Substance over image

Our congregation is currently running an advertising campaign that features a series of thought-provoking headlines. One of those headlines is, “There are no square pegs.” It is meant to leave those who see it thinking for a moment. Combined with other slogans in the campaign, the effect is to suggest that people who feel that they don’t fit in other congregations will find that they are welcome in ours. One of our members said, in response to the campaign, “I have to think about that for a while.” That is the intention of the campaign - to get people thinking - and after they have gotten the opportunity to think to check out what we believe is a unique congregation amidst the field of churches in our community.

I admit that we are taking a risk by running the ads. They may not produce the visitors we hope. It may be that electronic billboards that flash messages for eight seconds at a time and rate through a series of very diverse advertisements are not the right place to get people to think. They are a distraction to traffic. The ads mix in with those for real estate, adult beverages, political concerns, banking services, and a whole host of other promotions. The electronic billboards themselves are only one media for mass advertising that includes everything from the images in magazines and newspapers to the pop up ads that show up on an Internet browser. It may be that triggering emotions is a better way to get people to respond to an advertisement. We have already acknowledged that it will be difficult to evaluate the effectiveness of the advertisements. We may not be able to know exactly whether or not they have produced their desired results. People make a first time visit to a church for a wide variety of reasons. It is hoped that the advertisements will be just one more reason added to a quest that is already going on in the lives of those who see the ads.

I confess that I am no expert in advertising. Like other members of our church, I’ve relied on the knowledge and experience of others. The designer of the campaign is a dedicated church member who has passion and energy for the project. His enthusiasm alone is worthy of our attention.

I’ve never paid much attention to promotion. There is a part of me that is content with occupying an obscure corner far from the spotlight. I experience religion as an opportunity to be faithful and faithful isn’t the same as popular. Nothing draws a crowd like a crowd, so the biggest and fastest growing congregations get the most attention. I’m ok with that and I’m ok with not being one of those congregations. I’m interested in helping our congregation continue to discern its mission and to be involved in genuinely helping others. I’m interested in the best quality worship that we can create. I’m interested in small groups that make deep connections. I’m happy to leave mega churches with maximum audio visual systems to others. I’ll take a quiet prayer group over a venue filled with a crowd any day.

I have a similar attitude to the Internet. I’m not a technophobe. I use a computer multiple times every day. And I do mean every day. I’ve posted a 1,000 word essay on the internet every day for more than a decade now. And I have not missed a single day. I do not have thousands of followers. I and not an internet sensation. And I’m very comfortable with that. I like being a person who writes essays instead of passing on tweets. I enjoy the challenge of original thought and the effort of cogent writing. I write because I want to become a writer, not because I am seeking a huge number of readers. I write because it is what I do, not because others clamor for my words. I’m pretty sure that if I quit tomorrow the majority of my congregation wouldn’t even notice. I would, however.

I believe that my writing has a direct payoff for my congregation even if they don’t read my words. It has long been my contention that despite what you read in many self-help books, time management isn’t really a big problem. It is easy to manage one’s time, making priorities and choosing when to pursue different projects. It is much, much more difficult to manage one’s attention. There are so many distractions and so many ways to lose focus. My life is filled with emails and meetings and interruptions. In the midst of all of that I need to have the skills to focus and remember where my attention is most needed. Some days it is most needed in a hospital room. Other days it is most needed at the scene of a tragedy. Other days it is needed in the planning of worship for the congregation. Productivity for me is not about how many things I do, but about how focused I am when I am doing just one thing. Helping a family to deal with grief or planning a wedding require me to be fully present to that particular situation and not distracted by a long list of things to do.

I write my journal entries in part because focusing on one topic first thing in the morning helps me to manage my attention for the whole day. It is a process that needs to be repeated. It isn’t hard to lose focus. So each day I start by thinking about one thing. Writing clearly enough that some meaning is conveyed to another human being. I don’t judge the quality of the effort by how many people read my message. I don’t know how many people read my journal entries. I write because paying attention to writing allows my mind to also pay attention to people as the day progresses.

Leading worship demands a similar focus to writing. I can’t allow my mind to wander, no matter how serious my other concerns. So I will continue to practice focusing my attention by writing each day. I won’t allow myself to be distracted by a count of how many people are reading.

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

A changing scene

As the Christian church experiences declines in membership and participation, a host of writers have focused on the group of people that are known as “nones.” The name doesn’t work very well, but it comes from the choice of the category “none” when asked about religious affiliation on a questionnaire. The simple and obvious truth about nones is that those who choose no religious affiliation are not a single category. There are many reasons why a person may see themselves as not participating in religion. One description doesn’t fit all of the people. My observation is that some of the people who aren’t affiliated with organized religious institutions do have transcendent beliefs. They simply have rejected or chose not to participate in all of the trappings of organized religion. I have been intrigued recently by conversation with people who are interested in talking about spirituality but who do not participate in a formal church or other religious institution. I’ve come into contact with these people because they are seeking community. They don’t want to exist in isolation. They would like to get together with others on a regular basis to talk about the things that re most important to them. Some have even proposed regular meetings of small groups for this purpose. It seems as if they may be engaged in forming their own kind of church.

The theologian Paul Tillich spoke of God as the infinite and ultimate and therefore faith is the ultimate concern. Tillich wrote long and complex books and invested a lot of energy in describing the use of symbolic language, but he kept coming back to the concept of ultimate concern. That in which you place the most concern is your god. What I observe in quite a few people is that the focus of their concern is shifting and it is difficult to discern what their ultimate concern is.

As one who has for my entire life spent my Sunday mornings attending church worship services, one of the things that interests me is what people who don’t regularly participate in worship do on Sunday. I’ve heard from many that they do make Sunday a day of rest. Although they may not attend the services of a church, it is a day set aside for a little extra sleep, some family time, and an opportunity to pursue leisure interests. We live in a hectic, fast-paced world where there are few opportunities to just take a break. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that sleeping in becomes an ultimate concern, but it can become a dominant concern for some individuals.

Some activities, such as youth soccer or hockey actually take more time from a family than typical church participation. They travel with their youth and many weekends are devoted nearly completely to sport. From an outsider’s point of view some of these activities take on the appearance of religion. People make sacrifices and invest significant funds in the activities. They make them a high priority in their lives. I’ve even gone so far as to refer to these activities as religions. At least they seem to become if not an ultimate concern, at least a very high priority in the lives of those who become deeply involved. Sports activities also have the added benefit of offering a community. They have a social structure with rules for participation. Likeminded individuals gather together and have a point of connection.

Unlike my experience with religion, however, these activities tend not to be lifelong pursuits. They are demanding involvements that pass as their children grow and move on to other phases of their lives. Before long those who were investing every weekend in their child’s sports program find themselves with nothing to do on weekends as their children go off to college or become engaged in other activities.

Thus some of the people who get labeled as nones, aren’t really nones at all. They are “sometimes.” They participate in church at certain points in their lives and don’t participate at different points. It is essential for congregations to learn how to welcome those who aren’t as regular in their attendance as some of us. Congregations need to provide many entrance points or reentrance points for those who come and go from regular participation. As participation patterns shift, the institutional expression of religion has to change to provide for different patterns of participation.

As participation patterns shift, children have the experience of intermittent participation in church programs. They may attend Sunday school classes for a while and then have periods of not participating. The result is that educational programs are at best incomplete. We now have an entire generation of people who haven’t received basic instruction in the practice of religion. I can’t assume basic biblical knowledge when I address a congregation. There may be those present who have very little familiarity with the history and traditions of the church. There are some who are fascinated with basic information and others who are bored with repetition. Spiritual disciplines, which involve repeated practice, may not be a part of the experience of some of those who are in the congregation on a Sunday morning.

Serving such a widely diverse group of people is an ongoing challenge for the church. We are adapting and changing, but institutional change comes slowly. While we are adapting, society is changing. We have less opportunities for contact with people as attendance parterres move generally away from regular participation.

Tomorrow I preach yet another sermon on the parable of the prodigal. I worry about it being boring and repetitious for regular participants in the church. I’ve probably preached 8 or 9 sermons on that parable in this church. What do I have to say that is new? And yet the parable itself may be new to some of those who attend. Achieving a balance that engages all who will be present is a serious challenge.

At least my role in the community is never boring.

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!

Strange ideas

I’m a big fan of vaccines. I get my flu shot every year. I’ve had my pneumonia shot and I got a MMR booster last time I needed a tetanus shot. I don’t want to get sick. Even more, I don’t want to share illness with others. So, when my doctor recommended the Zoster vaccine live, I got the shot. Then, in 2017 the Shingrix vaccine became the preferred shingles vaccine. I got quite a few recommendations from my doctor when I turned 65 and one of the recommendations was to go ahead with the Shingrix vaccine. I went down to the pharmacy and got the vaccine that day, even though I’d already had a flu shot and a pneumonia shot the same day. My shoulder was a little sore for a day or so and then I forgot about it.

The recommended way of administering Shingrix is to have one shot and then in 3 - 6 months to have a second shot. It made sense to me, so I asked the pharmacy to call me when it was time for my second dose. In the meantime, the recommendation for Shingrix was changed from vaccinating everyone over 65 to vaccinating everyone over 50. A shortage of the vaccine resulted and I was having trouble finding my second dose. Fortunately I have a friend who is a pharmacist and he told me not to worry. He would call when there was some vaccine available. So when he called yesterday, I was in his office within 15 minutes getting my shot.

I don’t react much to vaccinations, so I didn’t expect much. My arm didn’t ache. I went on through my day. My pharmacist had warned me of flu-like symptoms and perhaps an achy arm, but I didn’t worry. I wasn’t having any trouble.

A couple of hours after i went to bed last night, however, a low-grade fever struck. I could feel the spot in my arm and decided that I was having a bit of a reaction. No worries. I was safe and at home and so I simply stayed in bed. I’ve found that lying very still helps when I’m feeling a bit of nausea, so I tried to lie very still.

The result was a fitful time of dozing and waking and waking and dozing. I went through my sermon for Sunday in my mind, but I was thinking things that I would never say. In my somewhat altered way of thinking, I came up with a sermon that was chastising the folks in my church and calling them out for what I perceived to be failures. I know I don’t feel that way about the members of my church. I know I wouldn’t say those things, so I decided to think of something else. I started to think about my Palm Sunday sermon. Again, I went off track and started to think about a sermon that would be totally inappropriate in any church. I knew that I wasn’t thinking straight, but I couldn’t make myself think straight.

I thought about getting up and reading a book, but my queasiness was keeping me in bed, afraid to move things around.

This morning the whole episode seems very silly. I wasn’t really sick. I din’t have much of a fever. Things are pretty much back to normal except for a little sore spot on my shoulder where the injection was administered.

Our bodies are amazingly complex. Psalm 139 says “I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” I like the combination of fearful and wonderful. I think that reflects my experience. My brain is connected through my nervous system to my body and when something changes in my physical health, my mental facilities are a bit strained. Not to self: “Don’t preach when you have a fever.” Except I think I’ve done that in the past, which makes me wonder what I’ve said.

For a long time I keep the sermons that I wrote for my student church. I think they are still in a file cabinet and i can probably find them if I go looking. It was amusing, during the first decade or so of my career, to get out those sermons and marvel at the understanding and patience of the congregation I served. Those are really bad sermons. I thought I was doing a good job, but I was awkward with my ideas and woefully uneducated in my approach to the bible. Four years of seminary improved my preaching a bit, but I really think that it took me most of decade to develop the style and approach that has been my companion throughout my career. Somehow, however, the congregations I served put up with me long enough for me to develop a bit of skill and to learn how to deliver a cogent sermon.

My style is to go over and over the week’s sermon. I share a summary of my ideas in two different bible studies, one of which is comprised of colleagues who will also be preaching, usually on the same texts. I summarize my ideas to the church staff when we coordinate music and other elements of worship. I spend time in the sanctuary when no one else is in the building going over the sermon.

Now, I’ve found a new technique. If I elevate my temperature a bit, I get a fairly clear idea of what not to say and of ideas to avoid in my preaching. The problem is that I don’t want to have a fever every week. I don’t like feeling nauseous. And, I’ve finished my Shingrix shots. I don’t think I will need another unless they develop yet another new vaccine. I’m thinking that the experience isn’t particularly one worth repeating.

Later today I think I’ll go over this week’s sermon. And then I think I’ll do so again tomorrow and one more time before church of Sunday. Perhaps my thinking will clear up enough that I can avoid the worst mistakes. In the meantime, I’d better keep up with my vaccines. Heaven knows what would happen if I ever really got sick.

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!


Several years ago I served as the lead writer for a team of people working on a project titled “International Pilgrimages with Youth.” The program was designed to give young adults, aged 18 - 24 an opportunity to travel in small groups to visit with church partners in distant countries and to report their experiences to their home congregations. I did extensive research on the history of Christian pilgrimage and developed resources to assist travelers in keeping a daily journal and making reports on their experiences. Each participant received a journal with daily devotions, including scriptures in their own language and in the language of the region they were visiting. There were ceremonies of departure and return and guides for the home congregations to engage in prayers while the pilgrims traveled. It was a challenging project, but it never progressed beyond a free prototype tours. After the trial groups completed their pilgrimages the project was deemed to be too expensive for that particular moment in the life of the church and future pilgrimages had to be cancelled for lack of funding.

One of the spin off effects of the project is that I view travel, and indeed daily life, differently than I did before the project.

A Christian pilgrimage is a journey undertaken with a disciplined awareness of those who are left behind and of how a pilgrim can transform the life of the community at home. Those who do not travel have their lives expanded by their thoughts and prayers of the one who is traveling. They experience absence and wonder about the experience of their loved one. The one who travels is transformed by the experience, and upon return provides a means for the entire community to be transformed. Congregations have long known about the power of travel to inspire personal transformation. One of the most frequent comments of youth who go on mission trips is “my life was changed by the experience.” There is value in travel for the sake of personal transformation. But a pilgrimage offers the potential of so much more. More than one life can be transformed. A relationship with those in distant places offers the potential to transform lives in both places. As one observer put it to me after a summer of hosting visiting youth mission trips, “I wonder how many people think that the reservation exists for the purpose of providing rich white kids from back east chances to change their lives.” A Christian Pilgrimage is more than a one time experience. It is an experience that shifts everyone’s perspective and transforms the relationship between groups of people.

We have attempted to treat our sabbatical experiences as Christian Pilgrimages. We have worked hard to provide our congregations with meaningful experiences of departure, spiritual exercises during our travel, and careful reporting and reconnecting upon our return. We have tried to travel people to people, establishing and maintaining long term relationships with those in the places we visit.

In the congregation we now serve, we have attempted to nurture and sustain a long term sister church relationship with a congregation in Costa Rica, with whom we have shared exchanges every year for more than 30 years.

Recently Krista Tippet, host of “On Being” updated and broadcast a previous interview with Paulo Coelho on the topic of pilgrimage. The interview got me to to thinking about pilgrimage in a fresh way. Coelho spoke of “the possibility of doing a pilgrimage every single day - because a pilgrimage implies - in meeting different people, in talking to strangers, in paying attention to the omens - basically being open to life.”

I’m intrigued with the notion of thinking of life as pilgrimage that is available to everyone. Often pilgrimage is a journey undertaken by a privileged person. Not everyone can afford the expenses and endure the rigors of travel. Not everyone can afford to go without pay and walk 500 miles or travel to distant locations. Everyone can wake up in the morning and resolve to experience something new. All it takes is the courage to talk to a stranger, step out of one’s comfort zone and do something one has never done before.

Warming weather in the spring means that I start to walk more than I do in the winter. Often I’m walking around places in our city where I’ve walked before. I journey through the neighborhood around the church. I head down town for a meeting. I walk in the neighborhood of my house. These places are very familiar to me. But I am intrigued at how many conversations I have with people whose names I do not know. Strangers will come up to me on the street and ask for assistance. Their stories are vaguely familiar, yet unique. Sometimes I know something that is helpful for them. Often I don’t have much to offer. I often wonder what I am like to that other person. After all, they showed courage to walk up to a stranger and begin a conversation. I am a total stranger to them. They don’t know if I will respond with hostility or helpfulness. Truth be told, I don’t really know myself, either. I don’t have a predetermined way of responding. Sometimes I shrug my shoulders and say that I don’t know how they can get what they are seeking. Sometimes I reach into my pocket and offer a dollar or two. Sometimes I invite them to step into a shop for a cup of coffee and perhaps a sandwich. Sometimes I am in a hurry and don’t say much at all. Each encounter seems to bring out a different part of my identity. We meet, we speak and we depart without fully knowing one another. Pilgrimage theory, however, maintains that we are both changed in the experience.

Life itself is a pilgrimage. We are continually being reborn and reformed by our experiences. When I look at life this way, I can be as excited about each day as I have been about taking a major trip. I don’t need to go to a distant location to encounter something new. All I need to do is to keep my eyes and ears open to the things that are in the world around me.

