January 2020

Learning with children

Krista Tippett, host of the Radio Show “On Being” has on several occasions referred to a Jewish proverb that also has a version in Islam. The basic idea is that before a child is born, the angel Gabriel tells him everything, all the secrets of the universe, then kisses him on the forehead, and he begins gradually to forget it all. I like the story, though I don’t think I’ve ever encountered it from any other source, so I don’t know how popular or prevalent it is in Judaism or Islam.

Part of what is attractive about the story is that it gives us a different way to think about childhood and growing. The model we carry in our minds most of the time is just the opposite. We think of children as being born with very few abilities and very little knowledge and they process of their growing as one of gaining knowledge and information and abilities. I suspect that our usual way of thinking is, actually, more helpful than the proverb, but I like to look at things that I take for granted from a different perspective.

There is something wonderfully special about being a grandparent. We get to look at the precious infants and children in our lives from a slightly different perspective than we viewed our own children. Even though our grandchildren live many miles from us, we have the luxury of getting to know them pretty well through visits and regular video conversations over the computer. And we live in the era of instant pictures and videos. We get fresh pictures of our youngest grandson nearly every day. And most days we have new pictures of all of our grandchildren. Pictures and video clips aren’t the same as being with them, but they are a gift of great value.

I don’t think the proverb is literally accurate. The great wisdom of infants and children isn’t the product of having lots of information - of knowing everything - but rather a product of being open to everything. Children greet each new experience as something to be explored and discovered. Our six-month-old grandson tries to taste every object with which he comes into contact. He picks things up and put them in his mouth. His parents, of course, are extremely careful about which things are within his reach. There are lots of choking hazards and things that should not go into a young child’s mouth. He certainly reminds me of Psalm 34: “O taste and see that the LORD is good.”

What we seem to lose as we grow and age is not information. We don’t become less knowledgeable unless a stroke or other brain injury causes trauma. We do become more set in our ways and less open to newness and being influenced by new information. Our attitude changes.

It seems to me that in general our culture in the part of the world where I live is a bit less appreciative of experience and wisdom than once was the case. Youth is valued in many job searches and often trumps experience. Mid-level executive jobs are often occupied by people with far less experience than was the case a few decades ago. There are jobs where those hiring would have never considered someone without a broad experience base twenty years ago that are now occupied by people with little or no experience. Those younger and less experienced people possess other qualities and skills that make them attractive to employers, not the least of which is a level of comfort and skill with computers and social media. In the balance of youth and experience vs age and experience, the pendulum has swung a little bit towards youth. I’m pretty sure that i would have argued for such a swing earlier in my career. I was often told that I need not consider applying for a particular position because I lacked the prerequisite experience.

I don’t get told that any more. Most people consider me to be near the end of my career. They don’t expect me to be honing my resume and looking for another job. I understand that. There are times when it is appropriate to step aside and allow others to assume leadership. It is, however, a new experience for me to put myself into the category of “the old guy.” I remember, in seminary, a conversation with a teacher and mentor who at the time was 74 years old. The topic was ministry to and with older persons. In those days the term we used was “senior citizens.” As we talked I suddenly realized that when speaking of these older persons, I was thinking of my teacher’s generation. He, whose mother was still alive at 94, was thinking of her generation and not including himself in the category of “senior citizen.” I play the same game. I’ve been tossing membership appeals from AARP for the last 15 years. I don’t really think of myself as being an elder, even though I’m considerably oder than my colleagues serving congregations in the region. I’m older than the Conference minister and the Associate Conference Ministers. I’m older than the people who serve in leadership positions in the national meeting of our church. I read about colleagues who are retiring who are a few years younger than I. Just this week I read a Facebook post from a friend and colleague who wrote, “After 40 yers I am going to retire at the end of June. We’ll move to the Preacher’s Aid Society’s enclave in Wells, ME - put out to an old Methodist pastor’s pasture.” It’s probably no big deal, but I started as a pastor two years ahead of this particular colleague, and I struggle to use the word retire when I think of the next phase of my life.

