February 2020

Science and Religion

We had a presentation about the International Space Station after worship yesterday at our church. One of the people who has been participating in our congregation is a NASA ambassador, who is part of a corps of people who have studied at NASA and are deployed out across the country to spread the story of that agency. Earlier in the week, I mentioned the presentation to a colleague who is a minister in another denomination. He seemed surprised that we would have such a presentation in our church. To him it seemed to be far removed from religion and he saw the topic as somehow irreligious. That may be how he views it, but the presentation garnered plenty of interest in our congregation. The room was filled with people, including first time visitors to our congregation, who were interested and engaged in the presentation.

For whatever reasons, there are people in the Christian Church that don’t seem to know the long and historical relationship between science and religion. In their part of our tradition they have either forgotten or misremembered interrelationship between theology and religion. The classic scientists of previous generations believed that understanding the natural world was the best way to understand the Creator. Galileo said, “I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.” Darwin came from a religious background and believed that God is the ultimate lawgiver. He was aware of the implications of his theories for religious faith, even though he did try to avoid religious controversy.

All human beings are endowed with a curiosity to understand. We look at the night sky and wonder what is up there. We gaze out into the universe and wonder what our place is in it. We ask the big questions of who we are and from where we have come. We have a hunger for knowledge and understanding that is as basic and as real as our hunger for food.

The false dichotomy of science and religion comes in part from a kind of fear of change. Some people are challenged by new ideas and resist new understandings. We cling to old ideas for a sense of security and are challenged by new ideas.

From my point of view, the result of thinking of science and religion as being oppositional is a diminished view of the nature of God. There are thinkers who want to define God and assign God qualities that put God in a particular place. God, however, is far bigger and far more than our capacity to imagine. When we become attached to a particular notion about God, we limit our capacity to be in relationship with God because we want to see only a bit of the reality. If we truly believe that God is in all things, then there is nothing that does not reveal the nature of God. Study the rocks and minerals of the planet, and you will discover mysteries that point to God. Look out into the universe with the most powerful telescopes and you will encounter the presence of God. Build a giant neutrino detector and search for the secrets of the universe and you are seeking God.

After yesterday’s presentation our presenter sat down at the large piano in our sanctuary and played Rachmaninoff’s arrangement of Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Fight of the Bumblebee” at a blistering pace. His talent and musicality overwhelmed us. Naturally we began to speculate on the relationship between the fine arts and science. It certainly is the case that many who are skilled in mathematics and science also have considerable musical talent. It seems to me that these relationships are not random. There is a rhythm and tonality to the universe that inspires a musical response. Perhaps is would even be fair to say that one of the ways to learn more about God is to look at the intersections of art and science.

One of the things that our presenter has done is to combine slide shows of his scientific interests with original musical compositions. You can view and listen to them on his YouTube channel. Some of the videos have been recorded in the sanctuary of our church, making yet another connection between science, art and religion.

When we seek to control or limit the definition and role of God, God continues to surprise us. One of the elements of modern scientific theory is that scientists are continually asking questions while being open to having their notions disproved. They understand that learning occurs in part when things don’t go as expected. They subject their theories to all kinds of tests and are as delighted when things don’t turn out as they are when they do. They are willing to live with a degree of uncertainty.

I believe the same qualities are essential in a true theologian. If we seek to understand the true nature of God, rather than just project our own notions and ideas onto the universe, we will be surprised by God. God is not predictable and even though we are the inheritors of millennia of thinking about God, the ancient notions continue to evolve and understanding continues to expand. Uncertainty is part of human nature and whenever we are certain, we are certainly mistaken. Science that will be done 200 years from now will be much different from the way science is done today. The process of scientific exploration is constantly changing and evolving. Our understanding of the universe is always incomplete.

This is true of religion as well. Our understanding of God is always incomplete. We can learn a great deal from the ideas and concepts that have been handed down by history and tradition, but our theology is always faith seeking understanding. We know only in part, as is beautifully stated in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians.

So we will continue to celebrate science in our congregation and we will strive to understand more and more of the nature of this world. It is, after all, God’s creation and worth of our exploration.

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!

Honors orchestra

Back in the 1980’s, before i had met him, my friend Ron Apperson was the principal tubaist with the Hartford Symphony. That may not sound like much but at the time it was one of only four full-time jobs for tuba players in the United States. He won his position through a blind audition, in which he played for judges who could not see him and were evaluating only the sound of his playing. This all happened before I met him. When I met him he was, as is true of most tuba players, earning his living through other jobs and playing his tuba as an amateur. Very few musicians are able to support themselves with their music alone. Those who do supplement playing income with teaching and other jobs.

Symphonic music is an interesting phenomenon, because it is based on community. No individual can make the beautiful music of a symphony alone. A traditional orchestra can have 100 or more players and they have to learn to play together. This process means hours and hours of rehearsal and close relationships grow out of the experience. Learning one’s part and playing one’s music accurately is only part of the process. Symphony musicians have to learn to listen to each other and watch the director for the clues to play together precisely. Ensemble music is an acquired art, born of lots and lots of practice.

Interestingly, most positions in symphony orchestras, however, are obtained through a competitive process. Auditions assume that there will be more people applying than there are positions. Somehow a decision has to be made about who gets into the symphony and who is left behind. This process of competitive music begins early in the career of the musician. They compete for positions in their orchestra or band as students. the most talented or most advanced students get to be “first chair” and lead the seconds of the ensemble. It is always a bit of a tension in student orchestras because taken and leadership are not the same thing and the person who earns the first chair position my be very gifted with their instrument, but less skilled at motivating, encouraging and leading others.

Last night we once again had the honor of being in the audience for the performance of the J. Laiten Weed Honors Orchestra. The orchestra is a chamber group of 22 high school musicians who are the top-scoring students in the auditions for the South Dakota All-State High-School Orchestra. That means that the student attends a school that is a member of the South Dakota High School Activities Association. Then the student submits audition recordings to a group of string teachers who score the auditions. The top scoring violins (12), violas (4), cellos (4) and basses (2) compose the orchestra. If a student is unable to participate, the alternate, who is the next-highest-scoring student takes that person’s place. A conductor is selected to be the clinician and conductor of the group. The group gathered for rehearsals on Thursday evening when further auditions determine ranking within the orchestra and who will be assigned solo parts. The students have had the music and have been rehearsing separately prior to the gathering. Then they spend Friday and Saturday in rehearsals and perform a concern on Saturday evening.

As you can imagine the concert is stunning. The students are talented and eager to learn. The clinician/conductor is a skilled teacher. The result is a wonderful musical event. As much as I enjoy the concert, I am interested in the process. I understand that there is a lot of heartbreak on the way to this performance. Along the way, talented students who love music are scored lower and do not make the orchestra. Whether a student is selected for the orchestra is greatly influenced by the quality of the string music program in their high school. Although auditions are open to students form all of the schools of the South Dakota High School Activities Association, those who earned a place in the orchestra this year represented only three high schools. Twenty of the twenty-two players represented only two high schools. High school orchestra programs in South Dakota are dominated by the two Rapid City High Schools. Those schools are set up with teachers who understand the audition process and with equipment to make audition recordings that meet the standards of the judges. Most of those students have access to private teachers. They have advantages that are simply not available to all students in the state.

Then there is the simple fact that the two high schools in Rapid City are intensely competitive. Their conductors often display competitive moves for public support and funding from the school district.

As a result of all of these factors the twenty-two students who arrive at the rehearsals are not immediately predisposed to form a community and work together. They have competed with others to gain their pace in the orchestra. They have been told and have believed that they are the best. They have gained their place by leaving others behind. Then, suddenly, they have two days to become an orchestra that can think and work and play together. Their individual sounds need to blend with others so that the ensemble sounds as one.

The All-State Orchestra, with hundreds of players is much more inclusive but playing in a large orchestra is very different from being a member of a chamber ensemble. In a chamber ensemble each part is critical. You can’t just imitate the sound of the person sitting next to you. Every player needs to observe dynamics, stay completely in rhythm, play notes accurately and listen to the other players.

Somehow each year the students pull it off. Last night’s concert was masterful and a wonderful experience. The students really performed at a professional level. They sounded as good as any orchestra anywhere. And as I listened and really enjoyed their music, I thought of those students who did not make the orchestra. I thought of their gifts and talents. And I hope that they find enough pleasure in their music to continue to play as amateurs. May their love for music flourish and grow despite losing a competition.

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!

Checking social media

My life is busy and I don’t have much time for social media. I know that media is a big influencer and that it is a mistake to ignore it completely, but it hasn’t been one of the priorities of my ministry. I’m not completely ignorant. I have a personal Facebook account and the church has Facebook and Twitter accounts. I post to the church accounts at least weekly. For a while I made up a calendar and made Facebook posts daily on the church account, but when I had to suspend the practice there was no response, so I came to the conclusion that there might be better ways to invest my time. I think that someone who is more media savvy might bring some good things from the church’s social media, but so far that person has not emerged.

I serve on the board of a small non-profit that is undergoing a change in staff and the person who has been handling the organization’s social media accounts is in the process of sharing all of the usernames and passwords with the group in preparation to concluding that work at the end of the month. I informed other board members that I wasn’t the right person to take over that responsibility. I just don’t have the passion and energy to spend the time looking at social media accounts.

As a part of the process, i have been trying to take a regular look at the Facebook app on my phone from time to time. I do it when I find myself waiting. Perhaps I arrive early for an appointment, or someone is delayed and I find myself with odd bits of time. For the most part, I prefer to use these moments for meditation and quiet contemplation, but lately, I’ve been trying to get myself to look at Facebook a little bit to familiarize myself what what is there.

I already know about fake friend requests. It seems that almost every week I get requests from people who are already my Facebook friends to be their friend. The request isn’t from my friend, but rather from someone who is pretending to be that person. I’m not sure why anyone would want to do that, but I’ve learned to ignore those requests. Compared to most users, I don’t have many Facebook friends, and I don’t accept friend requests from people I don’t know, so my task is easier.

The thing I’ve noticed about Facebook now that I’m looking at it a bit more often is that it seems to offer a lot of recipes. Maybe it is just that my friends think about food a lot. Most days there will be a dozen or more recipes in my feed, often multiple recipes posted by a single person. These aren’t the kind of tried and tested recipes that you would get from a church cookbook. Rather they are recipes that are posted by others, sometimes sales departments of foods and other ingredients. They are usually showy videos with perfect-looking ingredients and simple preparation. They never show piles of dirty dishes, spilled ingredients or other things that are a part of my routine cooking. The results always look stunning. On the other hand Facebook doesn’t provide a medium for tasting or smelling the food, so you have to go from the pictures.

Some of the recipes are for things that I don’t think I’ve ever eaten. I don’t think I know what Gravlax tastes like. It is very thinly sliced salmon cured in sugar and salt. I like salmon and I’ve had lox before, so I think I might like Gravlax. It certainly would require a very sharp knife, like the ones used to prepare sushi. Anyway, I didn’t save the recipe, so I might not remember it quite accurately. I doubt I will even remember the name a few weeks from now.

One of the things that amazes me are the many recipes for macaroni and cheese. I think I counted 8 different recipes for the food in one day. The thing that is amazing is that I didn’t know anyone needed a recipe for macaroni and cheese. Growing up I think that the basic way of preparing the dish was to cook the macaroni, removing it from the boiling water just a tad earlier so it is still firm. Then hunks of Velveeta cheese were cut and laid over the macaroni which was then put into a warm oven to melt the cheese. The final step was to stir the mixture and eat. Not being a big fan of Velveeta, I started using cheddar cheese, which is just a tad sticky when melted, so I’ve upgraded to making a simple cheese sauce of cheese with a tad of milk, but the basic configuration doesn’t involve measuring or any special ingredients. I generally use whatever cheese we have on hand and often mix different cheeses if we have small amounts.

And when the grandchildren are around, I’m likely to use boxed mac ’n’ cheese, with the yellow, semi-cheese like powder. A bit of milk and butter and the grandkids seem to be happy with the results. I’m not sure their mother is as keen on the dish as the kids, but I’ve been known to serve it for breakfast if that is what is requested.

Our treasured recipe file and the books on our shelf don’t have any recipes for macaroni and cheese to my knowledge, though there is probably a recipe for it in the Joy of Cooking. I just haven’t ever felt that I need a recipe for the dish.

If you ever need one, just check Facebook. There seem to be plenty of recipes there.

Dessert recipes seem to be very popular on Facebook, too. I don’t think it would be in my best health interests to follow up on many of them.

Maybe I should try taking up the many crafts posted on Facebook instead. There seem to be a number that involve epoxy and I know from experience using the stuff on my boats that I’m really good at making a mess out of that stuff.

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!

