Strange politics

Yesterday was an incredibly beautiful day around here. The temperature got up to 70 degrees. We were able to leave the office a bit early and went for a hike in the skyline wilderness park. There were others out enjoying hiking and biking, but it is a big park and we didn’t come close to anyone else. Social distancing is easy when there is enough space. Purple pasqueflower blooms dotted the hillside and the sun had dried up almost all of the mud. A large red fox made her appearance three times during our hike. We may have hiked near her den. At least it seemed like she was showing herself to us and teasing us and trying to lead us away from something. We came home and lit the barbecue. Potatoes baked on the grill and buffalo steak made a very special dinner. I spent the evening writing letters to our grandchildren, something that we’ve increased during the time they are confined to their home. I went to bed thinking that I am among the most fortunate of people.

I have some friends, however, who think that we are not doing the right thing. I’ve read some pretty harshly worded condemnations of those of us who are going to work at our offices and go hiking in public places. They believe that there should be a strictly enforced stay at home order for all of the people in our state. One of our friends wrote an angry diatribe against a local Roman Catholic Parish that had a parking lot full of cars when they were allowing members to drive through the parking lot to pick up palms for Palm Sunday.

A crisis makes for some strange ideas. Fear makes people do and say strange things. I’ve read that one of the effects of the pandemic is that it is bringing together some of the political divide in the United States. I’m skeptical of that analysis, but it certainly is resulting in some people taking unexpected political positions.

One of the joys of my life is that I have friends of all different political persuasions. I have some very good very liberal friends who are intelligent and educated and politically engaged. Liberals are a minority in our state, but they are vocal and often unafraid to express opinions with which others might disagree. I also have some friends who are very conservative. They have taken time to study issues and consider the impacts of various government programs and policies and can make intelligent arguments promoting their point of view. I have a couple of good friends who are very libertarian in their politics. In general they are opposed to any large government policies and believe that less government is the best. If I were to have all of these friends in the same room at the same time it would make for some awkward moments and probably would result in loud arguments. But taken individually, these friends are interesting and the fact that they do not agree makes my life more interesting.

The crisis of the pandemic, however, has brought out some unexpected reactions and responses from my friends that seem to me to be inconsistent with political positions they had previously taken.

I’m amazed to read comments by my conservative friends and even a few of my libertarian friends arguing for huge social bailout programs. All of a sudden they seem to have lost their previous concern about deficits and huge government spending and now are in favor of bailouts for corporations and individuals. A couple of them have even reposted articles that sound like they advocate government takeover of the medical delivery system in our country.

I am stunned by some of my liberal friends who seem to be arguing for autocratic governmental actions. They seem to be convinced that the pandemic can be stemmed by locking up as many people as possible. Forcing people to stay in their houses is the solution they propose.

Now you have to understand that my liberal friends tend to live in urban areas. I’m sure that there are liberals in Harding County, I just don’t know any of them. Use there, enforcing a stay at home order seems a bit of a stretch. With two square miles per person, the population density doesn’t support large group gatherings. They are used to crossing into North Dakota for health care, tractor parts and other services. But I have some friends who are terribly incensed that the governor hasn’t issued a complete stay at home order for everyone in our state. I hadn’t realized before that autocracy was a liberal value. But then again I hadn’t realized that borrowing money to send out checks to everyone was a conservative value. Fear makes people take strange positions.

It is clear that people are afraid. Some of my friends are making and wearing face masks out of genuine concern for others. I have been wearing a face mask whenever I go into a store or some other place where one might be required to come closer to another than the recommended six feet. It’s hard to pay for a purchase from a distance of six feet in a store that doesn’t have automated checkouts. Those workers deserve my consideration and since one can be infected without knowing it, wearing a mask makes sense. On the other hand, I’ve had several conversations with folks who are wearing masks out of fear that they themselves will be infected. One was terribly concerned that the masks that others wear are insufficient to really slow the spread of the virus, touting the fact that he has several N95 masks on hand to protect himself. He was wearing one as we spoke.

The fear is understandable. 1,800 people died in our country yesterday from complications of coronavirus. The danger is real.

I continue to listen and observe my friends and neighbors. I also read and attempt to comply with the advice of the Centers for Disease Control and governmental leaders. But as long as they don’t outlaw it, I’m going to spend time outdoors when I am able. It lifts my spirits and helps me feel alive.

As to my friends in Harding County. the sheriff can wear out his pickup driving from ranch to ranch and he still won’t make those folks stay inside. He'd have more luck trying to find a liberal.