Today is the start of a new pilgrimage for me. Perhaps it is a new pilgrimage fo you, too.

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

Cold places

Most of us around here have a bit of spring fever. Yesterday it made it to around 65 degrees and even though I had a full schedule of meetings, each time I had the opportunity to head outdoors I lingered just a little bit because it felt so good to be outside in my shirtsleeves. It has been a long and cold winter and we are ready for warmer days. Today is forecast to be warm with a chance of rain, a typical forecast for the season. I know that the forecast also calls for a bit of snow on Friday, but spring snow isn’t much of a problem. It melts quickly and most of the time we are just grateful for the moisture. Things are a little different with the high rate of runoff and flooding downstream, but when you live in the forest, you’re never really unhappy with a little bit of moisture.

While we are experiencing this nice weather, I’ve been reading Jane Maufe’s memoir of traveling through the Northwest Passage on Polar Bound, “The Frozen Frontier.” She describes being nearly trapped as they searched for a way though the ice. The water splashing up onto the decks and lifelines encrusted them in heavy ice and at times they had to go out into the cold wind to chip away the ice in order to allow the ship to maintain its balance. It was also necessary for them to scrape the ice from the pilothouse windows just to be able to see to avoid the largest chucks of floating ice. I’m sitting in my kitchen all snug and warm with a cup of tea and reading about two people on a small boat, taking turns going outside and chipping away ice until their fingers got so cold that they stopped working. Then they’d trade places with one inside warming their hands and watching the ships navigation until the other became too cold to chip away at the ice.

I wonder what it is about human nature that makes me enjoy reading about people who are in conditions that are colder than mine. There are plenty of books about tropical islands and even a lot of books about people who sail around the globe near the equator, enjoying perpetual summer. I’m not a sailor and I’m never going to become an expedition sailor, but for my recreational reading, I’m drawn to the stories of those who are exploring in cold places. If I were to go on an expedition, I think I’d prefer one to the arctic or antarctic rather than a journey up the Amazon or across the south Pacific.

Part of it is that i seem to have physical characteristics of a polar explorer. I’m not in superb physical condition, but I do have an extra layer of fat on my body. That excess weight is a real liability when I visit hot places. I sweat a great deal and have to slow my pace. When I’m working outdoors in the cold weather, I’m usually pretty comfortable. I have good warm clothes and working hard seems to keep me warmer and more comfortable. When I’m in a hot place, I have to pace myself to walk a bit slower and find myself enjoying just sitting still from time to time.

I’ve never done one of those genetic tests and I don’t have any interest in doing so, but I suspect that my heritage is mostly from places that are in the northern parts of the world where there are substantial winters. I’m sure that genetics has something to do with my preference for colder places.

I keep joking with my family that I aspire to retire in the Yukon. I’ve always wanted to visit that part of Canada and perhaps my retirement will give me the chance to do so. The joke comes from a series of Calvin and Hobbes cartoons where Calvin decides to run away to the Yukon. He takes a toboggan, some sandwiches and Hobbes and heads out, without being sure which direction to go to reach the Yukon. I don’t hav much support from my family for actually retiring there and Canada isn’t courting immigrants for retirement. Furthermore, I find that I’m not making as many jokes about retirement now that it draws nearer and there are some pressures to retire before I think I want to do so. So I’m probably not going to live in the Yukon. But I’m not looking for a mobile home in Arizona or a cabana on the coast of Costa Rica either.

From the time we left Montana to go to graduate school in Chicago we have been led by what we have perceived as the call of God. The call to service has taken precedence over the specifics of geography. Although we have served upper midwest and western states, we have never limited our search for a call to a singe place. As a result, when we think about the place where we next will live, the process is a bit different, because perhaps location will take precedence in our thinking in a way that has not previously been the story for us. I know people who have chosen the place and then figured out how to live in that place. They have been very successful in their choices, but we have always put the church and the work to which they are calling first in our decisions. In fact I’m surprised that I have spent so much of my working life in the Dakotas. I grew up in Montana where making fun of the Dakotas is a recreational activity. I know so many North Dakota jokes that I can bore almost any gathering of people. I’m quick to tell people that the minimum requirement for being able to make North Dakota jokes is to have endured 7 winters in the state. I’ve done that. I’ve also experienced multiple winters in Idaho, Montana, and Chicago as well as South Dakota, where we live in a pretty sheltered place without the extremes of weather that occur in some of the other places.

So whatever other choices I make, I’m not interested in running away from snow. On the other hand, I probably don’t need the -50 of the Yukon, either.

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!

High water

I have no immediate plans to head home to the town where I grew up, but if I were going that direction, I’d need to make sure that I chose my route carefully. There are two routes that we take when heading that way. One is to follow the Interstate. We’ve gone both directions on that road many times. My preferred route is to take the older US highway that cuts through the corner of Wyoming and cuts across southeastern Montana. Right now, the intersection where Highway 212 meets Interstate 90 near the Little Bighorn Battlefield is under water so neither route is available. That doesn’t mean we couldn’t get there if we were heading that direction. the quickest route would be to cut up to Coalstrip from Lame Deer. We could also take the road from Broadus up to Miles City and then follow I94 into Billings.I’m thinking that is what some of the truckers are doing.

One of the amazing things about the flooding of this spring is how quickly we are receiving photos of the affected areas. With Facebook and other social media, we can see the conditions almost as soon as they occur.

Flooding is causing big problems in Indian Country, It isn’t just the major routes that are flooded. On Pine Ridge the flooding has cut off families. In places with entrenched poverty, there aren’t any surplus supplies in the first place and folks who are cut off by the waters are hurting. The story made the national news yesterday. Some folks had been cut off for a dozen or more days and it doesn’t look like the waters will recede for a few more days. Temperatures in the high forties in the hills with much of the ground still frozen underneath means that the runoff is coming quickly. The good news is that there isn’t much snow left in the hills. The bad news is that it will take days for the moisture that is running to get past the low-lying prairies to the east.

The National Guard is out helping folks, including delivering safe drinking water to a distribution point at Sharps Corner. The governor has paid a visit. Henry Red Cloud summed up things this way: “Things are hard and have been hard here for generations.”

These folks are our neighbors. It takes maybe an hour and a half to drive to Sharps Corner. Pine Ridge is a bit farther away, about 2 hours. But the distance between the communities is much more than a drive down the highway. 150 years of mismanagement and broken promises have built up a wall of mistrust. The reservation plan is largely a failure of historic proportions. The traditional way of life of plains tribes has been largely destroyed. Unemployment and generational poverty make life very difficult for those who live in reservation communities.

Despite poverty and a lack of resources, or perhaps because of those issues, the folks from reservation communities come to Rapid City more often than we go to their homes. They come to shop at discount stores to stretch their meager resources farther. They come to receive health care and to visit those who are in the hospital. They travel however they are able. There is no public transportation so often the journey is made in a car that we might not consider to be roadworthy. I don’t know how many times i’ve pumped a bit of gas into an old car so those riding in it could get back home and while I pump, I wonder whether or not the tires will make the trip.I wouldn’t want my family out on the highways with tires that are so badly worn.

Terrible accidents are part of the cost of this way of life.

The Pine Ridge Reservation is country that is usually very dry. Some of the “streams” that are flooding are really only dry creek beds most of the year. I’ve been down there often enough when there is just a little bit of rain to know that when that country gets wet it means mud - lots of mud.

It’s supposed to get up to 65 degrees here today - it may be as warm as 70 in Pine Ridge. We’re feeling pretty good about the warmer days. We’ve seen plenty of winter cold this year and we’re ready for things to seem like spring. The two highest fuel bills I’ve had in all of my years of living in this house have been the last two. I’m ready for some relief. We’ll probably spend as much time outside as possible. The ground in our yards may even being to dry out a bit. That warm weather, however, might not be a good thing for our downstream neighbors. Flood levels are expected to remain high and even rise a little bit due to the rapid melt of the snow in the hills. A search for a missing person that had been partially suspended due to the very cold weather has been moved up to tomorrow because there will be virtually no snow left in the search area.

My yard is practically begging me to rake up all the pine needles that have piled up over the winter. I’ve even seen a few shoots of fresh green grass out there, something that I’m sure is welcome to the deer that visit our yard every day. They’ll be spending more time there in the next few days, relishing the fresh grass.

Like other years, spring is coming. Summer isn’t that far away. And we are really looking forward to the change of seasons. But we also know that the times are changing. More weather extremes are part of our future. We need to do what we can to address the underlying causes of global climate change. At the same time we need to make sure that we are prepared to weather the storms. Most important of all, we need to make sure that we are prepared to help our neighbors. We might complain a little bit, but we don’t have it bad. Every season needs to be a season of sharing. We’re all in this together.

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!

We live in strange times

I first noticed the phenomena while attending college in Billings, Montana. The city had two hospitals, located several blocks apart. It seemed that ever time a home or any other piece of real estate anywhere around the hospitals came on the market, the customer was one of the hospitals. As the hospitals grew and added new sections of building there developed a medical corridor. The last few holdout homes were tiny islands in the middle of a sea of hospital construction.

Decades later, we lived in Boise Idaho, also home to two hospitals, though they are located farther apart than was the case in Billings. At one point, after we had lived there for 5 years or so, I commented that it seemed that both hospitals were continually in a state of construction. Before one construction project was completed, there would be another project. New wings were added, areas within the hospitals were remodeled, The trailers of the construction companies seemed to have gained a permanent location in the parking lots of the hospitals as they continued to grow.

Those thoughts came to my mind once again this week as i was driving south on 5th street in the area that once was pretty much open fields and now is definitely Rapid City’s medical corridor. Rapid City has a unique history with hospitals. Like other cities its size, it once had two hospitals. There were some duplications of services. Both hospitals had maternity wards and both offered emergency rooms. There were some areas of specialization, however. Orthopedics were concentrated in one hospital. Then, in 1972, the Rapid City flood rendered one of the hospital buildings unusable. In the recovery that followed, the two hospitals became one entity and funds were obtained to construct a new building in a new location. For many years the single community hospital posted efficiencies. The modern 10-story building was actually larger than originally needed and it took many years before all of the patient care rooms in the building were completed and put to use.

Years have passed and things have changed. There is now a smaller specialty hospital just down the street from the main hospital. The specialty hospital is currently undergoing its third expansion since it was originally constructed. The main hospital is in the midst of a huge construction and expansion that will result in a completely new emergency department, a new rehabilitation hospital, a parking garage and a whole lot more. The corner of the hospital property appears to be a nearly permanent home for the construction company trailers.

My new commentary is that perhaps hospitals should consider owning construction cranes, since both buildings seem to have cranes as permanent features of their property. I know those cranes are expensive to rent. The nearly perpetual presence of construction cranes on hospital property is an indication of the enormous amounts of money that are involved in contemporary health care.

It isn’t just the hospital buildings. Medical offices have sprung up all around the area. Two and three story tall entry ways with port cocheres are common.

Hospitals have become the cathedrals of the 21st century. They constitute the largest, most extravagant and highest cost construction in many cities. One day, while receiving routine medical care, I started to count the number of original works of art that adorned the lobby, hallways and examining rooms of the medical practice. It was truly amazing. It is clear that medical buildings now have become the kinds of patrons of the arts that was once the case only for churches.

Churches, in the meantime, have opted for more austere buildings in recent times. Several congregations in our community have constructed buildings that are utilitarian. They tend to have few windows, inexpensive commercial carpet over concrete floors, and very little in the way of artwork. One person with whom I was visiting recently said that when she was a young girl, she thought that statues only existed in churches. These days, its hard to find a statue in a new church building. Our city is a fairly large customer of art, having many outdoor art pieces, but I doubt that any of the artists in our community would have enough food to eat if it weren’t for the fact that medical offices and hospitals purchase large numbers of art works.

It makes me wonder what archeologists of the future will think of the remains of the buildings we have built. Then again, they may never get the chance. The recent hospital expansion involved tearing down the old rehabilitation hospital. The building they tore down wasn’t 50 years old, but was considered to be too old to be worth keeping. It was simply torn down to make room for the new construction. What appears to be permanent, long term, construction with steel reinforced concrete and steel beams has, in some cases, an amazingly short lifespan. Bigger, better, grander seems to be the norm.

In medieval times, cathedrals were designed to be imposing spaces. Worshipers entered through gigantic doors and the ceilings of the rooms towered over them in ways that made the individual feel small in comparison with the grandeur of the space. Modern church buildings don’t have that same style. But hospitals and medical practices have taken over that role. I’ve often found my eyes turned up towards the soaring ceilings of the entryways into medical practices. My family doctor works in a building that is of relatively simple construction, but has a vaulted ceiling over the entryway that is higher than the ceiling in the sanctuary of our church and our church building is 60 years old and the product of the thinking of another century.

I am grateful for the jobs that construction provides. They are good jobs that support families in our community. Some days, however, I wonder if there are more people working on constructing new buildings for medical practices than there are people working in providing direct care for patients. I’m pretty sure that the new orthopedic and sports medicine center south of town has fewer cars in the parking lot now that it is completed than was the case when it was under construction.

We live in strange times. People have thought that for nearly as long as there have been people on this planet.

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 Great Hour of Sharing

There is an article on the website of The Atlantic that focuses on recent flooding in the Missouri Basin. Here in South Dakota the Missouri is flowing within its banks. A couple of major tributaries, however, have been in flood stage and throughout the southeastern corner of the state fields and ditches are full of water. Downstream, in Iowa and Nebraska, the flooding is much worse. The article in the Atlantic notes that some of the flooding ha reached historic levels, which is saying a lot because the region experienced major flooding just a few years ago. This has been a winter with some record-setting conditions. We’ve seen a lot of cold temperatures and when the runoff began here, the ground was still frozen so the melting snow couldn’t sink in. It headed downstream.

The article in the Atlantic raises a question that I hadn’t considered: Should this flood event be labeled a natural disaster? My first reaction to the question was to think, “Well, of course.” Flooding is by definition a natural disaster. The article questions the label because placing the blame on nature absolves humans of responsibility and this particular area is a place of human suffering because of decisions humans have made. Floods occur. They have been part of the Missouri basin for all of history. What makes them into disasters is that we have filled the flood plains with human homes and activities. Over the past century, human engineers have sought to control Missouri flooding with dams and levees. We have formed habits and building codes and agricultural practices that are based on the belief that we can control the floods. The river is teaching us otherwise. We have failed to learn from the past enough to keep ourselves from harm’s way. The best flood-control systems and structures cannot completely eliminate the risk of flooding.

We are nearing a century since the great flood of 1927. In that century we have actually been more dependent upon the National Flood Insurance Program than on dams and spillways and structures. American build homes and other buildings in flood plains in part because they can be reimbursed for damage caused by natural disasters.

After each season of flooding we are inspired by the ways in which neighbors help neighbors to rebuild. Too often, however, the rebuilding contains the repetition of previous mistakes.

I’ve been thinking of the flooding because it is on the mind of so many people in our region. We respond with compassion and assistance. We gather up cleaning supplies and head to the places where the need is the greatest. We roll up our sleeves and get to work. It is a part of our Midwestern values. We are resilient people.

The floods in Nebraska and Iowa and the flooding that is yet to come downstream pales, however, when compared with the aftermath of the cyclone that roared across southern Africa. The overall death toll has topped 700 people, with more than 400 killed in Mozambique, more than 250 in Zimbabwe and more than 50 in Malawi. And these are preliminary figures. According to the United Nations the casualty reports cannot be completed until the flood waters recede. Thousands remain trapped by the floodwaters. As many as 1.7 million people have been affected, most of whom are living without running water or electricity in the aftermath of the storm.

I remember a conversation of adults from when I was a child. Our church was preparing for Palm Sunday and Easter. As is still true, part of our Lenten discipline was raising awareness and funds for One Great Hour of Sharing. There was a filmstrip that has been obtained in our church that was showing scenes of devastation from natural disasters around the world. I remember seeing a picture of people covered in mud standing in a crowd at the edge of a river. The conversation of the adults was whether or not showing the filmstrip was appropriate. Some said that it would upset us children. They argues that Palm Sunday and Easter should be celebrations and that children should be involved in waving palms, calling out “Hosanna!” and searching for Easter Eggs. The filmstrip of suffering people was an unnecessary downer in a season of joy. Others, who included my parents, argued that concern for the suffering of others and providing what assistance we were able was an essential part of the Gospel message and should be taught in Sunday School. I guess that side of the argument prevailed because I remember seeing the filmstrip. And I remember the annual discipline of coin banks and taking our paper banks to the church with our offerings to help with those who suffered from disaster.