Mentoring young leaders

From time to time I have a conversation with a colleague who just needs to blow off a bit of steam. I can help by allowing them to diffuse a bit with me and sometimes redirect their emotions to a more productive expression. Not long ago the administrator of a small non-profit in our community expressed a long list of complaints to me. The complaints were familiar, because i’ve felt some of the same pressures. Non-profits are under a lot of pressure these days with decreasing revenues and support from government grants and changes in tax laws. This particular person has been working long days, had deferred days off and vacations, and was truly putting a great deal of effort into making things work. I could understand some of the emotions because I often respond to troubles by working harder and putting in more hours.

However, I tried to counsel this particular individual to take more responsibility for self care. I asked, “Who is making you work these long hours? Who told you you couldn’t have vacation?” I inquired about the board and who in the organization was providing support for the individual. I was trying to help the person assume some responsibility for the situation and see ways in which changes could be affected. I’m not sure I was successful. I think the person is so caught up in a particular style of leadership that it is hard to see a way out.

Professional burn out is a real phenomenon. I’ve witnessed it in a lot of my colleagues, both in the church and in other organizations. The call to service isn’t always accompanied by a living wage. It isn’t always accompanied by a supportive board of directors. It isn’t always accompanied with predictable days off and generous vacations.

I was contrasting this in my mind with a young person I know, someone about the same age as the non-profit administrator, who works for a for-profit company in our town. This particular individual was recovering from a major illness and told me about how the employer had really gone above and beyond expectations to provide support during the illness. This particular person also had a significant amount of vacation that had been saved up which aided in the need to be away from work to recover from the illness. I know such support does not exist for the non-profit administrator should the need arise.

This world isn’t always fair. Jesus said, “If anyone would follow after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” My career certainly has not involved that depth of sacrifice. I have worked for congregations who have supported me generously, provided a living for my family, given me vacations and days off, and treated me well. But there have been plenty of long days and plenty of lonely times when I have felt like I didn’t have the support I expected.

Being a professional involves developing patterns of self care. Pastors need to learn how to take time for prayer and study and devotion. We need to learn to work with others and enable others to become engaged in ministries. We need to have patience for the congregations we serve and be willing to understand the busy and complex lives of the people who are a part of the church. There are times when we have to put the needs of others ahead of our own.

The church has changed dramatically in the span of my career. When we began our ministry, there were a host of rural congregations who could afford to provide housing and a basic salary for a starting minister. They were places where we gained experience without all of the pressures of a larger congregation. In addition, many of my peers began their ministries as the second or third pastor in a multiple-pastor staff, with mentors and guides for the early days of their ministries. The high cost of health insurance combined with high debt of students after four years of undergraduate school and an additional three years of graduate education means that a lot of those congregations can no longer afford the price of those pastors. With fewer jobs and more competition, pastors find themselves struggling in more challenging positions with less support.


Despite knowing all of this, I admit that I often am a bit short of patience with the complaints of some of my younger colleagues. From the beginning of my ministry, I made a commitment to not complain about the congregations I serve. When I am with my colleagues, I report the best qualities of the congregation and tell stories of our successes. So I have become a bit short with the practice of some pastors of always complaining about their situations. Still, plenty of my colleagues seem to feel safe telling me about their troubles.

A new generation of leadership will lead in new ways. And I know that there are many in the younger generation of pastors who have deep commitment and care a great deal. This is also true of those who are serving in non-profits outside of the church. There is good leadership begin provided by millennials and those who are younger. But they won’t be doing things the way we did. The world has changed. Their education and training is different.

I feel honored to have moved into the role of a sometimes-trusted elder who can listen when the complaints crop up. I can help diffuse my colleagues and give them energy for what I hope will be a lifetime of service. In the meantime, I will occasionally be biting my tongue and holding back the most cynical of my comments. I try to avoid “you think you’ve got it rough!” and “You young people don’t know what we went through.” It is all part of the responsibility of being a mentor to younger leaders. And I can be impressed with their knowledge and skills and encourage them to express their best in their lives.

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!

2-20-2020

I’m not a math whiz. I am fairly competent in basic algebra and I can manage simple arithmetic in my head. I know how to do long division and I can usually tell if an answer is way off of what it should be. I have an appreciation for the beauty of mathematics as a language and a system of symbols, but I never was one to shine at mathematics. I suppose that part of the reality is that I grew up in the days of the space race when schools were making a very serious distinction between those who excelled in math and science and those headed for other vocations. I sort of stayed with the math and science bunch through elementary school. I was the son of pilots and I was fascinated by the astronauts. In high school, however, I started to drift toward the humanities. I was fascinated by religion and philosophy. By the time I got to college, I took only the basic required courses in math and science.

Still, I like numbers. I like the way they look. I like the way they sound. And I’ve been having fun with the year 2020. Today’s date struck me from the first of the year. If you say it out loud the long way, “O two, two O, two 0 two 0,” it has a kind of musical sound. We’re in for a bunch of them over the next couple of years. Take George Washington’s Birthday two years form now: “O two, two two, two 0 two two.” Say that one fast five or six times! I know it is just silliness, but it is fun to write and say numbers.

Checking out the calendar of holidays I’ve found some pretty interesting things being celebrated today.

Since 1985, February 20th has been observed as Clean Out Your Bookcase day, a time for avid readers and bibliophiles to focus on getting their bookcases clean and win order. It is a day to dust and wipe down bookcases and make sure all books are organized for them. It is also a day to donate books that are no longer needed or wanted. It may also be a day for building or buying new bookcases for some folks.

On February 20, 1912, a patent was granted to George A. Carney for a swinging arm type of adjustable, ratcheting handcuff. Of course before those lightweight handcuffs became standard, people used animal hides, vines and ropes to ie the hands of others. As early as 600 BCE the Greeks were using iron bindings to restrain prisoners. So National Handcuff Day was started in 2010. Guess where it started? At the home of the Peerless Handcuff Company.

If handcuffs and bookcase aren’t your thing, you might be glad to know that today is National Muffin Day. For what it is worth, I can find almost nothing about the day except that it has been observed since 2014. I guess you’re supposed to bake and eat muffins to celebrate the day.

Today is also The Great American Spit Out, a day to raise awareness about the dangers of smokeless tobacco. This holiday garners an entire week with Through With Chew Week, which is the third full week in February. I’ve never gotten into chew or snuff. Cancer of the mouth, esophagus or pancreas don’t seem like things I’d enjoy having.

I’m all in favor of National Cherry Pie Day, which is observed on February 20. Perhaps it is in anticipation of George Washington’s birthday. On the other hand he is famous about not lying about chopping down a cherry tree, which would have decreased the number of cherries for making pies.

Today is also Fat Thursday, the day that is 52 days before Easter. On the last Thursday before Ash Wednesday, there is a feast ay that is similar to, and a bit less important than, Fat Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday. In countries that observe Carnival, it is the beginning of six days of over-consumption, eating sweets and other foods that are avoided during Lent. Pastries and donuts are the food of the day. In some places people wear costumes and street celebrations and pubs open at 11:11 am. In Greece it is known as “Thursday of the Smoke of Grilled Meat,” a day to consume meat before the fasting of Lent. Special pastries and special sausages are pat of the observance in several different places around the globe. I’m pretty sure that a holiday dedicated to eating foods that aren’t good for you is my kind of holiday, but I’m really trying hard to make healthy choices, so my observance will be a bit dimmed this year.

There are a number of other holidays observed by some folks on February 20, 2020. It is Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day, which I don’t think is about the very geeky make students at South Dakota School of Mines and Technology trying to get dates, but rather about encouraging more women to go into engineering. It is also love your pet day, but I think that it is best to love your pet every day. At least that would be best for the pet, and I think for the owner, too. It is National Day of Solidarity with Muslim, Arab and South Asian Immigrants, also National Student Volunteer Day and World Day of Social History.

It is also Northern Hemisphere Hoodie Hoo Day. Hoodie Hoo Day is supposed to take place a month before the official start of spring, so it falls in August in the Southern Hemisphere. The day is celebrated by going outside at noon and yelling “hoodie-hoo.” This is done to chase away winter and make way for spring. I’m wondering about it, however. If you were able to speed up the arrival of spring up north, wouldn’t you be speeding up the arrival of cold weather for those who live in the Southern Hemisphere? Maybe they need a day to yell whatever the opposite of “hoodie-hoo” is to counter the noise from up north.

Thinking of dates and other things yesterday it occurred to me that the 1999 car that I drive can now be fueled with ethanol. At 21 years of age it is legal in South Dakota for it to consume alcohol. I’m not saying that it didn’t engage in some under age alcohol consumption, but it was never caught and charged, so I’m sticking to my story.

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!

Supporting young people

Next Tuesday there is a vote in our community on a proposed school bond. Voters will either adopt or reject a bond for $189,553,000. If passed the funds will provide for three new elementary schools, a new middle school, Major renovations at several schools and an addition at one of the high schools. One high school, Rapid City High School, a school that serves student with special needs and challenges will be relocated, but the location and cost of that move has not yet been determined. The plan also calls for the closure of four neighborhood elementary schools.

It has been a long time since voters in the school district have approved a bond issue, so the list of needs is very long. The proposed plan is complex and there has been quite a bit of debate about various aspects of the plan. The vote, however, will not be nuanced. It will be a simple “yes” or “no.” The yard signs are equally simple.

It is, however, refreshing to hear our friends and neighbors talk about schools and children. We’ve lived in this community for 25 years. Our children both graduated from Rapid City area schools. We haven’t however, found this community to be exactly child friendly. There is a lot of lip service and no small amount of complaining about the lack of young people in our community. Our children, like the children of many of our friends and neighbors, have chosen to move to other states in pursuit of their lives and careers. A lot of South Dakota young people do just that. They pack up and move away.

Recently I read a letter written by a retired teacher that said, “If you see a person under the age of 50 you assume that the person is either in he Air Force and stationed at Ellsworth or has come home for the funeral of an aging relative.” It isn’t quite that bad. We have families in our church with young parents who have chosen to live and work in our city. We have a host of friends who are in their 20’s and 30’s. But the general climate of the community does tend to lean towards elders. Rapid City is, in many ways, a great place to retire. it has good medical services, convenient shopping, lots of entertainment options and a relatively low cost of living.

That low cost of living is due, in part, to low property taxes. In other words, we have been reluctant to pay for community services such as schools. It is a balancing act and Rapid City’s place in the balance is different than a lot of other communities.

Just last week the state legislature rejected a proposal to impose an extraction tax on limestone and bentonite to fund a new building at South Dakota School of Mines and Technology. Our neighbors in North Dakota, Montana, and Wyoming impose extraction taxes on oil and minerals mined and use the funds to support schools, infrastructure and other community needs. But South Dakota has chosen not to impose that tax. The Governor is opposed to all new taxes and has the support of plenty of voters. It is the way we are here.

Regardless of how the vote turns out next week, our children will continue to face an uncertain future. As a nation we have not made children to be our highest priority. According to a new report by the World Health Organization, the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) and the Lancet Commission concludes that no country offers a child both the chance of a healthy upbringing and an environment fit for their future. The report ranks countries for the overall health and wellbeing of children. The United States ranked 39th in a list of 180 countries.

The report, of course, is only one way of judging the prospects of children, but it is a bit of an eye-opener to see that a child’s opportunity to flourish is higher in 38 countries than it is in the United States. It says something about our priorities as a country.

I frequently find my self in conversations with people my age and older who bemoan the lack of young people’s participation in various organizations and activities. The complaints, however, don’t seem to translate into action to make their organizations and activities more appealing to young people. A number of years ago I decided to quit participation in a service club after years of meetings that were filled with complaints about young people not getting involved while the club did nothing to welcome young people. When a younger person tried to check out the club, they were told that they had to do things the way we’ve always done them. At the time I was one of the youngest members of the group and I became tired of the inflexibility of the others. The club has continued to shrink until it now has merged with another group because it lacked enough members to continue. That’s the thing about certain organizations - either you find ways to welcome younger members or one day you will all die and the organization will die with you.

I don’t know if a single vote on a single school bond will translate into a referendum on our community’s support of children and youth, but the conversations around the issue make it feel like it in some ways. Our state already is at the bottom when it comes to average teacher salaries. After years of being the lowest in the nation, we’ve improved our ranking to 49th. The ranking has 50 states plus the District of Columbia, so we’ve climbed up from 51st which was where we ranked during the years that our children were in school in South Dakota. Low pay doesn’t always translate into poor teachers. Our children encountered excellent teachers. There are other motivations for teachers than just salary. The Niche ranking of best places to teach in South Dakota examines other factors for teachers such as tenure, absenteeism, student-teacher ratio, administration, safety and resources. However, it doesn’t give Rapid City schools a very high ranking in our state.

In a week we’ll know the results of the election. No matter how it goes, we still have a lot of work ahead of us to make our community a place that truly honors and supports young people.

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!