What I understand from all of this is that the next part of my life will involve taking advantage of as many opportunities as possible to observe, listen to, and share space with children and youth. The idea of moving to a place that is geared around the lives of retired persons holds no appeal for me. The idea of living near my grandchildren and having time to volunteer in their school does. There is much to be learned from children and much to be said for discovering ways to keep relationships between children and elders strong and healthy.

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!

Fidget Spinners

Chief Justice John Roberts, who is presiding over the impeachment trail in the United States Senate, is a pretty low key judge. He isn’t quick to admonish the managers or the defense. He did make one statement to both sides, intending his comments to be taken equally by both, asking them to remember the decorum required of the somber occasion. From what I can tell by reading accounts and watching a few video clips he has maintained order through the hours of arguments that are being presented. At one point he did state that the United States State was the world’s greatest deliberative body.

I think that this observation is mistaken. The senate, especially in recent years, has not demonstrated much ability when it comes to deliberation. The U.S. House of Representatives has passed over 400 bills that have not even been taken up for debate in the United States Senate. Since the Senate refused to even debate the appointment of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court, the Senate has been marked not by deliberation but by blocking action. The chamber is divided into two sides so that Democrats and Republicans can enter the chamber and go to their seats without even talking to each other. Speeches are made on the floor of the Senate without anyone listening. Senators have developed a lot of very bad habits that wouldn’t be tolerated in a high school classroom.

There is more deliberation in a single high school debate than the United State Senate displays in an entire year. There is a great tradition of deliberation in the Senate, but the current generation certainly does not live up to that tradition.

As I watched a bit of the trial, I wondered what it must feel like to be Chief Justice Roberts. He can’t avoid noticing that the Senators act like bored children. They rush to the cloak roam to use their phones when the other side is talking. Senator Richard Burr was passing out fidget spinners. At least three Senators, including Burr were spotted playing with the devices during the trial. In any other proceeding in any courtroom in the United States the judge would admonish those so childishly distracting others. So far the entire proceeding seems to be nearly pointless because there appear to be no senators willing to listen and weigh evidence. They have all made up their minds about the vote. They all had their minds made up before the proceeding began. Surprises are very unlikely.

Again, I am wondering how this must feel to Justice Roberts. After all, his name will forever be associated with the decision of the Supreme Court that set up the conditions under which the impeachment is proceeding. John Roberts wrote the initial opinion of the Supreme Court in the case known as Citizens United v. FEC. That decision opened the door for unlimited money in political campaigns, judged corporate bodies to have the same speech rights as individuals and opened the floodgates to such excessive spending in political campaigns that US Senators have become focused only on their funders and have largely forgotten their constituents. Instead of representing the citizens of states, US Senators now represent the interests of highly wealthy, and often anonymous, donors.

The chaos that Roberts has to face every day of the Impeachment trial is a chaos in which he had a large part creating. I wonder how it feels to him.

The kind of civics education that was taken for granted when I was in high school has now fallen by the wayside. In my high school experience, as was common at the time, we had three separate courses in civics and government that were required for graduation. These days only nine states and the District of Columbia require one year of high school civics education. Thirty require a half year. South Dakota is one of those states. Our neighbors in Nebraska and Montana are among the eleven states that require no civics education. With this stunning decline in basic education in how government works, or is supposed to work, we shouldn’t be surprised that Americans are willing to accept minority rule. Two institutions that are bastions of minority rule, historic leftovers of the time of slavery, are the United States Senate and the Electoral College. Both are institutions which function to override the will of the majority. Those we have a US President who lost the popular vote. And he isn’t the first one. And we have a senate where legislation can be blockaded and members are allowed to spend more time raising funds from a few selected donors than they do listening the the citizens of the states they are supposed to represent. And the citizens of those states have come to believe that they have little power to change the situation.

The system is broken.

I wonder what it feels like to Chief Justice John Roberts to be officiating at a trial where despite official rules and protocols, those who should be listening and carefully deliberating are not taking their responsibilities seriously. Before the proceedings began, the Chief Justice swore a solemn oath to “do impartial justice.” Then he administered that oath to the senators. At least two of whom, Senators McConnell and Graham, had already publicly declared that they have no intention of honoring that oath. McConnell said on Fox News: “Everything I do during this, I’m coordinating with the White House counsel. there will be no difference between the President’s position and our position as to how we handle this to the extent that we can.” Graham said, “I am trying to give a pretty clear signal I have made up my mind. I’m not trying to pretend to be a fair juror here.”