Copyright (c) 2020 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!

Holy Week

We often talk about belief when we talk about religion. I frequently have conversations with people who see religion as a set of intellectual assents. Can you accept certain concepts? Often the distinctions between religion and science are boiled down to certain things that are believed by practitioners of religion. Those critical of religion are often quick to offer their opinion that they could never agree to certain religious statements. The virgin birth is often cited as a barrier to the embrace of Christianity. Concepts of life after death are also frequently given as a reason not to be religious. “I am not a religious person. I don’t believe that there is anything after death. When you are dead, you are dead.”

I suppose I could spend hours and days and weeks debating with others over certain beliefs. I could point out that there are a lot of uncertainties in life. But I don’t experience my life in the church as a set of things that you have to believe. I don’t consider my experience as a pastor to be about the promotion of certain things with which others need to agree. I’ve never been one to try to convince people to embrace a concept that they don’t want to embrace. I’m not about converting how people think.

I have, however, chosen to immerse myself in the church. I live inside of the rhythm of a particular calendar. I go through the cycle of Advent waiting every year. I read the stories of Jesus’ ministry over and over. I embrace Lent. Every year I enter into the process of Holy Week, which connects me with a very elemental, very human reality. Everyone, regardless of their religious convictions or practices, experiences grief and loss. Everyone, regardless of which beliefs they hold, is mortal. We all die.

I probably don’t speak of eternity in exactly the same way as many Christian pastors. I don’t promote the thought that death is somehow not permanent. I don’t speak of someone who has died as being magically restored to this life. Often I don’t speak of what happens after we die much at all. After all, it is unknown to those of us who are living. As many books as you want to read that try to describe near death experiences, they are books that describe only near death, not books that describe actual death. Like a dream, the experiences of one under heavy sedation or whose heart has stopped beating and the resumes, are composed of thoughts and ideas that they already have in their brains. We don’t know exactly what happens in the brain of one who is unconscious, but we do know that there are dreamlike memories which some people retain.

I do, however, speak of the eternal in different ways. I watch my grandson, who is just learning how to walk over the computer as we FaceTime or Skype with him and his parents in Japan. He sometimes takes a fall and bumps harder than h expected. As he cries, I see my daughter pick him up and embrace him and reassure him. What she does naturally, by instinct, is exactly what my mother used to do when she was caring for my nieces and nephews. My daughter is adopted. She has no genetic link to my mother, but when I see her hand on the small of the back of my grandson and I see his head against her shoulder, I can feel my mother’s hands. I can remember the embrace of our own children. It has been more than nine years since my mother died. Watching my daughter embrace her son is enough of an experience of eternity for me. If that is all there is to eternity, it is enough.

There is, however, always more.

There are many things about this particular year that have thrown off my sense of rhythm about Holy Week. We read the passion to an empty church last night. Staring at a camera bears no particular resemblance to the experience of leading a congregation in worship. The familiar words and the well-known flow of the story felt strange. I know that others are listening. I understand a bit of how the technology works, but things are different. Maybe things would be very different anyway. I know it is my last Holy Week with this congregation. It may be my last Holy Week serving as a worship leader. I’m entering into a phase of life that I have never before experienced.

And none of us can escape thoughts of the depth of grief that has descended on our world. More than 10,000 have died in our country. More than 1.2 million people in the world have died as a result of the coronavirus. And some of those people have died alone. Their family members weren’t able to be with them, to hold them in their final hours. The number of people who are directly grieving the death of loved ones is staggering.

This month is 50 years since my sister died. I still carry the grief. And upon that grief is layered grief of the deaths of our father, and a brother, and our mother and another sister. Our family dwells with grief in layer upon layer. You don’t get over those losses. But we are not crushed by our grief. In many ways the experiences have expanded our capacity for compassion. It is one thing that connects us with every other living person - there is grief ahead for every one of us.

Holy Week is, for me, a time of immersing myself in the realty of grief. It is a time when I don’t avoid thinking about death. It isn’t primarily about a particular set of intellectual concepts and ideas, but it is a time of feeling connected to God. To love so much that you embrace even the pain of loss and the grief of death is the essence of being human. That is how much God loves. That is how much we are loved.

So we take this week one day at a time. It never feels natural. It never feels “right.” It is, however, inescapable. It is the essence of being human. No matter how great the social distance, we go through this together.

Copyright (c) 2020 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!