Hard times for non-profits

This noon I have a meeting that at best will b uncomfortable. I serve on the board of a local nonprofit that has been wrestling with delinking revenues because of a wide variety of causes including decreasing governmental funding due to shifting priorities, decreases in local donations, partially due to chains in tax deductions, and other issues. The meeting is going to be uncomfortable because the organization can no longer afford its current staffing level. Loyal employees, who have sacrificed much to serve the organization will be without jobs. It isn’t the kind of decisions that any board likes to make. This particular organization is near and dear to my heart and I’ve invested a lot of dollars and a lot of time in trying to keep it going. Its essential mission will continue and the organization may be able to emerge from this crisis as a stronger, leaner and more focused institution - at least that is my hope as I approach this meeting.

We are not alone.

I’m a product of church camps. One camp in particular was my summer home for the first d25 years of my life. I was taken to that camp as an infant less than two months old when my mother served as camp nurse. We returned every year and I served as the manager of that camp for two years when I was a young adult. The experiences at that camp were very formative in my life. It is where I met my wife. It is where I experienced a sense of being called to the ministry. Now that camp is being sold by the church conference, which can no longer afford the continual cash subsidies that were required to keep it operating. There is a long backlog of deferred maintenance that they could not master. The decision to sell was painful and controversial. Now a group, mostly of former campers, is raising funds to purchase the camp and so that it can continue to operate. Their challenges include not only raising the funds to make the purchase, but also finding money for deferred maintenance and operational costs. It seems unlikely that the camp will be able to produce revenue enough to break even on its costs. I receive appeals from the committee, comprised mostly of my friends, who are working hard to hang onto the institution that has been so meaningful to so many.

I have corresponded with other friends across the nation who have reported the loss or sales of their church camps. The camp we participated in during our years in North Dakota has been sold. Another camp in Minnesota has been sold. These are properties that, once sold, can never be replaced by the church. Churches and conferences of churches are not able to raise funds to buy expensive recreational property and in many cases he camps have been subdivided and large tracts of land required for church camps are simply not offered for sale.

It is not just church camps.

the Boy Scouts of America has filed for bankruptcy. The group is struggling with declining membership. It also faces a number of lawsuits over claims of sexual abuse that allege the organization failed to prevent abuse. The group Abused in Scouting has identified over 2,000 individuals with complaints of abuse, including one in every state. Current liabilities of the organization are estimated to be in the $1 billion range. The Boy Scouts is one of the largest non-profit youth organizations in the country. Sexual abuse allegations have created financial problems for other organizations including the Catholic Church and USA Gymnastics.

Compared to the problems of those organizations, our little non-profit’s problems are tiny. We have to figure out how to express our thanks and appreciation to employees that we can no longer afford to retain. We have to come up with a plan to provide management and organization of our essential programs without the help of paid staff. We don’t have abuse claims. The finances of our little organization are pretty simple. But, like those other organizations we are bankrupt. Liabilities exceed assets. We will have to continue to raise funds to meet our obligations.

The current climate in our country is a real challenge for non-profits. We have survived for years on a shoestring, cobbling together grants from private and public sources, donations from local members and a small amount of income from direct services provided. We have believe passionately in our mission. Grant funding is always fickle. In the case of our organization, funds that had been available for suicide prevention were moved to opioid abuse prevention. It is an important cause, but not the business of our organization. Other organizations were more visible to some of our other funders. We will lose some donors because of their loyalty to the staff we have employed or their perception that the organization is not stable. That is the thing about living off of donations. Donors are under no obligation and there are plenty of other organizations appealing for funds.

All is not lost. We believe in what we are doing and we will find ways to continue our work even though we might lose our flashy web site and well-placed office. The future of the organization may be uncertain, but the need will not go away. Suicide is still a crisis in our community. It is the leading cause of death of teens in our state. We cannot stop our work even though we face financial and organizational challenges. We have to be honest about the mistakes we have made in the past, and realistic about the scale of our efforts going forward, but we will endure.

Sometimes difficult times become important steps in the history of an organization. Challenges help to focus priorities and refine practices. When you cannot afford waste, you get serious about eliminating it. Still, I approach today’s meeting with a certain dread. I am not looking forward to those uncomfortable moments. May I bring compassion and caring to the time that lies ahead and may I be open to God’s guidance as we seek a way forward.

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!

Sacred spaces

Saturday morning we went for a walk. We had a couple of errands to run, so we parked in the lot at the Post Office and mailed a package and then walked to the library to return a book. I know that the library has a drive-through book return. I know that you can renew books online, but we were done with that particular book and we needed a walk and the weather was nice. Since we had other things to do that day, we had started out fairly early. We reached the library at about 9:45 and it was obvious from half a block away that the library wasn’t open. We deduced, correctly, that the library doesn’t open until 10 am on Saturday. It was no problem for us. We deposited the book in a book deposit slot and continued our walk.

I mildly missed the fun of going into the library building, but it is an experience that is common for me and so I’ll go another time. I have been thinking about those people who were standing and sitting outside the entrance waiting for the library to open. They came early. I don’t know their stories, but I can imagine that there were all sorts of stories behind the people who were patiently waiting on a Saturday morning to get into the library.

There is something very special about a library. In some ways it is like a church - it is a sacred space hallowed by generations of use and activities. Libraries, like churches, are quiet places. They are places to think and contemplate and they encourage a slower pace.

Yesterday the children of our church were talking about rules and it was pretty much universally agreed that one of the rules of the church is “no running.” I think that rule applies to libraries, too. At least it wouldn’t occur to me to run inside of a library. I usually walk quietly and carefully in libraries.

When we lived in Chicago, I was always a bit troubled by all of the locks and doors. Our apartment was on the second floor of the building. We had a locked door to get into the building, another locked door to get into the stairwell and another locked door at the entrance to our apartment. The space was small and isolated. Windows faced only one direction. We were comfortable and safe in our apartment and our building wasn’t too noisy and we were fortunate to have an apartment on the back side of the building. The ones that faced the street were entertained by a regular procession of fire trucks and other emergency vehicles that used the street as a corridor to reach neighborhoods to the south of the University where fires and other emergency calls occurred frequently. But we could walk a block to the Seminary and soon be inside of the library. The seminary library was spread out over multiple stories with lots of staircases. There were study nooks for students connected by passageways. But the main reading room was two stories tall with high windows and light streaming in on massive oak tables. the space was always quiet and always had an air of being a part of something bigger than oneself. There were too many books for one person to read in a lifetime. There were mysteries that remained after years of study.

Just a few blocks away was Regenstein, the main library of the University of Chicago. It was a temple to books and reading. There were entire floors of collections. And with our seminary IDs we had full access to the entire library. We could even fill out the applications to view documents in the rare book rooms.

I imagine that some of the people who were waiting to get into the library on Saturday morning come from houses that are more chaotic and less spiritual than a library. If you come from a crowded house with multiple people in every room and maybe many people in the same bed, there isn’t really a quiet space in your home. If you’ve spent the night at the Rescue Mission or in one of the safe beds at the Care Campus, you might be longing for a little private space - a place where you can get away from other people. At the library, you can spread out. There is room. There are chairs by the windows where you can dream and be quiet and look out at the world going by. There are high ceilings and architecture designed to inspire. There is peace and quiet.

Like a church, a library is building designed to nurture your spirit. And if you don’t have a space of your own a library welcomes you into a space that you can call your own, if only for a little while.

After we moved from Chicago, I have always worked at a church. I have had ready access to sacred space whenever I want. I regularly take advantage of that space. I go into the sanctuary when there is no one else in the building. I use is as a place to pray and to think and to sort our my ideas. I’ve developed the habit of walking the building even when there are no others there. It started by a simple walk about to check all of the windows and doors to make sure the building was properly locked and all of the lights turned off. I still do that before leaving the building each day, but I also will get up from my work and take a couple of laps around the building to clear my head from time to time. I look into the rooms and remember the meetings and classes and activities that have taken place there. I think of the people who frequent the spaces. I read the names of the children from their artwork posted in the halls and think of the sounds of classrooms full of preschoolers that are there during the week.

I don’t know if librarians walk their buildings in a similar fashion, but I do know that they, like me, are among those privileged to work in sacred spaces. I hope they too find meaning in their spaces.

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!

Hope can be hard

Christianity grew out of Jewish roots. Jesus was a Jew, rinsed in the traditions and stories of a long line of religious people. In the earliest days of the Christian Church there was a very active debate about whether the new movement was to be just a group within the Jewish faith or an entirely new religion. The story is long and complex, and not really the focus of this journal entry, but it is important to note that Christianity introduced some major new theological concepts into Judaism.

Much of the theology of Christianity grew straight out of Judaism. Like our forebears, we are radically monotheistic. We believe in one God who is creator of all that is. We hold fast to the concept that God is actively involved in creation and participates in history for the sake of people. God intend freedom for human beings and has set before us the ways of life and death.

Jesus, however, taught about a new relationship to the law and the prophets. Resisting the legalism that was part of the thinking of some religious leaders of his day, Jesus introduced an element of conscience and active decision-making in place of blind obedience to legalisms. This was not an entirely new concept in Jewish thinking, but Jesus particular interpretation of the law was enough to garner the attention of the religious leaders of his day.

The most radical departure from traditional Jewish thinking, however, came with the death of Jesus. His resurrection was a new way of understanding life and death. Again, the concept wasn’t entirely new. There were Jewish thinkers, prior to Jesus, who entertained thoughts of resurrection as a way of understanding death. Jesus’ appearances to his disciples and the theology of resurrection that developed among his earliest followers eventually marked a distinction between mainstream Jewish thinking and the teachings of the new Christian church.

Like many of the central concepts of our faith, the idea of resurrection didn’t appear fully formed. Rather it took generations of thinkers to fully develop the concept of resurrection. When we talk about resurrection, we are not talking about life without death. We don’t conceive of humans who simply go on forever and for whom death is a kind of side show. Death is very real. Grief and loss are very real. There is pain in separation from those we love. Resurrection is not some kind of “get out of death free” card. Neither is is magic. There is no slight of hand, no switching of bodies, no illusion of death. Resurrection is, rather, an acknowledgment that what we are able to perceive from this life is not the entire story of our human existence. Death is not the end of faith, hope or love. Entire books have been written on the concept of resurrection and it isn’t possible to fully discuss the concept in the length of a journal entry, but it is fair to note that the concept is complex and challenging to understand.

This is not to say that there aren’t Christians who take a somewhat lighter or simpler view of life and death. I’ve attended enough funerals in my life to know that you can encounter Christian leaders who simply speak of death as a ticket into some kind of imagined heaven where every thing is perfect, but incredibly similar to the life we now know. They speak of people becoming angels and even of God “needing” more angels. They avoid speaking of the pain of loss and the power of grief and encourage others to embrace a simple, “Everything will be OK because she is with Jesus in heaven,” kind of thinking. Heaven in their descriptions is remarkably like this life, but without worry and pain and suffering, which is to say, not very much like this life at all.

We do our family of faith a disservice, however, when we try to make light of the pain of loss and separation. Jesus experienced that pain. It is evident in the story of the death of Lazarus when he wept at the grave. Jesus’ own death was incredibly painful and those of his disciples who watched were devastated by what happened. For the disciples death and pain and loss and grief were very real. There is a huge difference between saying that death and pain and loss are not the final words on the condition of the human spirit and saying that we don’t need to grieve or mourn.

A life well lived is certainly worth celebrating. On Friday we held the funeral for a 98-year-old woman who had lived a life of grace and dignity and accomplished a great deal. Tomorrow we will gather for the funeral of a man who was 89. Their lives demonstrated the triumph of the human spirit in many ways. Their accomplishments are worth recounting. Their stories are worth telling. But the occasion of their funerals is not just a celebration. The current trend in some Christian churches of removing the title of funeral and replacing it with a “celebration of life” tells only part of the story. While lives are certainly worth celebrating, the occasion of death includes grief and sorrow. Trying to pretend that death is not the reason for our gathering does no service to those who have come.

I’ve written many times about services I have attended that seem to fall short of their potential. I work very hard on crafting funeral services that minister to the needs of the grieving community and speak of hope. Real hope, the hope that suffering cannot turn back, is a difficult concept and not something to be taken lightly. It comes in the midst of struggle and pain. It often comes with a terrible cost. But it is what we need when we encounter life’s most perplexing challenges and losses.

No single worship service is adequate for the depth of the experiences of our people. A family’s grief does not end with a funeral service. But the experience of worship in a community holds the potential to ease the burden of grief and to remind those who are suffering that they are not alone in their pain.

As long as I am called to minister with families in grief, I will not avoid the pain and sorrow of loss. I will not stray away from words like “death” or “tragedy” or “grief.” I will walk alongside those who are grieving and remind them that they are not alone.

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!

Surviving the worst

There haven’t been many articles about the Australian bushfires in the international press during February. The reason is quite simple. The rains came to Australia. Despite long term forecasts that called fo an 80% chance of below-average rain, the early fall weather has brought lots and lots of rain. It was just what the firefighters needed in order to gain relief. The fires came way early to Australia, beginning in the dead of winter, in July and since then 5.4 million hectares of land have burned. 2,439 homes have been destroyed by over 11,000 bushfires. It was all part of an unprecedented drought which now, finally, has been broken by the rain. The nation’s largest city, Sydney, had been under water restrictions since early spring when its reservoirs fell below 45% capacity, is now reporting reservoirs at 80% and more. The recovery has been dramatic with over 30% gain in the last week.