So much for sacred oaths.

Political grandstanding for the sake of attracting the attention of potential donors to ludicrously expensive campaigns should make every citizen of the country concerned. This trial is a test of the resilience of this fragile experiment in democracy that we call our nation.

the legacy of the Chief Justice is just one of the things that hangs in the balance as we proceed. These are perilous times. And the senators are handing out fidget spinners because they are bored. How I wish they would pay attention.

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!

At the edge of life and death

Got a text message from a friend last night informing me that a mutual friend, who lives out of state “Is in full kidney failure, not expected to last much longer.” At this point in my career such news isn’t exactly “new.” I’ve experienced the death of friends, even those who, like this one, are younger than I. Two of my sisters and one of my brothers has died. I’m old enough to know that my generation will go the way of our forebears. We are mortal. We won’t go on forever.

Thinking of our friend, I tried to imagine how things are for him and his family. He’s been through a lot of health challenges and problems over the years. He is a brittle diabetic - lost a leg to complications of that disease a few years ago. There must have been a series of really tough decisions along the road for him, his wife and their children. End-stage renal disease is most often treated through dialysis with the hope that a kidney transplant might become available. I know people who have been dependent on dialysis for years as they await the outcome of the disease. I also know a few who have been lucky enough to obtain kidney transplant. Years ago another friend received both a kidney and a pancreas in a transplant and had a wonderful period of health following the operation. He was free from diabetes for that time and was able to live without the restrictions of dialysis multiple times each week. The end result, however, was a premature death. It didn’t last. None of us last forever.

When your kidneys are not able to filter the wastes and excess fluids that are in your body, all sorts of things get out of balance. Fluid starts to build up. Your feet and ankles swell. Worse, fluid build up around your heart. You can experience chest pain and shortness of breath. Sometimes fluid builds up in the lungs themselves. Your blood pressure rises. Nausea, vomiting, fatigue and weakness and sleep problems increase. You start to itch all over and the itch can’t be satisfied. Your muscles cramp and twitch. As all of these problems increase, your mental sharpness fades.

I don’t know what decisions our friend has made, but it sounds like they have decided to forego dialysis and simply provide care for the symptoms. His wife is an experienced pastor who has certainly been at the bedside of many who have made different end of life choices. She is a realist who has officiated at enough funerals to know that grief is a reality that cannot be avoided. I have no doubt that they have had long conversations about quality of life and the choices that need to be made.

He was such a jock. I am so not a jock. That didn’t stop us from being friends or having a lot of interests in common. He taught me a lot through the process of being an athlete who had to learn to walk with a prothesis and readjust his life to a permanent disability. He taught me that dietary restrictions and a chronic disease don’t have to rob you of your joy of living. His laugh was so deep and hearty that it filled every room he entered.

She demonstrated that a person can be spitting mad at someone and still love that someone unreservedly. There has always been fire and spunk in their relationship. They can disagree and love fully at the same time. My heart breaks when I think of her at his bedside. The skills honed over a career of being a pastor are of no help when it is your spouse whose hand you are holding. Theories of life and death and resurrection and grief and healing are all distant thoughts, but not immediately relevant to the moment. Her vigil is surrounded by a huge community of people who care, pray and offer support, but ultimately a hospital can be a lonely place when there are no more words for your prayers and no place you want to be than right where you are, even though you aren’t sure how you ended up in that place.

A different friend, who is a physician, commented to me in a conversation last week that no matter how much we learn, death is always a mystery. It forces us to face the unknowable. Some who have been resuscitated from near death experiences report a dream-like quality to the experience. Others have no memories of that period of time. I imagine that our friend’s mind is clouded by the disease and the drugs that are administered to treat the symptoms. Comfort care almost certainly means a reduced awareness of what is going on and perhaps a reduced ability to relate to the loved ones drawn to your bedside. It may be like hovering on the edge of sleep, dozing at moments, aware at others, but not really able to focus you attention.