Living in Rapid City has increased my awareness of the need to respond to disaster. Although it occurred decades before I moved to the city, the 1972 Rapid City Flood claimed the lives of 238 and left a swath of destruction through the middle of our city. People who lived here at that time all have stories of that disaster and its aftermath. When it is time to raise funds for One Great Hour of Sharing or the Blanket Fund, people in Rapid City remember when they were the recipients of disaster aid and what it meant that the church was prepared in advance for the disaster.

One Great Hour of Sharing is, in part, a confession that we don’t know where or when the next disaster will strike. What we do know is that we haven’t figured out how to keep all people safe and that we will be called upon again and again to respond to those who have needs. We receive the offering every year so that funds and supplies can be ready when the next disaster strikes.

Perhaps, along with our preparedness, we need to learn from the events that we experience. Perhaps when we rebuild we should be more judicious about where and how we rebuild. For now we watch with prayer and concern as the floodwaters rise. And we continue to teach ourselves and our children about sharing through One Great Hour.

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!

Reaching out

I think about suicide nearly every day. I don’t think of it in terms of myself. By every measure of which I know, I am at extremely low risk of dying by suicide. But I have dedicated one portion of my time to helping others deal with the unique grief that comes from suicide loss and to doing everything I can to prevent suicide. I have to admit, our prevention efforts have had mixed results. We’ve seen a few dips in the suicide rate in our community, but it still is a major problem and our community still has a suicide rate this is over double the national average. I think about it a lot. I’ve joined with others to do what we can to prevent further suicides.

After years of serving on our Local Outreach to Survivors of Suicide (LOSS) team, I have become one of the team’s coordinators. That means that every time law enforcement requests a suicide response in our city, I am aware of the call. Dispatch sends me a text message that tells me of the loss and which team member has been called. I then follow up to make sure that our system is working and our responders are in motion. It means that I am aware of and counting nearly every suicide in our county.

Today is not a typical day, but it is not all that atypical, either. This morning I will facilitate a support group for those who have lost loved ones to suicide. This afternoon I will attend the funeral of a young man who died by suicide. These aren’t the only events of my day, but if you count writing this journal entry, I’ll spend about 4 hours directly dealing with suicide.

It isn’t all bad news, but there is a lot of pain and sorrow and sadness.

The trigger for this morning’s journal entry was reading that Sydney Aiello, a recent graduate of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School who survived the Parkland school shooting has died by suicide. The news reports don’t give many details. I usually don’t want the details anyway. What I need to know is there. She was a brilliant and wonderful young woman. She filled her days with cheerleading, doing yoga and brightening up the lives of others. She was hoping to go into the medical field to help others. One of her close friends, Meadow Pollack died in the Parkland shooting on February 14, 2018. Sydney was struggling with her fear of classroom settings and it was hindering her ability to pursue her college education. She had recently been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. She was experiencing a huge burden of pain and grief. And she is dead. She is every bit as much a victim of that horrible shooting as are the ones who died from their injuries on that day. There is no way to compare one person’s pain with another’s but we know that her pain lasted longer. She suffered for over a year.

We can’t fix that stark fact.

I tell family members that I can’t fix their pain. I tell them that I can’t help them get over what has happened. You don’t get over it. You get through it. I tell them that it is time to “circle the wagons” and pull in every resource we know. Counseling helps. Getting counseling sooner rather than later helps. Support groups help. Being with others who understand the unique nature of suicide grief makes a difference.

The story of the young man whose funeral I will attend today is not mine to share. I can write, however, that its ending is an incredible tragedy. His family will struggle for years with grief. It is hard for them not to make his last day the defining day of this life even though they know, more than the rest of us, that he was so much more than then events of his final hours.

I do think about suicide a lot. And I have taken several classes and read a lot of books. I read the abstracts of academic psychological studies. I have attended seminars and listened to some of the worlds leading suicidologists. But I don’t understand suicide. It doesn’t make sense to me.

I’ve never experienced the darkness of clinical depression. I’ve never gone to that place where hope is absent. I can’t imagine the sensation of wanting this life to end. I don’t understand it. I know the symptoms. I am ASIST trained as a suicide first responder. I know what to do when someone is asking for help or threatening suicide. I’ve been fortunate to have been a part of multiple successful interventions where help was obtained, treatment was effective and suicide was prevented. But I don’t understand suicide completed.

Our brains are incredibly complex. Our society has attached so much stigma to mental illness that it hasn’t received the funding necessary for the research that is needed. We do know that mental illnesses can be effectively treated. We also know that treatment needs to be individualized. What works for one person may not work for another. There is no “one size fits all” solution to mental illness. We also know that the fatality rate from certain mental illnesses is very high and among the highest is post-traumatic stress disorder. We can identify some individuals who are at a higher risk than others.

But we also know that we are often surprised by suicide. Families frequently report to me that they did not see warning signs. They did not know how much their loved one was suffering. The death came as a complete shock. Mental illness can be incredibly sneaky. It can hide and the symptoms can lie beneath detection by even close family members.

I think about suicide a lot. It isn’t morbid curiosity. It is a genuine desire to help others. Today, like many days, I dream of becoming more effective at diagnosing and treating mental illness. I long for the day when we learn to be even better at detecting suicidal behavior and preventing death.

I genuinely look forward to the days when there are no suicide calls and there are no funerals to attend. On the days when suicides do occur, however, I will continue to reach out and provide whatever support and comfort i am able.

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

In my prayers

I keep a lot of stories on my personal prayer chain.

There is a woman who is in the hospital being treated for viral meningitis. She will be in the hospital for about 10 more days. In the past two years, her husband had a two week hospital stay following an ATV accident and she had a hospital stay of over a month following brain surgery.

There is a man who leaves in less than a month for five weeks of radiation treatment. The doctors say his prognosis for effective treatment is very good, but there is a bit of lingering doubt in his mind simply because the last two treatment regimens that were prescribed by doctors did not achieve the expected results.

There is a family trying to make sense out of the death from suicide of their 24-yuear-old son. He had a brand new baby. He had good prospects for a successful career. They didn’t recognize that there was a big problem coming. They were shocked and they are still reeling. And while they are struggling with this they are trying to find the right resources to support two other sons, both teens, who were the ones who discovered their brother’s body and who are really having a hard time with his death.

There is a 59 year old, suddenly unemployed due to the closure of the business where he worked. He had nearly 20 years with the company and that is over. He is working hard to find a new job, but there are doubts in his mind. Some days it just feels like he is missing out on jobs because he is too old. Early retirement wasn’t in his plans.

There is a woman who has moved into a senior retirement center and who feels so trapped by her new home. She feels like she was just forced to move into a holding tank where people just wait to die. She doesn’t want to sit and wait, and she has trouble thinking about what her purpose in life might be.

There is a teenager who had a cancer in the lining of her skull. It did not penetrate into her brain and the surgery was said to be successful. They just took a biopsy from her lung and she is really scared. She has to wait through the next weekend before they reveal the results of the biopsy. It feels like every clock in her life just stopped.

There is a man who had wonderfully successful treatment for his cancer, but the chemotherapy left him with some disability. It may be permanent. He feels it was worth the risk and worth the price, but still, he grieves not being able to do the things he could do before he was diagnosed.

There is another who is three months into chemotherapy for a type of cancer from which most patients die in the first 5 months after diagnosis. He has lost his hair. He walks with a cane. He feels very old. He wonders if the decision to go with the aggressive chemotherapy was the right decision.

I am not writing the names. God knows them and doesn’t need me to provide a reminder. Their stories have been told to me, but I don’t have permission to broadcast those stories.

There is a mother of two preschool children for whom every conversation with her husband turns into an argument. She desperately wants to improve their marriage, but she doesn’t know how to do it. She lies awake at night wondering if he will leave her. She rises in the morning without a clue of what she will do if he does. A divorce would force them both to leave the house for which they planned and worked for so many years.

There is the man who had hitchhiked from New York state to South Dakota and will board a bus soon to complete his journey home because getting this far meant he has enough money for the bus fare. He still doesn’t know how he will buy food on the 52 hour bus ride that remains. He won’t have any cash once he buys the bus ticket. A kind person in Rapid City helped him get some medicine. He wonders if there will be other kind strangers.

There is a heroin addict who has been trading days of wishing he was dead for a few brief moments of a chemically-induced high. He thinks of suicide often, and knows that the odds of him dying by an overdose are very high. Sometimes he thinks about getting into treatment. Most of the time it feels like it is too late.

There is a woman whose children were removed from her home. She feels guilty for the circumstances by which she lost them. She is trying to get her act together so that she can get them back. She is pregnant again.

I pray for people from all around the world. I pray for people whom I have not met face-to-face, but whose stories have been told to me my other faithful people who are expanding the number of people praying. When you are all alone and you can’t find the right words for your prayer it helps to know that you aren’t the only one praying.

There is the man who is nearing the end third month of hospitalization for a syndrome that suddenly struck him. His team says he’ll require another month of in-patient rehabilitation and at least two months of out-patient rehabilitation before he can return to work. That seems like forever to him. Some nights he wonders if it will ever come to an end.

I don’t pray to tell God about the needs of others. God knows. I don’t pray to influence God’s response to those prayers. God doesn’t need my advice. I don’t pray to magically change the laws of physics or biology. I don’t pry to fix the world’s broken places and broken people. I pray to stand with those who sit on the margins of the community and to recognize the presence of Christ in their situations.

There are many others for whom I pray.

There are many others for whom I need to pray.

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

Looking up

moon and cross
I’m not sure of the origins of the names for the full moons. I suspect that like most folklore, the origins are mixed. Some come from Native American traditions, others come from European or other traditions that came with settlers. The January full moon is called the wolf moon. I’ve heard that the name comes from the sound of the wolves howling at the moon because it is difficult to find food in the winter. I’ve never lived where we could regularly hear wolves howling, so I don’t know if they howl more in the winter than in the summer. I hadn’t believed that howling was due to hunger, particularly. Anyway that’s the name the moon has. The February full moon is called the snow moon and that just makes sense if you live in the northern hemisphere places where I have spent my life. Mach’s full moon is called the worm moon because when the ground thaws the earthworms begin to emerge. I’m not sure that applies around here this year. There is a shallow, spongy layer of thawed ground, but I think there is still frozen ground underneath that. I haven’t been inspired to dig any holes recently. I also haven’t noticed any earthworms.

But the worm moon is full in the sky as I write. It is big and bright and the outdoors were well lit all night long. I was aware of the moon on both the drive to and the drive from work yesterday. It was nearing moonset as I drove in and I stood in the middle of Clark Street and snapped a picture of the moon and the cross at the church. The cross light wasn’t on in the early morning hours and it formed a silhouette on the face of the moon, but I was unable to capture the image I saw with my phone camera. In its place, I got an over-exposed image that is still, nonetheless, striking. As I drove home the moon was rising over the hills and provided bright light to the ground below. Technically the full moon was last night, but we always get a few days of nearly full moon on either side of the actual night.

Last night’s worm moon was also a supermoon. It is the final supermoon of 2019. A supermoon, also known as a perigean full moon, occurs when the full moon reaches its closest point to earth in its elliptical orbit, making it appear very bright and large. You certainly couldn’t tell just by looking, but NASA says the moon reached its closest point to earth at about 3:45 pm on Tuesday. The actual equinox occurred at 5:58 pm on Wednesday. The complete full moon occurred at 9:43 pm last night. So not everything happened at the same moment, but for someone like me who is just looking at the sky without a telescope, it is close enough. I call it a full moon for several days and I’m OK with designating an entire day as the first day of spring.

We’re ready for spring around here. Winter was cold enough and there was enough snow to make us think that it was hanging on a bit too long. I know the lake is still full of ice, but I’ve been thinking about paddling all week long. On Monday, I stopped by the storage unit to pick something up and lingered a while, running my hands over the hulls of my canoes and thinking of the paddles that lie ahead.

I’m much better at keeping up with my exercise in the summer. I’ve never been much for stationary exercise machines. I have a rowing machine in my basement, but I don’t use it enough to justify the space it consumes, really. Having it does, however, remind me of my intentions. But when the weather warms up, I’m quick to head out for a paddle or a row.

Having the full moon made me think of full moon paddles of the past. There is something especially wonderful about the quality of quiet when I’m out on the lake. The moon provides plenty of light for me to see and maintain safety. The animals around the lake are more active during the full moon and I often see deer around the edges of the lake. Even the beavers get insomnia during the full moon and they’ll be out and working. But those are just memories and dreams right now. The lake is still full of ice and the canoes are still in the storage unit. It will probably be a month before I get in the first paddle of the season.

April’s full moon is called the pink moon and May’s is the flower moon. I usually am on the water by the flower moon and always can paddle by June’s strawberry moon. I usually have to look up April and the same is true for July and August. In the fall we get the harvest moon and the hunter’s moon. The Old Farmer’s Almanac is a good place to look for the names of the moons. It will have the dates for all of the moons, including a blue moon, which only occurs in the year when there are 13 full moons instead of the usual 12. Many of the mostly Latin names of our months come from ancient names for the moons. Most of the time I just use the names of the months, so last night was the March full moon. People seem to know what I’m talking about when I do that. But I don’t spend much time with astronomers.

The main thing is that the full moon and the equinox are making it feel like spring is coming. We can endure another spring blizzard or a few cold mornings once our hope is renewed by a few warm days. I kept trying to make excuses to go outside and kept the car window rolled down when I was going from place to place yesterday. I got to make a few visits to other pastors to deliver Palm Sunday posters so was walking around downtown in my shirtsleeves. That’s enough to put a bit of energy and spring into my step.

For now, I’ll keep looking up.

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

Fascinating people

One of the things that has attracted me to the ministry is a fascination with other people. My fascination, however, has not led to complete understanding. I’ve taken a few courses in psychology and I’ve studied human behavior, but we are creatures of infinite mystery and diversity and a lifetime is too short to develop full understanding. That keeps me engaged. People surprise me. I can’t always anticipate what they are going to do. I often don’t fully understand the reasons they behave in one way or another. I’m terrible at predicting what will happen.

I think that I may have thought, early in my career, that I would master the tasks of being a pastor and that when I reached a point later in my career, I would know how to do my work. There are certainly skills at which I have become more accomplished. I know more about leading funerals and assisting families with grief than was the case when I was first ordained. I have learned a lot about not taking things personally and not seeing myself as the center of the church. But I don’t think I’ve mastered anything. I enjoy leading worship and I’ve been told that I am skilled at the task, but there are weeks when I am disappointed in my own leadership. Sometimes the rhythm gets off and I can’t seem to regain a sense of balance all the way through a worship service. I have attended over 500 church council or board meetings and I am still surprised by how any particular meeting might go.

I am old enough to know that I won’t ever fully understand other people. That doesn’t make the pursuit of understanding any less meaningful, however. In some way, knowing that I still have much to learn keeps me engaged in the process.

I’m still learning the art of humility. This week has been another lesson. Here is a tip for every pastor I know: Tell yourself, “It is not about me.” Repeat that phrase over an over. Remind yourself of it again and again. Don’t forget it. And even when you know it isn’t about you, you will have days when you take everything personally. At least that’s the way it is with me.

It isn’t hard to grasp the idea that the future of the church isn’t about me. I do enough funerals to know that I will not live forever. In the future the church will have other leaders and those leaders will make different choices than I might. Leadership is never about controlling an organization in the first place. Sometimes, however, another faithful member of the church will say or do something that feels like a kick in the gut. When I was younger I reacted and that person or the meeting where the event occurred got treated to a burst of my anger. Like most people, I’m not at my best when I’m expressing my anger. I’ve learned to spare others the outbursts, but I haven’t learned to avoid the pain. If I back up, I can remind myself that it isn’t about me. The mission and ministry of the church of Jesus Christ has very little to do with making me feel good. If I’m occasionally uncomfortable, all I have to do is to read the Gospels and look at the discomfort that Jesus’ disciples endured. The season of Lent is a season of learning over and over again about the suffering of Jesus and the pain of loss experienced by the first generation of disciples. Being faithful isn’t about being comfortable.

When I look back over four decades of ministry, I do have a bit of pride over the fact that when there have been times of conflict, they haven’t been resolved by driving people out of the church. For the most part the people who have hurt me the deepest have remained in the church. Through prayer and the support of God and other faithful people, I have figured out ways to deal with others without discarding or discounting them. I have learned to get beyond the event or incident and go on with the work of the church. Sometimes it has required monumental effort. There are times when it would be easier to simply ask someone to leave or to make their circumstances so uncomfortable that they would choose to go. I’ve read plenty of management books that tell employers how to avoid firing an employee by making work conditions such that the employee will quit. I’ve observed other pastors who employ similar techniques with church members. I know that this isn’t “my” church and that I should never act to take it away from another person. It is sad when a church loses a member. It is a tragedy when a member loses a church.