It makes me wonder what Australia is like.

It is a very strange thing watching fires from a distance, which is the only safe way to observe them. Having grown up in and around Yellowstone National Park, it is very familiar to me. In 1988 and 1989 when huge fires consumed a lot of trees in the park, the only way I could observe what was going on was through the lenses of television cameras. We did have an airplane in those days and we did fly over the corner of the park, but the special air traffic restrictions for firefighting aircraft and the dense smoke prevented me from taking the kind of close look my curiosity desired. So we watched the news reports. And the thing of those reports was that they used very long lenses to get dramatic pictures without risking the safety of the camera operators. Long lenses collapse distances. So it looked like the flames were virtually licking at Old Faithful Lodge and it looked like there were no surviving trees at the West Entrance and it looked like the Lake was surrounded by burning trees. When we were finally able to drive through the park in 1990 I was struck by two things. The first is that the fires weren’t as extensive as I had imagined. The fires formed mosaics in the forest leaving a remarkable number of trees unburned. The second was how quickly life returned after the fires. Even in the West Thumb area, where fires burned so hot that the soil was said to be sterilized, there were green shoots showing through the ashes. Now, more than three decades later you can still see fire scar, but it is easier to understand how fire is a part of the natural ecology of the park. In some ways those fires helped to restore a balance that had been affected by over-aggressive firefighting tactics since the 1950’s. The new management plans, which allow for a limited amount of fire help to control fuels and prevent the kind of massive fires we witnessed in 88 and 89.

So I don’t know how it is in Australia. I only know what I see on the Internet. It has been pretty devastating.

It is fair, however, to say that I have mostly viewed Australia from a huge distance. It has been a country of my imagination and I have lifelong friends who live there, so I do pay attention. But I have only visited once and that was a whirlwind trip that allowed us to visit the cities of Melbourne and Sydney, fly to the heart of Australia, view Uluru, see Alice Springs, and take a quick tour of Tasmania from Hobart to Launceston. We saw a lot in a short amount of time, but it would not be fair to say we really got to know the country. But we did drive through gum forests in Victoria that have since burned. We did enjoy Sydney on crisp winter days when the air was perfectly clear and free of smoke. And we visited the desert when it was not at its hottest, still experiencing temperatures that neared 100 degrees F.

I’m going to venture a guess that despite all of the fires, despite the mudslides that have come from heavy rains falling on burned slopes, despite the record high tides and other major events, Australia is still the same country. The land has a resilience that is truly remarkable and this planet keeps finding ways to restore life and go on in the face of the effects of dramatic weather and the worst of human-caused problems. There is no doubt in my mind that I will visit again with great expectation should the opportunity arise.

It is often that way with what we humans call disaster. This planet with all of its life-giving resources is more able to regenerate than we sometimes imagine. Life will go on. From a theological standpoint, God continues to create in the present. Creation is not just an origin story of something that happened and is now over, but rather an ongoing process of active participation in the creation by the Creator.

The power of the land to recover is an important sign for me as I strive to be an effective minister in the midst of trying and difficult times for our people. This week, with the death of a child in our community it is especially important to be able to tell the stories of resurrection. It is critical to believe that despite the deep pain and grief that has overwhelmed our people, joy will return - the joy that no one can take from us. It is critical to know that hope survives. It is critical to know that love never dies. I keep repeating these truths from the stories of our people. Today may not be the day for unrestrained laughter, but that day will come. We will not get over the events of our lives, but we will get through them. We are survivors. God is still creating. New life emerges in the darkest of moments.

I give thanks for the rains in Australia, and I hope that those who live there will be able to see the rainbow. I’ll be looking for rainbows here as well.

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!

Valentine's Day 2020

There are parties in the preschool. Yesterday and today are set aside for Valentine’s Day parties for the three- and four-year-olds. It was fun to see the children with their Valentine’s boxes. I remember making Valentine’s boxes when we were kids. The trick was to find a good shoebox, and since I grew up in a family with lots of kids there were usually plenty of shoe boxes, but just like shoes, shoe boxes come in different sizes. The king and most sought-after, of course were the boxes in which our dad brought home his Red Wing boots. I got those boxes at least a couple of times during my elementary school career. Having a bigger box didn’t affect the amount of goodies you took home because in my school every kid prepared a Valentine for every other kid in his or her class and there were only a few who decorated their cards with candy hearts. The edible treats were usually distributed by parents who volunteered for the party. The big box simply gave you more real estate for decorations and when it comes to cutting hearts out of paper doilies, bigger is easier than smaller. Fold the paper in half and cut a single curve and “voila!” a heart. The fact that real human hearts are only vaguely shaped that way doesn’t matter.

I think that Valentine’s Day celebrations were reserved to the last half hour of a regular school day and although some of the kids might remember to wear red, there wasn’t much more to the celebration than a cupcake and a few minute to insert cards into the slots in the boxes. Some of my friends just got a stack of cards from the store, signed each one and randomly put them into the various boxes. My mother made us address each card to a specific individual, which meant that we had to match names with the boxes before inserting them. That took a bit longer.

The party at the preschool featured cookies, crackers, cheese and pepperoni and a few small candies.

As we visited with one of the preschoolers and her mother, she was quick to correct us when we referred to Valentine’s Day. Yesterday, she informed us, was Galentine’s Day, and today is Valentine’s Day. I’d never before heard of Galentine’s Day, but thought it sounded like a nice thing. We have friends who live on a ranch down on Lame Johnny Creek. I thought a holiday to honor Roberta and Evan sounded like a great idea. Maybe it might be a bit of an offset for the fact that their address is named after a highway robber who was lynched by a mob not far from their home. I was informed that Galentine’s Day is a real thing, a celebration of women by women, which shouldn’t have surprised me since I’m not a woman that I wouldn’t know bout the day. Actually, it turns out that I’m just slightly culturally deprived because I don’t watch television. The name Galentine’s Day is from an episode of the program Parks and Recreation.

A mede up holiday seems to fit in with our culture nicely. After all the “original” holiday, Valentine’s Day is pretty much a made up holiday as well. The original list of saints was a list of Roman martyrs called Chronography of 354. It was compiled under the patronage of a wealthy Roman Christian named Valentinus. It doesn’t list a Saint Valentine. However another list, compiled between 460 and 544 from various earlier sources does list Saint Valentine, a clergyman who ministered to persecuted Christians before Christianity became legal in Rome. His ministries included performing weddings between Christians, which were illegal at the time. He was executed by the authorities for his illegal acts. Like other saints, the day of his death is the day of recognizing him in the liturgy, so February 14 became Saint Valentine’s Day. Over the centuries it has become a celebration of love and courtship. I guess it just didn’t seem as much fun to make a holiday for celebrating epilepsy. Valentine is also the patron saint of epilepsy.

In our time, the day is rarely much of a religious event. It is, rather, a day when couples are supposed to recognize each other with gifts and cards and celebrate the power of romance.

The day fits into our family’s schedule. Since my wife’s birthday is a week before Valentine’s Day it serves as a reminder that there is another day to celebrate falling in love.

February is also the month set aside to educate people about heart health. February is American Heart Month. Since heart disease is the leading cause of death for men and women in the United States a month of education about heart health seems like a good idea. The month is so designated by the Federal Government in association with the National heart, Lung, and Blood Institute and the National Library of Medicine. There are events all around the nation to encourage healthy diet choices and exercise options. Having experienced cardiac arrest in our family in the past year, we’re pretty sensitive to the heart month resources in our community. We’ve been working on special heart month exercise goals and trying to do our part to help prevent heart disease. Since we are an empty nest couple, it is a bit romantic to go on daily walks and cook special meals for each other.

Heart health is a better tradition fo us than traditional ways of recognizing the holiday. There will be no boxes of chocolates since chocolate contains caffeine and caffeine can be a trigger for AFib. My wife is wearing a continuous heart monitor for the month, and we want a perfect reading for her cardiologist, so we’re staying away from any potential triggers.

We don’t have any information about Saint Valentine’s heart health. Presumably he died young, so probably escaped any symptoms of the disease. We don’t know much about his diet, but since he lived a long time before automobiles, he probably got in plenty of walking.

However you celebrate, have a happy and healthy Valentine’s Day. May you discover abundant love in your 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!

Survival mode

Sometimes, in this vocation, I have to go forward in survival mode. What I mean by that is that there are periods of time when only the essential tasks get done. We plan worship and get out the bulletins and notices and update the web site. We make sure the building is open and conduct the required meetings to keep the institution healthy, but there is little or no time for creative thinking, planning ahead or crafting vision. This is a survival mode week. We have two funerals in our church this week and a third that deeply affects our church. My time has been focused on caring for families in the midst of grief. Grief care is something that the church does very well and I’m pleased that the congregation understands the importance of this work.

Meanwhile there are things that get put on the back burner or delayed until after those essentials are addressed. And this week, the weather hasn’t exactly cooperated. It isn’t all that uncommon for us to cancel evening meetings in February. We are used to icy roads and slippery conditions. Yesterday’s blustery weather resulted in our cancelling things earlier in the day than usual. It didn’t help that some of our staff were feeling under the weather. Our bell choir director was home from work with a virus. I’ve been wrestling with a sinus infection. Some of our confirmation class members had been suffering from minor illnesses and injuries. When we assessed our situation, we decided that it was in everyone’s best interests to simply cancel Wednesday night programs, keep folks home and safe, get some rest and go at it again today. Add to all of that having one of our administrative colleagues traveling out of state this week, and we aren’t quite covering every detail of our routine work. It is a bit easier for me to accept those decisions now than it was earlier in my career. In general, I am still reluctant to cancel any church programs, but this week we’re in survival mode.

Today will be all about preparation. Then there will be a funeral on Friday, another on Saturday, regular worship on Sunday and a funeral on Monday. We’ve packed them even tighter in the past. We’ve done two funerals on the same day. The schedule is not impossible. It just doesn’t leave much time for other things.

Funerals for our congregation require a lot of work. We don’t just read services from the book. We craft individual services with a lot of personal information. We choose music that is right for the grieving family and community. We recruit ushers and plan lunches. There are plenty of phone calls to coordinate all of the work. There are meetings with grieving family members during which we both provide grief support and learn more about the kind of funeral that we want to craft. Most funerals require multiple meetings with family members. And when I’m working on more than one funeral at at time there is the process of keeping all of the stories straight. I use a complete manuscript for a funeral. It is a once in a lifetime occasion for the grieving family - far too important to risk a slip of memory or a mistake in what I say. The first draft of the manuscript for Friday is complete. I should have a draft of Monday’s service done sometime today after I have a second meeting with that family.

For some funerals we have some guidance from the person who has died. Some people leave behind written instructions, listing favorite scriptures, favorite music and other preferences for their service. While we try very carefully to take those instructions seriously, we do have to have some flexibility. I’ve read funeral instructions requesting that a minister who is no longer living officiate. The instructions were written years ago, perhaps around the time of the death of a spouse, and circumstances have since changed. We often read requests for music that we cannot find. People don’t always remember the names of hymns and simply put a line from a hymn in their instructions. Sometimes I can discern what they meant. Sometimes we have to just try to get as close as possible. I’ve even read instructions directing us to read a specific verse from the bible, that turns out not to be from the bible at all but from Shakespeare or another source. We can usually work the requested text into the service, but sometimes we can’t find the source at all.

Sometimes we are able to laugh over the instructions we receive. Sometimes we aren’t yet ready to laugh. Sometimes we aren’t quite sure. A request for “a rousing negro spiritual” is a challenge for a mostly white midwestern congregation. We have a few spirituals in the choir music library, but our style isn’t quite the same as that of an African-American congregation in the inner city. We have a real bias for live music and try to avoid using recordings as much as possible, but there are times when we turn to recorded music to meet the needs of the family.

All of this takes time for research, coordination and execution. We understand how important funeral services are for families and we never take that responsibility lightly, but we are only human and there re only 24 hours in each day.

We will survive this week. We will defer some usual tasks to the next week or even later dates. We will have a few details of our lives that are a bit less organized than usual. But our priorities are clear. Worship and caring for grieving families are more important than some of the other tasks that sometimes occupy our attention. Survival mode is appropriate for the grieving families as well. They aren’t expected to have energy for every little task or the focus to keep all of the details under control. Their job is to survive.

We are all survivors and survivors gain strength through endurance. Being in survival mode isn’t the worst that can happen. Sometimes it is even good for us. It helps us keep our priorities in order.

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!

Neighborhood dogs

A couple of months of disciplined walking, much of it in the neighborhood surrounding our church, has brought us into acquaintance with some of the neighborhood’s dogs. Many of the dogs that we meet are out for a stroll with their owners. Because the owners are concerned about teaching their dogs to behave, we try not to interfere. We never encourage the dogs to jump up and greet them only when the owners signal that they are comfortable with it. Still, it is fun to watch people with their dogs.