Knowing my friend, his natural athleticism will be a factor. He isn’t the kind of person who simply gives up. Even if he had made the mental decision to accept death, his body has a great deal of strength and he has lived his life pushing the limits and the odds. This could take a bit of time. Not that time has much meaning at the border of life and death.

We join the vigil that is taking place there. I even thought of what I might say in a sympathy card when the vigil comes to its conclusion, though it is too early to write such a missive. Their sons are about the same age I was when my father died. His wife could easily have decades of widowhood like my mother. Life goes on. Even though we never get over the loss, we are not disabled by our grief. We speak of resurrection and reunion and we live in hope, but we realize that those, too, are mysteries that we do not fully understand.

Mystery inspires awe and wonder. “O Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder . . .”

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!

Exercise for endurance

Back in the 1970’s I was teaching stress management to Chicago executives as part of my internship with the Wholistic Health Care Center. We knew then that exercise was an important factor in building mental health. The research was fairly clear even though physicians did not know all of the mechanisms. People who developed regular patterns of exercise exhibited a more positive outlook on life and reported less emotional distress. Because we were dealing with people who had very demanding jobs and struggled with work/family balance, we began using the term “exercise for endurance” and promoting exercise programs because they enabled people to function in high stress positions with a greater deal of success. All of this was before we had the kinds of data that now is readily available from wearable devices. It was before the days of personal trainers and boutique gyms in every strip mall.

Exercise is big business in America today. People are willing to pay for memberships in gyms and follow exercise routines prescribed by trainers. The style of training offered by various gyms covers a wide range from low impact to intense. Yoga and Pilates contrast with CrossFit, but all share a claim to affect the entire body and yield mental and psychological benefits as well as physical strength and weight loss.

I have never been particularly attached to any brand of workout. I do not belong to a gym. I tried a gym membership and was given a workout routine by a trainer, but found that the process of having to have an extra set of clothes and to shower after a workout disrupted my day. The gym didn’t open early enough in the day for my personal schedule. That problem could easily be addressed with all of the 24/7 fitness centers now available. The other issue I had with the gym was the presence of so many televisions in the room with the cardio machines. I’m not a television watcher. Having multiple screens with different programs is very distracting for me. I don’t find it to be mentally relaxing or peace inducing to have so much visual stimulation flooding into the room.

What I have discovered for myself personally is that the place for exercise for me is outdoors. I enjoy rowing and walking and simply being outdoors. Since we have adopted our current routine of walking every day there has only been one day when we decided to take half of our walk indoors due to weather. For the most part, binding up and going out to walk, even when it is cold and windy is a good way to restore our spirits.

It does help to have a partner with whom to share the exercise. We encourage and push each other in positive ways.

I have also found that walking is an easy fit in my daily routine. There are a couple of days each week when I have standing meetings that take place about a mile and a half from my office. Instead of getting in the car and allowing 15 minutes to get to the meeting, I allow a half hour for coming and going and walk the distance. I arrive with more energy and focus than when I drive. I save the wear and tear on the car. I get to know some of the folks in the neighborhood who are out and about. I walk by a school where children are playing in the yard and am reminded of their importance in our community and I arrive with a real sense of what the weather is doing. Furthermore, since I am walking, I don’t need a shower before I can sit down and get to work.

There is no perfect solution for each individual. there are injuries and illnesses the prevent their victims from engaging in intense exercise. I have friends who really love their gym memberships and are very committed to the routines they find there. They report all of the positive mental and emotional effects of exercise that I realize from being outdoors and pursuing my style of exercise.

For the last four decades, I have been engaged in a profession that has a degree of flexibility when it comes to schedule, but it also has long and demanding days. There are phone calls that come in the middle of the night and interruptions that defy attempts at establishing routines. There are times when duty not only calls, but disrupts what I had planned. When I am on call and need to be available to respond to a suicide, for example, I cannot be a half hour away from my car. Some days I need to squeeze in an extra call that is across town and I have to give up some of the time that I had planned to exercise. I’ve developed a few “work arounds” for those events. I’ve learned to take the stairways instead of the elevators in our ten-story hospital. I can speed up my walking when heading to meetings in all kinds of locations. Sometimes, I can simply park farther away from my destination and gain a bit of exercise.