Each day, then, becomes an opportunity to start over. Some days I need to pick up the pieces of my shattered ego and some days I need to start by crafting a heart-felt apology. Today isn’t that dramatic. I’m not suffering from a major wound. I’ve been hurt worse than the little things that have recently occurred. I just need to dust myself off, examine my attitude and maybe invite a church member to have coffee sometime in the next few days. We are blessed to have a church that is not enmeshed in conflict. Because I have good connections with my colleagues, I have watched others go through situations that are far worse than a little failure to communicate. In fact I have a meeting this morning with colleagues from other churches in this community and I know that one person will be leaving a pastoral position within a couple of months amidst significant pain and conflict. Another is struggling with a decision that needs to be made soon about a major shift in career. Another is seeking to move and hasn’t yet discerned God’s call for the next portion of a career. It is the nature of the ministry to be engaged in change and transition.

Meanwhile, my fascination with people continues. God of infinite wisdom and creativity has given us people of infinite variety. Loving those people means never being bored.

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 human element

At the end of the Second World War, my father was flying a Bell P39 Aircobra from the west coast to an Arizona boneyard. After spending the war as a multi-multi-engine flight instructor, he signed up as a ferry pilot for the opportunity to fly different kinds of airplanes. The P39 was a unique airplane in many ways. It was equipped with a tricycle landing gear with a nose wheel instead of the conventional arrangement with a tailwheel. Instead of an opening canopy overhead, the plane had a fixed canopy and doors on both sides of the cockpit. It even had windows that rolled down with hand cranks like automobile windows. Unlike other fighters the engine was located behind the pilot, right over the center of gravity. This design was made around a large canon in the nose of the airplane, which shot through the center of the propellor, which was driven by a gearbox connected to the engine by a driveshaft that ran between the pilot’s legs. Unlike the fighters designed for the European theatre, the Aircobra was not equipped with a supercharger, which meant that the engine could not produce full power at high altitudes. The plane generally flew missions at 10,000 feet or below. The rear engine also meant that the controls for the elevators and rudders, which normally run through the tube of the fuselage, had to be routed down and under the engine.

During this particular flight, the airplane was not armed. There was no need for armament for the journey to the scrapyard. As the plane crossed into Arizona, it experienced a catastrophic engine failure. There were not the advance kinds of accident investigations in those days, so exactly what happened isn’t clear. What did happen was that the engine completely quit. The propellor came to a stop and could not be feathered, creating a great deal of drag. Also the mechanical failure of the engine must have caused some engine parts to interfere with the control connections to the tail. the stick was frozen and had no fore or aft movement. Within seconds the airplane was completely uncontrollable and stalled into a spin. The only way for my father to save his life was to bail out of the airplane and trust his parachute. The gyrations of the plane and the increasing airspeed mede it impossible to open the doors. He had to release his four-point harness, roll down a window and climb out. The plane was falling faster than he and the tail hit him on its way back, but the injury was minor. The chute opened and he became a member of the caterpillar club - those whose lives were saved by a silkworm. I still have the reserve parachute he wore that day. Thankfully, it wasn’t needed. His altitude was too low to allow time to release a primary chute and deploy another.

Within a matter of seconds he had to figure out that his plane was spinning and attempt to control its flight, assess whether or not the plane could be flown and safely landed, make an exit plan, execute that plan, and pull a manual ripcord. When he told the story of the flight, he credited his survival to his practice of memorizing emergency procedures and practicing them on the ground before taking off in any airplane. He didn’t have to think, he could just react and trust his practice and memory to guide him.

Until the recent creation of sophisticated drones, aviation has mostly been dependent upon human pilots at the controls. Their mental and physical capacities have been tested by examiners and the issuers of licenses and they have been an essential part of the incredible safety record of flying. Commercial aviation has achieved an amazing safety record. Millions of passenger miles are flown with incident. People have learned to depend on airline flight as a safe mode of travel.

Part of this remarkable safety record is the practice of equipping modern airplanes with redundant systems. A modern airliner can continue flight even if an engine fails. If an electrical system fails, there is a backup system that can take over. If the hydraulics develop a problem, there is an alternative way of accomplishing the task. In many modern systems there are multiple levels of redundancy - backups to backups. The system is also based on humans who check the work of other humans. The work of mechanics is checked by inspectors. A pilot has a co-pilot even though the airplane could technically be flown by a single individual. The second pilot can watch for and correct mistakes.

As flight becomes more automated, there have been some who have suggested that sophisticated computers can fly more safely than human pilots. Auto landing systems have proven to work well. Autopilots are installed in all modern airliners. Automated navigation systems allow airplanes to fly into weather conditions that had to be avoided with less sophisticated planes.

Removing all human agency from the formula, however, comes with real risks. What happens when a sensor fails? If an airplane is equipped with multiple sensors, how does the computer decide which to trust and which to ignore? My father’s survival depended, in part, upon his capacity to feel fear and the adrenalin rush that gave him the energy to act extremely quickly. A computer doesn’t feel fear and always performs tasks at a consistent speed.

The capacity to make machines that can perform complex tasks does not remove moral agency. Human lives cannot be reduced to algorithms. The human element is still an important factor in the design of aircraft. So far even drones which do not carry human passengers require ground-based pilots to control their flight. Humans decide when and where the machines fly.

Our schools are producing some amazingly competent technicians who can create amazing machines. Equally important in the future will be ethicists and philosophers who will raise the questions of when and how to use the machines we have developed. Boeing is scrambling to come up with a technical fix for its 737 max aircraft. There are ethical and philosophical problems that are just as urgent. The sooner we realize this the safer our skies will be.

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

A modern library

The Harold Washington Library Center on State Street in Chicago opened in the fall of 1991. It was built to replace the old downtown Chicago Public Library. That beautiful building was refurbished and now serves as the Chicago Cultural Center. The new Harold Washington Library Center was the result of a design competition and was designed from the beginning to be ADA compliant. It is described as postmodern architecture. The name of the library reflects the ongoing grief and respect the city continues to feel for Harold Washington, the first African-American mayor of Chicago, elected in 1983. Washington died in office in 1987. The city has struggled with leadership for many years. Chicagoans have mixed feelings about their mayors. Prior to Washington, Richard J. Daley built a machine that lasted for 21 years until his death. The city council voted by signal and Mayor Daley got what he wanted. Jane Byrne, the city’s first female mayor was wrapped in scandal and illegal deals. So it is fitting that Chicago has a public library named after a mayor who achieved a degree of popularity.

But the world was different when the library was dedicated. Back in 1991, libraries housed huge collections of physical books. The Harold Washington Library opened with archived collections that contained every type of reading material from newspapers from around the world to classic works in Latin, Arabic, Hebrew and Greek. It had rows upon rows of stacks of books. Libraries are different today. They serve as community cultural and educational centers. Books have been digitized and are available on the Internet. People used to go to libraries to do research. These days they go to libraries in search of community. As the use of libraries has evolved, so has the Washington Library changed. The second floor of the library houses the newly remodeled Thomas Hughes Children’s Library, which offers customized learning experiences for early learners, elementary learners and tweens. It features materials, computers, events and more. The third floor of the Library is home to the Maker Lab, the city’s first free and publicly accessible maker space. It features introductory workshops and an open shop for personal projects and collaboration. The space features digital design software, 3D printers with large build areas, laser and electronic cutters.

Much of the action int he children’s library and the Maker Lab is unstructured. Resources are provided and children and teens are encouraged to simply play with what they find. Adults are present to demonstrate use of the tools and resources. Workshops are informal and don’t require registration days in advance of the event. People show up and engage in whatever appeals at the moment.

I pay attention to Chicago in part because we once lived there. When we lived in Chicago, The University of Chicago Lab School and the Chicago Theological Seminary Laboratory Preschool were innovative centers of developing structure and programs for children. Back then, it was the role of institutions to provide structured learning experiences for children that they could not obtain at home. It seems as if things are nearly reversed these days. Now the main, downtown Chicago Public Library, of all places, is offering children and teens unstructured time and space.

Increasingly the lives of children and teens are structured. They are scheduled from the time they wake in the morning until they go to bed at night. Just playing has been replaced by play dates and organized sports. Kids belong to teams and leagues with practice schedules. There are no more pickup games in the park or an empty lot. Finding time to schedule a few moments with a teen is often a bigger challenge than making an appointment with a parent. And so we are now creating institutions that provide opportunities for free play and unstructured activities because children and youth need unstructured time and they cannot get that at home. Instead of going to the library for a structured activity and returning home for free play and experimentation, it is becoming the other way around.

The library, which responds to the needs of the public, has discovered that a necessary service in the lives of today’s over-structured teens is space and resources for free experimentation. They need a place to drop in and respond without a big plan or a structured activity.

It is tough growing up in any city and Chicago presents problems that are unique. Chicago has received much press in recent years for its high homicide rate. Teens are gunned down on the streets of Chicago. The murder rate peaked in 2016 and has fallen dramatically since that year. So far the 2019 rate is 50% lower than 2016. There are plenty of teens in Chicago who know how to navigate the streets safely and are not involved in illegal drug deals, but they don’t make the news in the ways that teens on the wrong side of the law do. Still it is tough growing up in today’s culture. Unlike when we were teens, today’s teens face a world where they will have to prepare for multiple major changes in career in their adulthood. Many jobs in our current world will be done by automated machines. Many jobs of their adult lives don’t even exist today. Pressures to get into the right college and perform well enough in sports to pay for a college education mount on children from a very early age. Parents fear giving their children free time to engage in unstructured activities.

Creativity is nurtured, however, by free time and unstructured activity. Children who lack unstructured time can turn into adults who are inflexible and unable to adapt to change. Creativity is an essential skill for survival in today’s rapidly-changing world. The institutions that serve the youth and children of our communities are discovering that one of the essential services they need to provide is time and space for unstructured activity.

The Harold Washington Library building is less than 30 years old and already it is serving in ways its original designers could not have imagined. 30 years from now libraries will be different than we can imagine. Chances are good, however, that they will continue to serve the needs of children and teens of our communities whatever they become.

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!

Going to places of greif

We gathered to say good bye to a remarkable woman yesterday. She really was amazing and her family’s tributes rang with truths that the rest of us knew about her energy, creativity, passion, intelligence and caring. The crowd that gathered was larger than the capacity of the place where we gathered. Briefly, I wished that the service had been held in our church, which has a room big enough for all of the people, ushers who know how to assist folks who use canes, walkers and wheelchairs, and a parking lot that doesn’t require crossing a busy street. But the location wasn’t the focus of the day, nor the reason we had gathered.

One of the realities of a world that is becoming more secular is that some religious notions that have value are occasionally rejected by people who don’t quite know what they are rejecting. A service is called “A Celebration of Life” instead of a funeral because somehow the term funeral seems to be too sad and too gram. What you call the service, however, doesn’t erase the simple fact that we grieve when we experience loss. We can plant a smile on our faces and speak of the most positive aspects of a person’s life and still their passing causes tears to well up and sometimes overflow. Saying we are going to focus on the happy doesn’t erase the sadness that is an essential part of life.

Real hope doesn’t pretend that sadness doesn’t exist. It doesn’t avoid pain.

Because my life is inside of the services of the church, I notice things that others may not. When a few words are left out of a traditional prayer, I miss them. When verses are left out of a hymn, I notice. I go to pay tribute to someone and no provision is made for visiting with the family and I feel like my actions were incomplete.

The world is changing and sometimes I have trouble keeping up because I choose to live within the embrace of tradition.

Another adventure of my day yesterday was spending time with a family who had just experienced the sudden and unexpected death of a young man. Because I rushed from one event to the other, I couldn’t keep them separate in my mind. I was thinking of the parents holding each other as they wept and the thought and the horror of the news of their son’s death. I was thinking of the gathering of friends, who came to offer their support, and whose presence was more powerful than any words and words were hard to come by. It was a stark contrast with the gathering of many whose lives had been touched by someone who had neared a century of living and whose passing seemed a natural part of the flow of life. And yet, both were places of grief. Both were occasions of being intensely aware that things had changed permanently for the people involved.

Life does not afford us the luxury of escaping sadness and grief. Sometimes we can delay our experiences, but none of us get through this life without coming face to face with the sorrow of losing someone we love.

In the middle of the family crisis over the death of a young man, his grandfather decided that it would be good to make a pot of coffee. It was his tradition of what you do when people gather. You make coffee. But he was not in his own home and the coffee pot was not familiar to him. He didn’t know how it worked and he was struggling with what his role should be. He wanted to do something. He wanted to sooth the pain his son was experiencing. He wanted to express his own pain at the death of a grandson. But the coffee maker was foreign to him. Kindly and gently a friend who had come to express support for the family took over for him and made coffee while I struck up a conversation with the grandfather. Soon he was telling me the names of everyone in the family pictures on the wall and sharing stories of his grandson. A few minutes later the friend handed him a cup of coffee. It was an act of incredible kindness. The friend clearly had no words of wisdom to offer. She didn’t know what to say. But her presence was invaluable. Her ministry of making a pot of coffee was a gift to a grieving family. I noticed that she wasn’t drinking coffee. She wasn’t doing it for herself. She was paying attention to the needs of others.

As I said my goodbyes and left that family I noticed that more friends were gathering. There were awkward hugs and tears and a few more people were holding cups of coffee. Someone went off to a nearby store to get some more coffee and cream. The natural process of grieving was starting to take over. There was no pretending that pain was absent. There was no way to avoid the grief and sorrow and sadness. It wasn’t the time for the public ceremony, but rather a moment for a friend to hand a cup of coffee to a grandfather who didn’t know what to do with the pain he was experiencing. No one took away his pain, they simply demonstrated by their actions that he was not alone in his pain. And it was enough.

I often say that the season of Lent is a gift of practicing for the grief that we will all experience. We go through community rituals of remembrance of sorrow, loss, pain and death. But more and more I come into contact with people who haven’t been practicing the rituals of Lent each year. They find the realities of life to be strange and shocking and overwhelming. Of course there is no way to practice for the shock of the premature loss of a loved one. That is why the wider community - the church - needs to keep practicing. We need to be ready to offer support and love when tragedy strikes our community.

And sometimes, ever so gently, we need to remind folks that we have a place to gather and offer our church home as a place for the community to grieve.

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!

Canoe history

I will sometimes speak of the history of New England Congregationalists as “our” history even though it isn’t the story of my family. It is the history of the church that I serve and an important part of the story of the United States, but my family came to the Congregational church late in its history, just after the Second World War and just before the union that formed the United Church of Christ. My mother’s side of the family is mostly English methodists and my father’s people referred to themselves as Pennsylvania Dutch. Their heritage is probably from the areas of Europe that became Switzerland and Germany and they took a rather convoluted route to the United States. They also were religious explorers, changing churches from time to time. The family roots seem to be in an Anabaptist group that became what is known as Mennonites, but the family chafed at some of the rules of the group and went through a variety of religious affiliations. My father’s family identified as Presbyterian after they arrived in Dakota territory. When my parents settled in a small town Montana after the War, they discovered the Montana protestant apportionment system, wherein Methodists, Presbyterians and Congregationalists had divided the Montana territory into geographical regions. Our little Congregational church used to have a framed document in the entryway stating that it was designated as the official church for Methodists, Presbyterians and Congregationalists in our town. My parents met at a small college that was the result of a merger of colleges from the three denominations. Our father was a student there and our mother a student at the city Deaconess Hospital nursing school.

So I’m an adopted member of the Congregationalist family. My roots aren’t in the Massachusetts Bay Colony even though I belong to a religious family that claims that settlement as a critical part of our story.

I think I fit into the family quite well, however. Part of that fit has to do with theological convictions and denominational loyalty. From time to time, however, I discover other links that fascinate me.

Recently I was reading an article written 25 years ago by Ann Marie Plane and published in the “Bulletin of the Massachusetts Archaeological Society” about New England Logboats. Indigenous Americans clearly had a large variety of watercraft prior to European settlement. It is unclear how many of the boats were individually owned and some boats were definitely communally owned, as they were designed for large numbers of rowers. Longboats that could carry as many as forty rowers were observed by the first settlers. Individual boats were also used. The settlers in New England quickly adopted and adapted the traditional American boats. It is hard to know exactly how much of boat design originated in indigenous designs and how much was adapted from Irish and English boat design, but it is clear that the settlers did use naive boats and learned native techniques for boat construction. From Thoreau onward, there was a romanticization of American Indian culture and boats from that era reflect an intentional imitation of indigenous design.

Logboats were especially popular in certain regions, among them Salem colony where most homes had one or more “Cannowes.” The boats generally were 20’ or shorter in length and were used for crossing rivers, hunting, and hauling all kinds of agricultural and household goods. The popularity of the boats in North America was regional and the settlers were quick to adopt boats as a part of their lifestyle.