A young couple each walking a mid-sized sled dog, perhaps part Siberian husky. The dogs are wearing harnesses, but not the type used for pulling sleds. Each is connected to an individual person. I haven’t encountered this pair enough to determine whether or not the same person walks the same dog each day. I don’t know anything about the walkers. They might not be a couple at all, but rather two individuals who like the same type of dog. The dogs are young and eager and probably would like to stretch out and run a lot faster than the leashes allow.

I happen to know one of the two standard poodles often seen walking together. Manley belongs to a friend of mine and he was definitely her husband’s dog before her husband died. Me is a proud dog, confident of his place in the world and impeccably trained. He knows he’s well trained, too.

There are some dogs that we know just because we walk near their yards. They are fenced in, but the presence of pedestrians on the other side of the fence is an event worthy of a few barks and checking out what is going on. At one place there is an athletic little dog that can jump nearly a foot higher than the fence. We’ve never seen him jump over the fence and leave his yard, but he is capable of startling us when he appears above the fence. If you are walking along engrossed in conversation and all of a sudden see this dog leaping and barking, you’ll take a step back inspire of yourself.

I’m not particularly afraid of dogs. I grew up with pet dogs and delivered enough newspapers to learn fairly well how to judge whether or not a dog is really a threat. Just because a dog is running and barking doesn’t mean that you are about to be attacked. On a couple of occasions I’ve misread a dog. Once a dog snapped at me and caught me by surprise as I greeted him. It was an embarrassment to the owner, who apologized profusely. I was unhurt, just surprised and no harm was done. When I was a newspaper boy, I got bit by a neighborhood dog who was mostly chasing my bicycle. Our grandson similarly got bit by a dog who reacted to hm riding his bike through a campground. the dog, who was not properly leashed, ran, leaped and bit him on his side, toppling the bike and giving us all a big scare. A trip to the emergency room to have the wound cleaned and stitched resulted in the dog being quarantined by animal control people. Our grandson, gratefully, seems to have no lasting issues with the event. He is appropriately cautious around dogs, but not afraid of all dogs.

I’d like to know the story of the UPS driver who delivers to my sister’s place. My sister has an Australian shepherd who is a very friendly dog. He loves to chase trucks and she has worked with him to keep him from going out on the road. When the UPS truck comes down the drive, however, he is almost impossible to restrain. The former UPS driver was prepared for dogs and had dog treats in his truck. The dog loved that driver and was eager to see him. Then they got a new driver, who is very afraid of dogs. He won’t get out of his truck and will barely open the door. If you don’t run out to the truck, he will just shove the package out the door onto the ground and drive away. I keep wondering whether or not he hates his job, because his route is in rural Montana, where lots and lots of homes have multiple unrestrained dogs in the yard. He seems to lack any sense of which dogs are dangerous and which are not. Just because a dog is barking doesn’t mean she or he is about to attack. I would think that the driver’s fear of dogs might make his job miserable.

I’m guessing that that particular driver didn’t go home after work last night and watch the finals of the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. They’ve got some fancy, and very well behaved dogs in that operation. There re some whopping big trophies and rich rewards for owners. I think the best part of that show are the agility tests. The dogs seem to like walking on the teter totter boards and completing the course. Nothing that happens there, however, compares with the sheep dog competitions at the annual Black Hills Stock Show. Those dogs work actual sheep, responding to the whistles of their owners and really showing off their intelligence and athletic ability.

Yesterday afternoon I watched as a younger member of our congregation was exercising his small terrier in the back yard of the church. The dog was really enjoying being outside and running in the wide open space and the owner was very relaxed to have the dog in a place where there was no worry about cars and other dangers. They clearly have built a relationship that brings both of them a great deal of pleasure. The dog stayed close to the owner even though enjoying running in the wide open space and eagerly ran to the car and hopped right in when it was time to leave.

The bonds between animals and humans are fun to watch. For a person who doesn’t have any pets at present, I am well aware that my life is enhanced by those who do. My world is richer and more enjoyable because others care for their pets. And in our neighborhood, at least, you don’t have to be a dog owner to have plenty of dogs to enjoy.

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!

Security

I attended a small high school, with less than 200 students. Security consisted of a janitor who unlocked the doors in the morning and locked them when he went home for the night. If there were students and teachers in the building when he went home, we could get out of the building because the doors all had crash bars. If someone needed to get back in, they would have a friend stand by the door to open it from the inside. I’m not sure how evening activities, such as basketball games worked, but I suppose that the principal and perhaps the teachers as well had keys to the building. There was a rifle range in the basement of the gym and students were allowed to bring rifles to the range to sight in scopes and similar activities. Many students had rife racks in the back window of their pickups, which were rarely locked. It was a small town. A stolen item would be easily recognized and have to be returned.

Our children went to a much larger high school, one of the largest in our state at nearly 2,000 students. During the time our son was a student, the school instituted a policy of issuing id cards to students and requiring them to wear them, on school-issued lanyards, whenever they were in the building. This was before 9-11. One day I was asked if I would loan my hospital ID. I said, “No,” but then asked why. The answer was that the students had already tried swapping ids and school officials didn’t seem to notice. As long as a student had an id around their neck it didn’t seem to mater whose name or picture was on the id. Then some students were trying ids from other institutions. Their theory was that no one was looking at the ids at all. They may have been right. This was in a school that had had a hostage incident prior to our children being students there. I would go into the building for a conference or another activity and I always took care to follow the rules and check in at the office, but it was obvious that there were many parents who ignored those signs and just went about the building with whatever business they had to do.

The Columbine High School massacre in the spring of 1999 brought increased security to the high school. In the aftermath of that event, the school was evacuated several times following reports of threats received by school officials. By this point, our daughter was in the school and the fear of attacks was heightened by school precautions. I think at this point that high school id began to have meaning and that school officials began to pay attention to them.

Then the attacks on the World Trade Towers and Pentagon occurred on 9-11-2001 and lots of places became more security conscious. We had to go through metal detectors at more venues and we learned about security lines at airports and the presence of TSA.

I don’t go to the high schools as often as I once did. Although there re metal detectors in some schools, I don’t think that they have been needed in the Rapid City Area Schools to date. Probably the most important part of school security is for teachers to get to know their students and to pay attention to what is occurring in the hallways between classes. I’m well aware that we are continually piling more and more duties upon classroom teachers, but they are and have always been the core of the school operation. As schools become more complex, so does the job of teaching.

Churches haven’t escaped the push for increased security. Although mass shootings are extremely rare, a few high profile shootings have taken place in church buildings and we have had to respond by being aware of risks and learning to manage those risks in a reasonable manner. We have adopted the ALICE training program for church volunteers and have become more aware of risk management. Because it is the same training program used by the schools in our area it can be more efficiently coordinated with local law enforcement.

After a couple of incidents of petty theft and an inebriated person who wandered around our church building one day during the week, we installed security cameras and a system for talking to people at the door and buzzing them into the building when the door is locked. We use the system when one of our administrative assistants needs to be alone in the building. Our offices are at the back of the building and someone entering through the front doors has access to a lot of building before getting to the offices. I don’t think there is much risk and tend to unlock the building when I am there, but it does make some of our folks seem more secure.

I can remember the conversations in my home church over whether or not to install locks on the building at all. The church had always been unlocked. Then someone discovered that someone had slept in the building. It was likely a transient hitch hiking through town. I don’t think there was any damage, just enough of an incident that made some folks feel afraid. When we were students at Chicago Theological Seminary in the 1970’s, the Thorndyke-Hilton Chapel was open to the public 24 hours a day. The furniture was all secured to the floor and the candlesticks were bolted to the communion table, but there were hymnals and bibles in the pews that were not attached. Apparently the loss of books was small enough for the seminary to feel that it was worth it to keep the doors unlocked. We used the chapel for daily prayer and other more formal services and rarely found anyone who wasn’t associated with the seminary in the space.

Although I have ids and key cards for several places in our community and have door codes that grant access to some secure areas, I’m not a big fan of installing too many locks. While they can be a good deterrent to crime, there is no substitute for getting to know your neighborhood and its residents. I guess I’m just a small town kid at heart.

So if you find the doors to the church locked, it may be that I’m not in the building. You can ring the doorbell and someone will let you in. If, on the other hand, you find the doors unlocked, come in and wander around. I’m probably in there somewhere.

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!

Teaching theology

I hav always loved the process of teaching and learning. I enjoyed being a student and I have enjoyed my role as a teacher in the church. At one point in my life I considered pursuing an academic career, becoming a teacher of ministers, but the work of the parish remained too attractive to me and I continued in my role as pastor and teacher of a local congregation. Some of the lessons of theology are taught in fairly easy settings. Each week I am given the opportunity to expound on scripture to a congregation of willing participants. I tell stories, give illustrations and work through issues in interpretation, translation and context of scripture. I also get to teach formal classes from time to time. A few years ago I was regularly teaching in the lay minister programs of Yankton and Cotner Colleges and would drive long distances for intensive class sessions with students. I worked hard on my lectures and the exercises and assignments I gave to students. I’ve been told that my teaching was effective and meaningful for the students.

There are, however, opportunities to teach theology in the parish in settings that are much more challenging and, in my opinion, much more difficult than a classroom or a sanctuary. The business of theology is often learned in the gritty real world of life with all of its problems and challenges. Sometimes it isn’t pretty. Sometimes it is frightening. After all the Bible is filled with lessons about life and death and contains scenes of violence and horror.

Yesterday was a day for theology in the rough. And it was a day for people to ask theological questions, knowing that I don’t possess all of the answers. I exited the sanctuary in the middle of a service to check on a gentleman I’ve known for many years who had rushed into the church to get his wife. There, with others leading their parts of worship and the need for me to get back and deliver a sermon to a congregation he asked me how God could take a beautiful young girl from this life. “I’m 75 years old, he sobbed, why couldn’t He take me?” It was the wrong moment to launch into a lecture about the fact that God doesn’t take people from this life. It was the wrong time to speak of the nature of God and the role of God in life an death. It was time to simply give him a hug and make sure that others were providing care for him while I returned to the service. With or without me he was in the midst of learning a big lesson about God.

Later I sat with him, his wife and friends as they continued to sift and sort and try to make sense out of the overwhelming tragedy that had fallen on their family. There were questions about the nature of God. There were apologies to me for some of the thoughts and ideas that came to their minds. I tried, to the best of my ability, to assure them that the stories of our people are filled with people who rail against injustice and tragedy.

I didn’t expound on the chapters and chapters of biblical literature that are filled with the stories of the deaths of innocent infants and children, wailing mothers, and a cry that can be heard throughout the region. It was the wrong time to ponder with them the challenging question of why tragedy has befallen our people so many times. I did a lot more listening than talking. That is a skill that took years to develop. A good teacher knows that there is much to be taught by not talking.

I did remind them that God can take human anger. And that God weeps with those who mourn. And that God knows the terrible gut-wrenching feeling fo watching a son die. There re a lot of stories about anger and anguish. Psalm 137 cries out with such anger that it threatens infanticide against enemies. The Bible can be terribly violent if you take time to read the whole book. But all of those stories are stories for different days, different occasions, different circumstances.

A good teacher knows that there are a lot of lessons that are too big to be learned in a single exchange, too big to be learned in a single season. A lifetime can be all too short for some of the lessons of this life. This family will be struggling with their ideas about God for a long time and the tragedy they have experienced is not something that they will get over. It is the job of the church to stand with them as they get through it without expecting them to ever get over it.

And the days of a pastor are not as simple as having only one lesson to teach. There were other lessons and other theological discussions to be had as I consulted with a daughter planning her father’s funeral and trying to reconcile the present experience with the funeral of her mother, which her father had planned. I had to explain to musicians how we were changing our plans for yet another funeral because sometimes you simply have to be flexible and allow changes to occur, whether or not you like them. I had a meeting with a couple of dozen people who don’t necessarily think of themselves as church people and who are uncomfortable with overt theological language and yet who are struggling with the same issue of the nature of the world, the quest for vocation and the struggles for justice that mark the lives of those who are more overt in their language of faith.

Like teachers everywhere I came to the end of my day not knowing whether or not my lessons were heard or understood or taken to heart. It takes a long time, years and years, for the true lessons to come to fruition. On the edge of exhaustion is never the right place to evaluate. But as I drifted off to sleep, I thought about all of the other excellent teachers who were stepping up to the role, even though they might not think of themselves that way. Throughout my day, I never left anyone alone. There were always others there, sharing the moment, sharing their faith, providing the support required. The responsibility is not mine alone, but rather one that is shared with amazing people who give of themselves over and over again.

It is a good thing. Because some of the lessons are so hard it will take more than one lifetime for us 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!