The bottom line is that I need the exercise to have the mental alertness and emotional stability that is required of the work I do. I need to pay attention to myself and my needs and care for myself enough that I have the energy and focus to pay attention to the needs of others.

After four decades, I am still learning. This winter has been a season of developing new routines and upping the mileage of my walks. Most days I’m investing an hour in just walking. I still haven’t found out how to make more hours in the day. I experience the same limits as others.

That adage from the beginning of my career rings true today. Exercise for endurance is essential to keeping up the pace of the work that I do.

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!

Outdoor symphony

As soon as we parked the car we could hear the cacophony of geese. There were hundreds, perhaps thousands, temporarily camped out at the golf course across the street. Certainly there were enough to make golfers spitting mad. I have friends who are golfers and I had one of them in my pickup as we drove by recently. On the other hand, the birds are an amazement and amusement to birders. I have a birder friend with whom I regularly meet who can go on and on about getting a perfect photo of a Cackling Goose with a Canada Goose together. Valuing both friendships, I try to stay somewhat neutral on the subject.

The sound of the geese reminded me of an orchestra tuning up - not the gentle first sounds when the oboe and concert master sound their pure and precise notes - but the sounds that come later after everyone has matched the concert A and have gone on to tuning up other notes and finally playing a few arpeggios or even a difficult passage from one of the pieces that is coming up - the sound just before the orchestra goes silent for the conductor to make a grand entrance.

We walked alongside the street and soon were walking right next to the creek below the dam. The creek has its own tonality and rhythm, a subtle blend of higher pitched notes that come from the surface as the water dances around rocks and a deeper set of tones coming from the broader flow of the river. As we approached the dam, the sound changed because the spillway is so even that the water is all the same depth, flowing over a very uniform surface, sending up a consistent spray as it rushes along. A short walk up a steeper part of the pathway got us above the dam, where there is a little bit of open water before we got to the ice. There is always water running underneath the ice at Canyon Lake, and usually there is open water at both ends of the lake. We had some pretty cold days last week, so the ice has thickened, but there is still a good third or more of the lake that is open. On the open water the ducks were chiming in with a different pitch than the geese who were flying overhead. The geese reminded me of a group of politicians engaged in constant argument. Everyone was trying to get in their own comments. I wondered if they were having a discussion about where they were going or maybe even about the preferred route or altitude for the flight. Underneath them, mostly on the liquid water, but a few standing on the ice, the ducks were like a group of old men at the corner table in the cafe, still having a conversation, but with deeper pitches and lower volume. They were sort of grumbling along as they paddled or waddles around.

As we walked by the ice, it was adding its own notes to the symphony. The air was moving under the ice, seeking the highest elevation and pushing bubbles through the liquid water. The ice itself was cracking and the echoes were ringing across the lake. I am not an ice fisherman, and the ice was just barely thick enough to encourage a lone ice fisherman out on it. Were I an ice fisherman, I would have been so distracted by the sounds the ice was making that I wouldn’t be enjoying the fishing. It isn’t like the lake is frozen into one solid, thick layer of ice. There are open areas on the lake big enough to sink into really cold water. Most of the lake isn’t very deep, but still I don’t think a trip through the ice would be any fun at all.

There are some points around the lake where you can hear all of the sounds at once, the ice, the ducks, the geese. As we walked across the bridge, there was even a bit of the gurgle of flowing water to be heard in the background, like a bit of a descant added to the regular verse.

We were walking for exercise, so we were keeping our pace going, our footfalls on the pavement making their own rhythm. Occasionally we’d step into a bit of old snow or on the edge of a piece of ice making crunching and crackling sounds. And we are not youngsters, so our pace was making us breathe a bit deeper than our usual and after a while we were both breathing through our mouths as well as our noses so there was a fair amount of huffing and puffing coming from us. It wasn’t enough to bother the geese as we walked onto the island and out onto a narrow spit that stretches towards the lodge like a kind of breakwater, though there are no waves to “break.” The crunch of the gravel was a new sound, different from the other surfaces on which we had been walking.

