Changing seasons

I woke to birdsong outside my bedroom window this morning. It is such a wonderful sound. I’m not sure exactly when the birds started to return, but they are definitely there this morning. Of course we live in a place where some of our songbirds head south for the winter, but it is a bit more complex than just that. The birds wait until the light begins to creep over the horizon from the east and so the lengthening of days also determines the amount of bird chatter that we will hear at a particular time in the morning. I tend to be an early riser, so I know that summer is coming when I hear the birds as I wake.

The changing of seasons is a reassuring sign that we belong to a flow of history that is bigger than the current moment. Here in the hills our seasons have a way of sliding in and out of one another. There have been years in our time in South Dakota when you could get away with planting your garden on the last day of April. There have also been years when we have had major spring blizzards well into May. We had such a string of spring blizzards earlier this year that made late March and early April seem like a yo yo of warm and cold and warm and cold.

Yesterday was truly delightful day, but the day before the wind was biting and just being outside was an effort. I had to be careful to hang onto my hat and I was wearing a cap with an adjustable headband. But yesterday was just delightful. We took a walk up in the hills near the church and the basque flowers were in profusion and the birds were chattering to one another.

I’ve heard some people report that living in isolation has shifted their sense of the passage of time. Each day seems a lot like the one before and they even get confused as to which day of the week the current day is. My life is quite different. With less staff at the church there are more tasks that fall to me and the tasks are varied. I answer the phone more than I used to. I sometimes sit at the receptionist’s desk to work on that computer, something that I did only rarely before. Yesterday we got out the electronic version of our newsletter, but we also were going through lists to make sure that we weren’t missing people for our regular mail version which goes out today. I was working on getting the printer to print mailing labels. When we were meeting face to face for worship there were many items that people would pick up at church. We had quite a few people who just picked up their newsletters. We didn’t keep track of those folks, so we had to go through a process to determine who wasn’t receiving them another way.

My days tend to run together in a different way than they do for those who are isolated in their homes. I have to keep track of which day it is because I am still managing a lot of meetings, even though most of them are done over the computer. I have become the lead scheduler of our church and I’ve gained a lot of appreciation for my administrative colleagues who used to manage the calendar.

The changing of the seasons helps to show that we are indeed going through something bigger than just living day by day. This weekend I’ll have to be out with my lawn mower trimming the grass, which has gotten ahead of me. I’ll have to move the snow blower to get at the lawn mower. It is time to clean out the shed and the garage for a new season. My deck needs stain. There is a long list of outdoor chores that need to be done. Life goes on.

There are a lot of different opinions as to how long we will need to maintain the physical isolation in the face of the pandemic. Some say we will be back to near normal in another month. Others say this could last a year or more. That makes planning certain events and activities a challenge. The schools, especially, are challenged with ways to finish this year of instruction and plan for next year. Despite the best efforts of dedicated teachers and creative minds who are constantly thinking of new ways to reach out to students, it is estimated that the Rapid City School District has lost contact with up to 25% of the students. That is a lot of children and youth whose educational careers are unknown. With the library closed to walk in patrons, it is easy to imagine that we are falling behind as a community with critical educational tasks. When students are able to return to the classroom there will be a lot of catching up to do.

The same will be true in the church. Rebuilding community and enabling people to return to schedules and disciplines after such a long break will take time. Although we are imagining a grand Sunday when everyone suddenly is back and our church is full the reality will likely be much different with a few coming one week, a few more the next week in a gradual build-up that requires a lot of work of inviting and encouraging people.

In the meantime, continuing to build up the community of the church requires a lot of creative work and new ideas. We are doing thing that we never imagined we would do. I resisted calling my journal a blog simply because I think my writing is different from a log. Now I guess I have become a video blogger because I’m posting a video each day. I’m no videographer and my video editing skills are very limited, but I put my face in front of the camera each day for daily prayers as a way of making connections with the congregation. We livestream worship. one of that camera work will continue after we are allowed to resume face to face worship.

In the meantime, the seasons are changing. The birds are singing. Spring is coming. Life goes on.

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!

Trees of hope

In 2018, Susan and I had the opportunity to visit Hiroshima in the southern part of the main island of Japan. It was a kind of a pilgrimage for us to visit the place where in 1945, hundreds of thousands of people were killed and injured by the explosion of an atomic bomb over the heart of the city. These days Hiroshima is a strikingly beautiful city, filled with trees and green space, due in part to an international effort to send trees to the city following the devastation of the bomb. Cities and groups of people from around the world donated tree seedlings that were given to help the city develop green space as it rebuilt from the incredible devastation following the blast. The day that we had to walk around the peace park at the center of the city was very warm and we were grateful for the shade and cooling of the many trees that are growing there and we were impressed with the care and attention that was given to the trees.

As is usually the case, there is even more to that story.

At 8:15 in the morning, on August 6, 1945, the bomb was dropped. It exploded, as designed, approximately 2,000 feet above the city. Virtually every living thing in Hiroshima was burned. Very little survived at all within the one mile radius of the epicenter. Within that tight radius was a garden. It remains to this day. But after the blast there was no color left in Hiroshima. There was only black, white and gray. Everything was covered in dust from the devastation. The rumors in the city was that nothing would grow in the blast area ever again. The heat had sterilized the soil. The trees that remained in the garden looked like sticks of charcoal standing with no branches, blackened, yet till standing. But over the year to come, one some of the trees, buds emerged. The green buds provided hope to the people who had barely survived the blast and who were struggling to find any sign of hope in a grief-filled world of death and destruction. It turned out that hundreds of trees, though broken and badly charred, survived and regained their health. The tremendous blast functioned like an earthquake to loosen and aerate the soil around the trees’ roots allowing moisture to penetrate the parched soil. The ash that was all around provided nutrients that the trees needed. In a city that was totally devastated, before any rebuilding was possible, the green of those buds was so amazing that people kept coming just to look at the one bit of color in the place.

Today there are hundreds of survivor trees in Hiroshima. They are now surrounded by the trees of donors from around the world. They are called Hibaku Jumoku. Fewer trees survived in Nagasaki, but there are approximately 50 Hibaku Jumoku in that city as well.

Nassrine Azimi and Tomoko Watanabe co-founded a project called Green Legacy Hiroshima, which sends seedlings from the survivor tree around the world, usually to places that have suffered natural disasters such as severe storms or earthquakes, but sometimes to places that have witnessed a nuclear disaster. There message is a bit of hope in a world that seems sorely in need of that hope. Like those first green buds that appeared in the gray, black and white world of Hiroshima after the blast, the survivor trees can be planted in places of destruction to give hope to those who have survived.

Perhaps it is an unfair comparison to think of our current situation in the midst of a world pandemic to the survivors of a nuclear blast. We certainly are no where near the epicenter of the pandemic. Our hospital has not yet been taxed. We have not yet seen mass illness and deaths of many. We have been spared the brunt of the illness so far. There is much that is yet to come and we will need to practice our distancing and do what we can to slow the spread of the disease for some time yet - perhaps months. But I sense that our people are already in need of signs of hope.

Trees and other plants have incredible power go renew hope. Walking in the forest yesterday, I was so grateful for the trees that were shielding us from strong winds that were whipping across our area. I was also grateful for the abundant basque flowers that are blooming despite snowstorm after snowstorm this spring. These resilient plants continue to survive when others might not make it. I am told that the root bass of ponderosa pine and black hills spruce trees are relatively shallow. They stand and survive strong winds because they grow next to one another. The roots of one tree intertwine with those of the trees next to it so that a cluster of trees can stand where a lone tree would be blown over. Yesterday’s winds were probably not enough to blow down healthy trees, but we see much higher winds on occasion and we have seen storms that have flattened many trees.

On Monday we hiked in the southern hills, near an area that experienced a huge fire a few years ago. In the midst of the stands of blackened and fallen trees were a few survivors, who continue to stand tall and green when others perished in the fire. All around us we see the power of trees and other plants to give us signs of hope.

So I will continue to preach a gospel of hope in the midst of a world pandemic. It is the message that I have tried to proclaim for all of my career, made even more relevant in a time of separation and worry and fear.

The days we are living are not the end of the story of humans on this planet. God is still at work in our world and in our lives. We are a people who belong to a future as much as we belong to our past.

Maybe we need to plant more trees.

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!

Exiles and the remnant

I’ve been thinking lately of exiles and the remnant. In nearly every situation throughout history where people have been forced into exile there have been some who remained in the place of their origin. The remnant people may be small in number - most of the population was forced away - but they have an experience that is very different from that of those who go away. When, as is sometimes the case, the exiled people are allowed to return, they have led different lives from those who remained while they were gone.

This theme of the exiles and the remnant people is a strong theme in Old Testament prophetic literature. The sacred writings we know as the Old Testament or Hebrew Scriptures illustrate the tension within the community of Israel. From the very beginning of the book as it is now organized, we read two different creation stories. Our people have carried, at least since the exile, multiple stories that sometimes agree and sometimes strike different themes. Perhaps that is inevitable. If you ask my brother to tell stories from our childhood, you would get different stories than the ones I tell. We all see the world from our own perspective. In the case of those who have lived separate lives in separate circumstances, however, the differences are more pronounced.

It isn’t quite the case that we have divided into exiles and remand people in this current crisis, but there is a bit of that sense. While most of the congregation I serve are at home on Sundays and shelter away from the church, there are a few of us who gather. There are eight of us who have been present in the sanctuary every Sunday during our worship time. There are a few dozen who are consistent in participating with us at the same time every Sunday morning. The majority of our congregation, however, view the video on their own schedule, sometimes more than 24 hours after it has been posted on the Internet. We have become an asynchronies congregation - worshipping together, but not at the same time. I’m pretty sure that our present way of worshipping is significantly different from the way we used to do it by gathering together in the same room at the same time.

My life has been about building community, and I continue to work towards building community in the new set of circumstances in which we find ourselves. The skillset for this new way of working is significantly different from what I did before. I used to think of preaching and praying as activities for a specific moment. I tried to find the words that captured the experience of the community at that particular point in time. Now I am having to write and pray and preach with a broader perspective. I not only have to think about how a certain set of words might sound in a particular moment, but also about how it will sound a few hours or a few days later. And I am delivering those words without immediate feedback. While I am used to seeing the faces of those who are listening and reacting to their facial expressions, now I am casting my words out not the Internet and have to wait for responses. Fortunately I do get responses from some of those who view in the form of comments written. I read all of those comments, but I haven’t been making many responses to them. I haven’t mastered the art of conversation when I don’t know how to interpret the gaps in the interplay. If I write a response and don’t immediately have it acknowledged, I don’t know how it has been received.

I have caught myself thinking of the members of my congregation who are practicing nearly complete isolation as exiles. I am hoping that their absence is temporary and that the day will come when we are all back together in the same room once again. I am hoping that hugs and smiles and warm greetings without face masks will return. In the meantime, I miss those faces. I miss those people. I miss the sense of community.

The story of our congregation includes more than 141 years of life before the current pandemic cause the present separation. That means that we share a story that is longer than the span of our lives. The story of our congregation will continue beyond the end of our lives. And now that story contains the narrative of the time when we did not meet face to face each week for worship. While we continue to livestream worship and we are making a big effort to have some of the worship experience continue for our people, I know that the disruption in the life of our community is real. I know that the pandemic will be an important theme in the telling of our story from this time forward. I want the story to be one of faith. I want it to be a story of connections that are stronger than the distances that separate us. I want it to be the story of a congregation that waits patiently for the day of return. I want the exiles and the remnant people to have a joyous reunion.

That part of the story, however, is not yet written. We don’t know how it will come out. Sometimes I fear that people, having given up their routines, will not easily return. I have noticed that our closest colleagues who share the work of the church are not working their usual schedules. They work at different times of the day and different days of the week. I myself am not observing sabbath and taking time away from work in the way that I used to be faithful to that discipline. I fear that our congregation is getting out of the routine of regular gathering. For some, returning to the practices that have sustained our congregation through all of these years will be a challenge. They may prefer to worship by livestream long after we are able to gather again. We may become a group of congregations rather than a single congregation.

I don’t have a clear vision of the future. Moving forward requires trust in God who is much bigger than our moment in time. Releasing my fears and allowing my trust to grow must become another of the themes of these days.

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!

A red canoe

Dr. Nathaniel Whitney, Jr. was a physician in Rapid City who served in a time when doctors were expected to be on call all of the time. Getting a break from his medical practice was a challenge. Still, he managed to pursue his love of nature. He wrote two books on South Dakota birds and was co-author of a book on the birds of the Black Hills. His interest in nature and the natural world provided a good counterbalance to his medical practice, allowing him to renew his spirit and sense of wonder. In 1960, Dr. Whitney ordered a canoe from the Old Town Canoe Company in Maine. Old Town was, at the time, the leading producer of canoes in the United States, having been in business since 1898. The company made their canoes out of cedar on forms and covered them with canvas. The canoe ordered by Dr. Whitney was 16 feel long and painted red.

When the canoe arrived on the railroad, Dr. Whitney had no experience with canoes. He had to stop several times on the way home to adjust the ropes with which he tied the boat to the roof of his car. Over the next decade that canoe became a tool for relaxation and renewal for Dr. Whitney. He would tie the canoe to the roof of the car, load up the family, and head for one of the reservoirs in the Black Hills. The canoe proved to be stable and provided a lot of fun for his children.