I’ve also taken to boats. I own what might be described as a fleet. I currently have five different canoes, each with a specific function and role. I clearly own more than is necessary. Not all of my canoes saw the water last summer. The year was a bit unusual in terms of paddling for me, as we traveled more than usual, but I confess to a bit of collecting as well as the use of the boats for practical purposes.

There is something powerfully spiritual about canoes for me, however. I frequently use my boats to travel alone on calm waters and behold the glory of creation. There is something about rising before dawn and quietly paddling out onto the lake to watch the sunrise that gives one a sense of being immersed in something much bigger than oneself. A small boat gives me a perspective that has been valuable for me. Somehow, I believe that I’m not the first person to have felt this. It makes me feel connected to those Massachusetts settlers as they crossed the rivers in a new-to-them land. They must have felt small in the face of the wildness of the North American Continent. There was so much that was unknown. Yet they also must have glimpsed the beauty of sunrise and the tug of a paddle as a well-shaped craft slips easily through the water.

Plane writes in her article that nearly every house in Salem colony had a “water-house (water-horse) or two. OK, I have more than two, but you can see how my interest was piqued by the article.

My Pennsylvania Dutch ancestors seemed to be more prone to traveling overland, with wagons pulled by oxen or horses and by the time they reached Dakota territory they had become land dwellers. Although they homesteaded on the shore of Devil’s Lake, also known as Spirit Lake in what is now eastern North Dakota, there are no family stories of them owning or employing boats. They were farmers and focused their attention on the soil. My mother’s people also don’t seem to have been boaters. There are no stories of grandparents and great grandparents owning personal boats, though some of them traveled by sternwheeler up the Missouri River to settle in Fort Benton, Montana Territory.

So I reach back to my adopted church family to claim a heritage of people who knew and appreciated canoes and other small watercraft. It’s a stretch, I know, but we often are willing to reach far when justifying our passions.

Who knows, perhaps some great great grandchild one day will say, “I come from a long line of Congregationalist canoe builders.” It’s unlikely, but one can dream.

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!

Working out the bugs

Last night, our son sent us a text message from an airplane traveling between Chicago and Seattle. I got out my phone, touched an app, and brought up a real-time display of commercial airliners over South Dakota. I touched the icons one by one until I found the flight upon which he was traveling. I watched it cross the border of North Dakota after traveling across the northeast corner of South Dakota. I watched it cross the Missouri River, heading west towards his home and family. I thought to myself, “My dad would have loved this technology.”

There are parts of our technological revolution that are truly wonderful and I am both grateful for and dependent upon some pretty sophisticated technological innovations. The thought that I would be able to write and publish an essay every day never occurred to anyone when I was a student. Now I can display three or four articles on one screen and write my essay on another one all at the same time. I can watch a video made in New Zealand a few hours ago and one made in England a few minutes ago before I have my breakfast.

The technology is great when it works. It doesn’t always work.

Yesterday, we were using our best skills to keep members of our congregation informed as a blizzard waned in our town. We can update our phone messages remotely when everything works, but for some reason our voicemail system crashed yesterday and I had to go to the basement and reset the device in order for it to accept the update. The result was that some people got the wrong message when they called the church. It wasn’t a big deal, as we would have gone to the church anyway, but if the roads had been impassable, the messages would have been wrong until we could physically get to the church to reset the system.

Facebook and Instagram’s recent meltdown affected a whole lot more people. I didn’t notice, not paying much attention to either platform in the first place.

Technology upgrades in airplanes are incredible when it comes to navigation and situational awareness. Pilots fly with multiple GPS units that keep them aware of their location at all times - and some broadcast the information so a father can track his son’s flight as he crosses his home state. I am no longer an active pilot, but I have many pilot friends and I join in discussions of the Foreflight application. It can be run on a phone or an iPad and will display location, weather, traffic and other information. It assists pilots with planning and filing flight plans. It has all of the Jeppesen flight charts so that a pilot will never be caught with an outdated paper map. The system even has 3D views of airports. It must be a bit strange to look at the app and see the airport in the middle of the summer as you are looking out the winter at banks of snow on the ground.

Pilots become dependent upon the technology. I recently read of a pilot who was making the ocean crossing from the Bahamas to Florida in a single engine plane when his GPS system suddenly picked up a cell phone signal. The strong signal gave the device an opportunity to download and install an upgrade. The screen went blank as the system restarted. The pilot had a backup system, was trained in other modes of navigation and had good communication with air traffic control. It wasn’t dangerous to have the display go black for a few seconds, but it was unnerving. You’d think with all of the technology, the system would have a basic sensor that would tell it that it was being used in flight and stop the upgrade until the plane was safely on the ground.

I am no expert and I don’t know what is going on with the Boeing 737-max jets, but I suspect that the issue has something to do with the sophisticated systems that are present in the airplanes. They have autopilots that not only can fly and navigate the plane, but they also can detect and override pilot errors. If the pilot is inattentive and the angle of attack becomes too steep and a stall is threatened, they autopilot will react more quickly than a human pilot can. Modern airliners have redundant systems to allow the plane to be safely flown when a component fails. But there are a lot of components in these modern systems. Real, living pilots are still an essential component ini passenger aviation. Sometimes the automatic systems don’t work and real pilots have to fly the planes by hand. That usually isn’t a problem, but when the system thinks the pilot is making an error and the pilot thinks the system is making an error, specific procedures have to be followed in order to override the system. When the airplane is in critical flight moments, such as takeoff or landing, there isn’t much time to resolve the problem.

The solution may lie in advanced training for pilots. It should be possible to recreate the problem in a flight simulator and have the pilots practice overriding the system in a few seconds.

My father would tell the story of having to bail out of an airplane when the engine experienced catastrophic failure that resulted in damaging or destroying a control rod that ran close to the engine. He was ferrying a used P39 Aircobra to a salvage yard. He succeeded in bailing from the plane and his life was saved by a parachute. When he told the story, he emphasized how important it was that he had memorized the emergency procedures from the flight manual. He didn’t have to think about where the door latch was located or how to release his seatbelt as the airplane experienced extreme g-forces and began to break up in flight. He made me memorize emergency procedures and checklists as part of my flight training.

Yesterday, it took me two attempts to reset the phone answering system. My memorized technique didn’t work on the first try. I unplugged the wrong unit to reset. Flying an airplane wouldn’t grant the grace of a second opportunity.

Parking the planes while we figure all of this out makes sense to me.

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!

White Day

Happy White Day! If I were to offer that greeting to folks here in Rapid City today, I think that most of them would think of the weather outside, which is better than making assumptions about race and racism which the greeting might invoke in some places. We’ve been warned for several days that there would be a blizzard yesterday and it pretty much came through. As my father-in-law used to say, “it doesn’t take much snow to make a blizzard if it is all in the air.” The wind started to rise around noon and there were some pretty good gusts blowing by the time it started snowing. We got home around 2:30 and by 4 it was clear that it was a good day to stay home. We cancelled all of the evening programs at the church and stayed put. Except for one neighbor who really, really loves to operate his four-wheeler with the snow plow, most of the folks in our neighborhood just watched from inside our homes. That particular neighbor was outside with his machine again at midnight, but I’m pretty sure he’ll have snow to move this morning when he gets up and he’ll probably sleep later than I. It isn’t snowing much, but the wind is still blowing at a pretty good clip. It is a white world out there - or least a world with muted colors. Most of the day yesterday looking outside was like looking at a black and white television. The reduced lighting from the clouds and all the snow in the air made things look pretty stark.

But for people in Japan, white day has a different meaning. To understand, you have to know that many Japanese people love American holidays, but they add their own twist. For example, only about 1% of Japanese people are Christian, but they play up Christmas in their advertisements and marketing to a similar level that the holiday is marketed in the United States. The Japanese, however, like to go to KFC for chicken on Christmas. It is so popular that you have to make reservations to eat at KFC in Japan on Christmas. To understand that dynamic, you could try shopping for a turkey in Japan. Chances are, you’ll give up, settle for chicken and begin to understand how the tradition got started over there. For what it is worth, you don’t want to have to pay Japanese prices for a Watermelon on the 4th of July, but of course, July 4 isn’t a big holiday in Japan.

In Japan, Valentine’s day is the day when women give gifts to men to express their love. It isn’t like the US, where the gifts flow both directions. February 14 is for women to give gifts to men. It is kind of like Sadie Hawkins Day - a time when it is socially acceptable for women to make public displays of their attraction to men. Sadie Hawkins day isn’t really big in the part of the world where I live. I had to look it up to know it is November 15. In Japan, however, February 14 is marketed as the big day for women to give love gifts to men. The traditional gift is no surprise: chocolate.

Then with the advantage of a one month’s warning, which makes it even easier when the first month is February because in 3 out of every 4 years the days of the week are the same in March as in February, March 14 is the day for men to reciprocate with a gift for women. I think that a man is supposed to give a gift to the same woman who gave him a gift on February 14. March 14 is marketed as White Day.

Happy White Day!

For reasons that I have no clue about, the traditional gift for men to give women in Japan is something white. Cake is a good choice, but even more popular is Marshmallows, which, quite frankly seems like it isn’t fair to women. A box of a dozen chocolate truffles is going to set you back $25 for so. A bag of marshmallows is about $2.50. Admittedly, Japanese marshmallows are a bit different from the ones sold for roasting around campfires in the US. They are usually round and Japanese confectioners put some effort into making them look very appealing. And they do make chocolate filled marshmallows in Japan.

Still, a marshmallow is a marshmallow and if you are like me, they aren’t one of the wonders of modern eating. I rally don’t like them that much. I usually avoid them when they are offered in favor of something else. Chocolate is good.

The story is that a candy company, Ishimura Manseido, invented White Day 40 years ago. They were responding to the Japanese love of giving gifts. Giving and receiving gifts is very popular in Japan. When we visited some of our Japanese friends, they had little gifts for each day of our visit. We brought gifts to give as well, but definitely fell short of the number of gifts offered by our friends. Chances are most men in Japan receive a lot of gifts on Valentine’s day, from colleagues, family members, friends and others. Remembering who gave the gifts and making sure that you have a reciprocal gift a month later can become a big deal.

According to an article I read on the BBC website, giving was down for both Valentine’s Day and White Day last year and it is expected to drop even more this year. While advertisers proclaim that White Day is connected to the core values of Japanese people, many folks are coming to the conclusion that the holiday really exists for corporations to squeeze more money out of common people.

As an outsider, I may not fully understand Japanese culture, but I have observed that the concept of Okaeshi is important. Okaeshi means expressing appreciation or gratitude for a gift received. It is expressed through words, gestures, and, frequently, the giving of a gift in response. So everyone in Japan is always giving gifts to everyone else at every opportunity. Japanese people live in very small homes, but I suspect some of them are filled with scarves and handkerchiefs. One home we visited had a “craft room” which was filled with items to give as gifts.

My plans for white day, however, don’t include gifts. I think I’ll celebrate by shoveling snow.

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!

It's the story

Since I took up building wooden canoes and kayaks, I have enjoyed reading books and articles about other boat builders. In addition to those who tackle small projects like the ones I undertake, there are builders who create huge vessels. Alongside them are those who restore old boats. I’ve visited a few places where extensive restorations of some very large boats have taken place. Mystic Seaport in Connecticut and Port Townsend in Washington are two centers of wooden boats where building and restoring have gathered skilled carpenters and boat builders.

In general the big projects fall into three categories: repair, restoration and replication. All wooden boats are in need of constant maintenance and repair. Some of the great wooden ships were designed for a service life of 5 to 25 years and now have survived for more than a century because things were replaced or repaired when they wore out. Sometimes, the need for repairs is so great that there is little of the original left when they get done with the process. Sometimes they simply make a replica of the original. All of these processes are expensive and it is amazing to me how much money they can raise to keep old boats afloat. One story I read told a bit about the restoration of the Ernestina-Morrissey. The boat has been replanted with high quality wood to standards of workmanship that exceed the original. Touring the ship one visitor commented to one of the shipwrights, “She looks like a million bucks!” The builder responded, “More like 8 million.”

The conversation among builders and restorers has to do with where the limits of such an enterprise lie. How much of the original boat needs to remain for us to call it the same ship. Sometimes it is just a single piece: part of the keel, a companion ladder, a hatch, a piece of ironwork. Everything else has been replaced bit by bit until it is questionable what of the original is left.

Michael Rutstein, writing about the historic knockabout Sylvinia W. Beal, stated “The story remains and cannot be replaced or rebuilt. It is the relationship between the parts, not the parts themselves, that make the boat.”

I have been thinking of historic ships as one analogy for historic churches. I don’t really mean the buildings, but rather the congregations. The congregation I serve is in its fourth building. In a sense it bears very little resemblance to the gathering drawn together by the missionary Rev. J.W. Pickett in the upper room of Lewis Hall in 1878. None of the founders is still alive. The building where they gathered is no longer standing. The town of Hay Camp has become Rapid City. The place with no Christian congregation of any type now has over 200 churches and para-church organizations. Those founders would marvel at the beautiful building we now occupy with its glorious musical instruments. They could never have imagined the size of our budget or the scope of our rummage sales, or the distances we cover working with our sister church in Costa Rica. They would be amazed at the technology in our building, with computers to run heating and air handling systems, shingles made out of composite materials that are fireproof and aren’t damaged by hail, giant air circulation fans and modern restrooms with amenities they never imagined in a church. They might not even understand the style of preaching or the order of worship services that have become familiar to our generation.

But we are connected to them. We are the extension of the work they began. They would understand our commitment to serving our community. They would feel at home at potluck suppers. They would be willing to chip in and work at spotting wood or preparing meals to serve at the mission. Their story has become our story just as our story will become part of the history of this place after our time has passed.

What remains of the original is the story. And the story becomes worthy of preservation for future generations.

Yesterday I had the joy of a brief conversation with a man who is just slightly younger than I who grew up in the church and then moved away as an adult. He is active in another congregation with which I am familiar and we had fun making connections and coming up with people we knew. His wife was a camper at a church camp where I was a manager and I know her whole family. We have a lot of friends in common and know a lot of the same places. He stopped in my home town on his way to Rapid City on this trip. He’s fished the river where I grew up.

Our stories intertwine in a way that is common when you are talking with folk in the church. Even though we never lived in the same town at the same time and never belonged to the same congregation at the same time, our stories are connected.

Even though we invest heavily in maintaining an institution and donate generously to keep a building well-maintained, a church isn’t about the institutional structure or the building that we occupy. A church is the story of people in relationship with God. It is a story of faith nurtured and shared. It is a story of sending our people out into the world with the good news of God’s love.

It will take a century and a half for this particular congregation to double its age. By then, none of us will be living. Our names will be forgotten by many of those who follow after us. They might have the technology to read some of our annual reports if a historian decides to do a bit of research. They might have kept a picture of the building or a computer archive of some event. But they will be the same church as we are. They will carry the legacy of Rev. Pickett and the faithful who gathered in Lewis Hall. They will carry the legacy of those who constructed a modern brick structure on the eve of a World War in 1914. They will carry the legacy of the pioneering thinkers who belt an accessible building in 1959. And they will carry the legacy of the work we have done.

The story will continue.

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

Random thoughts on cooking

I am not a great cook, but I have learned a few tips and techniques and I can make a passable meal. Sometimes things turn out as planned and sometimes they do not. I’ve learned to adapt. I am also a big fan of figuring out how to use up leftovers. A bit of pork roast can make really good barbecue pork sandwiches the next day. That’s how one of my culinary adventures started. On a busy day, Susan started a small pork roast in the crock pot. At noon, I got a break and went home and added sweet potatoes and apples to the pot. It made a delicious dinner. Then I shredded the remaining meat, and added barbecue sauce to make pork sandwiches. I made coleslaw to go with the sandwiches and decided that some beans would complete the meal. I cooked too many beans, which wasn’t a problem because the next day there was a potluck. I added more beans and took a crockpot of beans to the potluck. The potluck was lightly attended and there were a lot of crock pots of delicious food, so I had a big supply of leftover beans. So last night I cooked some rice, browned some beef in a frying pan and ended up with a big pot of beans and rice. We had a good dinner and we’ve got leftovers that will last us for several days. I don’t mind. A bowl of beans and rice warmed up in the microwave makes a nice lunch. I just have to remember to take some with me when I leave for work because I won’t have time to come back to get them after my day starts.

That’s the kind of cooking I do. I am capable of finding a recipe on the internet, going shopping for ingredients that we don’t normally keep around the house and following instructions to produce a meal, and when I have time I like to do just that. More often, however, our lives are busy with lots of meetings and activities and what works best is to open the cupboards, see what is there and come up with a meal plan.Since beans and rice are easy to store, we seem to often have beans and rice as part of our meal plans.

