“The dust of custom” so things
Shine again, each object arrayed
In its robe of original light.
And then we’ll see the world
As if for the first time.
As once we gazed at the beloved
Who was gazing at us.
“Let’s remake the world with words.” I think that is a good description of the task of finding meaning. We use the tool of language to discover the meaning of the experiences that we have. My teacher, Ross Snyder, used to say, “You have to work to transform lived experience into meaning.”
That work, I think, is the primary job of humanity. May we continue to discover the words.