At some point in the adventure, the canoe was loaned to the son of a colleague of Dr. Whitney. The young man was interested in adventure and went on to paddle the Missouri River to the Mississippi and down to New Orleans. That trip, however, was in another canoe. The red Whitney canoe suffered broken ribs and planking when it contacted rocks on a trip down the Belle Fourche River. The wounded canoe was taken to the back yard of Dr. Whitney’s friend where it was set up on saw horses and covered with a tarp. Over the years, a few feeble attempts were made at repairs. A bit of canvas was glued over the tears in the canvas. A coat of paint was applied to the outside. The canoe, however, had lost some of its structural integrity with the cracked ribs and broken planks. It returned to the sawhorses in the back yard, where it sat for nearly 20 years.

One day in 2004, I was visiting with a couple of patrons of the Black Hills Chamber Music Society at a concert. Somehow the subject turned to canoes and I mentioned that i built and restored canoes. I told the story of an 1942 Old Town Canoe that I had restored for Eleanor Bray. Through a chance meeting at a gas station when I had two canoes on the roof of my car, I met Eleanore who was looking for someone to re-canvas her canoe. I completed a refinishing and re-canvasing of her boat and it was re-launched in the spring of 2000. A few days after the conversation at the concert, I received a letter asking me to take a look at the canoe on saw horses in the back yard. I arranged to come by and after a brief survey stated that the canoe could be restored. It would take a few new ribs, a bit of new cedar planking and new canvas, new cane for the seats, and quite a bit of time.

To my surprise, I was told that If I could take the canoe that day it would be mine. If not, it was heading to the dump the next day. I loaded it on my car and headed home. The response at home was less than enthusiastic. When I removed the canvas I discovered rot in both stems. One of the deck boards was cracked, and the break in the gunwales would require making entirely new rails for one side of the canoe. My motivation was high because I had long wanted a canoe like the Old Town and had previously simply not had the money required to purchase such a boat, new or used.

Two years of very part time work were invested in the boat. I checked the serial number to get a copy of the original build card from Old Town and obtain the right color of paint. After replacing the damaged and broken ribs, planks and gunwales and fashioning new stems, I was ready too stretch canvas. Weeks of filling the canvas, sanding, and finally painting followed and the canoe was ready to launch in May of 2006.

Not long after re-launching I had the joy of taking the daughter of Dr. Whitney for a paddle at Sheridan Lake. The boat has been stored inside on a canoe rack since it was reconditioned. However, it has not been treated as a display object. It has been paddled and scratched on rocks and used as a vehicle for exploration of lakes and waterways. It has ridden miles and miles on the roof rack of my truck and on our canoe trailer.

Now my life is taking a new direction as I contemplate moving into semi-retirement. I open the door of our storage building and look at the rack of canoes and kayaks and I know that i have collected a few too many. It is no longer the season of acquiring boats. I need to decrease the inventory.

Fortunately, there is more to the story of Dr. Whitney. More than twenty years ago The Nature Conservancy established Whitney Preserve adjacent to Cascade Springs and named the protected site in honor of Nathaniel and Mary Whitney. The nature trail at the site is one of the best places to see birds in the hills. The preserve now has a barn, which is a good place to store a canoe that can be used in nearby waters to view nature.

Today we take the red Whitney canoe down to the Whitney Preserve which is the logical home for the boat. It should be good for another 50 years or so before it needs new canvas. Properly cared for it could last centuries. There is always a bit of sadness when I say goodbye to a boat, but this one is going to the right home for the next phase of its life. May it find many more paddling adventures.

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!

Much to learn

Today is the sixth Sunday that we have been holding livestream worship without face-to-face worship for our congregation. I’ve learned a lot in those six weeks. We scrambled just to get a livestream out on the first Sunday. Now a few things have fallen into a routine. We’ve learned quite a bit about the technical side of producing a worship service for broadcast. Of course we aren’t as sophisticated as the congregations that are set up for video, with multiple cameras, video operators and a production booth. Like a lot of other things we do, we have kept it simple.

There are a lot of things about how this is working that I simply do not yet understand. I am not sure how effective we are being. Before the pandemic forced the closure of in-person worship, our average attendance was around 125. According to FaceBook, our worship service last week was viewed 205 times. Our Easter Sunday service was viewed 625 times. FaceBook, of course counts devices, not people, so it is possible that some folks were streaming to a smart TV and two or more people were watching together. I know one family of 5 who watched together. So the numbers could be higher. However, FaceBook doesn’t distinguish between people who visit and watch part of the service and those who watch the entire service, so we don’t know how many people are engaged for thee entire worship service and how many watch long enough to decide that they want to move on.

Still, to get those numbers, we are likely reaching people who don’t normally attend our worship services. I know that this is the case because we’ve received comments from many places that are too distant for a reasonable commute. Since I have facebook friends around the world, some of them noticed the post and have taken a look. Many of them belong to other churches and aren’t likely to become members of our community in the sense of full participation in the mission and outreach of our congregation.

Then there is the issue of when people watch. On Easter Sunday, when 625 people viewed our service, there were only about 50 or so watching live during the actual service. It took it about 24 hours to reach 600 viewers and it has taken two weeks to go from 600 to 625. The same is true of our daily prayers. Average views of the prayers are a little over 100, but often it takes two or three days for a prayer video to go above 100. I know that those are not big numbers for the Internet. there are YouTube channels with over a thousand subscribers and tens of thousands of views. I’m not interested in spending my days chasing numbers. My job is to build community and to sustain community in a time of social distancing.

One member commented that he enjoyed “going to church” in his pajamas while eating waffles. I have no problem with the relaxed attitude towards worship and I’ve never been one to care what people wear, but the experience of a gathered community does imply that at some point we are all paying attention to the same thing. Of course, minds wander in face-to-face worship. I get pretty good feedback on our worship services when I stand at the back of the sanctuary and greet people following worship. Someone will tell me that a hymn really touched them, another person will have connected with a prayer, yet another might have found the sermon meaningful. Different people experience different things during the same worship service. I think, however, that the video experience makes this even more pronounced.

I also have to be a bit less personal in the videos we make. I don’t want to say the names of individuals on the videos. I want to be careful to guard the privacy of the people that I serve. Of course confidentiality has always been part of my work. I know a lot of stories that are not mine to tell, but I need to be particularly careful now that we are broadcasting.

Another thing I am noticing is that the days are starting to blend into each other. In my old routine, I was focused on the text and the sermon for the week by Tuesday and by Wednesday I had a pretty good idea of where I was going with my sermon. We’d have choir practice on Wednesday and have a draft of the bulletin finished on Thursday. Now I don’t have a choir, I am doing the bulletins without an administrative colleague to help with that task. There is much less a sense of team leadership and more a list of tasks I need to accomplish. Since I have at least one livestream every day, the days tend to blend into one another. There is less of a sense of a routine. That is good for creativity. I have had to invent all kinds of new ways of doing my job. It is a challenge, however, to consistency. I find that I forget some of the tasks. I often am scrambling to prepare at the last minute. We are living in a sort of crisis mode, which works for a couple of weeks, but doesn’t translate into months very well.

I seem to be forgetting one of the ten commandments - the one about observing the sabbath. By focusing on the concerns of the moment, I’m not looking at the big picture. If, as it appears may be the case, we need to sustain this new mode of operation for months and perhaps even as much as a year, we will need to put in place systems, including systems of self care, that make it sustainable over the long run.

Our church has been prudent with its financial management. We have no debt. We have sufficient reserves. But we don’t know much about sustaining our ministry over a long period of time without regular face-to-face worship.

One thing is certain. There is a steep learning curve to this new way of being and we have a lot of unanswered questions. There is not only much to do - there is also much to learn.

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!

How cool is this?

Yesterday morning, I woke tired and frustrated and worried. I was short of sleep and I was fearful that our community was experiencing a dramatic rise in the suicide rate and I wondered what other social problems could be lurking: domestic violence, animal abuse, rising divorce rates. I am like a lot of other people I know in my tendency to lump together things that are not connected when I get in my worry mode. I wrote a somewhat alarming journal post, showered and went off to work. I started into what turned out to be an other busy and long day without the kind of energy that I usually bring to work.

I was getting to livestream daily prayers for our congregation and I started down the hallway towards an empty classroom as the location for the prayers and I paused as I went by the front doors of the church. It looked like a beautiful, sunny day outside and I could hear the birds through the closed and locked glass doors. Suddenly, I changed my mind and headed outside to the church woodlot to do morning prayers.

In my introduction to the prayers, I found myself felling so grateful for the woodlot. It is a kind of silly thing. The woodlot represents a lot of hard work. People come and put in their hours and leave exhausted. Sometimes when I work a half day, I feel like going home and taking a nap. Sometimes I do it. But yesterday, standing there and smelling the split pine and listening to the birdsongs, I felt a wave of gratitude sweeping over me. As I thought of my colleagues and the work they are doing and the lives they are living, I could think of none of them who have a mission project like our church’s firewood project.

I started my introduction to the prayers by panning the camera around the woodlot. I said out loud on the livestream what I was thinking at the moment, “How cool is this?”

My whole day changed.

The elders and pioneers of our faith, going back thousands of generations, have known that getting in touch with our gratitude changes everything. Gratitude, they teach us, is the appropriate attitude for approaching God. Sometimes, when we read the rules in Leviticus or Numbers or Deuteronomy, they sound a bit dry, like paging through old law books. The passages about bringing first fruits and making offerings to God can sound like rather harsh and random laws. But when you take time to actually practice the disciplines of our faith, you discover important realities of life that lie behind the ancient laws. First, express your gratitude. Before you feed yourself. Before you feed your family. Before you count your resources. First make a gift of gratitude to God. The laws about tithing sound, at first read, like a harsh order to give away your money. But there is more to these ancient truths.

We might understand the commandments about first fruits to be about beginning withe gratitude. First make sure that 10% of your day is about gratitude. It is a powerful concept. While the commandments seem to focus on the “how” of expressing gratitude, being specific about dividing resources and harvests and herds of animals, the “why” is sometimes not as clear. It is simply accepted that making gifts to express gratitude is good for all people.

According to the forecast I looked at, today is supposed to be clear with no rain. A few clouds will be in the skies. It is already 40 degrees and it should make it to 60. Winds should be light throughout the day. And it is Saturday. There is a splitting party at the woodlot. I don’t have to dress up. I can throw on a pair of jeans and a t shirt, grab a sweatshirt and head out the door. I will be with good people who are hard workers. We’ll get some wood cut up and we’ll get some of it split. We’ll make some neat stacks of our split wood and make ourselves tired.

We are the most fortunate people in the world.

Later in the day, I will have to do some work at the computer. I’ll look at Facebook to see the reactions to the things the church is posting. Along the way I’ll read a bunch of posts from people I know. There will be complaints about boredom and stories of how family members are driving each other up the wall. There will be worries about businesses that are closed and jobs that are gone and worries about becoming ill. There will be tales of vulnerabilities and worries and even a few of loss and grief. There will be recipes and videos about DIY projects for those who are at home more than they want to be.

Now matter how you look at the world, I am an incredibly fortunate person. I am not ill. I am able to go out every day. I have meaningful work. I live among good people who are quick to help their neighbors. I am surrounded by incredible natural beauty. I have deer and turkeys who walk through my yard. I know where there is a fox den with three kitts who show their faces when I walk by and whistle. I live in a place where I can go for a walk and not be in the middle of a crowd. And I will be able to play peek-a-boo and read stories to my grandchildren over Skype and see my children’s incredible parenting skills with my own eyes. There is so much for which to be grateful that I sometimes don’t even know where to begin.

So I begin by reminding myself how good I have it and how grateful I am for the many blessings of this life. And when I am tired and a bit discouraged, I remind myself that even my tiredness is a blessing. Some people struggle to go to sleep.

How cool is this?

If the next church I join doesn’t have a firewood project, I may have to start one.

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!

Enduring the storm

I’ve always accepted the title “airport bum” among the terms that have been given to describe me. I grew up having out at the airport, learning to fuel planes and polish plastic windshields when I was barely big enough to push around the ladder and handle the gas nozzle. I really enjoyed being around airplanes and pilots and listening to their stories. When I was not long graduated from theological seminary, I would hang out at the airport in the town where we lived in southwestern North Dakota, looking at the comings and goings of airplanes, talking with the pilots and occasionally, when I had the money, flying a 2-seat Cessna 150 that could be rented. One of the airplanes that spend some time in and out of our airport really garnered my interest. It was a highly modified North American T-28. There was additional armor plating on the canopy, wings and tail. It was painted white and had a distinctive registration number: N10WX. The final letter, X, indicated that it was registered as an experimental aircraft. I suspected that all of the extra armor was the reason. I soon learned that the airplane was operated by the school of mines and technology in Rapid City and the National Science Foundation. I kept hanging out at the airport until, late one afternoon, I saw the pilot fueling the plane. I peppered him with questions enough to learn that the plane was part of a science research project. They flew the plane directly into thunderheads, enduring severe turbulence and hail. I tried to get a ride in the plane, offering that I worked for a radio station and could produce press credentials. There was no way that I was going to get that ride. The airplane was filled with electronic equipment and monitors. The pilot insisted that I wouldn’t want to ride anyway. He showed me dents in his helmet caused by being banged on the interior of the plane flying in turbulence and dents on the non-armor plated tips of the horizontal stabilizer caused by 3” hail hitting the plane. He said that the hail hitting the airplane drowned out the sound of that massive Wright R-1820 Cyclone engine. I asked him what it was like and how he could read all of the extra instruments while flying blind into the midst of a massive prairie thunderhead. He said, “Flying into the heart of the storm, you don’t even look out the windows. You’d get vertigo the minute you did. There is just you, the airspeed and attitude indicators, the stick and the throttle. You don’t worry about anything except surviving.”