Living in an experiment

I started the morning searching for topics for my daily journal entry that were something besides coronavirus and Covid-19. The problem with that search is that the virus is dominating the news and my own personal thinking. I was trying to avoid the subject because I know that we are all overwhelmed with information right now and that sometimes a diversion is what we need to allow our minds to access the creative thinking that can be so helpful. However, I am not able to come up with a divergent topic.

I want to be clear that I am trying to comply with the rules of social distancing. We have worked as a team of church leaders to make decisions about spending large group worship, ending face to face meetings, deep cleaning of the church building, and other things that are within our control. As a suicide first responder, I have a kit that I always carry in my car that contains personal protective equipment such as face masks and gloves, and I have used them in places where appropriate. I have been practicing social distancing, maintaining distance between myself and others as I go about my daily life. My wife is a skilled seamstress and has made masks that can be washed and reused. We have a large supply of disposable filter material that we insert into the cloth masks.

I have not, however, remained in my house all of the time. I go out every day. We go for walks and we walk in public parks and other public spaces. We are not the only ones doing so. Our city parks are filled with individuals and families riding bikes, walking their dogs, and moving up and down the sidewalks. People are being respectful and keeping their distance.

I view much of what I am doing in a similar manner to the way I view much of airport security. I comply with the security measures at the airport in part because the appearance of security is important to keeping others calm. I don’t want to travel with a group of people who are in a panic. Calming fears and giving the appearance that security measures will protect them is part of moving about in public spaces. So I don’t argue with TSA officials who want to run my shoes through an x-ray scanner even though no shoe bomber has ever been successful and x-rays don’t detect plastic explosives and if they were serious about screening shoes for explosives, it would make more sense to swab the shoes than run them through a scanner. I remove my belt when instructed even though I wear belts with no metal in them or the buckles that can easily be seen on a body scanner and will not trigger a metal detector because an argument in the line is not conducive to maintaining calm.

I will wear a face mask because it might help calm the fears of others, not because there is scientific evidence that non-symptomatic people wearing make has any effect on the transmission of the virus.

We are all living a scientific experiment as we face this pandemic. In science a theory is advanced and then it is tested. One of the theories that is currently being tested is that isolation and social distancing will slow the spread of the virus. This is based upon other evidence that has been tested. Scientists know that the virus is spread through social contact. They know that one of the main vectors of transmission is droplets spread through coughing and sneezing. They also know that the human immune system resists infection and that it takes significant exposure to become ill from the disease spread by the virus. What they do not know for sure and what has not been tested scientifically is whether or not strict rules of social isolation and forcing people to stay inside of a single building will slow the spread of the virus.

In medieval times when the black plague reached its height between 1347 and 1353, people did not know about germ theory or modes of transmission. At that time, without knowing how the plague was spreading, officials in some city-states and regions tried enforced isolation. They closed down towns and allowed no one to come or go. Those with financial means went to country homes and villas and separated themselves from others. In some cases it worked. In most it did not. The isolation theory, however, became a medical technique that was adapted and used in infection control as scientists learned more about how diseases spread.

There are voices on social media who are proposing a reinstatement of the medieval practice, demanding that governors shut down entire states and force people to remain in their homes. Most states in the United States have some form of shelter in place or stay at home order. Ours is one that does not yet have such an order, but it is possible that we will have one before long. Certainly there are voices calling for it. I know of no scientific studies that show that this will be effective in controlling the spread of the virus. We are participating in an experiment.

We do have a control for this gigantic social experiment. In South Korea, a country that experienced a spike in infection and in deaths early in the pandemic, the pandemic was addressed in different ways. South Korea stands out from other countries. In late February and March new infections in the country went from a few dozen to hundreds and thousands. At the peak, they identified 909 new cases in a single day. Then the number of new cases started to decline. Yesterday, South Korea reported only 64 new cases. They seem to have addressed the problem by early intervention, something that has not occurred in the US. They conducted early and often testing. The country has conducted over 300,000 tests a per capita rate of 40 times that of the US. And they did contact tracing. They found out who had been with others. They did not shut down schools, which became places where they could conduct mass testing and where they could teach hygiene. There is much we can learn from South Korea.

The topic is too large for a journal entry and there is more that I will write in the future, but for now, we are all trying our best to live responsibly and make wise decisions. There are a lot of decisions being made that are beyond our control. There are mistakes being made as well as wise choices. We are all in this together.

Toning down the self-righteous scolding of neighbors over the internet wouldn’t hurt, but I know that is too much to expect from people living in fear.