Solar Orbiter

I have a pretty high quality camera and have invested a bit of money in lenses and other equipment to help me make photographs. It is a hobby that demands a certain investment of time and I don’t always give it the time that is needed, but one that I hope to pursue with more energy after I have completed this phase of my working life. Ever since I studied photography with Archie Lieberman in Chicago in the 1970’s, I have had an understanding and appreciation of the work of photographers. I pay attention to the cameras and gear used by others to get their images.

The images of the earth and moon that are no so famous, taken from Mercury, Gemini and Apollo capsules in the early phases of the US space program were all film images, taken with single lens reflex cameras. The film was later processed and prints were made. In those days we were all using film cameras. The digital revolution wasn’t immediately embraced by professional photographers. Early digital cameras lacked the detail and focus that could be achieved with film. However, those issues were soon resolved and we now have incredible quality in the digital images that we are able to make.

Today is launch day for some very sophisticated cameras aboard Solar Orbiter, a European Space Agency-led mission. The mission is expected to produce images of the son that have never before been seen, including images of both poles of the star. The craft will get the closest pictures ever of the sun.

It would be a mistake, however, to think of the mission solely in terms of the pictures that we hope to see. The craft has many sophisticated instruments designed to measure the behavior of the Sun. In addition to looking at the Sun, instruments will be measuring solar wind.

All previous solar missions have looked at the sun from a distance while the sun rotates beneath the craft. Solar orbiter will be able to stay over a particular point of the sun, rotating with it so that it can observe a specific area.

Because of the intense heat of the sun Solar Orbiter will actually not be as close to the surface of the sun as other spacecraft, previously launched. Instead, it will deploy an array of telescopes to provide images from a distance that allows the craft to continue to function and track the movement of the sun. Even at that distance the craft will need to have serious heat shields. It is expected to be exposed to temperatures in excess of 1,100 degrees Fahrenheit. The lenses of the instruments are surrounded by sophisticated heat shields to allow the equipment to continue to function in the intense heat.

Scientists hope to learn more about how events on the sun can affect technologies on earth such as satellites, global navigation systems, and the transmission of radio and television signals.

In a sense every photographer is about the business of capturing sunlight. Natural light photography is all about images created by light bouncing off of the objects we photograph. Even when we use strobes and other artificial lighting, we are using energy that has been captured from the Sun. Some of that energy has been stored in fossil fuels which are burned to generate electricity which charges the batteries we use for our devices. Even wind energy is the result of motions in our atmosphere that have their source in the events of the sun. Every photographer is a student of light and the source of our light is our nearest star, the sun.

I’ve put considerable energy into learning how to take pictures of sunrises and sunsets. My results, while often fairly beautiful images, fall far short of what my eye can perceive. The reality of the experience is always a bit more dramatic and powerful than what can be captured in a photograph. There are specific reasons why our eyes perceive different images from our photographs. I’ve learned a bit about using filters and sorting out the colors of light that reach the lens of the camera to enhance my images of sunrise and sunset. Still each photograph is just a reminder of the experience of watching the event.

There have been times when it has been best to just put down the camera and experience the world. Still the urge to capture the image and to have an image to study and increase understanding gets me to pick up the camera again and try again to capture a bit of the beauty that surrounds us every day in this world.

That urge to see more and learn more has led humans to invest incredible amounts of money in technology and instruments to capture even more images. I have no idea what it cost to develop the Solar Orbiter, but I am confident that the cost was incredibly high. And there is no guarantee that everything will work as planned. Space exploration is still a very risky business with errors and disasters that occur from time to time. So we will watch with baited breath as we await news and images from Solar Orbiter.

The benefits of such explorations will take time to become part of our everyday lives, but there will be benefits. There are a lot of common everyday items that we use that are the result of things learned by explorers who have crafted satellites and spacecraft and dared to explore the universe for the sake of exploration.

Solar Orbiter is going on a very long journey. The sun is nearly 92 million miles away. The orbiter is set to be launched this evening from Cape Canaveral in Florida. Space launches don’t get the same attention they did in the earliest days of space exploration, but I still am excited to think about the possibilities of what we will learn from Solar Orbiter. I am eager to see some of the images and learn what it has to teach us.

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!

Fascinated by cold places

Since I was a teenager I have been fascinated with arctic and antarctic exploration. I have read the stories of some of the greats: Amundsen, Franklin, Ross, Shackleton, Scott, Perry, and others. I know bits of trivia about polar expeditions. For example, Sir Edmund Hillary was not only the first person to summit Mount Everest. He also was the first person to summit Everest and reach both poles.

I however, have done my explorations not in person, but by reading books. I have never been beyond either the Arctic or Antarctic circles. I think that somewhere around -40 is the coldest temperature I have ever experienced. Tourist travel to cold places is possible. In Canada, Arctic Watch Wilderness Lodge hosts tourists for experiences in Canada’s Far North. The Inuvik - Tuktoyaktuk highway in the Northwest Territories gives all weather access to the Arctic Coast. Even driving the Dalton Highway to Inuvik is an arctic adventure. The stormy oceans make access to the antarctic a bit more challenging, but for the right fare, tourists can take expedition ships that navigate through ice-packed waters and even allow the possibility of landfall during summer months. Tourist passage through the Northwest Passage is also available for the right price. And we are talking about significant expense. Such travel costs a lot.

Driving north is something I’ve considered, but a trip takes significant planning. It is 2800 miles from Rapid City to Dawson Creek in the Yukon and from there another 450 miles to Inuvik and another 85 mils to Tuktoyaktuk. Fuel prices near $5 per gallon at some points along the way and food and accommodation prices are also fairly steep. It is an adventure I still might tackle one day, but as I get older, options such as flying part or all of the way become more likely.

I’m not sure where this fascination comes from in the first place. Many people are veery happy to travel in other directions and the traveling we have done has taught me that there are far more interesting destinations on this planet than there is time to visit. We’ve had the luxury of some pretty big trips and each one has brought us the joy of exploration and visiting new places and seeing different cultures.

Some of my friends ask me why I would like to go someplace where it is so cold. I sometimes tell them that extremes of temperature are uncomfortable when it is hot as well as when it is cold. You can add layers and dress more comfortably for cold weather, but your options are limited when it comes to hot weather. The Zulu language, from a fairly temperate part of the globe uses the same word for either temperature extreme. There are not separate words for hot and cold, just a single word for “the wrong temperature.”

These days, however, you don’t have to experience extreme temperatures for a visit to regions near the poles. This week the temperature on the Antarctic Peninsula, on the continent’s northwest tip reached 65 degrees (18.3C). It is the warmest temperature ever recorded on the continent. The high temperature is of concern to scientists who observe that temperatures there have been steadily rising for the past 50 years. Glaciers are retreating. There is so much melting at the South Pole that the glaciers are already contributing to sea rise worldwide. It is estimated that total sea rise could reach as much as ten feet over the next century or so.

Global warming is also affecting the Arctic. Last July, a base at the northern tip of Ellesmere Island in the Canadian Arctic recorded a temperature of nearly 70 degrees. Such temperatures are threatening the permafrost. Permafrost contains massive amounts of carbon. As the permafrost melts, the release of this methane will contribute to further global warming. Siberia, Canada, Greenland and Alaska are all experiencing warmer than normal temperatures, decreasing ice coverage and melting permafrost. Melting permafrost threatens infrastructure. Roads and pipelines set upon the permafrost lose their base as temperatures warm.

Explorers of polar regions are increasingly focused on the phenomenon of global warming as they explore remote locations in search of clues to the way our world works.

I recently read Michael Palin’s book, “Erebus,” the story of a British bomb vessel that became the flagship of James Clark Ross’ Antarctic expedition and was later lost in a failed attempt to make the Northwest Passage. After more than 150 years, the wreck was discovered in 2014. Palin tells the story not only of the ship, but of the men who sailed her to cold and very remote waters, dodging ice bergs and enduring extreme temperatures and fierce storms. It is just one more volume in the collection of stories I have read about polar exploration. Just surviving in the extreme cold is a challenge. Getting machines to function in those extremes is an added level of challenge. Combine that with the need to carry essential supplies such as food and any expedition is an enormous logistical challenge.

I won’t be adding to the body of literature about polar exploration. I won’t be heading to territory that people have not previously explored - at least not in person - only in my imagination. The distances are too great, the hardships too intense and my age a bit advanced for such expeditions. So I travel vicariously from the comfort of my home with a book in my hands as I imagine the hardships others faced.

It is about 22 decrees out right now. The forecast is for warm temperatures today. It could reach into the low 40’s. That’s pretty nice for a February day in South Dakota. But it is possible that it is colder than the temperature in some parts of Antarctica as they experience their summer down there. And when we have some cold and blustery days, which are sure yet to come this winter, I can bundle up and imagine that I am on an expedition to explore the cold parts of the 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!

Rare courage

Since Wednesday, I have heard a number of different pundits including some famous television show hots as well as some individuals I know and respect, refer to a line from Robert Bolt’s play, “A Man For All Seasons:”

“When a man takes an oath, Meg, he's holding his own self in his own hands. Like water (he cups his hands) and if he opens his fingers then, he needn't hope to find himself again. Some men aren't capable of this, but I'd be loathe to think your father one of them.”

The quote has been coming up in reference to the speech made on the floor of the U.S. Senate by Senator Mitt Romney as he explained his vote to convict President Trump of abuse of power. Romney, a devout Mormon said that his vote came down to the oath that he took. I suspect, frankly, that many of his colleagues weren’t listening when he spoke eloquently about the power to taking an oath before God, but his words and his passion were inspirational to me. I hope that they provided inspiration to others. I suspect that when all of this has blown over and our nation has taken time to evaluate what has happened, Romeny’s words will remain to inspire future generations of loyal American citizens. They should be preserved.

Romney has already experienced significant negative consequences of his decision. He has become the pariah of the right. He has been disinvited from the Conservative Political Action Committee’s gathering. His wife has been called a traitor by hecklers. He will certainly receive a great deal of personal attack from the President of the United States.

Still, it surprises me that there is so little courage among his colleagues. Those who have been behind the scenes at Republican gatherings report that there is a great deal of fear among Republicans of what would happen if they were to show any disloyalty to Mr. Trump. Virtually every former employee who has left the administration, and there have been a lot of them, has written a book about how dysfunctional the administration is and how difficult it is for the President’s inner circle to avoid the whimsey of his anger. He has made it clear, step out of line and you will be punished and subject to public ridicule.

Still, as one who remembers when the Republican Party was a party of values instead of the personality cult that it has now become, it seems incredible that there is no courage left among Romney’s peers.

Whether you take the position of Robert Bolt’s character in his play or you are persuaded by the religious convictions of Mitt Romney, it is clear that those who choose to simply follow the party line without straying will one day pay the price for the decisions they have made.

People who once had the courage to speak truth to lies - good people like Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski and even folks like Lamar Alexander and Ted Cruz - one had the courage to point out an obvious lie. That courage has faded, but the lies have not ceased. According to the Washington Post, the President has made 15,415 false or misleading statements since being elected. It isn’t hard to find reasons to correct his speech. But increasingly, people are simply afraid to do so.

I read the words of prominent thinkers from the first half of the 20th Century such as Viktor Frankl and Erich Fromm. They were struggling to make sense out of the choices that seemingly intelligent and educated Germans made to go along with the insanity of Nazism and the murderous ways of Adolph Hitler. They struggled to make sense of how people would willingly choose to abandon freedom for a dictator. I used to read those words with a certain kind of detachment because they were about other people in another place in another time. They ring with incredible power these days as I witness the conversation of the Republican Party to the Party of Trump and the personality cult that has grown up over the Reality TV President. Make no mistake about it. I do not think Donald Trump is Adolph Hitler. There are plenty of differences. What I do see, however, is how political rallies, fueled by emotion and lacking in any connection to rational argument inflame the passions of a lot of people. I hear a leader openly attacking science and education and banning the use of words that disagree with his point of view. I see people who abandon simple math and reason.

In the defense of the president, US senators talked about “disenfranchising 63 million people who voted for President Trump,” as if the 65 million who voted for his opponent in the last election don’t count. I heard people who I thought were conservative Republicans speak of conviction as if it would leave the party without a candidate for the 2020 election - as if they literally believed that the entire Party rested on the personality of one man.

My loyal Republican grandfather would be horrified. It certainly seems that we are witnessing the end of the party as we have known it. The conservation of Teddy Roosevelt, the humility of Abraham Lincoln, the wise judgment of Dwight Eisenhower - these seem to all have disappeared.

I usually avoid politics in my journal. There are plenty of other pundits with more insight than I and I have an obligation to serve people whose political views are very different from my own with love and compassion and care.

However, I feel compelled to express my gratitude for the speech given by Mitt Romney. His words, his faithfulness to his oath, his integrity and conviction will stand long after the dust has settled and the people have forgotten the arguments. the speech deserves to be preserved in the annals of our country. Its lessons should be taught to our grandchildren.

I know that his vote and his speech made no difference in what was a foregone conclusion. But I will not forget his courage. It is, after all, a very rare commodity in today’s world of politics.