I’ve remembered that conversation for nearly four decades now and shortened the quote in my mind, “Flying into the heart of the storm, you don’t worry about anything except surviving.”

I never got a ride in that T-28. I’ve never ridden in any T-28. But there are some times in my life when i’ve flown into the heart of the storm. I’ve been flying into the heart of the storm this week, and my mind has been focused on surviving.

For many years I have been a member of our community’s LOSS team. We are a team of volunteers who respond whenever there is a death by suicide in our community. We provide support to those who are left behind in the midst of overwhelming grief as they seek to sort out their lives in the face of the death of a loved one. Their experience with sudden and traumatic death is overwhelming. They can suffer from PTSD anxiety flashbacks. We provide information and referral early in the process in an attempt to relieve some of the suffering. We also provide support groups and ongoing assistance for suicide survivors. For the last couple of years, I have served as the team coordinator, receiving reports of every suicide in our community and making sure that the team is dispatched in a timely manner. Since the various restrictions of the coronavirus pandemic, I have been the first responder of a team of first responders, mostly going out as an individual with law enforcement to reduce the potential exposure for other team members.

That is how I know that half of the suicides in our community this year have happened this week. I know because I have responded to every one of them. As a community we need to carefully analyze what is going on to see if there are any connections between the various deaths. Do we have a cluster event in our community? Are there patterns that can reveal possible signals that can be used to prevent future suicides? Is what is going on caused by the stress of virus-related shutdowns, unemployment, or other factors? There are a million questions in my mind. At the moment, however, I’m focusing on simply staying alive and healthy myself. When can I sneak a nap? Am I drinking enough fluids? Am I always carrying PPE with me wherever I go? Do I have enough resource packets for the situation?

I know that we will need to be careful about analysis and use the information we are gaining from our visits to do what we are able to prevent future suicides. I know that there will need to be a lot of follow up, including forming a new set of guidelines for the team and a new system of dispatching team members to prevent members from being exposed to too many deaths in a short amount of time. These much-needed things have to be put on the back burner. I don’t have time for any more meetings this week or even next week. The name of the game right now is just getting through what needs to be done without dropping major parts of my regular job, which also demands my time and attention.

I have been told that the T-28 storm penetrating airplane, which was retired in 2005, taught aircraft designers a great deal about how to protect aircraft from intense battering. Some of the technologies developed have been applied to advanced fighter aircraft now in use by the US Air Force. Three is much to be learned from weathering the storms of life.

I pray that we have the wisdom and endurance to weather this storm and will be able to develop the community resources that will make the next storm easier to endure - maybe even less severe.

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!

Fear

Recently I have had quite a few conversations with people that have involved dealing with fear. It makes sense because there are genuine reasons to be afraid. There is so much that we do not know about the coronavirus spread. With so little testing, we have no way of knowing how many people are infected and simply not showing symptoms. The ones who are identified for testing may have already infected dozens of others. You can’t see a virus with the naked eye. There is a sense that it may be lurking anywhere. I understand the fear that is present in our community.

Fear, however, is a strange thing. When people focus their attention on their fear, they become more afraid. There re members of my congregation that I haven’t seen face-to-face for weeks now, some of them for an entire month or more. A few members of our congregation have chosen self isolation. Complete isolation, of course, is a luxury that not only separates people, but separates classes of people. You can’t shelter in your home if you do not have a home. You can’t continue to pay Instacart to deliver groceries if you don’t have income or savings to use to pay for the service. So those who are isolating in their homes and not going out at all are quite separate from those who do not have that option, and some of them have forgotten about the other people. They are not insensitive or uneducated. Most of the people I know who are self isolating are highly educated. They just have their attention focused on themselves and their own fears and aren’t noticing that the choices they have made are not possible for others.

A time passes, however, it does appear that those people are becoming more and more afraid. NBC has reported that while some businesses have suffered since the outbreak, sales of home security systems have significantly increased. SimpliSafe, a do it yourself home security system has seen sales increase by as much as 86 percent in a single week. There doesn’t seem to be much information about how those home security systems are being used, but it seems reasonable to assume that some of them are being installed in businesses that are closed during the pandemic. People don’t want to have to leave their homes, so they are installing cameras, motion detectors and glass break alarms to keep track of places of business that are closed. Most of the DIY systems are based on cell phone technology and allow for remote monitoring. People can view the systems from home. For some these systems can provide peace of mind. If they are filing anxious, they can check to see that no alarms have been sounded and then relax. For others, however, these systems increase anxiety. Alarm systems are prone to false alarms. An animal walks into a motion detector area outside of a building, a car pulls into the parking lot and the system alerts the operator. There is a reason why we pay a professional monitoring service to keep track of the fire alarm system at our church. They have professional staff who take shifts. No one person has to monitor the system 24 hours a day, seven days a week. But with the DIY systems, a single individual takes on the task, assisted by the technology, of 24/7 monitoring. And, if they are truly sheltered in their home, their only technique to deal with an alarm, false or real, is to call the police.

Police report that false alarms and nuisance calls have increased during the pandemic. Part of this is due to the fact that those who are homeless are spreading out, too. They have access to the news. They have real fears as well. In some cities, law enforcement have been called to disburse gatherings of people out of fear of the virus spreading. So folks wander into neighborhoods where they wouldn’t normally go. They walk into parking lots or seek shelter in a quiet place alongside a building and they show up on the security camera. They may have no intention of causing harm, but once the alarm is sounded someone has to go check things out.

I’ve spent more time talking to fearful people in recent weeks than ever before. Part of the problem for me is that I am not a naturally fearful person. I try to be rational and I’ve developed a set of street smart skills over the years, but I don’t feel unsafe in the work I do or the places I go. It isn’t my first reaction to be suspicious and to think that I’m about to be the victim of a crime. I don’t see strangers s dangerous. Most people pose no threat at all. Some may consider my reactions to be naive, a product of simply having been lucky, and I understand that perspective. Nonetheless, I don’t invest much energy in being afraid or anxious.

I try to be sympathetic to those who are afraid. I don’t dismiss their fears. But I don’t have a natural or automatic skillset when it comes to calming the fears of others. Sometimes I have to bite my tongue to keep from laughing off what seem to me to be irrational fears. Emotions don’t have to pass a test of rationality. They simply are. A person who is afraid isn’t helped by those who say that there is nothing to fear. My main technique in dealing with fearful people is to listen as carefully as possible. I may not be able to calm their fears, but I can listen. They do not need to be alone in their fear.

The Bible is full of warnings about out of control fear. Jesus encourages his followers not to be afraid and not to worry. The long term solution to fear is faith. And I have been called to be a teacher of faith. The rampant fear in our community is a clear sign that I have a lot of work that remains to be done.

So I am not sheltering in place. I am going to the church every day now. In my business, there is simply too much work that needs to be done.

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!

Video fatigue

Yesterday I had three formal meetings over a video platform. Our church does not use the most popular format, Zoom, for a variety of different reasons. The main reason being that I received a recommendation from an IT professional who works for a large nonprofit in our town. I’ve felt fortunate because Zoom has security flaws that have resulted in uncomfortable situations for some users. But Go To Meeting, the platform we use, is less familiar to people and has a few different commands and so I find that most meetings involve an element of technical support for users. At the beginning of a meeting I am often talking on my telephone while trying to keep up with what is going on with the computer. Although meetings in the digital world seem to be a bit shorter and more focused than face to face meetings, I find them exhausting. My job involves a lot of meetings and it is not at all unusual for me to have days when I go from one to the next all day long. I’m sure that I get far more tired from video meetings than I do from face to face meetings.

Manyu Jiang wrote a piece for BBC.com that explores the phenomenon of video chat matings and suggests several reasons why video matings are so exhausting. According to Gianpiero Petrigliere, associate professor at Insead, being on a video call requires more focus than face-to-face chat. Video chats mean we need to work harder to process non-verbal cues like facial expressions, the tone and pitch of the voice, and body language; paying more attention to these consumes a lot of energy.

Silence is another challenge. Whenever a group of people fall silent in a face-to-face meeting, I assume that we are thinking and that the moments of quiet to process what is going on are blessings. But when everyone goes silent in a video chat, which happens regularly, I become anxious about the technology. Is the sound working properly? Have I accidentally muted everyone else? I can’t tell which small frame on the computer a person is staring at, so it feels like everyone is staring at me.

Another factor in the fatigue that comes from video conferences is that it is very difficult to make a distinction between work, family, friends and other connections. I make a lot of video conference calls from my office at work or from the fellowship hall. I like the background of books in my study or the map in the fellowship hall to show others where I am. However, there are times when it is necessary to participate in conferences from other locations. Last night our Church Board held its regular meeting. We participated from home, sitting at the same table with the same background as when we are video chatting with our daughter in Japan or our son and his family in Washington. The experience is very similar. It also has the flavor of having invited the Church Board into our personal space - a space that was reserved for family in our previous lifestyle. When we accepted this call and moved to this home, we had two teenage children and making a firm distinction between work space and home space was critical. We live ten miles from the church and that distance is intentional. The computer compresses space, something for which I am grateful. I don’t know how I could keep my sanity if I couldn’t regularly see my grandchildren and check in with our son and daughter. Seeing their faces helps reassure us that they well and happy.

You’d think that seeing people who are important to us in our work life would have a similar effect of making us worry less about them. I find that I don’t relax very much when my eyes are darting from frame to frame and I am worrying about how things are working for the folks on the other end.

Years ago when higher education was beginning the transition to computer-based distance education, I participated in projects at Eden Theological Seminary and the University of Wyoming where we tested educational platforms. We began with text only formats and found that some students over participated while others lurked, reading the comments, but not commenting themselves. As video became more prevalent and high speed internet allowed for more data to be transmitted, teaching in the format became a process of managing many different screens. There would be the screens for each student and additional screens for course materials and shared documents. In a University of Wyoming Study it was discovered that some people suffered from vertigo and became nauseated if there were too many screens. Changing back and for the between multiple screens seemed to work better than having too many small screens displayed all at once. Software was developed that allows the video conference to display only the person who is speaking. That helps, but when I am coordinating a meeting, I can’t use that display option because I have to keep track of all of the participants, not just focus on a single one.

Combine the stresses of the video format with all of the other worries of this season of pandemic and I find that I am exhausted at the end of each day. I keep thinking that I should have more energy. I keep planning tasks that I will do at home in the evenings when I don’t have meetings, but I find that I have little energy for those chores. The constant feeling that I am falling behind doesn’t help.

In the midst of all of this I have found one thing that is relaxing. Our grandchildren, who suddenly became home schoolers when their public schools closed, have been writing us letters and sending them through the mail. We, of course, are replying with letters of our own. Taking time to write letters, some of them by hand, is a wonderful treat in the midst of video overload.

Maybe the old correspondence courses were on to something important in education. Slowing down allows more time to think. And time to think is a valuable commodity in today’s world.

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!

Seeking peace

For the last 25 years we have lived a few miles from Sheridan Lake, a reservoir in the hills that provides a wonderful place to paddle small boats. There are a few folks who have pontoon boats and even some large motorboats on the lake, but I suspect that they get a bit bored because their craft are designed for bigger waters. The lake, however, is just right for a canoe. I can paddle all the way around the shoreline, looking into the little nooks and crannies, watching the birds and beavers and shore creatures and viewing the sunrise from just the right perspective. I haven’t been paddling this year, however. We have been focusing on walking every day and for the time being walking has replaced paddling in my exercise regimen.

We went to the lake yesterday and walked around the roads of the campground. It is a way to be out in the forest without having to deal with mud, something that we thought might be present as it snowed the day before. We were the only people in the area, so our physical distancing exceeded the CDC guidelines by thousands of feet.

The geese, however, had not been paying attention to the rules of physical distancing. They were congregated in groups on the shore and in the water with little distance between them. Geese often don’t pay attention to “rules.” There are several electronic devices all around Sheridan Lake that are designed to discourage geese from hanging out in the public picnic areas and beeches. As far as I can tell they must have forgotten to tell the geese what they are there for. I’ve seen a gaggle of geese surrounding one of the devices like it was just another goose. They seem to congregate and leave their fertilizer wherever they want all around the lake.

The ice hasn’t been out of the lake for very long but the geese seem to know when it goes out and arrive even while there are some large chunks floating in the lake.

Humans, however, are paying attention to the pandemic and the threats that it poses. At the campground there are barricades across the roads that are used to indicate that the campgrounds are closed. The barricades go up every fall when the water is drained from the system and the pit toilets are locked up for the winter. Those barricades now have signs attached to them, carefully printed and laminated to withstand the spring weather. The signs inform people that the campgrounds remain closed and that the National Forest Service cannot guarantee “A Covid-free environment.”