Farther along we passed a spruce tree that was alive with little birds. They were difficult to see individual markings because of the heavy foliage, but they might have been junkos or some other small birds. They made the tree seem to quiver with excitement and their high pitched libretto added a new sound to the outdoor symphony.

A walk up the creek and around the lake is a visual treat. There is a lot to see and the large numbers of birds attracted to the area makes it fun to watch all of the motion and activity from splashes to swoops to dives and aerobatics. Yesterday, however, I was struck by what an aural experience it is to take a short walk. The sounds of a place are as distinctive and beautiful as are the sights. Walking in an unfamiliar place can be a world of discovery, but walking a path that we have walked many times before has its own surprises.

What a treat it is to have the gift of being able to hear. For that I am very grateful.

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!

Weekends

Years ago when we managed a church camp, we had to make sure that all of the people who worked at the camp got one day a week off from work. For most of our camps, the campers arrived on Sunday afternoon and departed the following Saturday morning, leaving a kind of natural break. We didn’t have to serve meals for campers Saturday noon evening, or Sunday breakfast or lunch. We could sleep in a bit on Sunday morning. But we couldn’t allow the staff to just take off that time between camps because there were a lot of chores that had to be done to make the system work. Cabins and bathrooms had to be scrubbed to prepare for the next group. Menus had to be planned as each camp was a different size than the others. Some chores, such as gathering firewood, were easier to accomplish when we didn’t have the pressures of needing to care for campers. We established a schedule of rotating days off so that each staff member had a personal day off from work that was different from other staff. Our camp was in a remote location, 46 miles from town, so days off usually didn’t involve leaving the facility, but the staff person could sleep in, take hikes or engage in other recreational activities.

At the time we were spending our summers at camp, and were full time students the rest of the year. That meant that our school work was five days a week. However, there were always lots of home work that had to be done on another schedule and part time jobs to sandwich between classroom hours. In graduate school, we began doing internships in churches, which meant workin on Sundays, so our lives didn’t fall into the pattern of weekends without work. Then we began serving churches, which is one of the jobs where you always work on Sundays. I often comment to people who do not work in the church that there is only one three-day weekend in the schedule of a pastor: Thanksgiving. We take Thursday, Friday and Saturday off, unless there are church activities on Saturday, which is often the case because of the beginning of Advent following on the heels of American Thanksgiving.

Like many of our colleagues when we were beginning our careers, we fell into a pattern of taking Mondays as our day off. It became clear to us early on that the Biblical commandment to observe the Sabbath is a very wise practice. Working without breaks results in inefficiency and decreased productivity. I can accomplish more in a six-day work week than I can in a seven-day week except for short exceptions such as a funeral that lands on my day of. I can work an extra day from time to time without it creating a problem, but I know I need a bit of time for myself and for household chores. Of course the life of a pastor affords more flexibility than a lot of other jobs and I am able to take personal hours away from work during the week.

When children came into our lives we didn’t change our schedules very much, but when they became old enough for school, it was important that we spent at least part of Saturdays as a family. We would often work a bit on Saturdays, but reserve as much time as possible fro family.

Times have changed. I have a lot of colleagues who serve congregations and take two day weekends. Many of the other churches in town are closed on Fridays and Saturdays. This allows church staff to have a two-day weekend and to have one day that lines up with the five day work and school schedules of other family members. Although it isn’t our pattern, it makes sense.

The adoption of a five day work week didn’t happen all at once. It was a hot topic of debate throughout the 19th century and wasn’t fully established as a nation-while practice until the 1930’s. In Britain during the 19th century, there were artisans and workers who began a practice of “Saint Monday.” They would have production goals, often based on orders from buyers. They would work extra hours in order to have enough products to fill the next week’s order when there was a Saint’s day. Having discovered that they could produce a week’s worth of orders in five days, they began to up their production so that they could have an extra day or half day off from work. Those were usually Mondays for those businesses, so workers would get Sunday and part or all of Monday off from work, depending on how productive the previous week had been.