Years ago, when we were first married, our go-to meal was probably spaghetti. Dried noodles are easy to keep on hand. A jar of prepared sauce can be the basis for the rest of the meal. We often doctored the sauce a bit adding whatever ingredients we happened to have on hand. The other staple, if I was cooking, was a variation on tuna casserole. I could make it with rice or with noodles, depending on what we had on hand. I tended to lean towards noodles in those days. I know it isn’t complex, but it took me a while to learn how to get rice cooked properly.

When kids came along, macaroni and cheese became a meal that was always accepted. Our children were amazingly tolerant of variations in the cheese sauce. They were served everything from real cheese sauces made with multiple kinds of cheese to the orangish powder packaged in a box mix. Waffles were always a hit. A trip to the store usually involved picking up a box of Bisquick and a few boxes of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese.

It is surprising, looking back, that both of our children turned out to be thoughtful and careful about their food choices and feed their families good, balanced and nutritious meals. It isn’t that we weren’t mindful of nutrition. We were just busy.

But I don’t think we were quite as busy as our son, with three children in a two-career family. Their lives are a kind of organized chaos, with an amazing amount of organization to the chaos. A typical early evening scene in their home involves one parent preparing a meal in the kitchen while the other parent is organizing activities with the children, the main focus of which seems to be keeping the children out of the kitchen so dinner can be prepared. It looks, and sometimes sounds chaotic, but it all works out and the evening ends with three children being fed, bathed, had their stories read and in bed at a reasonable time. I think that evenings also end with exhausted parents, who have tasks to complete before falling into bed so that they can rise before the children to get breakfast in motion.

These days I don’t put much energy or creativity into breakfast unless we have guests or are caring for our grandchildren. Although I admit that the grandchildren always ask for blueberry pancakes for breakfast when they have a sleepover. I’m glad to comply. There was the one time that the request was macaroni and cheese. Easy Mac to the rescue and we have at least one granddaughter who knows that staying with grandma and grandpa is special. She wouldn’t get that request granted at home.

For me, however, these days my breakfast is a little egg, a little cheese and a little spinach rolled up in a burrito. That’s different from the staple fried egg and toast that I had for breakfast for years. I seem to be better at cooking the right amount of food for breakfast and I don’t have to deal with leftovers. A flour tortilla can add a bit of variation to leftover beans and rice to make a burrito for lunch if I think of it.

I don’t think anyone will be inspired to write a cookbook of the food we prepare in our home, but so far we’ve managed to enjoy our meals together, feed ourselves food that is at least sufficiently nutritious for survival and within our budget.

Here’s a tip just in case you are out of dinner ideas. Put the leftovers in a baking dish, mix a cup of Bisquick with a half cup of milk and an egg and pour that mixture over the top. Bake and call it a pot pie. Your family won’t notice that it doesn’t have a bottom crust and they’ll think you’re a good cook.

It’s all in the presentation.

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’ve worn corrective lenses since the first grade. Our school had green chalk boards and the level of contrast between the yellowish chalk and the boards was good, but I struggled to make out the letters just as we were beginning to read. I ended up in the front row of the classroom and I thought at the time that it was because I exhibited poor behavior. That’s why the others were in the front row. Being within reach of the teacher tended to improve behavior somewhat. I tried to behave, but I was also struggling to see the chalkboard.

My first pair of glasses were a bit of a miracle to me. All of a sudden I could see things that I hadn’t previously seen. My father had excellent vision and didn’t need to wear glasses. He was a pilot and we heard over and over again how important it was for us to eat carrots to maintain our night vision. I ate a lot of carrots in pursuit of better eyesight. I wanted to be a pilot. I knew that those glasses would keep me from having an unrestricted medical certificate. By the time I was in the fourth grade, I was pretty sure that I would not make it to the astronaut program. There were just seven astronauts at the time and none of them wore glasses.

Our doctor didn’t wear glasses. Our dentist didn’t wear glasses. None of the pilots who worked for my parents wore glasses. Our mother did wear glasses and she had a pilot’s license, so I thought there was some hope for me, but I remember being worried.

At 15 I got my driver’s license. It had a restriction stating that that I needed to wear corrective lenses to drive. By that point in my life I owned not one, but two pair of glasses because I had become quite accomplished at breaking glasses frames and seemed to need the reserve pair to wear while the main pair was sent in to the optician for repairs. It was a good thing, because that year I also had my first flight physical, which came back that I needed to not only wear corrective lenses but have a spare pair present when operating an airplane. It was also that year that I discovered that my father had memorized the entire Army Medical Corps eye chart, including the color blindness test book. Maybe his vision wasn’t perfect after all.

A couple of years later the same doctor told me that there was no point in my filling out an application to become a smokejumper. There was no way I would pass the eye test for that occupation. For what it is worth, I’d ridden with that doctor in his airplane. He wasn’t a very smooth pilot. He horsed around his airplane and over controlled it. Landings with him in a Cessna 180 were an adventure that was less than pleasant. He never ground looped the bird, but I never thought of him as a good pilot. I was working at the airport at that point and knew how often most of the locals flew their planes. The good doctor wasn’t flying anywhere near as much as I was at that point.

As an adult, I was diagnosed with an eye condition called keratoconus. I knew a bit about the condition, because I had an aunt who was among the first people in the country to have cornea transplants. She had experienced serious deterioration of vision and wasn’t able to drive a car or do many other tasks. He had huge magnifiers just to read before she had her surgery. She also wore contact lenses instead of glasses. Sticking with similar theories about the condition by which she had been treated prior to her transplants, my ophthalmologist recommended hard contact lenses to increase pressure on the corneas to slow the progress of the condition. Those contact lenses hurt, and at first I could tolerate them for only a couple of hours a day. I worked my way up to wearing them most of the day, but it was sure a relief when I could take them out at night and put on my regular glasses. After about a decade, I decided to give up on the contact lenses. By then, I had switched to a new kind of soft contacts, but still struggled with them. Interestingly, my keratoconus stabilized at about the same time, and I have not required further treatment. Plastic lenses have lightened the weight of my glasses significantly and I do very well with the glasses.

It is interesting that through the various adventures with eyes and eye doctors, I have never thought of my condition as a disability. Lots of people wear glasses. With the exception that I never became an astronaut or a smoke jumper - career options that probably wouldn’t have worked out for me for other reasons - my life has not been restricted by my vision. My vision can be corrected to 20/25. That means I’m reading the street signs in time to make the turn and only slightly closer than my wife whose vision is a bit better than mine since here cataract surgery. We’re different enough that we aren’t likely to have switching our glasses go unnoticed.

My vision does, however, give me a clue to understanding those who live with disabilities that are more significant than mine. Disability is a range, not an absolute condition. Most people who have been identified has having a disability have far more things that they are able to do than the list of things that they cannot do. They have plenty of abilities, just not all of the abilities that some of their peers possess. A person who cannot walk can still see, think, read, reason, cook, build and do math. I have friends who are paralyzed below the waist who can snow ski, waterski, drive vehicles and are fully employed in meaningful work.

Evaluating others in terms of their disabilities is rarely useful. We need to focus on their abilities. Look at what the individual is capable of doing, rather than what she or he cannot do.

All of us will have some decrease in ability as we age. We will also retain some abilities. The more restrictions I experience, the more I want to define myself by what I am able to do.

So, for the record, I’ve got 20/20 vision in my right eye. And no, I haven’t memorized the chart.

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!

Lent begins

Christians begin Lent with the reading of the temptation of Jesus. Reports of the temptation of Christ appear in Matthew, Mark and Luke. There are small variations in the details, but the basic story is the same. Jesus goes into the wilderness and fasts for forty days. During that time he is tempted by the devil. The devil suggests that he use magical powers to turn stones into bread to satisfy his hunger. The devil offers power and authority over all the kingdoms of the world. The devil suggests that Jesus jump from a high place to see if angels will rescue him. Luke’s gospel reports both Jesus and the devil quoting scripture to support their arguments.

These stories are rarely used as examples of the humanity of Christ. They are told as stories of Jesus’ amazing restraint, or of his capacity to endure 40 days of fasting, or of his ability to discern the presence of the devil. Rarely are they told to illustrate the simple fact that every human being faces temptations and that Jesus wrestling with those temptations is part of the simple fact that he was human.

Artists depicting the story often draw the devil as a human who has horns or other distinctive features that make it seem rather easy to identify the tempter. Storytellers like to make it a clear cut case of knowing what is good and what is evil as if the choice were simple. In this life, however, the arguments of evil are often subtle and it isn’t a matter of a cartoon characters with horns and a tail sitting on your shoulder.

You don’t have to look far to find examples of humans who compromise with evil. To be human is to be tempted.

For a preacher the most familiar texts are often the most challenging because we think that we have already discovered the meanings in the stories. Taking our tradition seriously, however, requires us to take a second and a third look at the stories that we tell every year. There is a reason why we begin the season of preparation for Easter with the story of Jesus’ temptation. There is a reason why understanding Jesus as fully human is a critical element of our faith. Those reasons may be challenging to discover.

One of the temptations for interpreters of the texts is to over simplify. There have been thousands of sermons preached about being tempted by food and power and prestige. There have been plenty of preachers who make the choices seem simple: Good verses evil. Make your choice. Fewer sermons take a look at Jesus as making difficult choices. The challenge of the choices is obvious when you look at the story. It took 40 days. This was not some overnight choice. It was not a conclusion that was reached in the brief exchanges that are reported. There is a lot going on behind the scenes in this story. Luke’s version is the longest and he has the story completed in 13 verses. With the bible there is always more to the story.

In this life real people make real compromises with evil. They justify their behavior by claiming that their intent was necessary. They were “forced” into a particular choice. After all everyone has to eat. Food is necessary for life. People justify their choices by saying that they are seeking the greater good. The kingdoms of the earth are corrupt and people suffer because of the choices of cruel and evil governments. Jesus being in charge of all of the kingdoms is something for which Christians have prayed. Jesus resists that form of exercising his power and authority. Few people can resist the seductive lure of power and authority. They convince themselves that they will be good rulers and and that their positions of power are earned or deserved.

There are a thousand sermons that have yet to be preached in this familiar story. The challenge for a preacher, however, is not that of finding something that hasn’t been previously said. It is the challenge of making a real connection between the lives that worshipers live and the Gospel text. What can be said that helps people make a connection?

In many of the stories of the Gospels that we tell over and over, the connection lies in the full humanity of Jesus. It is not that Jesus somehow possessed superhuman powers. It is not that Jesus could work miracles. It is that Jesus understood fully what it means to be human. Jesus wrestled with difficult decisions. Jesus faced times of not knowing what is best. Jesus considered options that would have had dramatically different results. But we don’t tell the story of the miracle of stones turned into bread when we talk of Jesus. Jesus made choices and then lived with the consequences of those choices. Jesus was human and the stories of Jesus can help us understand what it means to be human. Instead of focusing on the ways Jesus is different from us, perhaps our lesson comes from understanding how similar Jesus is to us.

Our tradition places this story at the beginning of Lent each year in part to explain the length of the season. Easter is coming, but there are 47 days of preparation first. We, too, will be presented with choices and temptations. We, too, will need to make decisions with consequences. We, too, will have a long and sometimes hungry journey if we take Lent seriously.

The Gospel of Luke ends the story of Jesus temptation in the wilderness by saying that when the devil had ended the temptations, he departed from Jesus “until an opportune time.” Even when Jesus had successfully resisted the temptations, he was not fully free from the presence of evil. One of the big temptations for humans is to think that we’ve conquered our temptations and therefore are beyond making wrong choices. The reality is that evil is always lurking and we are tempted over and over again.

We need Lent every year. Over and over again. There is yet more truth to be revealed from these stories.

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

Creative Thinking

It has been a long time since I have thought of myself as having a powerful brain. I can remember being 25 years old and being impressed with my ability to think, solve problems and engage in academic study. I was quick to argue with those with whom I disagreed and I enjoyed the process of pitting my thoughts against the thoughts of others. I was competitive in my academic pursuits and was pleased when I was able to earn an honor, impress a professor, publish an article or add a credential. These days, I am aware that my mind has its limits. There are times when I struggle to remember a name. Sometimes I lose my focus. And yes, I too have been known to wander into a room and forget why I went there.

Our human mental resources are limited. We can only cope with so many things. We can only remember so many names. It doesn’t mean we are weak. In fact, our capacity for thinking is very powerful. It is just that we are not unlimited.

One of the tricks that I have employed for many years is to not waste mental energy on decisions that are not important to me. People who know me will report that I don’t spend much time thinking about my clothes. If I find something I like, I’lll often purchase more than one item. The innovator Steve Jobs wore the same type of mock turtle neck and jeans every day. He was said to favor uniforms for his employees with the belief that if people don’t have to think about what to wear each day they free brain power for other, more important types of thinking. I’m not quite as extreme as Steve Jobs, but I did imitate his black shirt and jeans look for a number of years. I still wear the black mock turtlenecks often. I own five or six of them. I wear a dress shirt, dress slacks, a bowtie and a sports coat nearly every Sunday. I don’t want to have to think about what to wear. I want to think about worship and what I will be saying.

In a similar manner, I eat the same thing for breakfast every morning. Not having to think about the menu allows me to think of other things. This wasn’t always the case. I remember when my brothers and I used to think of creative ways to use the elements of the breakfast table nearly every morning. How far can you propel a piece of cereal using just a spoon. If you lay the spoon over a fulcrum, quit a distance. At least across the kitchen. Aiming the projectile is a challenge, however, and you can get into trouble with bad aim. I know from personal experience. The challenge of getting your brother to laugh at just the right moment to propel his beverage through his sinuses is considered gross by some, but we invested mental energy in the process.

These days, I know that I need to have quite a few mental shortcuts to function effectively. I love to think creatively, but I know that my creative thinking needs to be focused to accomplish the tasks and challenges that lie before me.

At the same time, I know that my brain needs creative stimulation in order to be able to come up with new solutions. The right answer isn’t always the familiar answer. The world changes and we need to have the ability to adapt. Ministry is different and the challenges faced by the church are unique in each generation. I’ve noticed that I need to be flexible and creative and my brain needs to be open to new ideas and new ways of solving problems.

Fairly early in my career I discovered that reading fiction and books on topics other than theology increased my capacity to think creatively about theological problems. Reading novels improved my preaching. Reading science stretched my ability to solve problems. In the past couple of months I’ve read science fiction, biology, history and Buddhist theology as well as books about church management, Christian theology and Biblical research. In recent years I’ve discovered that reading poetry can free up my mental resources for more creative thinking.

Experts in team building have devised a wide variety of exercises that enhance the ability of groups of people to solve problems and think creatively together. A famous example is called the Duncker candle problem. A small group, usually 3 to 5 people are given a candle, a box of matches and some pins or thumbtacks. They are given the task of attaching the candle to the wall so that it will burn properly and not drop wax onto the floor. The simplest solution, that can be accomplished quickly is to pin the match box to the wall and use it as a a candleholder. The candle can be stood up in the bottom of the box and ignited. There are other, more complex solutions, but teams often fail to think of the box as one of the resources. They see the matches, the candle and the tacks, but forget that the match box is one of their resources.

Attaching candles to the wall isn’t one of the challenges of the contemporary church. Solving the problem of how to install fire suppression sprinklers in an existing building is a challenge that recently came up. The solution involves motivating people to want the sprinklers. Some people are motivated by the potential increase in safety. Others are motivated by the fact that installing the sprinklers allows the church to get a building permit for another project. Others feel that the sprinklers are going to be required sooner than later and sooner is a lower price than later. And some people are quite disinterested in sprinklers all together, but have a desire to go along with the majority because they treasure the coherence of the community. And a few have the capacity to negotiate with the contractor for the best price.

The best resource I have for keeping my brain flexible and for continuing to think creatively as I age is my contact with other people. I don’t need a crowd of people who think like I do and who agree with me. That does little for my creativity, though it is nice for my ego. What I need are people who don’t see things from the same perspective and who aren’t afraid to disagree. They are more likely to come up with fresh solutions and new ways of solving problems.

Fortunately the church is a good place to meet folks from a wide variety of backgrounds with a wide variety of opinions. They are a rich resource for leaders.

What I have learned, that I didn’t know when I was 25, is that leadership has a lot more to do with listening than it has to do with talking.

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!

Youth in the church

Youth ministry has always been a high priority for me. I have a plaque that used to hang on the wall in my office, before I decided that my office was the wrong place to display my diplomas and plaques. It was given to me for work that I did on the planning and leadership committee of the 1996 National Youth Event which was held in Columbia, South Carolina. It was one of the largest youth events the United Church of Christ has ever had. At the time of that event, I had a collection of t-shirts from every National Youth Event that the United Church of Christ had held to that date. I also had served on planning teams for regional and conference youth events, been the leader of youth camps and led many youth trips. I started and led a waterspouts camp in Idaho for which we chartered busses to bring in youth from out of state.