We were not asking them for such a guarantee as we walked around the campground, knowing that while the geese gather closely among their own kind, they are unlikely to allow us to approach within six feet and that our shoes touching the road being the only contact with surfaces, it is probably safe to smell the pine trees and feel the wind on our faces and walk up a few hills that get our heart rate up. We walked a couple of miles around the area and enjoyed the feeling of having it all to ourselves.

While I think there is little to no risk of walking win the parks, we do see more people. The folks walking in the park are observing physical distance rules and give each other plenty of space. Our city has a lot of park space and the paths are six feet wide in many places. In other places, it is easy to step off of the path to give another person a bit of space. With all of the businesses that are temporarily closed, even taking a walk in the downtown area doesn’t pose a danger of coming too close to other people.

I know several people who have given up going outside of their homes. They have groceries delivered and keep in touch with others over the phone and computer. As is true of so many other topics, we are not of one mind as to the bet way to defend the health of others and protect ourselves from infection. But we are a community that is fairly tolerant of folks who are different from ourselves.

Of course physical distancing isn’t an option for those who are dependent upon the Rescue Mission for their meals or the Hope Center for a place to get inside during the day. If you live on the streets, your social rules are different from those observed by people who own private homes and have plenty of space to themselves. Privacy doesn’t come easily to those who are homeless. I see them walking around the town and in the parks and know that they do a lot of walking.

Wendell Berry wrote “The Peace of Wild Things”

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

In the midst of all of the changes of our culture that have been brought about by this pandemic and the fear that is circulating in our community, we all have to learn new ways of seeking peace and grace. For me the peace of wild things is part of calming my soul. I go to the lake to watch the geese or to the park to feel the breeze or to the hills to smell the pine trees and I am reminded once again that this world continues to be a place of great beauty and deep healing.

And sometimes I worry for those who are shut up in their homes afraid to go out.

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!

Changing habits

Several years ago our son was working as a hospital librarian and became involved in a project of making training videos for the hospital. He has a delightful sense of humor and used it in a brief video about hand washing. Washing hands is very important in a hospital setting, where infection control is critical. The video didn’t go into the details of how to wash hands, it assumed that the people who watched it would know how to properly wash their hands. Initial training for doctors and nurses and other medical personnel is quite thorough. The problem in a hospital setting is not that people don’t know how to wash their hands. It really isn’t that they don’t remember to wash their hands. Hospitals have signs and hand washing stations all around. Most have alcohol-based hand sanitizer available at the doorway of every patient care room.The problem in a hospital is an employee who washes her or his hands frequently and is conscientious, but on a single occasion becomes distracted and forgets. The video compared it to reckless driving. You can drive safely 99% of the time, but it only takes one episode of going to fast in the wrong place to result in a tragic accident.

I’m not describing the video well, but its point is something that we all need to consider. I wash my hands a lot. I have been especially conscientious about washing the more often and more carefully since the pandemic has brought our personal behavior to our attention I was carrying hand sanitizer in my car long before this outbreak. We often go places that don’t have adequate hand washing facilities. We love to camp and explore the out of doors. Not every pit toilet has a hand washing station. But since we’ve renewed our consciousness about washing hands, I’ve noticed that I have a new routine that is necessary. I have to remember to rub lotion into my hands. They’ve become dry and rough from all of the washing.

One thing that will come out of this particular episode in our history is a renewed awareness of personal hygiene and perhaps some changes in our society. We noted, when traveling in Japan two years ago, that it is possible to have a perfectly friendly and polite culture with people who are wonderfully gracious and hospitable without the custom of sharing hands. Bowing is a gracious gesture of acknowledging another person. And in our travels in Japan, we noticed that people of all ages were quick to wear face masks when they thought they might cough or sneeze. It seemed to us to be a gracious gesture aimed at protecting others from infection. At the time, we never really considered that we might learn to wear face masks. It seemed to be just another quirks of another culture. Now it seems obvious to me that we all should learn to wear masks when we need to go out while suffering from colds or the flu. Many of Japan’s people live in densely populated areas. Trains are often crowded. People learn to live and work in close proximity to others. Basic hygiene is important.

Perhaps we all can adopt some of our pandemic practices into everyday practices and help to slow the transmission of all kinds of communicable diseases. Fewer colds and flu episodes would be a general benefit to society.

I grew up in a family with a certain formality about how we treated each other. I didn’t suffer from a lack of contact and I was picked up and hugged as a child, but we weren’t a family of huggers. I remember having one aunt who was always hugging us as children and thinking that she was a bit strange. My favorite great uncle never displayed affection publicly. He kept a little distance. And folks in my family in general needed a bit more personal space than some others. When I found myself in situations in college and seminary where everybody was hugging everybody else, I felt a bit uncomfortable. I would sometimes joke about forced hugs, but behind the jokes was a certain uncomfortableness with public displays of affection.

So I’m not too worried about social distancing. Although I’ve stood at the entryway of the church and shook hands with most of the congregation after worship for 42 years now, I see no problem with greeting others without physical contact.

We may be in the midst of the world’s largest ever public awareness campaign about washing hands. There are signs and posters and memes everywhere. I’ve even noticed that the big highway electronic signs that usually warn of slippery roads ahead or remind drivers to call 511 before taking a trip now are reminding people to wash their hands. We may emerge from this particular crisis with more awareness and better habits when it comes to washing hands. That can be helpful in slowing the spread of a lot of infections and diseases.

I’ve had a few jobs in my life where washing hands was obvious. If you are working with grease and dirt you can tell you hands are dirty by looking at them. When I worked on the ranch I would often emerge from working on a machine with grease up to my elbows. I had dirt under my fingernails. I could see that I needed to wash my hands. Most ranch houses have a mudroom with a sink right by the back door so that you can wash up before touching anything inside the house.

Viruses, however, are too small to see. You can have viruses and bacteria on your hands with no visible signs that they are present. Maybe if we simply imagined our hands to be covered with dirt and grease it would help us remember to wash them. As the video noted, it isn’t the 99 times that you wash your hands that causes infection. It is the one time that you forget or pass up a hand washing station.

I expect I’ll be using a lot more hand lotion in the years to come.

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!

Random thoughts during a pandemic

As my wife’s health returned after a very scary episode with a n irregular heart rhythm and a near-fatal drug reaction, we decided to buy Apple watches for ourselves so that we could have access to their heart monitor and EKG functions. We have also found that we pay quite a bit of attention to the fitness application on the watch. The electrophysiologist recommended 30 minutes of exercise each day and we have been making sure to follow that recommendation. However, we have discovered that the watch has a very strange definition of exercise. Yesterday, I spent the morning doing physical work. I ran a chainsaw in the woodlot for about 2 1/2 hours. It was physically exhausting work for me. I raised a sweat. I had to stop on occasion to catch my breath. I kept that machine working. Then I emptied the garbage in the church. The bag was heavy and near the limits of my ability to lift it when I got it into the dumpster. After that I washed mirrors, refilled supplies in bathrooms, scrubbed seven toilets and mopped floors. At the end of the morning, having worked four solid hours, the workout application on my watch said I had engaged in three minutes of exercise. After lunch, we went for a leisurely walk in the park and I picked up 48 minutes of exercise in 48 minutes. The people who wrote the algorithms for the watch understood workouts, but not work. The watch doesn’t give credit for work, only for workouts. I’m eager to try it out with actual rowing in a boat on the lake. My suspicion is that it records rowing on a rowing machine as a workout, but it won’t recognize rowing an actual boat. I’m not sure what this says about our society, but it i slightly troubling to me. I still value actual work above a workout.

While walking in the park we noticed that although the school district has the power to cancel prom because of the pandemic and fears of a spreading virus, they were only able to cancel the dance. Prom was definitely on yesterday. We saw couple after couple dressed formally getting their pictures taken in the park. They were not following the rules of social distancing. None of this six feet apart business for prom pictures. And they weren’t wearing face masks for their pictures, either. For a couple of decades of my life, I wrote educational materials for adolescents. I wrote more lessons for the Seasons of the Spirit curriculum than any other author. I wrote for a half dozen curriculum projects. I edited youth resources for the first set of online educational resources produced by our denomination. I studied adolescent behavior and learning patterns closely. One of the things that I learned was how powerful social forces influence the decisions of youth. the combination of surging hormones and a not-fully-developed prefrontal cortex results in really good kids making really bad decisions. Under peer pressure youth will take risks that seem to their parents and other adults to be incredibly bad. Youth will risk their lives and futures through experimentation with alcohol. They will risk their lives and others’ by drinking and driving. They will risk unplanned pregnancy and disease through risky sexual behavior. They will risk health and life experimenting with illegal drugs. The threat of a virus that seems to make adults a lot sicker than it does youth probably is not going to deter them from social interaction.

We see lots of signs that the culture has shifted a lot since we were adolescents. Ons sign of that on the weekend fo the 50th anniversary of our prom date was in the formal clothes the youth were wearing. A black suit with a white shirt and a bright blue bowtie might have been seen in our day. But yesterday the wearer of that suit had a pair of blue and silver nike running shoes to complete the ensemble. I remember polishing and shining my shoes for prom, sort of wishing that I could afford a brown pair, but knowing that the black pair would be acceptable for the occasion. There are a lot more color choices for boys these days. There are more choices for girls, too. In addition to all of the choices of colors for dresses, some of which are made from fabrics that simply didn’t exist 50 years ago, there are choices of color for hair that would not have occurred to us.

All of this brought about the question of how, in the midst of all of this social change, prom continues to exist. Why is that one of the thoroughly entrenched traditions of our culture. A lot of other things that we did have passed away. High schools don’t sponsor baccalaureate services any more. Why is prom a tradition that remains? I think that part of the answer is that parents and grandparents have totally bought into prom. Most of the social media posts I saw about prom this weekend were posted by parents. Pictures of getting har and makeup done, of fancy dresses and suits, didn’t seem to dominate the kids’ posts, but were prevalent in adult posts. I suppose this could be that I’m not active on the same platforms frequented by the youth. FaceBook is pretty much a media for old folks these days.

Visiting with some 20-somethings a couple of days ago, following physical distancing guidelines, I asked what has changed the most in their lives. The most common answer was, “I can’t go to the gym any more.” These are physically fit young adults most of whom belong to the same CrossFit gym. The gym is closed and they are left having to work out alone at home. Listening to them is another example of how our culture has made a distinction between work and a workout. I’m not sure what the difference is, but workouts are way more important to young adults than they were to me at that age.

The culture has shifted, A lot of things have changed. And a few things have remained the same.

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!

A nostalgic memory

We made a decision to go with FaceBook for our worship livestream very quickly. The decision to suspend in-person worship was made on a Tuesday and we didn’t even own a livestream camera at the time. Members began to request that we livestream on FaceBook and it was Saturday before I realized that we didn’t have the technology or skill to stream on multiple platforms at once. Since we had received the most requests to go to FaceBook that is the direction we went. Our videos are then posted on YouTube and our church website, but you can’t watch them live on those formats.

As a result I’ve been spending a lot more time looking at FaceBook than ever before. And I have been expanding the number of FaceBook friends at a pretty good rate. Mostly I’m trying to monitor what my colleagues are doing so that I can get fresh ideas for our congregation and how we might continue to maintain connections and support for people. Along the way, however, I’ve seen a lot of other posts. Some of those posts amuse me, slightly. Some make me wonder how much people are thinking when they participate in FaceBook.

I roll my eyes at all of the “surveys.” There are a bunch of lists of questions that users are supposed to answer. Many of them circulate a bit like the old chain letters, saying, “fill this out and pass it on to ten of your friends.” I doubt if those who are answering those questions think the way I do, but I’m suspicious of all of those quizzes. The first and most obvious of my suspicions has to do with the actual questions. If I were trying to hack someone’s account, I would be looking for the answers to security questions. And security questions are often things like “the name of your first pet,” so putting that question on a quiz is an easy way to get the information. Sophisticated firms like Cambridge Analytics employ complex algorithms to target advertising at individuals. During the 2016 election their techniques were employed by campaigners to distribute false information in attempts to influence the outcome of the election. There is a lot of nefarious manipulation going on with the FaceBook platform and I think part of it is enabled by the gullibility of many users.

One thing that is going around FaceBook is supposed to be a tribute to high school seniors who are coming to the end of their high school years but won’t be able to have a graduation ceremony this year. For some reason, people have gotten into posting their high school pictures as a way of offering a tribute. I’m not quite sure how a bunch of old high school graduation pictures is a tribute, but I can see how people would think it is fun to look at their friends’ pictures. Putting aside the fact that “What year did you graduate from High School?” and “What was your High School Mascot?” are often used as security questions, my other reaction to the phenomena is the simple fact that I didn’t graduate from high school. Unlike the class of 2020, who I suspect do have graduation pictures, just not a ceremony, I don’t belong to any class. I left high school following my junior year. When they have class reunions in my high school, I don’t even know which class is mine.

So, being more cautious about FaceBook than some, I am offering a bit of nostalgia in this format for my journal entry today.

I can’t remember the exact date, but 50 years ago this April, I invited a girl to go to the prom with me. I hadn’t planned on attending the prom. I thought that most of the high school social life was pretty much silliness, but somehow I got asked to be on the prom committee. I think it was because I had made quite a few posters and I was a willing worker. At any rate, my friends started to ask me who I was inviting to the prom. I had no idea. I wasn’t interested in any of the girls in my class and besides prom couples had been lined up months inn advance of the prom.