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!

Apocalypse

One of the great teachers in my life is Andre Lacocque. He was my academic advisor throughout my graduate school career. He is now 94 years old and continues to write and teach. When I was a student, however, he was in his late forties and early fifties and deeply engaged in the second book he wrote about the Book of Daniel. He came to Chicago after earning a PhD in Jewish Literature and a ThD in Old Testament and teaching in Brussels. We invested half a year in the study of the beginning of the book of Genesis once. It amused me when his 2006 book about Genesis came out. It is called “The Trial of Innocence: Adam, Eve, and the Yahwist.” What amused me is that it focuses on the second creation story reported in Genesis, starting in Chapter two. When I took his course on the Book of Genesis back in the 1970’s, we didn’t get that far. As we worked our way through the first story, translating word for word from Hebrew, we moved slowly and went into each concept in depth, studying the historical context, reading associated texts, and examining each possible way a word could be translated. A half a year just didn’t give us time to get to the rest of the book.

That is the kind of scholar Andre is. He goes for depth. His books are masterpieces. His scholarship is precise and thorough.

Another semester I studied Jewish apocalyptic literature with him. We explored the dynamics of people under pressure, who believe that their way of life is under threat. When facing the loss of their culture, their language, their religion, their children and life itself, people tell different stories and perceive the world differently than those who are the oppressors. It was in this class that he opened up the word apocalypse for me.

I’m not a Greek scholar. I struggle to decode he letters of the language. I survived my seminary education in part by focusing on Hebrew. But Andre is fluent in so many languages. He is published in English, French and Flemish. He is an accomplished Hebrew scholar and is fluent in both ancient and modern Greek. In class he would dive into a translation problem and we never knew for sure which language he would be speaking when he emerged. One day in a small seminar with only four or five students we were working on understanding a concept and he started to diagram on the chalkboard. Soon he was writing in Flemish, a language that none of us students understood at all. We had to remind him that this was and American school and we didn’t speak European languages. He laughed and said to us (in English) that he’d try to stick closer to Latin in the future.

So our class was often filled with unpacking the meaning behind words. Much of what we receive is shaped by the language we speak and the culture in which we live. We don’t always see the world in the ways that others have seen it. We started by seeking to more fully understand the meaning of Apocalypse. We tend to think of apocalypse as a cataclysmic event. We talk of the four horsemen of the apocalypse and imagine the end of the world, the end of history as we know it. In Greek, however, the word has a different meaning. It isn’t about the end at all. The actual meaning is “an uncovering.”

Andre taught us that the work of the church, and of a pastor, is often apocalyptic. We uncover the stories that underlie our faith. We tell the ancient stories that have been hidden - covered by layers of language, of meaning, of interpretation. Our job is to uncover the truth that lies beneath. When you start to uncover the stories of our people, you discover that there is much that has been hidden.

It seems to me that we are living in apocalyptic times - not in the sense that the end is in sight or that we are living at the close of history, but rather in times when some things that have lain beneath the surface are being revealed. Some of what is being uncovered isn’t very pretty. From the very founding of our nation there has been intense racism. In the early days of our history this was expressed in the buying and selling of human beings. The practice of slavery was a brutal and cruel part of our story. The racism was also expressed in the mistreatment of indigenous people as European settlers spread across this continent. The way I learned about these things in school, however, was that they were our past - our history. The Civil War had ended slavery. The Emancipation Proclamation has changed our story. There had been injustices perpetrated against the tribes, but that was something that was in the past.

The 2016 election, however, unleashed a whole new round of public figures making racially charged statements. Racism that had been hidden by social constraints began to appear in public. The Unite the Right rally was a gathering of white supremacists and neo-Nazi participants who marched through the parks and streets of Charlottesville, Virginia in August of 2017, carrying Nazi flags and torches and displaying all kinds of symbols of anti-Muslim and antiseptic groups. As the son of a man who fought in World War II, I never thought I would see such a thing in my own time in my own country, but here it was. It was impossible to ignore. What was worse was that our President offered support to the marchers and appeared to condone their behavior. It was an apocalypse. An ugly part of the American story was uncovered and revealed.

What is uncovered, however, is not all ugly and dangerous. The apocalypse also holds the potential to uncover the incredible wisdom and insight of the founders of this nation. Their attempt to form “a more perfect union” brought out some of the best of human nature. People who were willing to put their “lives, fortunes and sacred honor” on the line for principles and ideas are also a part of our story.

Indeed we live in apocalyptic times. But this is not the end. Sometimes you have to get to the bottom of a story to find its true meaning. That can take time and patience. At 94, my teacher still has lessons for me 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!

Living with frustration

The small Congregational church in Reeder, North Dakota has now closed. Its end didn’t come because it ran out of money. It ran out of members. The congregation got smaller and smaller until there simply wasn’t critical mass for worship services. Towards the end, there were a few big funerals - the kind that fill up the sanctuary and overflow into the fellowship area. In a town with a shrinking population in a county with a shrinking population the story of the church came to its closing chapter just after the church celebrated its centennial. In fact the celebration of its 90th anniversary was larger and better attended than the centennial celebration.

We had the privilege of serving the congregation a quarter of a century earlier when it was a lively small church. The official membership was reported in the mid forties. Average worship attendance was nearly the same. The community was small enough that if someone was missing, there would be a quick check in to make sure that someone else knew what was going on. It might be a shopping trip to Bismarck, or a medical appointment in Rapid City, or a get away to Deadwood for a weekend. It might be a sick calf or a broken piece of equipment. Whatever the reason, someone else always seemed to know what was going on. Once, when no one knew, a phone call had to be made before we began worship, just to make sure everything was OK.

It was a great congregation for a new minister, fresh out of seminary. There are a lot of things about the live of a church that can’t be taught in the academic setting. A small congregation can be a great teacher. I remember the panic in the pit of my stomach when a controversy erupted in the congregation. I was worried about splitting the church. A sage elder in the congregation reassured me: “Nobody is going to quit. Everybody knows that we need all of our members.” The prediction was accurate. Nobody quit. The disagreement was resolved and life went on. Once, for an evening program we spread newsprint on the tables in the fellowship hall and had everyone draw a chart of family relationships. When we got done there were three family systems in the congregation. One was ours, which at the time was just the two of us. The other two were interrelated families that comprised the entire remainder of the congregation. The chart explained a lot about the church.

From that experience, I made a resolution early in my career that I would seek to never solve problems or challenges in the church by getting rid of people. As my career progressed, I encountered some really challenging personalities. There have been times when I had to stand up to bullies. There have been members of the congregations I served who sought to force my resignation. There have been times when I have felt that my life would be much simpler if a certain person would just quit the church. But I’ve tried to remember, “Nobody is going to quit. Everybody knows that we need all of our members.” I’ve tried to be faithful to that vision.

For the most part we have been successful. A couple of times when I felt I had to stand up to someone in the congregations I served, I managed to do so without completely alienating that person. People have left the congregations I have served, but not generally in fits of anger. There have been multiple controversies that have been resolved without losing members. On multiple occasions persons serving in prominent positions have had to step aside, but have remained active members of the congregation. We’ve moved employees from their positions without anger or rancor.

It hasn’t always worked. Once we set up an intervention for a church employee who was suffering from alcoholism. His drinking had resulted in multiple arrests for driving under the influence. It was interfering with his performance on the job and limiting his ability to work with children in the church. We informed him carefully that if he entered treatment he would have a job when he got out of treatment. If he did not enter treatment, he would not have a job. The result of the intervention was not pretty. He went into a rage, quit his job without notice, and threatened all kinds of reprisals. We stood fast. He continued on his path for several years before finally seeking treatment.

I’ve felt bad about that ever since and wondered what we might have done differently. The reality was, as is always the case, behind his addiction was pain that had not been addressed. I was unable to help with the pain. I was unable to be pastor to that particular person in the ways that he needed. The church is a human institution and imperfect in its expressions. We try, but there are times when we fail. Unlike some other institutions, however, we confess our failures each week. We apologize when it is needed. We practice humility where some people and institutions only practice pride and anger.

For the most part the practice of not solving problems by getting rid of people has served me well in my career. I can, however, name several occasions when we didn’t succeed in maintaining our relationships. I need to remember those times as I serve in various capacities in our community today. I serve on the board of a local nonprofit that is experiencing multiple crises. The board often does not have the information it needs to do its job. The employees are quick with excuses, but slow with change. There have been times when I’ve felt that the best thing to do would be to wipe the slate clean and start over with a new set of people. I know, however, that such is not the solution. Frustrating as it is, I continue to find ways to serve as an imperfect person in an imperfect institution.

Life continues to offer enough challenges to keep me from becoming bored. It also offers enough reminders so that i cannot forget that I have my own limitations as well. Beyond that it offers enough possibility that I do not lose hope and that may be the most important gift of all.

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!

Walking

I’ve been walking more over the last few months. As part of our commitment to caring for our health following my wife’s hospitalization, we started out with a goal of 30 minutes of brisk walking 5 days a week. With our busy schedules it became practical to change that goal to seven days a week, because we don’t always know when an interruption might occur. As I got into the program, I started looking for other opportunities to walk and now am averaging about 5 miles per day. It isn’t a lot, but it impresses some of my friends. And it makes m feel better. I’ve lost a little bit of weight and I’ve gained stamina. Susan doesn’t walk quite as much as I, but she, too has exceeded her exercise goals every week for a couple of months now.

Because I have a busy schedule, I try to squeeze my walking into activities that I am doing. I walk to and from meetings if they aren’t too far. If I have an early morning meeting, I get up a bit earlier to allow time for walking. I used to go home for lunch, but I can save quite a bit of time by packing my lunch and walking during the lunch hour.

Yesterday we had a bit of fresh snow, which is a challenge for walking outside. The snow had come after a fairly warm day, so there was a layer of ice underneath the snow in many places. In the morning we walked downtown, where we found that most businesses had been diligent in clearing their walks. In the afternoon, with more time for the walks to be cleared, I took another walk, mostly on park paths, but starting at a local grocery store. From the store, I walked along a busy street to get to the park entrance.

I’ve found that most people are very polite around walkers. They are good about stopping at cross walks and being aware of pedestrians. They should. The law gives pedestrians the right of way in many cases. However, I have learned that a smart pedestrian will remain aware of the cars, because not even car is driven by someone who is looking out for pedestrians. I’ve had to jump out of the way of a car making a right turn on red without looking at the crosswalk. I’ve seen others who speed through crosswalks when the flashing lights come on. Yesterday my complaint, briefly, was a driver who seemed to speed up and steer directly for a very large puddle right next to the sidewalk. I saw it coming and got about six feet away from the sidewalk before the splash came, but it was big enough to leave drops on my jacket and pants. And that water was cold.

As usual, I quickly came to the conclusion that that particular driver wasn’t worth giving any more power, so I revoked the power to ruin my day and shifted my mind to more pleasant thoughts. I haven’t totally forgotten the incident, however. After all, I’m writing about it this morning.

The rest of my walk was very pleasant, including some warm greetings from strangers who were also out walking on the pathways. Crossing the street to get back to where my car was parked, I noticed two very thoughtful drivers who stopped well short of the crosswalk and waved back at me when I waved to them. There are definitely more kind people and attentive drivers out there than those who are not careful around pedestrians.

For years I had a real geographical bias. It seemed to me that western people were just more friendly than those from other places. When we lived in Chicago, I used to say that I hoped that if my car were to break down on the highway the incident would occur west of the Missouri River, because I knew I would get help in that region of the country. I wasn’t so sure that would happen farther East. It seemed to me that people were much more kind, more likely to be friendly and wave once we were west of the River. However, we did have our car breakdown on the freeway coming into Chicago once and we found the kindness of strangers to assist us with that event. My bias continued. Having lived more than three decades on the west side of the river in both Dakotas, it still seems like the folks on this side of the river are a bit more friendly and helpful than those on the other side. My bias might also reflect a rural/urban bias. I’m not a huge fan of cities and always feel a bit more at home out in the country.

I almost always cut across the empty country of southeastern Montana when heading west rather than taking the Interstate through Wyoming. It feels safer and more at home to travel on two lane roads than the Interstate where the cars go by at 80 mph without much notice of what else is going on.

It occurs to me that I may have a bias for slow vs speed as well. I know that I have good friends and family members who responsibly drive at Interstate speeds and there are a lot of reasons why people need to save time by going quickly from place to place. Still, I think that as I grow older, I may become one of those “old man drivers” who is going at a slower pace than the rest of the world. I hope that I have the sense to do so without becoming an obstruction to traffic. but one of the things that walking continues to teach me is that you aren’t always less productive just because you take a bit longer to get from place to place. I find that I accomplish a lot of work by taking time to walk. I can consider problems and come up with creative solutions. I can think through presentations. I can be more efficient in meetings.

If you see me out walking, thanks for th offer of a ride. I hope you won’t be offended when I refuse. Sometimes I just like to take a bit longer to arrive at my destination. Life is, after all, a journey.