Some argued that the five day work week was more productive than the six day work week. Hourly employees, of course, earned less working five days than six, but as wages and benefits rose, it became more practical for workers to forgo the pay for the time away from work. As the idea of a five day work week gained popularity, unions and other workers organizations began to advocate for the practice. In the US, clergy backed the movement, arguing for Saturdays off from work. They believed that the extra day off would improve attendance at church and allow workers to be more attentive to family and community life.

Increasingly, those who work shift work are going to four day work weeks. By extending shifts employers who have to have all 24 hours covered can cover all of the hours with the same number of employees. Whether the employees work four ten hour shifts or five eight hour shifts doesn’t change the total number of hours or the cost of labor. The days off are not the same for all workers, but there are many workers who don’t mind working on holidays or days that are weekends. It remains to be seen how general this concept will become, but it seems to be gaining momentum in recent years.

Meanwhile today is a holiday for many workers - a bonus day off. It is also our usual day off. So, like many other Monday holidays it affects church attendance, as people often don’t include worship in three day weekend plans. However, it doesn’t have a dramatic effect on our work schedule. We are taking the day off, but we’ll still get in our six days as usual.

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!

Dr. King Holiday 2020

There is a West African proverb that goes, “When an elder dies, a library is burning.” I’ve heard it before, or more likely read it somewhere, but it really struck me last night as we sat in the historic theatre of the Performing Arts Center. We had excellent seats for a performance of song, story and poetry by T. Michael Rambo accompanied by Thomas West on the piano. I suppose I should have been tipped off when I was able to reserve such excellent seats, in the front row of the mezzanine. Usually we’re quiet a few rows father back when we attend a performance in that theatre. The crowd was light. I’m not used to estimating crowds in that particular room, but I guess that perhaps there were 150 - 200 people in attendance. There were a lot of things going on in the area last night.The musician performing at Tallys restaurant is a good friend of ours and I had received a personal invitation to attend. The Burning Beetle event up in Custer is something of a South Dakota phenomena - an outdoor party and bonfire that celebrates the spirit of the folks who live in the hills.

It was important to us, however, to attend the performance of “My Heart Sings so my Spirit may Fly” as the start to the celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend.

The performance began with a portion of the famous 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech that was delivered during the March on Washington for civil rights. We have all heard that speech many times and we’ve watched the television coverage of Dr. King addressing the crowd that stretched way down the mall from the Lincoln memorial.The well-seasoned actor T. Michael Rambo had studied not just the words, but the gestures, the occasional wipes with a handkerchief and, most importantly, the tone and rhythm of Dr. King’s speech.

He didn’t stop there. The performance was peppered with other quotes from that and other speeches by Dr. King. It was filled with songs and stories and poems. The time flew and when the performance broke for a brief intermission, I was surprised at how much time had passed.

Because our seats were right next to the walkway between the mezzanine and the main floor seating, we got to see most of the people as they came into and out of the theatre. We were seated right next to a good friend and a stream of other friends cam by before the performance and during the intermission. We had several conversations with dear friends. When the performer said, “We are family,” we knew what he meant. We felt like we are a part of the family of this community - the family of people who show up for important moments and opportunities like last night’s performance. It was, in a sense, a gathering of our people.

One of our friends commented, “For a little while you could almost forget that we live in the reddest part of one of the reddest states in the country.” I know what he meant. I have felt, on a few occasions that the community’s recognition of the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday has been just another occasion for Republican politicians to repeat their well-worn rhetoric that misses the mark for those who are marginalized by our community leaders. The nearly constant political pressures and restrictions on the rights of our Native American neighbors at times makes us feel like we are living in a place that has not noticed that the rest of the country has gone through a civil rights movement. When the governor introduces blatantly racist legislation aimed at restricting the rights of people to assemble and protest and those laws easily pass the legislature only to be ruled unconstitutional by the courts and then, in the very next session the governor is back with more race baiting so called riot-busting legislation, one wonders how people can think. Mind you we haven’t had a riot. I made two trips to the water protectors camp during the protests against the pipeline a couple of years ago. I know first hand that the stories of violence and weapons were fabricated. The only ones with weapons were the well-armed law enforcement agents who were, for the most part bored staffing a roadblock and watching the size of the encampment grow. Still fear is a powerful motivator and causes people to engage in irrational behavior.