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There was, however, a girl I was interested in getting to know. I had met her at church camp when I was eleven, and quite frankly I wasn’t very impressed. However, the fall of my junior year of high school I attended a church youth rally in a town 40 miles from ours and she was there. Somehow in the intervening years, she had become a lot more interesting and I really enjoyed talking to her at that event. I wound up my courage and called her on the telephone. I invited her to our prom. It would mean that we had to work out transportation for her to come the 80 miles to our town on the day of the prom and a ride back home the next day. Those details worked out, we were set for a date. I checked with my classmates and secured an invitation to a post-prom dinner, arranged to borrow our family car and my folks sprung for a new suit to wear for the prom and for upcoming events.

It turned out to be a good thing. I don’t remember much about the prom at all. We sat at a table most of the time and only danced a few of the dances. I wasn’t very confident about dancing and she was a bit taller than I, but talking with her was certainly fascinating.

There is a lot more to the story, much of which I don’t want to post on the Internet, but in a couple of months we will have been married 47 years. Our first date turned into something that we both wanted to repeat.

My parents did pay for a portrait sitting later that summer. I wore the same suit I wore to the prom. I have no idea where those pictures are. They weren’t very meaningful to me. I do, however, know exactly where the picture of my prom date is kept. I treasure that picture and have it in my backpack wherever I go. I won’t post it on FaceBook, but I will share it here.

The 50 years have been very good. And I do salute those who are graduating this year. I hope they can find relationships that are as rich and meaningful to them as mine are to me.

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!

New Tricks

My first salaried job was sweeping my father’s feed warehouse. I could make 50 cents for each time I swept the entire warehouse. Later, in high school, I got the job of cleaning a pharmacy in the downtown of our city. I went in on Sunday afternoons, stripped the wax from the floors, put on a fresh coat of wax, cleaned the bathrooms and dusted the displays.

We decided to get married between our Junior and Senior years of college. There was some talk, mostly with parents, about waiting until we graduated from college, but we really did not want to wait any longer and we were already thinking about moving out of state for graduate school, which would be another big adjustment and it didn’t seem quite right to do everything at once. Mostly, I was impatient and didn’t want to wait. Getting married in the midst of our college careers anticipating a minimum of three additional years of graduate school after we graduated from college meant that we needed to scramble in terms of jobs and housing and basic living expenses. When I found out that we could exchange janitorial services for a building that was located on campus in exchange for the efficiency apartment located in that building, I applied right away. The building housed the Montana Association of Churches and Conference Offices for the United Church of Christ, United Methodist and Presbyterian Churches. In the basement was a meeting room where a new congregation was meeting on Sundays. Upstairs were former dorm rooms that were used by the various church groups in the building to house visiting guests and those who had traveled from out of town for meetings. Janitorial services included vacuuming carpets, emptying trash, cleaning bathrooms on three levels, including showers, and doing light maintenance such as bleeding air from the radiators, changing light bulbs, and making a few other light repairs.

During the year, I was also serving as a licensed supply minister for a small congregation, leading worship on Sundays and providing a bit of pastoral care including funerals as needed.

After we moved to Chicago for seminary, I was able to secure a church janitorial job in part because I had the experience serving as a janitor from before. This church has a noontime lunch program for university students and professors, so there were floors to scrub 5 days a week, a sanctuary to dry mop each week and more bathrooms to clean. I did a lot more maintenance work for that church, repairing chairs, installing a new sound system, replacing locks and more.

My career began with the work of a janitor. I was fairly competent at the job.

I was thinking about that this week as I was taking out a couple of bags of trash to the dumpster. Two things have come together to give me a few light janitorial duties these days. The first is that the physical distancing we are doing to help slow the spread of coronavirus means that our church is being used a lot less than it was before and we have less income. Added to that is the fact that our janitor moved on from the job in the middle of March. This was a planned event and did not come as a surprise to the church, but with our closing down the church to public events at the same time it makes sense to not hire a janitor at the moment. So I’ve been emptying the garbage cans and cleaning bathrooms. I’m qualified for the job and know how to do it.

It seems as if my career has sort of come full circle. I began as a janitor and now I will end my time working at this church with a few janitorial duties. In a way it is appropriate to have it that way.

In a way it reminds me of a wonderful educator I knew a few decades ago. Mrs. C. was the principal of the elementary school that our children attended. She was an amazing principal. She didn’t spend much time in her office, but she knew how to do every job in the church. If the playground supervisor was out sick, you’d find Mrs. C. out there doing playground duty. If someone was absent from the school lunch staff, she’d be serving lunch to kids as they came through the line. If a crossing guard was needed, she’d don the vest and pick up the stop sign. When she saw a mess, she’d clean it up before it got bigger. If a light bulb burned out, she’d change it. She could step into a classroom and take over for a teacher who needed a break and she did it often. The morale of the staff of that school was incredibly high and part of that high morale was knowing the their leader understood the jobs they did and how to do them. She took every job in the school seriously. I have such admiration for her that I try to do my work in the church on the same model. I’m up for whatever needs to be done.

I don’t think that I expected that there would be a call for so much innovation and new learning in the final months of my call to this congregation, but I’m not sure that it is a bad thing for me. I have especially enjoyed taking my daily prayers to the live cast format. I started out by exploring different backgrounds simply because I don’t have much experience with video and I thought that it would be boring to see the same thing every day. I could at least change the background daily. Then I realized that the places of the church inform my prayers. It has been a genuine joy.

Perhaps it is true that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but I am not exactly a dog. Maybe you can teach an old preacher new ways to preach the gospel.

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!

Strange experiences

I was walking across a large parking lot, tying on my mask as I went. I had parked away from other cars and there weren’t any people anywhere near close to me, but I was heading into the store to pick up an item that we needed at church. The mask I was wearing was one that ties behind your head in two places. I have two masks, one to be in the wash and the other to use. The other mask has elastic, but this one you have to tie. Either my head is big or the person who sewed the mask was short of fabric, but I have to pull very tight and have just barely enough on the ties to get a knot tied. The mask got on the wrong side of my glasses and I fogged them up, which probably made me walk a bit crooked. I probably looked pretty silly, but with everyone wearing masks, we all look a bit silly anyway.

Inside the store, it was a bit chaotic. I was trying to keep my distance from others, but the shelves were very tall, so I couldn’t see around the corner to know If I might meet someone. The store had some spacing marked on the floor close to the checkout stations, but there were no arrows indicating traffic flow as is the case with the grocery store where I shop about once a week. Not everyone was wearing masks, but a lot of us were. One problem with a mask is that people can’t tell if you are smiling or scowling, which didn’t matter much, because people weren’t looking at one another. They were mostly looking down or away when I looked at them.

I found myself remembering something that we used to talk about when I was teaching stress management courses. Human beings are social animals. We receive all kinds of benefits from being around other people. We evolved that way because group survival is stronger than individual survival strategies. And all of the parts of our bodies are connected. When we say we have a gut feeling, there really is a direct connection between our digestive system and our capacity to experience pleasurable emotions. We enjoy intimacy with others. We get pleasure from a close hug. We are all aware of that. But the interesting thing is that scientists have discovered that part of what gives us the pleasure from closeness is that it stimulates the release of oxytocin in our bodies. It is a hormone secreted by the pituitary gland. It is sometimes called the “love” hormone because secretions increase when we hug another person.

Here is the thing that I remember: Among other benefits of increased oxytocin is that it stimulates our immune system. More oxytocin in our system, more immunity. It is part of the phenomenon called “herd immunity” which is an evolutionary function that favors the overall health of the group as opposed to the survival of a single individual.

One of the things that we are being told will help us survive this pandemic is avoiding any personal contact with others. By decreasing contact, it is possible that we could lower our bodies’ ability to protect themselves from it. It makes it very difficult to know what is the right behavior.

I had plenty of time for my mind to wander, because there was no conversation going on in that store. People were hurrying around, trying not to look at one another. I’m sure others were doing what I was, trying to get what was needed and get out of the store as quickly as possible. The result was a very strange experience for someone like me who is used to being with people, talking with strangers, greeting everyone with a smile and paying attention to how others are feeling.

This pandemic is producing a lot of strange experiences.

I’m starting to get used to talking to people from the other end of the hallways at church. We are working hard to give everyone the space necessary to be safe and we are reminding people about washing hands as we work to keep surfaces clean, but my instinct is to get closer to folks. I’ve never been one for super close distances. I like to have my personal space, but the length of two hands stretched out to shake seems about right to me. My father once said to me that when you shake a rancher’s hand, watch him and when he lets go, he will show you how close he wants to stand to you. My father was a good salesman and most of his customers were ranchers. The trick seems to work with people of all kinds of occupations. If you watch someone, you can tell how comfortable they are and what their reaction to you is. But it is hard to judge facial expressions when people are wearing masks. I’m pretty sure that they aren’t all train robbers, but it’s hard to judge their reactions through the masks.

As I left the church at the end of the day yesterday, I noticed that there were four cars parked in the lot, with their back ends together and their front ends pointing outward. The hatchbacks were open on them and each car had one woman sitting in the back. One was wrapped up in a blanket, others had on their jackets. I guess it was their way of having a meeting - or just getting together with friends - while observing all of the rules of physical distancing. They were at least six feet apart.

The times in which we live are calling for us to explore our creative spirits in ways we did not expect. I’m having fun thinking of a new background for my daily prayers each day. I never thought I’d become a televangelist. I’m not one, really, but I do make a video every day and each has a different background than the one before. Who knows, maybe this just what I needed at this time in my career.

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!

Time, change and eternity

During this Easter season, I have been grappling with the concept of eternity. I’ve mentioned it in my sermons and meditations, I’ve been thinking about it quite a bit. It is appropriate to have such thoughts as we contemplate the mystery of Jesus’ resurrection and also contemplate our own mortality. The problem for me, at least this year anyway, is that my brain and my whole being seem to be focused in the temporal world.

My life is in the midst of some big transition. Of course that is true of nearly everyone as we adjust to the dramatic changes in lifestyle caused by the novel coronavirus pandemic. We have all had to learn new ways to do almost everything that we do. We gave up on handshakes, then we gave up on meetings, then we gave up on any form of physical distance. We made facemarks, we limited our trips to the store, we limited our trips anywhere. And we started to think about when this will get over. The end of the business slowdown is the topic of presidential news conferences and newspaper op-ed pieces. We all are thinking in terms of beginnings and endings and all of the frustrations that lie between.

Personally, all of this is compounded with the simple fact that 2020 was chosen as the year for us to end our ministry in this congregation. Two months from yesterday, I will preach my last sermon in this church. In the midst of learning to use new technologies, coming to the office every day for daily prayers, working as hard as I have ever worked, I have been cleaning out file cabinets and book shelves. Everything has to be sorted into keep, recycle, or trash piles. I guess I have a rummage sale category, as well, but that is part of the recycle in my way of thinking.

We are planning to move our household, but we are a long way from having our home ready to put on the market, and we are unsure of how the travel restrictions and other practices necessary to slow the spread of the virus will affect the timing of our move.

Even if we were to stay in the same home in the same town and retain the same jobs, we could not avoid big changes. We are getting older. In many ways I don’t feel older. I have been blessed with good health and fairly high stamina. I have been forced by circumstances to be as creative in how I do my work as ever. I’ve been inventing new programs and new processes and procedures pretty heavily in the past couple of months. I wake up excited and energized about the day ahead and I go to bed tired and feeling accomplished from having worked a good day.

Life, however moves on. As I was cleaning my office I paused to look at a picture I’ve kept of the first baptism in this congregation. That tiny baby in that picture is now an adult. She is a nurse serving on the front lines of the nation’s work to treat those who are suffering. She is one of the heroes of our story. I opened up Facebook to check on the comments about our expanded ministry on that platform and saw a comment by someone who was a teenager when we met and now is a grandmother. A friend’s birthday reminded me how quickly she had gone from her forties to her eighties - and I’ve been getting older each year at the same rate. Time passes. Things change.

We think in terms of time.

But life is more than just a hectic race through a barrage of change in a constantly shifting world. The challenge for each one of us is to find ways of staying grounded and centered. We know how things used to be. We do not know how things will turn out. We find ourselves in-between, struggling to hold on to our identity. I look at that picture, now a quarter of a century old and I remind myself that I am still the same person. I am still a minister. I still am called to care for the parents and the child. I still am bound my my promise of love and care and support to parents and child.

The Apostle Paul wrote to the conflicted church at Corinth about remaining grounded in rapidly changing circumstances. He reminded them that there are things that don’t change. “And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”

I have been extremely fortunate in this life. I was blessed with a family that loved me and nurtured me as a child. I married at a young age and now, nearly 47 years later am even more in love than I was back then. We were blessed with two amazing and wonderful children who have grown into responsible and incredibly talented adults. And they have found partners in their lives and become parents themselves. I have learned what an incredible blessing it is to know that your grandchildren have wonderful loving parents.

There are many things in my life that call me to remain centered. And each of these blessings is a glimpse at the eternal. I don’t understand eternity. I still think in terms of the passage of time, but I can at least formulate a concept that there is something beyond time.