These days, I don’t attend many youth events. It isn’t that I have lost my passion for youth ministries, though my job responsibilities have shifted significantly over the last couple of decades. There is something different going on.

I noticed the phenomena in the very early 2000s. First it was just one family, then others followed. As the family’s children entered their teenage years, the entire family became less involved in the church. When the youth stopped attending church activities, I made a follow-up visit with the parents. What I learned surprised me at the time. Basically the parents said that they were following the lead of their teens. Their teens wanted to do non church activities on the weekends and the parents decided that keeping the family together was an important value.

I didn’t understand that style of parenting. We had teenage children at the time and our children were not given a choice about participation in the church. It was what our family did and they were expected to be a part of the family. We didn’t ask our children what they wanted to do on Sunday, we assumed that they would be a part of our family. It isn’t that we didn’t listen to what our children wanted. It isn’t that we didn’t believe in giving our children choices. We simply didn’t feel that our teens should control all family decisions. We consulted our children on all kinds of family decisions. We took their opinions seriously. But we didn’t fail to express our opinions and expectations as well.

That family was the first of many that I have known over the years where they allowed their teenage children to lead the family away from the church.

Not long ago I was in a conversation with caring church members who are concerned that our church doesn’t have very many teenage members. Although the person with whom I was speaking was misinformed about the number of teens who are affiliated with our church, the sentiment is shared by the majority of our church. We want to be a church where people of all ages are involved. We want to have vibrant and engaging youth ministries. The member thought that youth and families with teenagers were leaving the church because the church didn’t have programs to engage them. From my point of view, it is the other way around. We offer fewer programs for youth because families have left the church. For the most part they have not left the church for other churches. There are congregations which are larger and which have more youth involved in their programs. But the families with youth who don’t participate in church programs are primarily spending their weekends with soccer, hockey or volleyball. We have fewer youth participating in our programs and so we scale our programs to fit the youth that we do have.

I have enough friends who are pastors to know that our congregation isn’t the only one experiencing these problems. This week I exchanged emails with a friend in another part of the country over his grief that his conference had decided to sell a church camp. The outdoor ministry site was in need of a major investment of funds that had not been raised, it represents a significant asset, and church leaders decided that the value of the camp would be better invested in other programs.

Across the nation churches are experiencing decline not only in the numbers of teenagers participating in church programs but also in the number of families with teens who participate in the congregation. Churches are having to compete in a wide range of youth activities that involve entire families. Families are told that if they don’t volunteer in youth sports programs, their youth will not be able to participate.

I have witnessed divorces where the fees for teenage sports programs are spelled out in the financial settlement. And I have been shocked to find teenage sports participation fees that are ten times what a typical family pledges to support a church. “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

From the call of Abraham and Sarah to the time of the Exodus to the disciples who followed Jesus and throughout modern history, God has proven again and again that human freedom is a part of God’s plan. We are meant to be free. As such we have choices. And we shouldn’t be surprised when the people who participate in our church make choices.

It is a bit painful for me to say that the reason there are few youth involved in the church is because of choices that families have made. Even more than the choices that the institutional church has made, the choices of families are shaping the church. The passion, energy and enthusiasm of youth is being diverted to other programs and other institutions.

Over the next two years, our church will make an investment in a fire suppression system to protect the health and safety of those who come to our building for programs. It is a major expense for our congregation. It costs nearly one third of the cost of installing lights on a soccer field. The electricity bill for those lights will be about the same as the electricity bill for our facility. People make choices. They don’t always make the choices we want.

Our history has taught us that when we make poor choices, God will forgive and welcome us back. The future of the church may depend in part on our ability to welcome back those who have drifted away when their children were teenagers.

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!

Ashes in the Wind

There are no two ways about it. Ashes are messy. The ashes we use on Ash Wednesday are what is left after the Palm Sunday palms are burned. We use a disposable aluminum foil roasting pan placed int he fireplace to burn and collect the ashes from the dried palm branches. They burn quickly. Then the ashes are sifted to remove any unburned stems or other large pieces. The fine ashes are placed into a jar and stored. Sifting the ashes is messy. Some are spilled every time. Pouring the ashes into the jar is messy, some are spilled in the process.

On Ash Wednesday, I take the ashes out of the jar with a teaspoon. It doesn’t take too many ashes, in a small dish. I add a bit of oil so that they will make a smudge on the skin of worshipers. Mixing the ashes gets the spoon messy. Because of the oil, it takes detergent to clean up the mess.

I use a thumb or forefinger to place ashes on the foreheads or the back of the hands of worshipers. My hand gets covered in black ash. The ashes smear on the skin of the worshipers. Sometimes they sweat or rub the place where the ashes have been placed. It’s messy.

We offer ashes as a gift, not as an obligation. Some worshipers choose not to have ashes applied.

It is, for me, a powerful experience. People come to me one by one. I touch each one. Together we have a brief moment of reflecting on the simple fact that we are all mortal. Babies and elders. We all are mortal. Some die young. Some are old when they die. However it occurs the elements from which our bodies are made are simple and of the earth. Wether or not cremation is chosen as the method of dealing with the human body, it is messy. This life is messy.

And the wind will scatter the ashes.

When I sift the ashes, some are lost. When I pour them into the jar, some are lost. When I mix them, some are lost. When I apply them to worshipers, some fall on the floor and are lost. When they are scrubbed from foreheads and hands they go down the drain and are lost. The ashes I wore on my forehead last night are gone.

It is a challenge to think in those terms when it comes to people. I touch strangers and friends on Ash Wednesday. Our moment together is unique. The exact same gathering of people will not occur again. A student goes off to college. A marriage ends in divorce. Funerals occur. People get different jobs and move to different communities. The church that I serve is constantly changing. People are coming and going. The events that seem so important to us at the time are forgotten and even the ones we clearly remember fade and combine with others.

When I close my eyes and remember the parade of worshipers who came before me last night, I am already remembering other Ash Wednesdays, other faces. I am aware not only of the one who came, but of those who were absent.

Life in a community has its messiness. People make mistakes. Tempers flare. Feelings get hurt. Things are taken personally. Tears flow. We have this vision of a community where all are welcome, where diversity is celebrated, where old and young share equally, where all are respected and treasured and loved. And our community is imperfect. Sometimes it is messy.

I’ll spend a bit of time this morning cleaning up ashes.

I’ll also shovel some snow that, if left where it is, would one day melt and flow down the driveway. But if I don’t shovel it, it will become ice that makes it nearly impossible to drive the car into the garage. It will be shoveled. More will fall. I’ll shovel again. Life is like that.

Not long ago I had a conversation with someone who said that they didn’t like the emphasis on sin and guilt that is a part of the way they perceive the church. The person thought that it would be better to raise children without teaching them about sin. I wondered what it would be like to raise a child who didn’t know how to apologize. Would that child somehow feel better when a mistake was made? How does that child get over events that threaten relationships? Maybe sin is the wrong word. Maybe the way that guilt has been misplaced in the church over the years is destructive. But to raise a child without a notion that you can make amends and get beyond a beach in a relationship seems unkind to the child. Children long for relationship. When something occurs that creates a rift, they are eager to return to relationship. Saying, “I’m sorry,” is a good first step when you are sorry for what happened.

But, contrary to the perception of this person, Ash Wednesday and Lent are not primarily about sin and repentance. We do assess our lives. We do admit that we feel sorry. But the focus is much less on sin and much more on our common mortality. We get only one life to live and it is, whether we die young or old, a relatively short span of time. As the Psalmist wrote, “Whether the span of our life is 70 or 80 years, they are filled with trouble. They are soon over, and we fly away.” It is like ashes in the wind.

I remember standing on a windswept bluff in the Missouri Breaks overlooking a ranch in Montana. We scattered the ashes of my aunt and uncle. The wind was, as usual, strong enough to make them disappear quickly. Some touched the ground at our feet. Some traveled quite a distance before resting. Now my cousin, their son, has died and the remains of his body have been entrusted to the land. A smudge of ash on my forehead reminds me that I will soon join them.

In the meantime, I choose to live in a community and part of life in that community is for me to say, on occasion, “I’m sorry.”

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 collar

I like to think that I am unaffected by fashion, but it isn’t true. For many years, I wore a white shirt with a tie when I was at work. My usual dress for days when I was not at work and for days when my primary responsibility was youth events was a t shirt, often with the logo of some event, and a pair of jeans. But I dressed up when I was working in the church office. That dress was a way of connecting with the people and the community I served. Although farmers and ranchers don’t wear ties to work, the professionals in our rural town did. In the early days of my career bankers, teachers, lawyers, doctors and other professionals wore the same type of clothing that I was wearing.

The workplace, however, has become more casual. I began to wear ties less often and collected colored shirts as well. Along the way, I noted that deciding what clothing to wear is easier for a man than it is for a woman. There are many days when I get up and get dressed without giving much thought to what I will wear.

The origins of clergy wearing robes lie in part in the desire to have simple dress that frees a clergy person from the whims of fashion. At our ordination, we were presented with a pair of simple soles, with reversible colors. One was green with purple on the other side, the other was white with red on the other side. These four colors covered all of the liturgical seasons of the year and could be worn with an academic robe or a simple clergy robe. We had homemade robes for the first decade of our service, but didn’t wear them for regular worship during the time we were serving our first parish. Robes and stoles were reserved for special ceremonies such as ordinations and installations. When we moved to our second parish, in a more urban location, we began to wear robes for regular worship leadership. Our second set of robes were a gift for the tenth anniversary of our ordination and were simple choir robes. They served us well and Susan still wears hers on occasions when a robe is desired. Somewhere along the way we acquired more stoles and now our closet is filled with many colorful stoles from many different places, with many different stories behind them.

For the most part, however, dress that sets me aside as a clergy person is reserved for actual worship. People know that I am a minister, but usually from conversation, not from how I dress. A conversation over a haircut or a transaction in a store might include a question about what job I do and I am glad to share that I am a minister of the United Church of Christ. This can lead to some confusion simply because not all Christian ministers are the same. The title, however, is comfortable to me after more than 40 years of ordination.

On very rare occasions, I do wear a clergy collar. I own two black shirts that accommodate a clergy collar, one long-sleeved and the other short-sleeved. I have been known to joke that a shirt that is only worn on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday and for an occasional visit to the jail will last a lifetime. I’ve not felt the need to own any more shirts for a clergy collar. The used of clergy collars is slightly more common in our denomination today than was the case when we began serving as pastors, but it is not as common in our church as it is in others.

I’m not sure why I have adopted the habit of wearing the collar on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Actually I wear it on other days of Holy Week as well. I think that it is a combination of a message that I want to share with others and a discipline that I choose for myself. The easiest explanation for me is that I do accept a discipline of Lent. I see the season as an opportunity to make changes in my lifestyle. I try to focus less on myself, less on consumption, less on acquiring things and turn my attention to service and sharing faith. Lent is always a season of reaching out for me. I try to give myself opportunities to talk about my faith with special attention to reaching out to those who do not participate in a church. I am more invitational than is the case during other seasons of the year. Each Lent, I resolve to make permanent changes in my life, and sometimes I am successful. Sometimes I have to repeat the discipline for several Lenten seasons to make the change permanent. Lent is, for me, an opportunity to make changes.

The collar, however, can be a symbol for many people of things which it does not represent to me. I am not Roman Catholic. I am not celibate. I am aware that in the midst of current clergy sex abuse scandals that the collar is associated with pain and abuse of power for some. To the extent that it is a symbol of power at all, it isn’t an appropriate symbol for me. I don’t intend for it to be seen as such, but I can’t control how others interpret the symbol.

So today I will don the collar once again. It is a nod to tradition. Clergy have worn distinctive collars for many generations. I belong to a long line of servants. My choice of clothing will serve as a reminder to me about the season that lies ahead and my call to make fresh commitments to the future of the church and the people I serve. It will also serve as a reminder to those who see me out in the community that there is something special about this day. It isn’t just an ordinary day, but the beginning of a new season.

And, if I am thoughtful, it can also remind me that what clothing I wear is no where near as important as how I treat other persons. Their lives will be touched by who I am, not by how I look.

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!

Shrove Tuesday

Happy Shrove Tuesday! In the calendar of holidays, it isn’t one of the really big days. My digital calendar doesn’t include it in the list of holidays highlighted. Then again, not many people know that yesterday was Shrove Monday. Shrove Tuesday has a few other names, some of which may be more familiar. The French call it Mardi Gras, meaning fat Tuesday. It is also known as pancake day in many parts of the world. The name shrove comes from old middle English. It is the past tense of the ancient word shrive, which means to obtain absolution for one’s sins. In church traditions, gaining absolution is a multi-step process that begins with confession. Confession can be done privately or as a part of a group. The sacrament of confession was one fo the areas of church life addressed by the Protestant reformation. Without going into detail, it is important that in most Protestant churches the process continues but is no longer considered to be a sacrament. Many Protestant churches also favor group confession over private confession. There is a long history to these differences, but both Protestants and Roman Catholics observe. at least nominally, a day of preparation for the season of Lent.

The celebration of Mardi Gras has been lengthened into a season in some places. In New Orleans, the first Mardi Gras parade this year was on January 5 and there have been multiple parades every week leading up to today’s big festivities.

The tradition of eating pancakes comes from the belief that Lent must be a period of fasting in preparation for Easter. The six weeks of living a very austere life provides an opportunity for reflection on what is most important. The season of Lent is often accompanied by cleaning out one’s home and making other preparations as well. Since Lent is a long period of fasting, it was believed that it was best to remove all edible temptations from one’s home. This was undertaken in a systematic fashion. Monday was the day to rid the house of excess meat, especially fatty meats such as bacon. Another day for yesterday is “Collop Monday.” A collop is a thin slice of meat. Tuesday is the day to consume the remaining eggs, butter and stocks of fat. Making pancakes or fritters is a good way to use up these items.

In some places a tradition of children going “Shroving” or “Lent-crooking” on the night before Shrove Tuesday was common. The children would knock on their neighbor’s doors singing,

We be come a-shroving,
For a piece of pancake,
Or a bite of bacon,
Or a little truckle of cheese
Of your own making.

Once, twice, thrice
I give thee warning
Please to make some pancakes
‘Gin tomorrow morning.

The tradition, in some places, included carrying shards of broken crockery or small stones to throw at householders who refused to give them anything.

We haven’t noticed any children out shoving in our neighborhood. The tradition doesn’t seem to be deeply ingrained in this place.

Lent has always had a bit of confusion associated with it and many differing traditions. The season of Lent is one of the most ancient seasons observed by the Christian Church. It was well established before the Church began to observe Advent and Christmas. The timing of Lent, however, has always been a complex calculation, based on the lunar calendar. Prior to the Council of Nicea, held in 325 AD, the celebration of Easter varied widely. The council created a formula to calculate Easter. It would be the first Sunday that occurs after the first full moon, which follows the vernal equinox, but always after the Jewish Passover. They then established that the vernal equinox would always fall on March 21. Before the 7th century, the Roman method of calculating Easter was different from the Celtic tradition and resulted in differing dates. After the Great Schism, in 1054 the Roman Church no longer felt that Easter had to fall after passover, resulting in the eastern and western churches nearly always celebrating Easter on a different Sunday. Passover is observed on the 15th day of the month of Nisan, which is the first month of the year in the Jewish calendar. Passover is celebrated for 8 days and is made up of several ceremonial traditions. Added to the difference of whether or not to wait until after Passover, the Roman church switched from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar in 1582. The Orthodox Church continued to use the Julian calendar for determining the date of Easter. This difference results in different weeks for the celebration of Ash Wednesday and Shrove Tuesday. On rare occasions the two traditions end up aligning. The next time that this will occur is 2034.

To complicate matters even more, contemporary churches often compress some of the observances of the season. In our congregation, we no longer have distinct Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday celebrations, compressing the two events into a pancake supper followed by a worship service with the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday.

So Shrove Tuesday isn’t one of the big days in the calendar of most folks. In our town businesses and schools will be operating as usual. There will be a few pancake suppers around town and that is about the extent of it. There is no need to save your broken pottery shards for your children to throw at the neighbors if they refuse their begging for food. Your children probably prefer to beg for food in your own kitchen in the first place. Pancakes, however remain a treat for children. Our grandchildren almost always ask for pancakes for breakfast when they have a sleepover at Grandma and Grandpa’s. Since I’m prone to prepare what they ask for, we did have macaroni and cheese for breakfast once, but cheese is another food the is traditionally purged from the house in preparation for Lent, so mac ’n’ cheese might be a good Shrove Tuesday menu item.

However you celebrate, enjoy the day. Tomorrow we begin a new season together.

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!

Choice of weapons

I am not an expert in weapons and I don’t fully understand all of the theories behind the use of weapons. But I have had enough conversations with people with more expertise than I to know a little bit about the subject. There is a theory that a weapon can be used as a deterrent. Not every situation requires that the weapon be actually fired, but the mere presence of the weapon can alter the balance of power and change the situation.