Copyright (c) 2020 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!

Palm Sunday 2020

For several years our father tried to have a new donkey colt for Palm Sunday. We had Spanish burros, which have a dark cross marking across their shoulders. Tradition says that the cross is from carrying Jesus on Palm Sunday. Since Palm Sunday moves around the calendar, you have to anticipate a year in advance. Then you have to factor in extra time because not all pregnancies are the same length in burros. If you keep all of the right feed and conditions are just right, the colt will be born about 11 months after conception. But it can take longer and a blizzard at the right (or wrong) time can extend the gestation period. Although it never happened to us, we know stories of Jennys who have carried their colts for as long as 14 months. Add to that the fact that we were doing this in the days before artificial insemination so the exact date of conception was impossible to control - well you get the picture. Old Buff might have her colt in time for Palm Sunday and she might not have it until after Easter.

Once, when we had a tiny colt and the weather was bad we took it inside the church for Palm Sunday. Some years we had a Palm Sunday parade outside of the church. Some years our only donkey was a very pregnant Jenny - too pregnant to ride. That was the case in the year when Buff produced her colt on Easter Sunday. We hoped for a Palm Sunday colt we could name Hosannah. We ended up with a colt named Hallelujah. She was a tiny and spindly little thing. Donkey breeders say that a donkey colt reaches its peak value the day it is born and becomes worth less each day that it lives. Once we sold an old Jack at auction and he brought only $2, which might have been a bargain, but the brand inspection fee was $4. When we found out that the one who bought him was the brand inspector, a bit of intense and good humored negation began over the price of the brand inspection. We broke even in the end.

Hallelujah wasn’t up for sale. We decided that we would keep her. That would give us more options for Palm Sunday colts. From the beginning that colt was trouble. She laid down next the the fence and got up on the other side. She took a bite out of the back side of one of our father’s customers. We thought it was funny. The customer did not. She tried her hand, or I guess her leg, at crossing a cattle guard. It didn’t work. She got stuck and ended up breaking her leg. It healed up very well, but had to keep her then. We had so much invested in vet bills that her only chance of adding value was to produce colts. And there was the problem of her name. Hallelujah was much too long for a donkey. You need a name that you can call out with a bit of sternness in your voice. The name got shortened to Lulu and it fit a lot better when you considered the animal’s personality.

Lulu continued to get into trouble and into the garden and into the shed. She definitely didn’t like to touch the electric fence with her nose, so she would just turn around and back into it until the wire broke.

When she was finally bred, we thought it might calm her down. And we thought we might have a shot at a Palm Sunday colt. But there was no colt on Palm Sunday morning. We loaded up Lulu and took her to the church where she stood at the curb out front and refused to be led or pushed or chased or moved in any other fashion. Even a bucket of oats wouldn’t get her to do anything but stand there and bray.

When the cold arrived, weeks after Easter had passed, Lulu had no interest in being a mother. She ignored the little creature as if it belonged to someone else. It was a struggle just to get her to allow it to nurse. Her instincts seemed to be wired backwards.

As a result of our donkey business, I have a lot of memorable Palm Sundays in my history. I can remember waving palms and walking down the streets of Hyde Park in Chicago with hundreds of other people. I can remember Palm Sunday in rural North Dakota with only a handful of palms from the florist shop. I can remember our first Palm Sunday parade here in Rapid City with participants from six churches. I have a lot of Palm Sunday memories.

Today, however, is going to be another one to add. It will be a Palm Sunday like no other. Following the social distancing guidelines, there might be seven people in the room when we turn on the livestream camera to broadcast our worship. I’ve been joking with our son about how I’ve decided to become a televangelist late in my career. But I’m not a big fan of distance worship. We are adapting because we must. I prefer worshiping with other people. And this morning will be my first ever long-distance communion service. Holy Week being Holy Week, I’ll be an old hand at livestream communion by the end of the week, but this morning, I can only imagine how it is going to go. Will people at home actually get a bit of bread and a drop of something o drink? Or will they just watch as a static audience while I become the symbol for a congregation? What does it mean to share a sacrament when you can’t even share a handshake? We’re in a steep learning curve here.

Nonetheless it is Palm Sunday. And Palm Sunday comes even when plans don’t work out the way you’d imagined. The colt might not be born. The donkey might refuse to even walk a block. I imagine it was a bit that way on the first Palm Sunday. Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem didn’t happen the way people expected. And when it was all over someone had to clean up the mess.