The New Testament scholar N.T. Wright has reflected on what the Bible says about eternity and he makes the point that many Christians get it all backwards. They think that the core of Christianity is about Jesus coming to earth to bring the faithful to heaven. This, he says, is not what early followers of Jesus thought. Rather, they understood that in Jesus, God had come to live with them. Jesus’ resurrection didn’t mean that we all get to go to heaven when we die, but rather that God will never be absent from the world in which we live.

Easter and Resurrection are huge concepts that have taken generations for our people to begin to understand. It shouldn’t bother me, or anyone else, that we struggle with these ideas. I am fairly certain that one of the things that keeps me centered in all this change is that I enjoy wrestling with the big concepts and thinking about the big ideas and living the questions of this life.

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!

My cynacism shows

I started out heading toward health care ministries when I was a seminary student. I served two consecutive internships at the Hinsdale, Illinois Wholistic Health Care Center and focused a lot of my attention on the relationship between skills nursing, medical physician care and pastoral counseling. At our clinic we offered the services of professionals working as a team to care for the spiritual, psychological and physical health of our clients. It was an interesting time to be paint close attention to the research surrounding mental health care. Psychopharmacology was exploding with new drugs being offered on a regular bases. Many chemical solutions were explored and some seemed to be very promising. There were a host of medicines that produced reduction in stress levels and relief from other symptoms. Some of those medicines came with a high cost in terms of side effects. Some of them mysteriously worked quite well with some patients, while not working at all with others. The clinical trials and the research, much of it funded by the National Institutes of Health were increasing our understanding of brain chemistry.

What we didn’t notice at the time was that the increased funding for chemical research and the promise of drugs that affected psychology was also giving rise to an enormous pharmacology business. There were huge profits to be made in developing and selling drugs and the industry was growing by leaps and bounds.

Less noticed was that the emphasis on chemistry was allowing medicine to pay less attention to electrophysiology. Scientists have known for a very long time that the human brain is a complex organ affected by chemistry and electricity. Synapses fire. Receptors receive signals. And the relationship between electronic signal and chemical interactions is complex. We are not beings with two separate systems that can be treated independently, but rather possess an interconnected system. Chemistry affects electrophysiology and electrophysiology affects chemistry.

There were some interesting and promising studies being done, but in the days before advanced brain imaging, there was a lot of trial and error. Electroshock therapies in those days were almost barbaric in their use of huge amounts of current and the imprecision with which it was administered. While some patients did experience a decrease in symptoms from early electroshock treatments, they often came at the cost of memory loss and other severe side effects.

The scales tipped in favor of chemical treatment of mental illness for decades. As neurofeedback therapies were developed and are now being refined in clinical settings, it has been very difficult for researchers to obtain funding for their experiments. Most insurances do not cover the cost of neurofeedback therapies even though they have now been shown to offer significant promise for those who suffer from a wide variety of illnesses including PTSD.

There has been a bit more balance when it comes to research into heart disease and conditions that affect the coronary system. Perhaps it is because a basic diagnostic tool for heart health has long been the stethoscope. Physicians listen to the rhythm of the heart to determine what is going on. As a result cardiologists have develop skills in both the chemistry and the electronics of the heart. These days a contemporary cardiology practice will employ both specialists in the “plumbing” of the vascular system and electrophysiologists who work with the “wiring.” Both are trained in chemistry and employ medicines in their work.

All of this is a bit of background into the announcement yesterday that the three largest health care systems in South Dakota are combining to undertake studies in the use of hydroxychloroquine for the treatment of COVID-19. President Trump has enthusiastically promoted the medicine as a treatment for novel coronavirus. Last month, the Food and Drug Administration granted emergency approval to allow hospitals to use hydroxycloroquine from national stockpiles. The State of South Dakota has obtained 100,000 doses for the trial.

Skeptics, myself included, worry that this massive trial, effectively involving an entire state, is a bit misguided. Earlier trials have shown little evidence that the drug works. Worse yet, multiple other clinical trials in other states and other nations have been suspended because patients taking the higher doses of the anti-malarial drug demonstrated irregular heart rhythms and increased risk of potentially fatal heart arrhythmia.

It would be so nice and so simple if there was a pill that could be taken to treat COVID-19. But we human beings are complex entities.

And here is where my skepticism turns to cynicism. I have no doubt that the governor and the administrators of the hospital have signed on to this study because they want to find an effective treatment for the disease. A disease that is wildly communicable and that is resulting in the death of so many deserves the best that science can bring forward and discovering an effective treatment would be a wonderful thing. There is, however, nothing ground-breaking about the South Dakota studies other than the scale. Trials of the drugs in the South Dakota study have been undertaken in China, Brazil, and multiple states in the US including New York. The cynic in me wants to explore other possible motivations for such a study.

Is it possible that the pandemic has placed health care systems in precarious financial circumstances? There isn’t a lot of money in treating the disease at the moment. And with massive unemployment resulting from efforts to slow the spread of the disease, hospitals will see more and more patients who don’t have insurance. They have also suspended many elective procedures, the very procedures that result in the most income for hospitals. A large clinical trial brings in research dollars that are desperately needed by the hospitals in this time. That much isn’t my cynicism.

I’m married to a woman who had a near-fatal reaction to a drug that caused a heart arrhythmia. Her reaction to the drug resulted in her heart stopping twice. She received CPR and was intubated and survived the episode. The first day of her treatment resulted over $150,000 being transferred form medicare and our supplemental insurance company to the hospital. Subsequent treatments brought the transfer of funds to nearly a half million dollars. That’s the kind of money that even a huge medical system can’t afford to ignore.

I’m not saying that the doctors administering the study aren’t aware of the risks. I’m not saying that they are being cavalier in their trials. I’m just saying that I’m skeptical and there are moments when I can become cynical.

A vaccine will be developed. New treatments will be discovered. But I’m not holding my breath for South Dakota to be the source of the solution.

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!

The language we use

I have never been a soldier. I have never gone to war. I am of the age of those who went to the War in Vietnam - almost. By almost, I mean that those born in my birth year were summoned for the draft, we had lottery numbers assigned. Mine was 11. We were ordered to report for induction physicals and then before we were ordered to report for duty the draft was ended by congress. The war continued for a few more years with a mixture of volunteers and the who had already been drafted. My experiences of war come second-hand. I have played the trumpet since I was ten years old. Through my high school years, I was our community’s designated bugler for military funerals. I marched in all of the parades with the veterans. I played taps at ceremonies, and I attended the graveside rites of the victims of that war who were buried in our community cemetery.

Then not long afterwards I began my formal counseling training, interning first with a Chicago-based community counseling service and next with a health care center in suburban Hinsdale, Illinois. I began to encounter those who had suffered the trauma of war. Those days were followed by my becoming a pastor. For the next forty plus years I have been invited to the bedside of those who are nearing the end of their lives. Early in my career I noticed a pattern, common with the veterans of World War II, who were the age of my parents. I would be alone with an elder, perhaps one who was facing a serious illness, and I would hear, “I’ve never told anyone before, but . . .” Those words were almost always followed by a war story. Many of those stories were of things that had been witnessed that were traumatic. As my skills of listening improved, I began to hear more and more war stories. For someone who has never been to war, I have certainly heard a lot of reports of friends suddenly dying, of human bodies blown apart or cut down by bullets, of the death of innocents and of the scenes of the aftermath of battle.

I know enough to know that everyone who participates in a war is a victim. Those who survive carry with them trauma for the rest of their lives. There are no winners in a war, only losers. Of course the human spirit is amazingly resilient. There are people who served in wars who went on to lead amazing lives and contribute deeply to the quality of life for others. There are leaders who have emerged from war who have guided nations. There are plenty of everyday citizens who have served in countless service organizations and benefitted communities. But war extracts a heavy price.

Over the years we have seen the term war applied to ventures that are not related to armed conflict between nations. Back before the end of the War in Vietnam, President Nixon gave a speech to Congress in which he declared that drug abuse was “public enemy number one.” Shortly afterward the phrase war on drugs became popular on television and in other media. While there have certainly been tragic deaths due to drug abuse and while the system of illegal drug distribution has definitely been weaponized with lethal guns and ammunition, the term war doesn’t really fit. You can’t cure an addition with weapons. Military tactics have proven insufficient to decrease the profits of illegal trade. The opioid crisis in our country illustrates clearly that using the language of war doesn’t work well to address the issues of addiction.

Following the attacks of 9-11, the term war on terrorism became common. Once again, the problem with that war was the lack of definition of the enemy. It is one thing if a group of people or a nation is declared an enemy. When an ideology is the named enemy, weapons of destruction are less effective. The war on terror has certainly resulted in enormous numbers of innocent victims - collateral damage is the term that is sometimes used. There are some who argue that terrorism is the result of war and that using military weapons to combat terrorism creates more terrorists. I am no expert, but I am a user of and observer of how others use language. Like the war on drugs, using military language in an attempt to decrease terrorism doesn’t always work.

And now we find ourselves in the midst of a global pandemic. I can see why leaders are drawn to use war language when addressing our situation. A virus, much smaller than a single human cell, can cause great distress. There are victims and body bags and pain and suffering. Like a military conflict, logistics and the distribution of supplies is a major undertaking and supply line failures have dramatic results in terms of death and human suffering.

I think, however, that it is a misnomer to use the language of war in this struggle. We will emerge from this particular threat by employing a large number of different tools. Compassionate and intelligent treatment of those who suffer illness is essential, but the skillset of medical practitioners in helping people deal with a virus is much different from the skills needed to heal the trauma of military conflict. Surgery is not a tool for viral infection. At some point in our struggle a vaccine will be developed and it will work with this specific virus. There are other treatments that may emerge from the study of antibodies developed in the systems of those who have recovered from the illness. More novel therapies will be developed. The path beyond this crisis doesn’t seem to favor pursuing our current actions as if we were going to war.

Those who have survived war often report of their experiences of drawing together with others, of forming strong bonds with their teammates, of learning to trust and rely on others. In the face of this crisis, we are instructed to separate from one another, to maintain distance and to isolate ourselves.

We need new language for these times. Te metaphors and words of war don’t seem to work very well. I intend to continue to search out the language of healing as I think and write about these times.

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!

Easter 2020

I delivered my first Easter Sermon in the spring of 1974. I was excited and up very early for the event. We had a 50 mile drive to the church where I was serving as a licensed supply minister. This was during a gas crisis, so fuel was hard to obtain and there were no gas stations open on the weekends. I had put a lot of work into that sermon. I can’t remember the sermon. I may have kept it in a file somewhere, but I haven’t ever looked back and re-read it. The we were off to Seminary and I didn’t give another Easter Sermon until the spring of 1979. Since then, however, I have delivered an Easter sermon every year. That’s 42 sermons - 43 if we count the one in my student parish. Actually there are many more. There are many years when I officiated at multiple services on Easter Sunday and delivered multiple sermons. And the reality is that in the church Easter is a 50-day season, so there are seven Easter sermons each year. I may not have preached all seven every years. Some years I was rotating sermons with other preachers. Some years I took vacation after Easter Day.

I’ll admit that Easter Day is probably not my favorite day for delivering a sermon in church. Up until this year, we could count on a full church for Easter Sunday, though attendance dropped off visibly last year when the school district decided that the week before Easter into Spring Break. No school meant a lot of families traveled and were not at home. Even with spring break, the church would be full and there would be quite a few people who we only see infrequently.

Expectations run high for Easter sermons. They should be emotionally engaging, and not overly intellectual. They should be intelligent enough to engage the mind, however. They should be short - everyone is planning a special dinner afterwards. They should be substantive so that people can remember them and talk about them later. The real show on Easter belongs to a lot of other players. The Altar Guild has worked hard on the Easter Lily arrangements and the appearance of the sanctuary. Special banners have been hung. The choir has been rehearsing for weeks. The organist has prepared special prelude and postlude music. And in the midst of all of this the preacher is supposed to really deliver. The sermon should leave every listener wanting more.

My problem with Easter sermons is that resurrection is a very difficult concept. It isn’t easy to wrap our brains around such an idea. You can see how hard it was for first-hand witness to understand. The leaders of the temple wanted a guard at the tomb, because they were afraid of body snatchers. The women who went to the tomb to anoint the body couldn’t believe their eyes and the disciples didn’t believe their stories. The first resurrection appearances are reported by the gospels with those who had been closest to Jesus not recognizing him when he appeared to them. It is fairly clear that resurrection is not resuscitation. It is not just a simple reanimation of a dead body.

I was taught that a good sermon has a clearly defined beginning and a clearly defined ending with a pithy and meaningful bit between. When I was working hard at developing my storytelling skills, most of my mentors and teachers had me focus on the beginning and the ending. I should know exactly where I was going with my story. Some suggested that the first and last lines of every story told publicly should have memorized first and last lines.

The message of resurrection, however, is about eternity and eternity doesn’t have an end.

I’ve tried to put together seven-sermon series on resurrection. Very few members of the congregation hear all seven. Those who do don’t remember what was said from week to week. Each sermon has to be a stand alone presentation. There will always be at least one person in attendance who will only hear one of the sermons.

I have, however, been looking forward to Easter this year. Our 25th Easter in this congregation. Our 42nd Easter since ordination. The last Easter in this church and perhaps the last easter of my active working career. Although I hope to continue to serve some church in some capacity it is entirely possible that I will not be the senior minister in a congregation at Easter again. And, as I learned in my intern years, the senior minister always delivers the Easter sermon.