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!

Sources of hope

I finally got around to reading Gustav Niebuhr’s “Lincoln’s Bishop.” The book has been out for more than five years and it has been on my list of books to read for most of that time. I read several reviews when the book first came out and some of my friends have recommended that I read it. But there are a lot of books on my list.

The book examines the life and work of Episcopal Bishop Henry Benjamin Whipple of Minnesota. At the height of the Civil War, there was another war going on in Minnesota, where an uprising of Dakota against settlers turned into a bloody rampage with hundreds of victims, though the exact count is a bit uncertain. There were stories of the rape of women and the massacre of children. Among those to die were missionaries who were working among the Dakota. The resultant reaction from the settler community was for popular opinion to swing int favor of extermination or expulsion of all indigenous people from Minnesota. As the defeat of the Dakota warriors became clear, there were stories of those who had acted with mercy and others who had resisted the uprising altogether. The lives of settlers were saved by acts of mercy and kindness. Those stories, however were largely lost in the demand for vengeance. 303 Dakota men were arrested and tried in military tribunals. All were condemned to die for their participation in the uprising. Bishop Whipple, who had previously appealed to President Lincoln for reform of the Indian Agency system appealed to Lincoln for mercy for the condemned men. In the end 265 sentences were commuted. Lincoln did allow 38 to be hanged in the largest mass execution in the history of the US. Displacement followed for the Dakota people in Minnesota, many of whom were forcibly resettled to the Crow Creek area int he Dakota Territory.

Thus the story reported by Niebuhr is part of the story of South Dakota and our neighbors here.

Niebuhr has written a powerful book and recorded an important dynamic in the history of our nation. His telling the story of Bishop Whipple and how this man who had never met an Indian until his late 30’s became a champion for reform and justice at a time when there was little or no support for such among the people he served. The courage of the priest who stood up to his people while still loving and caring for them is a powerful model for all who would enter the ministry.

Reading the book, however, I was also reminded of the simple truth that ours isn’t the first generation to live in times that are dangerous and fraught.It sometimes seems to us that the time in which we live is fraught with division and anguish and that we are teetering on the destruction of the principles that form the framework of our lives. Sometimes our perception isn’t quite accurate. Sometimes things aren’t as bad as they seem. But even when they are and even when we face grave decisions, it can be deeply meaningful to remember that our country has faced hard times before. We have lived through deep division on other occasions.

There is a concept in the Lakota language which is hard to translate. Takini is the name of a school up on the bluffs above the Cheyenne River in the southwest corner of the Reservation. The name was the original Lakota name for the settlement now called Bridger where the survivors of the Wounded Knee Massacre spent the remainder of the winter after walking as far as they could north from the site of the tragedy. Takini is sometimes translated as “survivor.” Sometimes as “barely surviving.” A friend who is fluent in Lakoat once told me it simply means “we are still here.”

In spite of the worst that we can imagine, in spite of things that are beyond our capacity to imagine, there is a resilience to the human spirit that allows hope to appear in the most desperate of times. Remembering how people found the capacity to survive - to just keep going on - in the face of incredible sorrow and sadness can be an incredible source of strength for today. One of the important parts of reading history is to understand that we belong to a long line of people who have faced tragedy and injustice and yet survived.

As I read history, I worry a bit that our current educational system with its focus on STEM courses, is neglecting the teaching of history. The failure to teach and learn the stories of our people is a grave failure indeed. It is not a mistake that one of the unmistakable commands of Old Testament faith is the command to teach the stories of our people to our children in all generations. We teach our children the stories of our people so that they can remember that we were once enslaved and we were brought into the freedom we enjoy at a great cost and a great sacrifice.

The world may be intent on destroying our last grasp on hope, but we will survive and hope will not die. The circumstances of the present moment may not give us sufficient reminder that faith, hope and love remain. We need to know the stories of our people to understand that ours isn’t the first generation to face stark division and attacks on freedom and justice.

At the end of this month we will once again enter into the season of Lent. There will be, as there always is, a pressure to rush toward Easter. We are uncomfortable focusing our attention on death and grief and loss. But without facing the depth of grief, we might miss the power of hope. Without the reality of death the meaning of resurrection cannot emerge. The ancient stories of our people still have much to teach us about facing the realities of our present.

May we find the courage to remember faithfully the history of our people.

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!

Small and simple

Mostly or firewood project operates in the back yard of the church without much attention from others. We haul in logs from properties where the trees are being thinned. Occasionally a tree service will drop off a few logs from their activities. Sometimes private citizens, seeing our project, use our lot as a way to get rid of unwanted branches and logs. Our volunteers gather, bing careful not to work outside of normal waking hours so the noise of chainsaws and splitters doesn’t bother neighbors, and the trees get cut to firewood length and split. Then we load the wood into trailers and trucks and haul it to our partners, who distribute it to those who need it to heat their homes. The amount of wood on our lot varies, because sometimes we have a lot of help to haul wood and sometimes we don’t have much. Sometimes we have a lot of help to split and stack the wood. Sometimes there is less. Sometimes we have all of the wood we’ve split already delivered and sometimes we have some ready to go. The project grows and shrinks in response to the volunteers we have.

From time to time someone outside of the church will notice what we do. We even have gotten a bit of publicity from time to time. The publicity can help because those who have trees to donate might give us a call. On the other hand, we also get calls from people who have problems we cannot solve. We aren’t a tree service. We don’t have the resources to cut down trees, especially those that are in precarious places. We can’t think the trees from large tracts of land. We try to help our neighbors, but we aren’t set up to help clean up storm damage. We have no way to deal with a giant cottonwood tree that is larger around than the length of our chainsaws. If we can’t pick up a log, we have trouble dealing with it.

Each time we get a bit of publicity, we also get questions about what we do and why we do it the way that we do. Chief among the inquiries is a kind of criticism about paternalism in helping ministries. It is an interesting thought and conversation in general, but it doesn’t make a lot of sense in the context of our particular project. People suggest that delivering already cut and split firewood doesn’t invite participation by those who receive the wood. They become dependent on the hand out. Folks ask us, “Why don’t you set up the recipients to split their own wood?” “Why have your volunteers do work that might become jobs for others?” They are good questions, but the answer is simple. We don’t know how to run a jobs program. We don’t know how to train others to use and maintain splitters. We don’t have enough contacts to set up and manage distant distribution points. We are just a handful of volunteers who know how to cut, split and deliver firewood.

It is a principal I learned a long time ago when Millard Fuller visited Boise, Idaho, where we were currently living and trying to help start a Habitat for Humanity affiliate. He said to us, “Habitat does two things: It builds houses and it makes interest-free loans so those in need can buy those homes. Keep it simple. Build houses and make loans.” Just because we can’t solve all of the world’s problems doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t do what we are able. We just need to be realistic about what we can and cannot do.

Many years have gone by and Habitat for Humanity International has grown into a very large organization. Many local affiliates, like the one we started in Boise and ours here in Rapid City are now corporations with multiple millions of dollars in assets, staff who need fair compensation and benefits, and more. Our local affiliate runs a retail store that supports its projects. It is continually raising funds that go for things other than constructing homes. It has a large administrative office with a training room and computers and a host of other expensive items. And the director of the organization divides his time between administration, fund raising and influencing public policy. He is continually meeting with the mayor and other city officials. He keeps track of the bills before the state legislature. He rubs elbows with politicians at dinners and other events. He seeks major endorsements.

I have no skills at those kinds of tasks. I have no desire to acquire them. Any institution that is much larger than the congregation I serve is too complex for the way my mind works. I don’t want to have to juggle a thousand responsibilities. Sure, I do my share of behind-the-scenes fund raising. I know how to write appeals. I try to keep up on policy issues that affect churches. But I’m uncomfortable in the places where the politicians and policy makers gather. I’m a bit too quick to speak and a bit too slow to agree. I don’t like pretending that I fit in with a crowd. I much prefer working in the wood lot and sharing snacks and conversation with other workers when we take a break.

This week I’ll spend some of my volunteer time raising funds for another nonprofit in our town whose work is very important to me. I’m involved in the organization because I want to help others. I go to visit folks who have experienced sudden and traumatic losses and provide them support, resources and information. I attend a lot of funerals. But the organization, which started as a small, all-volunteer cluster of people now has an office and a staff and on-going expenses, so it needs its volunteers to help raise money to keep it going. I wish we could focus on just providing the services that we are able, but life isn’t that simple. Lately, I’ve been thinking of ways that we might downsize the organization so that it might have a sharper focus.

In the meantime, it feels good to have our firewood project. No meetings. No pressure. No budget. Just people doing what they can to help others.

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!

When fear takes over

Growing up in Montana, I developed biases. I suppose every region has its ethnic or cultural jokes that display untrue perceptions of other people. In Montana, we told North Dakota jokes that portrayed the people of North Dakota as being uneducated and not very smart. The jokes weren’t true. North Dakota has a heritage of excellent schools and does a better job of funding public education than many other states. It is a place of significant wealth built up from generations of hard work. Still, when we learned that we would be moving to North Dakota to accept our first call as ministers, I had some reservations. I was from Montana, the land of mountains and alpine environments. North Dakota isn’t exactly known for downhill skiing. There is a distinct paucity of trees. There aren’t many places on the prairie where you could live in a forest. My preconceived notions, however, were wrong. We moved to the southwestern corner of the state where everything is not flat. There are hills and breaks and wide open spaces where you can see for miles. Living on a huge flyway is a great place to observe the glories of nature. Without a doubt, my fondest memory of seven years living in North Dakota is of the people. They were gracious and kind and warm and supportive of inexperienced ministers. They were faithful and neighborly.

When I lived in North Dakota I became a volunteer in our community ambulance squad. Weeks of training stretched out into months as I acquired the skills and knowledge of basic life support. I obtained a commercial driver’s license and then took a and EVOC course to properly drive the ambulance. I carried a pager in the days before cell phones and learned to make a quick response when there was someone in need of help. It was a time of neighbors helping neighbors. There were nights when we made some long drives to get someone to an advanced health care facility. There were times when we just sat and listened to a person in crisis. I was with people helping others simply because we believe that offering help was the right thing to do.

In our small town in an isolated location we opened our community to the resettlement of refugees that were part of the aftermath of the wars in Vietnam and Cambodia. We opened our community to people who were fleeing impossible circumstances in the land of their birth and seeking a better way of life. I served on the state Governor’s Task Force on Refugee Resettlement and learned of the ways in which small towns all across the state were helping people who needed to start over one individual and one family at a time. Good people remembered and told the stories of their family members who left Norway and Germany and other countries to make a new life in North Dakota. Then they opened their hearts and homes to welcome strangers.

The years passed. Times changed. We moved west to the Mountains of Idaho and then, after a decade, came back to the western Dakotas. Now I look back and realize that I’ve lived in this part of the country for most of my life. I’ve never really thought of myself as one who is tied to the land, but to the extent that I am, I guess my place is the western Dakotas.

But there are days when living in this place can be frustrating.

I heard a story that is all too common again this week. It isn’t my story to tell, so I can’t give details, but the broad outline is so common in our town that it could be any one of hundreds of families. A single mother with two grown children and another just entering teenage years has worked hard to be responsible and provide a good home for all of her children. She works full time at a job and then works full time at being a good mother. Healthy meals are on the table, he home is well kept, the children have the basics of love and clothing and education. One child, however, suffers from a persistent mental illness. Counselors have been consulted. Doctors have made their examinations. Treatment has been sought at personal expense and the investment of a lot of time. Still the illness persists. And there are days when it becomes acute. On several occasions the child has posed a clear danger to herself. Sometimes she can become dangerous to others. When that happens, the emergency room at the hospital isn’t set up to handle mental illness. It can take days and even weeks to get a psychiatrist’s visit. There have been stays in the behavioral health unit, but they are short term and the problems are never fully addressed. There might be help in another facility at the other end of the state, but there is a waiting line for treatment.

If you follow the State Legislature, which is currently in session, you don’t see lawmakers struggling to provide additional services to those who suffer from mental illness. They don’t even seem to be aware of the crisis in our communities. People try to ignore mental illness and pretend it doesn’t exist.

With only 3 percent of our total population born in other countries, South Dakota isn’t overrun by immigrants, but that doesn’t stop a general fear of immigration in our state. I’ve listened to some pretty harsh words and conversations from neighbors about their feelings on immigrants. Yesterday the President added six countries to the existing travel ban, including Myanmar, where the Muslim minority is fleeing genocide.

I wonder what happened to the spirit of welcome that seemed to be ingrained in the people of the Dakotas? Has it turned to fear? There is, after all, a lot of fear going around these days. Courage doesn’t seem to be a quality possessed by public figures any more.

I still live surrounded by good people, but sometimes they don’t show their best sides. We need to remember our heritage of caring for others because it is the right thing to do. This is a good place with good people, but, my friends and neighbors, we could do better. And we should do better.

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!