The Christ enters into our lives in the most unexpected ways. And this Palm Sunday will teach us once again that it isn’t about us and our plans. Christ comes. Hosannah!

Copyright (c) 2020 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!

Soul music

Wikipedia says that “soul music originated in the African American community in the United States in the 1950’s and 1960’s.” the article goes on to speak about the combination of gospel, rhythm and blues, and jazz. It speaks of the relationship between the growth of soul music and the civil rights movement in the United States. There is a discussion of the role of Motown records, Stax records and Atlantic records. It goes on to outline the differences between the sounds of soul in different cities such as Detroit, Memphis, Birmingham, New Orleans, Chicago, and Philadelphia. There is commentary on some of the greats such as James Brown, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Sam Cooke, Solomon Burke, Isaac Hayes, and Al Green.

I don’t want to dispute the article. It is worth reading and it is great to listen to some of the great soul recordings. One of the fun things about the Internet and the way that music is distributed these days is that instant access to almost any kind of music is fairly easy. I can listen to whatever kind of music that captures my imagination at the moment.

I’ve lived much of my life far away from the centers of American Soul Music and my experience with the genre is mostly from recordings rather than live performances. But we are all shaped by the music of our times and I grew up listening to the radio in the 1950’s and 1960’s and being influenced by the music of the time.

In another sense, however, soul music is not a product of the 20th century. People have been producing music from the depths of their beings for millennia. Early humans, before the advent of mass communications, used music as a way of expressing feelings that were deep within them. There are many times when language fails us as the only way to express what is going on in our lives. At those times, music becomes another vehicle for expression.

For our people, the book of Psalms is a partial record of some of the deep songs of our past. I use the word partial intentionally because what we have is a set of 150 poems without the tones employed to sing them. The melodies are lost to the passage of time and what remains is a written record of words. That isn’t surprising because part of our story is how our people used a somewhat unique alphabetic language to preserve our culture and tradition during a time of persecution and exile. We got good at writing things down and what was written down were the thing that our people held as most important. Christians, Jews and Muslims are known as “People of the Book” because of our shared reverence for the Hebrew Scriptures, often referred to by Christians as the old testament. At the heart of those scriptures are the psalms.

Psalm 103 literally speaks of soul music. It begins, “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me bless his holy name.” Then it repeats, “Bless the Lord, O my soul . . .” The writer of the psalm reaches into the depths of being with a wish that the blessing could come from the very essence of life itself. Can there be a blessing that expresses all of a person? The psalmist believes that there can. Psalm 103 is just one of a large number of hymns of praise that are a part of our scriptures. As such it can sometimes be read as part of an introduction to the last third of the book of Psalms, part of a series of Psalms of praise. There is a lot of what seems like repetition in those Psalms. How may ways are there to express praise and thanksgiving to God? The Psalm follows a familiar pattern, giving thanks to God for personal salvation and also thanks to God for the salvation of the people. It recalls the time of Moses and the rescue of the people of Israel when they were oppressed in Egypt. It recalls the compassion of a parent for a child and how God’s protection of the people has been the source of comfort in times of trial, tragedy and terror. It sings of the feeling of liberation that comes from being forgiven and welcomed back home when one has strayed from the family.

Yesterday, when I was reading the Psalm with someone who is trying to make sense out of the radical and deep changes in our society brought about by our response to the global coronavirus pandemic, the third verse of the Psalm stood out for both of us. Here it is in context:
Bless the Lord, O my soul,
    and all that is within me,
    bless his holy name.
Bless the Lord, O my soul,
    and do not forget all his benefits—
who forgives all your iniquity,
    who heals all your diseases,
who redeems your life from the Pit,
    who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,
who satisfies you with good as long as you live
    so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.

God is praised from the depths of the soul because of forgiveness and healing. The phrase, “who heals all your diseases” is comprehensive. It doesn’t say some of your diseases. It says all.

In the depths of our being - at the core of the collective religious imagination of generations and generations of faithful people - is the concept that there is healing from every disease. Even if the disease results in death, healing and wholeness are possible. In a time when we are surrounded and reminded daily of the power of disease to disrupt and create incredible human suffering we are called to reach into the depths of our souls and look for healing. Despite the counts of the numbers infected, despite the rising death toll, healing is possible. Healing occurs. Healing is a gift of God.

When we look to the soul of our people there is a song of praise.

Bless the Lord, O my soul!

Copyright (c) 2020 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!