Like everything else in the midst of this worldwide pandemic, things are not how we expected. I will be preaching to an empty church, recording video for a livestream. My congregation will not be seen by me and they will not all view the video at the same time. Worship always is an exchange of energy and though the congregation might not know it, we preachers receive a lot of energy from our congregations. I can look into the faces of those in the pews and know when I’m doing a good job. I can tell from their reactions whether or not they are listening. I get a lot of energy from those who come to worship. And we’ve been doing the livestreams long enough that I know that I will be exhausted after leading worship in an empty sanctuary.

I’m not alone. Churches will be empty around the globe. The Pope celebrated mass in an empty St. Peter’s Basilica behind closed doors.

With the US death toll from coronavirus at 20,000 and growing rapidly, it clearly is a time when a potent sermon about resurrection is deeply needed. As I pastor I have a message that is critical to the times and circumstances in which we find ourselves. My work is as meaningful as it has ever been. The simple fact that I have developed relationships with the members of this congregation over a long pastorate and that we have shared so many experiences over th years means that I am in a unique position to deliver a message of hope.

It won’t be easy, but the task is clear. Fortunately part of the message is that we are not alone. Even when we are separated from one another, God is with us. Love transcends the distances between us. As is always true, I need to take my own message very seriously.

A blessed Easter to you. Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed!

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 Saturday

Our county hs the longest-running LOSS team in the nation. LOSS stands for Local Outreach to Survivors of Suicide. Team members are dispatched by the emergency center just like police or firefighters. We respond to places where a suicide has occurred to provide support and assistance to those left behind. LOSS team members are survivors ourselves. We have felt the pain of the death of a loved one by suicide. Research has shown that when support is delivered quickly, those who survive are less likely to die by suicide themselves. Team members provide counseling referrals, information for planning funerals, arranging for cleaning of affected areas, and much more.

My volunteer work with the LOSS team is combined with my regular work as a pastor. I am often called who a family member is approaching death. I frequently walk through the last hours of someone’s life with their family. My life has provided me with frequent and regular opportunity to spend time with people who are in the initial stages of grief.

I have learned that the first moments after learning of the death of a loved one is not a time for excessive words. While there are a few things that need to be communicated, the grieving person isn’t going to be able to remember much of what I say. And the last thing that someone caught up in the throes of loss needs is a stranger who pokes their face into the midst of this very private moment. I have learned about giving people space and making brief initial visits. I almost always make a telephone check in within one or two days to provide more information and to listen to the reactions, thoughts and questions of the grieving person.

When someone dies it is natural for the world to slow down for a while. Grieving people take a pause. There will be plenty of things to do. Calls need to be made. Arrangements have to be done. Meals must be planned. Guests must receive accommodations. Pictures and mementoes need to be sorted. Preparations must be completed. But first, there is a pause.

The pause for Jesus’ friends came in part because of the traditions and rituals of the people. The Sabbath was day of many restrictions. Adhering to the commandment to take a sabbath every week and to refrain from work, faithful Jews didn’t engage in everyday tasks on that day. Jesus died on the evening before Sabbath. His body was taken down from the cross and laid in a tomb. Then they waited. The cleaning of thee body and the preparation for burial would have to wait until the morning after the Sabbath. No handling of human remains, or of the remains of any animal, was allowed on the Sabbath.

So they waited.

The Bible does not report what the grieving disciple did, but I’ve been around grieving people enough to know. They sat, sometimes awkwardly. Some may have gotten up and paced. Some would have cried. A few would tell a story here or there. They remembered.

Today is that day of pause and waiting. The day after the crucifixion. The day observed by Jews and Seventh-Day Adventists as the Sabbath.

Only this year things are different. Sundown might bring the official end to the Sabbath, but we will continue our waiting tomorrow. In fact, we don’t know how long we will be waiting. With a pandemic at our door, with the death toll surpassing 2,000 a day in our country, we don’t know how long we will need t practice physical distancing.

In the practice of the church, Easter lasts for 50 days. It is the traditional period between the resurrection of Jesus and the day when disciples gathered in an upper room felt the presence of the Holy Spirit so intensely that they were able to communicate beyond the barriers of language. Those 50 days have become, for us, an expression that the Easter message is very difficult to understand and very difficult to communicate. It takes time. Seven weeks of Easter messages. Despite the popular notion that Easter is a day that is here and gone, faithful Christians understand that it is a Season that takes time to observe.

My experience with those who have experienced loss is that seven weeks is insufficient to process the grief. It takes even longer. It makes more sense to measure in years than by counting days. But fifty days is long enough for the experience to begin to feel real. It is long enough for a grieving person to realize the finality of death. It is long enough for those left behind to know that life will never go back to normal. A new normal may emerge, but the experience is not something that a person can “get over.”

So we wait, and as we wait it becomes clear to us that things will not go back to the way they were. We and our world are being permanently changed by this experience. We can’t yet imagine what shape all of the changes will take, but we know that things will be different. Our health care system, our economy, our attitude towards work and jobs, our recreational activities, our very lives are being challenged and reevaluated in this process.

Some of us are fortunate enough to have experienced a lifetime of Holy Saturdays. Some of us know about this pause and this waiting and this not knowing what newness will emerge. We have been practicing Holy Saturday for years and years. Others may not be as comfortable with the waiting. They are so used to doing things that they think that what needs to be done today is to get up and get going and get things done. There will be things to do. It will take hard work to recover from this experience, but the doing has to wait. It is not yet time for action. It is time for waiting.

And do we will wait - whether we want to or not.

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!

Good Friday 2020

I came home last night feeling sad. We have been working very hard in the last few weeks. We have been learning how to employ new technologies, writing out daily prayers, answering the phones, preparing worship bulletins, and working with reduced staff. I am, however, used to working hard and putting in long days. I have been feeling a bit distressed that I come home so tired at the end of each day. I worry that I am absorbing the stress and tension of the society around me. I know that there are a lot of fearful people out there. I’ve spoken with people who have become panicked when they encountered a person without a face mask while going into a store. Our county has seen only six cases of the virus. Three have fully recovered. The others are in isolation and nearing full recovery. While it is possible for there to be infected people out there whose illness has no symptoms, the risk of a quick trip to the grocery store are minimal. But there are those who are very afraid. My job is to listen to them, not instruct them. Sometimes it seems as if I have barely finished one phone call before the phon is ringing again. I think I am absorbing the stress of others. I am tired.

Mostly, I am really missing our people. On March 15, we had our last public face-to-face worship. Attendance was already reduced because of fears of the spreading pandemic. A toddler escaped the grasp of his grandmother and ran up the center aisle of the church I got down on my knees as he approached. He gave me a big hug and then returned to his grandmother. I miss him. I miss the other children. In normal times our building is full of preschoolers. Now it is empty. Yesterday the director of the preschool was putting away toys and equipment because they will not be in session for the rest of the year. Most of the classroom doors in our building are shut and sticker because they have been sanitized. If I were to go into one of those rooms it would need to be cleaned again. Our halls are empty.

I spoke, from a respectful distance and through face masks, with two cancer survivors yesterday. These are people that I would normally hug. The same is true of the piano artist who played for our Maundy Thursday live stream last night. When we have worked together and put together a collaboration we almost always give each other a big hug. Not now.

I guess I am grieving.

It is exactly how I am supposed to feel on Good Friday.

Were this a normal year, I would be approaching the limits of my endurance at this point. I would be thinking, “Just two services today. I’ll be finished by 1:30 or 2 pm. I can sneak in nap today.” After a heavy week of emotional services, I would be very tired. I joke that Holy Week is 80% moving furniture. We set and reset rooms all week long to accommodate the many different types of worship experiences that we offer. Each year we print a brochure that is a directory of Holy Week services.

In my line of work, I’m supposed to be tired on Good Friday. I’m supposed to be looking forward to taking a day off on Easter Monday.

The cycle of the Christian year covers the entire range of human emotions. At the core of our faith is incarnation - God becoming fully human with all of our sensations, emotions, problems, challenges, and even our frailty. Our Gospels report of Jesus’ birth and his death, but also of his friendships and his tears, his frustrations and his challenges. Christianity did not invent the concept of God in human form - it is a regular theme of Greek and Roman pre-Christian mythologies. But the concept when wed with radical monotheism produces a way of thinking about the nature of the world that is unique among world religions. There is only one God and that God is love and the way God loves is to become the beloved.

This is our week of remembering that sorrow and sadness and loss and grief are deeply embedded in the human experience and, as such, are fully known by God. We give, but we are not alone.

I’m supposed to feel this way on Good Friday.

So I take a deep breath. I pray for strength and courage and peace. I get up and I put on foot in front of the other. I answer the phone when it rings. I listen carefully to the needs and concerns of our people. I write notes. I feel the weariness in my muscles and my bones. I lead worship. I go from one thing to the next, sometimes without pausing to think of long term plans or ways of being more efficient. You don’t get over grief. You get through grief. Walking in grief brings me closer to God.

Surviving a pandemic is a unique experience, but our people have faced rampant illness before. We are survivors and the stories of our people reveal deep trauma and real oppression. This temporary separation we are experiencing is nothing compared to some of the things our people have known. And we have always kept alive our story. We have always known who our God is and to whom we belong.

Easter may be coming, but it isn’t the mood for the day and, frankly, I don’t have the energy to think about it very much today. This journal entry has no well thought out or pre planned conclusion. I won’t be wrapping it up with a neat turn of phrase or a hopeful metaphor. And therein lies the most important part of this day: Despite the weariness, despite the grief, despite the loss, despite the sorrow, we know that this is not the end. There is more to our story than Good Friday.

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!

Changing my vocabulary

I have decided to quit using the term social distancing. I realize that it is going to be a bit of a challenge because it is the most common description for the space we are asked to live between ourselves and others in an attempt to slow the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. The term is used over an over in the media. But it is not being helpful.

Here is a brief summary of what we know. The novel coronavirus is a type of virus that has ben known to scientists for some time. This particular virus shows a genetic similarity to a virus that has been discovered in bats and there is evidence that it existed in the bats and somehow spread to humans. The initial observed outbreak happened in China in the region around the city of Wuhan. New viruses appear from time to time. Our immune systems are tuned to deal with viruses and protect us. However this particular virus is very powerful and causes illness and death, especially in vulnerable populations. In Wuhan, where there are many older men who are smokers, it was particularly harmful. The virus spread quickly through human to human contact. Like other similar viruses, it spreads through droplets. The virus is transferred from one person to another through droplets of fluid in spittle and mucus. These are generally ejected in sneezing and coughing. Droplets can also be ejected and land on surfaces such as doorknobs, furniture and fixtures. They can be transferred by a person touching their face and then touching another person through a handshake. The virus itself is very tiny, much smaller than a human cell. Therefore a lot of virus can be contained in a small amount of fluid.

The virus spread from one area to the entire world very quickly. Around 1.5 million people are known to be infected. The actual spread is likely affecting many more people because a person can be infected with the virus and capable of spreading it before they have any symptoms. Some people never develop symptoms.

Scientists and doctors know quite a bit about infection control and disease prevention. However, this particular virus has spread so quickly that it has gotten ahead of control procedures. Control involves being very careful about human contact. Personal protective gear such as masks, gloves, face shields or glasses, and gowns can be used to protect care givers. Isolation of infected people slows the spread. Continual cleaning of surfaces - anything that a person touches - also can slow the spread of the virus. Frequent hand washing is essential.

There are many places including hospitals, prisons, care centers, and ambulance services, that deal with dangerous viruses every day. Our first responders are potentially exposed to Ebola, Marburg, Rabies, HIV, Smallpox, Hantavirus, Influenza, Rotavirus, SARS, Mersa, and many other dangerous viruses. There are vaccines to protect people from some of these, but frontline workers have to be continually careful about the spread of disease in their daily work. In general we are very good about limiting the spread of viruses.

While researchers are working at a very rapid pace to develop a vaccine to protect people from corona virus, it could take more than a year for it to become widely available. Doctors are also learning about ways to treat the virus.

One of the big problems in place where the spread has been rampant is that health care systems have been overwhelmed. Hospitals run at near capacity for intensive care all the time. They still have to deal with the usual demand and then add to it extraordinary demand of those ill with Covid-19, the disease caused by this virus. Slowing the speed of the spread of the virus helps to take some of the pressure off of hospitals.

Everyone has a responsibility to do what we are able to prevent the spread of disease. Because the virus can be spread by those who have no symptoms and have no idea that they are infected, we all need to behave as if we were infected. Thus the lockdown orders and requests for people to keep their distance from one another.

The result is that businesses have temporarily closed. People are out of jobs. The economy is faltering. Goods and supplies are less available because of hoarding. Our society is disrupted. This particular pandemic will likely reach numbers equal to or exceeding the spread of the Spanish Flu during World War I.

It is a time when we need each other. It is a time when we need to cooperate. It is a time when we ned to support one another. What we need will not be accomplished by social isolation. We need social cohesion. Keeping physical distance to limit the spread of the virus is not the same as becoming socially isolated. This is not a time for “I’m going to save myself and forget about everyone else.” Actually there is never a time for that. Evolution doesn’t really work by survival of the fittest. Evolution favors cooperation and creatures that can help one another.