There was a rural sheriff who required his deputies to carry shotguns. The large weapons are bulky and a bit difficult to carry when you have other things in your hands, but they are very visible. The rationale of the Sheriff was that if a deputy walks into a situation he should immediately demonstrate authority and power. The deputy is not expected to fire the shotgun when wading into the midst of a barroom fight, but the weapon immediately demonstrates who has the upper hand when it comes to power and diffuses the situation.

However, for a weapon to be effective as a deterrent, the people being deterred need to believe that the weapon will be used. If there is no fear that the weapon will be used, it is ineffective at deterring action. The old television show, Andy Griffith, often had sketches in which the deputy, Barney Fife, was so incompetent in the use of his gun, failing to properly load the weapon when under stress, that he was not the least bit threatening. The show presented scenarios that weren’t particularly dangerous and the kindness of the sheriff always trumped the evil intents of the would-be criminals. In real life, there are some criminals that not only take advantage os that situation, there are scenarios where incompetence results in death.

Police officers are trained to use lethal force in ways that are lethal. They are literally trained to kill. The hope is that they will never need to use that force, but the very fact that an officer is carrying a lethal weapon means that the officer is trained and prepared to use it. The television or movie image of the highly skilled shooter who can shoot to wound or shoot the weapon out of the hand of the assailant is not the way it works in real life. A lethal weapon is used with the intent of killing. It is a choice that the officer needs to make in training so that there is no hesitation when the situation presents itself.

The hope is that there is a corps of highly trained, highly effective officers who are prepared to use whatever force, including lethal force, is required by the situation. To that hope is added an additional hope that the officers never are placed in a situation where the force is needed.

Philosophers can argue the theory of the use of weapons for deterrence, but we live in a world where it is one of the most common uses of weapons. And, in our country, weapons are in the hands of civilians as well as police. I don’t know the current statistics, but I have read that more people say that self protection is the reason they own a weapon than hunting. That would certainly be the case with handguns, which are not particularly effective for hunting. It is worth wondering how much those who have purchased the weapons have thought about the theory of deterrence and whether or not they are actually prepared to use lethal force to kill another human being. Since gun owners are more often the victims of crimes than those who do not own guns, one might argue that the deterrence isn’t effective. Such an argument, however, would quickly be countered by those who believe that more weapons increase safety and decrease the likelihood that weapons will be used.

The argument goes far beyond private gun ownership, however. In the case of nuclear weapons, countries that have them have not only the power to destroy an enemy, they also have the power to destroy all human life. The theory of mutually assured destruction poses that if two superpowers both have enough weapons to destroy all human life and if they aim their weapons at each other than neither side will use the weapons. The buildup of arms and equality of power creates a balance, where the weapons are never used. This theory, however, is primarily based on World War II technology. The only time that nuclear weapons have been used, they were bombs delivered by airplanes. The decision to use the weapons was careful and followed hours and hours of deliberation. The weapons, once loaded into the airplanes would have been withdrawn at the last minute, depending on a wide variety of factors. However, following that war new weapons delivery systems were developed that replaced the airplane delivery system with intercontinental ballistic missiles. These weapons fly so fast that if there is any warning of an attack, it will be very short. The speculation is that if a missile attack were to be launched, the first missiles would be aimed at the launch sites of missiles in the enemy country and the enemy would have at the most 5 or 6 minutes to respond before losing the capability to respond. A decision that could result in the death of all of humanity needs to be made in a split second.

It is on a different scale, but it can be compared to the police officer with a gun. The decision to use a weapon to kill another person needs to be made in advance because there isn’t time to deliberate and weigh pros and cons in the heat of the battle. When the decision is kill or be killed the response must be swift and overwhelming. The problem with nuclear weapons, however is that the situation is not “kill or be killed.” It is kill and be killed. There is the possibility that the use of nuclear weapons provides no defense, but rather mutual assured destruction.

The result is that we need to continue to have conversations about our choice of weapons. There are choices add no security and only raise the risk. It is prudent to take a second and a third look at the choices we have made.

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!

Spring is coming

It is about -12 this morning. It makes me glad that I was able to take communion to a senior living center on Friday. Last evening we decided that we will not run our church bus this morning because of the cold. There would be no mechanical issues with running the bus, but it was decided that taking the people who ride the bus out in the cold wasn’t in their best interests. So I’m glad that I got to take communion to at least some of the riders of the bus.

Winter forces a few adaptations and changes. You have to make adjustments. Some of the adaptations cause strain. Mechanical systems are more prone to breakdown in the cold. This winter has put a kind of double strain on systems at the church. People tend to stay home when the weather is bad. Decreased attendance means decreased income at the church. At the same time, we’ve had to do a lot of snowplowing this winter, which means increased expenses. Heating the building costs more when the temperatures are cold outside. Decreased income and increased expenses are not a good combination. So we adapt and figure out how to spend less in some other areas of our life together. We’ll get by.

But things are easier these days than they were in earlier years. With fuel injection and electronic ignition, our cars are easier to start than was the case a few decades ago. Back in the 1970’s some of the folks in the churches we served would leave their vehicles running during worship because they weren’t sure they could get them started again if they shut them down. They were, however, more likely to make the effort to come to church than is the case with many folks these days.

People have been adapting to the weather for a long time. My grandfather was born in a sod home on the plains of North Dakota. Even after they had been able to construct a proper house and barn out of milled lumber, they were isolated in the winter. Some storms left them cut off from town for days at a time. They learned to be self-sufficient. They kept a rope stretched from the house to the barn so they wouldn’t get lost traveling between the two buildings in a blizzard. By comparison, we’ve got it pretty easy. Our garage is attached to our house. And we don’t have animals for which to provide care.

Speaking of animals, they had to make adaptations in Anchorage, Alaska yesterday for the ceremonial start of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. The actual race is held each year from Willow, just north of Anchorage to Nome on the west coast of the state. 1,000 miles on a sled pulled by a team of dogs is a challenging adventure. Just completing the race is a major accomplishment. 14 teams will be competing this year. The actual race starts today. But yesterday, they had a ceremony in Anchorage, which is the tradition. The teams parade through the downtown streets. However, unlike South Dakota this year, they are having an unusually mild winter in Anchorage, so they had to haul truck loads of snow into the city to dump on the streets so that the sleds could run on the city streets.

I’m trying to imagine how that would seem to the old timers. While cities across the midwest are straining their budgets to haul snow out of the downtown streets, Anchorage is using city funds to load trucks full of snow and bring it into the downtown area. Life is strange, especially when occupied by us humans and our entertainments.

Despite the cold and continuing winter, it is march. The days are getting longer. In just over two weeks, the spring equinox will arrive. Of course astronomical spring doesn’t mean warm weather and we’re used to a couple of months between the equinox and being able to set out tomato plants, but most of us have the seed catalogues sitting where we can grab them and page through the photographs of lush vegetation as we sit inside on cold winter nights.

I’ve actually had less time to sit around these days, with chores like shoveling to do. Yesterday I got a bit of a break when we postponed a firewood delivery due to slippery roads. But by the time I cleared the snow from our driveway and that of a neighbor and ran to town to do a few errands, I didn’t have trouble filling up my day with activities. I was tired by the time I got to bed. I did manage to take a few minutes to take pictures of the icicles on the church building to send to my grandchildren. The roof is dark and the snow thaws in the bright sunlight, but the water freezes as it flows over the edge of the roof. This year we have a few icicles that have made it from the eves to the ground. They are pretty dramatic. My grandchildren live in a part of the world where any icicles at all are rare. Their father will probably be mowing the lawn before the month is out. I’m thinking I’ll be good on that score until at least May, though all of this moisture will probably result in a good early season for grass this year.

So we adapt. I’ll go out to start the car just a bit earlier and let it warm up just a bit. Otherwise when I get in the car my breath will freeze on the inside of the windshield. We’ll have a smaller crowd for worship, but we’ve got some very good music planned and the service will be meaningful for those who are able to come. It is Transfiguration Sunday. Next week will be Lent and Lent makes us think of spring. It also reminds me of the increasing pace of activities. We always have a lot going on during Lent and Holy Week. Lent means “lengthen” and the season gets its name from the lengthening days in the northern hemisphere.

Spring is coming. Spring is coming. I’ll keep repeating that to myself as I put on hat and gloves and extra layers of clothing to keep warm as I head out this morning.

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!

Millennial burnout

We had dinner with friends this week. These friends are younger than our children. They are well educated and energetic and fun to be with. We never run out of topics for discussion. One of the topics was millennials and religion and how patterns of participation in religious institutions are very different for young adults than it was for us when we were their age. Towards the end of the evening the topic shifted to health and the woman of the couple with whom we were visiting said, “I think it is pretty unusual for someone my age to have chronic back problems.” We didn’t dwell on her comment, but discussed the physical therapy she was receiving. My wife shared a bit of information about our son’s experience with an injury and physical therapy. I commented on how physical therapy had really helped me when I experienced muscle spasms in my lower back.

Later, however, I thought to myself that I think she is wrong. I don’t think chronic health problems are that rare for millennials. I started to go through the young adults I know and to think of the problems they face and it seems to me that the young adults I know have many more problems and challenges than was the case for young adults when I was that age. This isn’t a scientific study, it is just based on the people that I know.

Once a week I visit a man who is less than 30 years old in a rehabilitation hospital. He was struck by Guillain-Barre syndrome. The nerve disease is very rare and most people make a full recovery, but recovery can take a year in some cases. This young man has been in the hospital since just after Christmas. At one point he was in the Intensive Care Unit for a week. His therapists expect that he will be in rehab until the end of April. He will be on restricted work for the rest of the year and can probably resume his regular work schedule at the end of this year or early next year. His rehab is hard work and he is often exhausted by mid afternoon. A year is a long time in his life. His daughter had her first birthday when he was in the hospital. A year is a long time in her life.

We know another young couple with one partner who is taking medication for chronic pain and experiencing near panic attacks due to stress.

Yesterday, I exchanged text messages with another friend in his thirties who is just beginning what will likely be a year-long job search. His current employment will end in the spring of 2020. He is a university professor with multiple advanced degrees and significant post-doctoral work under his belt. He is beloved by his students and is an excellent teacher. He is well published. But his field of research is highly dependent upon grants and the federal government in the US has been deeply cutting investments in scientific research. He is not the only PhD under 40 that I know who is facing possible unemployment or a major career change.

When I completed my graduate education, I had a job waiting. I have never been unemployed, even for a single week since. There has always been a job for me. I can’t imagine what it feels like to face a life that will likely involve multiple major changes in career. Statisticians say that most students graduating from college today will experience periods of unemployment and be forced to make major changes int heir careers.

Both of our adult children have had major career changes in their thirties.

We have a millennial in our congregation who is experiencing advanced cancer and the prognosis isn’t good. Her life is dominated by medical treatments and hospital stays. It isn’t at all what she expected just a few years ago.

When the topic of “millennial burnout” began to get press, I was skeptical. From one perspective, millennials have it much easier than was the case for us. In general they have had more disposable income, been able to purchase their first home earlier, earn higher salaries and have things pretty good in comparison to the way it seemed to us. When I look at the people that I know, however, I think that the challenges faced by millennials is significant.

Some of the pressures upon millennials are self-imposed. They have high expectations in terms of income and purchase. I know several young couples who have remodeled their kitchens to include high end appliances and custom cabinets and other features that go well beyond anything we’ve ever had. I see young adults with new vehicles at an age where we shared a vehicle and it was neither new nor reliable. Their homes are filled with the latest computer and multi-media entertainment systems.

They have incredibly high expectations of their work. They have all read or listened to podcasts about the financial independence movement. FIRE stands for “financial independence, retire early.” The goal is to accumulate assets that are 25 times your annual expenses by your mid thirties and then stop working at a regular job. Those who have achieved this goal spend their time working at the things they enjoy, managing their assets, and are able to travel and enjoy life without being bound by a normal work week. It works for some people, but it will never bee the lifestyle of the majority. Some young people see others who are able to accumulate such wealth and are saddened by the realities of their own lives. No one ever made me feel the need to retire in my thirties. I would have found the notion laughable.

Millennial burnout is real. Again, I don’t know the statistics, but I suspect that major mental health issues are at least as common if not more so than was the case for our generation. Life is tough and it is tough for young adults. And when you are young, there is no end in sight. Things are tough in different ways than they were for us, but they are still tough. Being a millennial is harder than it looks.

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 flow of history

The Christian denomination that is my home, the United Church of Christ, has among its predecessor denominations the Congregational Church. Leaders in the Congregational Church expressed opposition to slavery as early as 1700, with Rev. Samuel Sewell becoming one of the first vocal critics of the practice. At the time there were plenty of Christian leaders in other denominations who were not only in favor of slavery, but engage in the practices of buying, selling and owning slaves. More than a century later, in the 1830’s and 1840’s the abolitionist movement had gained enough steam that the topic of slavery became rose to heated debate in other Christian denominations. The Lutherans adopted an anti-slavery position. The Methodist church split over the issue, with the northern and southern expressions of the church taking different positions. By the time the Emancipation Proclamation was issued in 1863, however, most Christian denominations were officially opposed to slavery.

Slavery isn’t much of a debate in Christian churches these days. Being Christian pretty much means being opposed to slavery. We’ve forgotten what it was like for this to be a controversy in the church. Those who read the history of the church on the issue are quick to point out that the Congregationalists were on the right side of history.

In the 1850’s when many Christian denominations were struggling with the issue of slavery, the Congregationalists discovered a new issue that caused much debate. In 1853, the Congregational Church ordained its first woman minister. Not all of the members of the church were in favor of women ministers. It took a while for the practice of women in pulpits to be accepted in the church, but it became more and more common as the years passed. It took quite a while for other denominations to begin to ordain women. The Methodists granted full ministerial standing to a woman in 1958. The Lutherans began ordaining women in the 1970’s. As you know the issue of women in the role of minister is still not accepted by all Christian denominations. The Roman Catholic Church may be the most visible communion where women are denied leadership positions, but there are plenty of Evangelical and Fundamentalist denominations where all ministers are male and where members use biblical quotes to support the patriarchal church. You can find arguments about women in the leadership of the church raging in our town to this day.

Many Christians, however, can see the trend that is taking place and when they take a step back they realize that the flow of history is leading to increased leadership of women in the church. In our denomination the topic has passed as a point of discussion. We have women who serve as Conference Ministers and women serve in all sizes of congregations in all parts of our church. It is beginning to become clear that women in leadership positions in the church is the right side of history. We expect that other denominations will come around and the idea of being a Christian opposed to the ordination of women will become a relic, just like being a Christian who is pro slavery has.

Back in the 1970’s when many Protestant denominations were beginning to argue over the ordination of women, the United Church of Christ ordained its first openly gay minister. A few eyebrows were raised. A few debates were held in General Synod. And, as was the case when our denomination first ordained a woman, the practice was identified by some other denominations as a sign that our church was somehow less Christian than other communions. Subsequent General Synods took up conversations over becoming open and affirming of gay, lesbian and bisexual Christians and the church began to open itself to the participation and leadership of those persons. In 2005, a decade before gay marriage became legal in all 50 states of the United States, the United Church of Christ General Synod endorsed marriage equality.

This time it didn’t take a full century for the debate to start to rage in other denominations. By the time the United Church of Christ celebrated the 40th anniversary of the ordination of its first openly Gay minister, when many could remember first hand the event, the Lutherans were engaged in the debate. In 2010, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America began to include openly gay ministers in its official roster. Not all Lutheran congregations embrace the leadership of gay or lesbian pastors, but the practice is growing and spreading.

Given the flow of history and the events surrounding the changes that have taken place in the church over other controversial issues, it shouldn’t surprise us that not all Christian churches have the same position. The decision of the United Methodist Church not to welcome gay, lesbian and bisexual pastors this week has resulted in many loyal Methodist members refusing to use the word “united” when referring to their denomination at this time. There may even be a significant split in the church. There are likely going to be arguments and even lawsuits over pensions, health insurance and other benefits for existing ministers who disagree with the church’s decision. It isn’t going to be pretty for a while in the Methodist church.

It may be, however, that we can begin to see the flow of history. Give a controversial issue a century or two and it becomes clear which parts of the church are standing on the right side of history. I am in no position to judge the decisions made by other denominations and I was not a leader in the changes that took place in my own church, but every church that I have served in my career had experienced a woman minister before I arrived at that congregation. Every church I have served has been firmly anti-slavery. I haven’t had to address those topics as controversial. They have been accepted among the people of the churches I belong to as matters of settled faith.

I won’t be around, but it will be interesting to see what happens to the Methodist Church in a century or so. I will make a prediction, however. A century from now not only will the Roman Catholic Church be ordaining women, it will be openly embracing its gay clergy.

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!