So I will use the term “physical distancing,” but not the other term. I will work to uphold community in ways that are responsible. I will speak of the need for even stronger social bonds and connections in a time of crisis. I will reach out to those who are in need. I will work at systems of communication and connection. I will use the terms “service” and “sacrifice” frequently. I will tell the stories of other times in our history when people have been threatened and survived. I will minister to those who are grieving. And there is a lot of grief going around.

I will take seriously the needs of our community for safety. I will listen carefully to the advice of medical professionals and scientists. I will not despair. Even without new treatments, which are coming and even without a vaccine, which will be developed, human bodies are developing immunities. We will survive this through herd immunities, not through individual immunities. We need contact with each other to remain human.

I will honor your need for physical distance, but I will not support your isolation.

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!

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!

We have each other

We got married between our junior and senior years of college. No long after our wedding we began applying for graduate schools and generally knew that our first choices would be Boston, Chicago or San Francisco, based on the fact that those three cities had consortia of theological schools working cooperatively that would allow the widest range of faculty and educational contact with other denominations and religious traditions. Before we reached our first wedding anniversary we had made the decision to go to Chicago.

I had visited Chicago with my family once more than a decade previously. We had stopped in Chicago on our way home from a family trip to Washington DC. My family mostly traveled by airplane as it was my parents’ business, but we had made one cross-country road trip by car when I was a teenager. Just driving the 1200+ miles to Chicago was going to be an adventure. We made a commitment and decided that this was our adventure, but we had never before done something quite so big.

A few weeks before our departure, I helped a new employee to my father’s business move his household goods to Montana. I loaded what few household goods we had into the back of his pickup. We loaded the pickup on a company truck and drove to Minnesota. We unloaded the pickup and while the new employee loaded his household goods into the big truck, I drove into Chicago and unloaded our things and put them into a storage locker in the basement of the apartment building where we would be moving. I had never before driven in city traffic, and I arrived in Chicago following paper maps in the days before GPS. I arrived at the apartment building in the early afternoon, unloaded all of our things by myself on a hot and muggy day, and got back on the road to return to Minnesota. It was about 5 pm when I left the University area and before long I had taken a wrong turn and was wandering in an unfamiliar part of the city looking for a gas station. Eventually I found my way out of the city and got a motel for the night before returning to our employee’s home and driving the big truck back to Montana while he returned in the pickup.

Soon we launched in our little car for Chicago. We took three days in the time of 55 mph speed limits. We were able to stay with relatives on our way to Chicago. I remember driving into the city for the first time together. We knew we were in for a big adventure. The huge buildings, the dense traffic, there was a lot that was totally unfamiliar to a couple of kids from Montana. That evening, after checking into our apartment and carrying up our things from the basement in a building with no elevators we were exhausted and fell into bed listening to the sirens in the background and trying to adjust to the entirely new environment. “We have each other and we can do this,” we reassured ourselves.

And we did. We learned how to live and learn in Chicago. We learned how to ride the trains. We learned where it was safe to walk and where it was not. We learned how to drive in traffic. We learned how to do light maintenance of our car in a parking lot. We made friends and we learned how to manage graduate education. We learned how to move our household goods, living in 5 different apartments in 4 years and moving out of an apartment two of the summers to return to Montana to work.

I look back on those days and I am impressed that we found the courage to do what we did. I know that I wouldn’t have been able to do it on my own. There were days when I was totally overwhelmed by the city and living in a place where you had to unlock a door to get into the building, unlock another to get into the stairwell and unlock a third to get into your apartment. I had just learned to lock my car, and kept locking the keys in my car over and over. I got good at opening the locked door with a piece of wire. It seemed like when one of us would get down and wonder if we were doing the right thing the other would find a new challenge or a new opportunity and cheer the partner up. We seemed to be able to keep our spirits up by encouraging one another.

Since that time we’ve been through a lot. We’ve moved to three different homes in very different circumstances. We’ve lived in three different states. We’ve traveled to Canada, Europe, Central America and Japan. We’ve raised two children. We’ve become grandparents. We’ve faced seasons that were more difficult than others. “We have each other and we can do it” has become a motto that has gotten us through a lot.

And now we find ourselves in a whole new situation. The final months before our retirement are not at all what we expected. Who could have known that we would be figuring out how to guide a church through months of social distancing? Who would have thought that we would be learning how to produce videos for broadcast every day? Who would have though we would be creating mailings for distance learning of faith traditions? We simply were not able to imagine what this would be like just a couple of months ago.

And we are not alone. Across the world this pandemic has left millions and millions of individuals and families of all shapes and sizes wondering what will come next. Jobs have been lost. Family finances are in disarray. Fears of illness overwhelm at times. People are trying to figure out how to survive in circumstances they never expected.

We have each other and we can do this.

Like two Montana kids trying to figure out how to live in Chicago, we are a world of people trying to learn how to live in a whole new set of social rules and circumstances.

It is a good thing we have each other.

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!

The deer in my yard


I sent my family a picture taken of our back yard yesterday, challenging them to count the number of deer in our yard. It was a bit of a family joke. You can see for yourself. I count 9 deer and 2 Deere. Our father, among other ventures of his life, was a John Deere dealer for 25 years. Our shop had franchises for agricultural, industrial and lawn equipment. The franchise and the shop were sold nearly 40 years ago, so backhoes were a bit smaller in those days, but the equipment parked in my back yard was a fun reminder of our family business. For those of you who think I can’t count, the middle machine is a Komatsu, not a Deere.

The equipment in my yard is there for moving underground utilities in preparation for a road widening project that will be undertaken this summer. By my count about 400 new houses have been built farther up the road since we bought our house. That translates to probably 1500 more cars going by each day. The project not only will widen the road, but also flatten out a few curves. It should result in fewer cars sliding off the road into our back yard in years to come. Right now we’re hoping no one slides off of the road. Those machines are pretty heavy and won’t yield much if hit by a car.

Of course, my yard doesn’t look like that this morning. Among the notices in my inbox is a message stating “Pennington County offices will be closed today due to continued snow, snow packed and icy roads, and low visibility outside of Rapid City. . . . No travel advisory remains in effect for Pennington County outside of Rapid City as snow continues to fall and high winds are causing drifting in some areas.”

It looks like we’ve got somewhere between 6 and 8 inches of the white stuff. Part of my social distancing practice this morning will be an hour or so with the snow blower. The snow won’t linger. It may stay cold through tomorrow, but by Saturday temperatures will near 50 degrees and the forecast calls for temperatures in the 60’s by the first part of next week. I can remember several years when we’ve had spring blizzards for Palm Sunday and Holy Week, so I think our weather is what you might call normal. However, we are starting to get a bit tired of the snow which i typical for spring in South Dakota.

The impact of the blizzard will be minimal since there are so many people who are staying at home anyway. I’ll probably clear the snow from the neighbor’s driveway, but their car hasn’t been out of the drive all week and I don’t expect that they have anywhere to go today. Most businesses and government offices are down to essential employees only. At the church the newsletter is printed and we are mailing a few more copies than usual this month because people can’t get to church to pick up a copy. Distribution may be delayed for a day if we are late getting to the office, but the electronic version is already out and a slight delay in the newsletter won’t create a panic. Most of the rest of our work, finishing bulletins and worship orders for Holy Week, can be done from home as easily as from the office.

Were it a normal year, whatever that means, this morning would end up being a blizzard day for the public schools. This much snow takes a lot of time to clear from parking lots and sidewalks. But with schools closed to slow the spread of the pandemic, the kids can probably sleep in this morning anyway, though we used to really pop out of bed when it was snowing when I was a kid. Thinking back, however, I can’t ever remember our school taking a snow day. When the snow was really heavy, the buses didn’t run, but there were a lot of kids and most of the teachers who lived within walking distance of the school and we usually kept on going despite the snow and cold weather.

That last paragraph is probably one of those grandpa stories that it is just as well not to tell to my grandkids. Sometimes they will talk about the old days, which means the days when their parents were children. I can occasionally entertain them with a story of my childhood, but they mostly think of those stories about a time so long ago that it doesn’t have much impact on today.

I don’t know if my tendency to get right out and clear the snow in the morning comes from the days when I had to deliver 150 newspapers before school started, but somewhere along the line I learned to enjoy the morning. I may be a bit draggy in the evening, but in the morning I’m ready to go.

When things slow down, I probably spend a bit more time remembering and reminiscing about the old days. When I was a young adult and did some truck driving for my father’s business I had a ring of six keys that would start every machine that John Deere made. When we went out to pick up a machine to haul it in for repairs, we didn’t worry about whether or not the key had been removed. One of those backhoes would make short work of the snow in my driveway, but I’d really get in trouble if I “borrowed” it.

On the other hand, on Monday I was digging out a small tree so that it could be moved to another place in our yard and escape being destroyed by the utilities project and the construction crew gave me a hand with their machine. In about 1 minute they accomplished what would have taken me half a day. I was grateful for their help. They didn’t have to do it, but they were generous folk.

As we weather the storms of this life it is good to remember that we are all in this together and we need one another to get the job done.

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!

No April Fools this year

My father loved April Fool’s Day. The last spring of his life, when he was quite ill from cancer, he managed to glue down the end of the toilet paper roll and erupt in laughter when my mother batted at it trying to find a way to get a bit of tissue. Later that day he suddenly sat up in his bed and stared at the wall across the room. When my mother asked what was the matter he sat there without moving, just staring, for another 30 seconds or so, then said “April Fools!” and laid back down.

We grew up with cardboard in our pancakes, food coloring in our milk, and hundreds of other pranks that were all a part of our father’s sense of humor and sense of fun.

It is going to take a lot of creativity to come up with a good April Fool’s joke this year. I think we are just too early in the pandemic to be in the mood for that kind of levity. The projections of the numbers of deaths from the disease are staggering and sobering. The fear that is circulating in our community is, at times, overwhelming. Our contact with other people has been reduced to the bare minimum.

There are a lot of theories and stories about the origins of April Fool’s Day. It seems to be an ancient tradition, common throughout Europe, but there are not very many references to it in historic writing. There are some references to April Fool’s dating back to the 1500’s, but Shakespeare made no mention of the day. In France it is called Poisson d’Avril or April Fish, which seems to be a bit of a joke in and of itself. One theory notes that in 1564 France reformed its calendar, moving the start of the year from the end of March to January 1. Like many other changes, there were those who refused to observe the new calendar and stuck with their notion that the year began in the spring, not in the middle of winter. Those traditionalists became the victims of pranks by others who embraced the change. One of the pranks was to surreptitiously stick a paper fish on the back of the victim. Thus the name Poisson d’Avril.

Most ancient cultures had some kind of spring celebration. The return of warmer weather in the northern hemisphere comes around the first of April and springtime renewal festivals are common across the globe. The Jewish celebration of Passover is a spring event that may have its roots in even more ancient spring festivals. Spring is a good time to celebrate the bounty of the earth, the goodness of life and the possibilities of new birth. The Christian celebration of Easter comes in direct relationship to the Passover celebration. Jesus’ last supper occurs in the context of the celebration of the Passover according to the biblical narrative.

In medieval times Festus Fatuorum, the Feast of Fools, evolved out of Saturnalia celebrations. Celebrants elected a Lord of Misrule who parodied church rituals. The parodies often were quite irreverent and church officials condemned the practice. The tradition persisted, however, and evolved into what is now recognized as Holy Humor Sunday. Holy Humor takes place on the Second Sunday of Easter, one week after Easter Sunday. Traditions vary from simply telling jokes to playing pranks on ministers or priests. Some ministers encourage the practice while others find it antithetical to the serious business of the church. Some people claim that Easter itself is the world’s most spectacular practical joke. Death itself is defeated. Laughter emerges from tears. Things aren’t the way they seem to be.

Despite the grimness of the circumstances of this particular year, I do feel that we are in need of some good humor to lift our spirits. I just don’t have quite the right practical joke. I’m weary of anything over the Internet. There are too many serious threats and too much false information on the Internet already. And we don’t have many opportunities for in-person jokes because we are reducing our contact with other people so severely. What little interaction we do have takes place from a distance. I’m pretty sure that there are no opportunities to slap a paper fish on someone’s back without committing a grave social error. The only place I encounter more than one or two people is the grocery store and today isn’t a grocery shopping day. Besides the folk in the grocery store are in no mood for practical jokes. The other customers prefer to pretend they are the only people in the store, ignoring and refusing to look at other customers. The mood isn’t very joyous, even then they have toilet paper in stock.

Just a year ago, several news agencies ran stories on April Fools jokes, but this year they are running stories on why the world is in no mood for jokes this year.

Back in 1973 Johnny Carson cracked a joke on his television show about a toilet paper shortage. It created a measurable boost in the sales of the product. People didn’t want to fall victim to a shortage, so they stocked up. That joke just wouldn’t go over these days.

Maybe the best television April Fool’s joke was the 1957 BBC TV show “Panorama,” which ran a segment about the Swiss spaghetti harvest enjoying a bumper year thanks to mild weather and the elimination of the spaghetti weevil.

So I don’t think I’m going to go in for much of an April Fool’s Day gag this year. I’ll have to save that activity for another year when we are in a better mood in the springtime.

Having grown up with and lived all of my life with left-handed people including my mother, my sister and my son, I know that things don’t always look the same to people who view things from a different perspective. What might b a joke for me might be an offense for another. That’s why I always make sure to have both right handed and left handed toilet paper available in our house. I guess I’ll go sort the rolls to make sure we’re ready for the time when we can once again host guests.

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!