It leaves me a little bit disappointed that there weren’t more people in attendance last night.

T Michael Rambo is a teacher and he had a well-prepared lesson for those of us who did attend. He kept our attention as he reviewed the history of Dr. King’s life. He reminded us of the history of the enforced enslavement of Africans in America. He presented his program without anger or resentment, but rather as the story of a resilient culture and the powerful drive of humans on a journey to freedom. The story of freedom is, of course, deeply imbedded in our religion. We tell the story of Israel’s departure from slavery in Egypt every year. It is one of the early commandments of our faith - to teach that story to our children and to our children’s children in every generation. How we are supposed to treat others is colored by the experience of our own people with slavery and the call to freedom. In the stories of our people, God is always on the side of freedom in every struggle.

It has been a long time since I stood in a crowd of people, held hands and sang “We shall Overcome.” I guess it got to be a bit too much when our gatherings were distant from the cities and the southern communities where slavery had been practiced. A sea of white faces singing someone else’s freedom song seemed just a bit disingenuous. So we haven’t sung that song for quite a while. Last night, in a room the was more multicultural and more multiracial than most gatherings in our community, with the powerful accompaniment of Thomas West on the piano and T Michael Rambo leading us, it felt right. We felt connected.

And we were reminded that those of us to whom this performance and this holiday is so important are still a minority in our community. There are so many others who need to hear those stories. There are so many others who need to experience those poems. There are so many others who need to sing that song.

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!

Lego

I’m just a couple of years too old to have ben caught up on the first expansion of Lego bricks into the US market. My brother, who is two years younger, had Lego bricks and I certainly played with them as we were growing up, but I had another type of plastic bricks, known as American Bricks. You can still find the old bricks on eBay. They interlock, but don’t click together as tightly as Lego and the plastic is slightly more brittle and can be broken. I did, however, has a sufficient supply to build all kinds of structures before Erector Sets captured my imagination as I got older.

Lego bricks proved to be an extremely valuable toy as they continued their marketing as a worldwide company. By the time our children were old enough for the toys, they were the clear choice and we started investing in sets and more sets and even more sets. I build a Lego Table, with a lip around the edge, a bit like the fiddle you’d find on a boat, to keep the bricks on the table and off of the floor. Parents who’ve stepped into their child’s room barefoot in the dark know why it is important to keep the bricks off of the floor.

We have kept the Lego bricks that our son used. Several plastic boxes are stacked up in our family room ready for grandchildren. A few of the bricks have made it to our grandchildren’s collections. We have a smaller group of bricks, mostly mini figures, that travel in our camper and when the children make a creation they like, they are allowed to keep it.

There is a type of play that involves putting the bricks together according to instructions to make a precise replica of the picture on the box. We’ve also kept those instructions and our oldest grandchild will sometimes make an effort to find the right pieces to recreate a model that his father had made years ago. What I have noticed, however, is that the models made by following the instructions have limited play value. Once they are constructed, there isn’t much you can do with them. A few have moving parts and can be part of larger games, but mostly the creations sit on the shelves gathering dust while the child plays with the free pieces that aren’t currently attached to anything. Our grandson is pretty creative at making alterations and variations on the things that he has made. We have invested in specific colors and styles of bricks to help expand the play. And we have invested in storage systems to make the bricks work in a busy household with limited space.

One of the adventures of the toy is scanning the catalogues with our grandson and imagining what sets he would like to build. As the years go by and he gets older, he is drawn to more complex (and more expensive) sets. Because we are consumers who purchase Lego products both by going to retail stores and by purchasing online at the official Lego site, we have been identified by the company and we receive the catalogues on a regular basis through the mail.

What I have noticed is that Lego is now marketing directly to adults. They still have plenty of toys for children, but they have large and very expensive sets with a high degree of complexity. Even though we look at the pictures in the catalogue, our grandson is not going to receive the $800 Millennium Falcon set. It is, in the first place, far too large of a project for an eight year old in addition to being far too expensive for his grandparents. The set isn’t designed to be sold to children or to those who purchase gifts for children. It is designed for adults, who have large amounts of discretionary money and quite a bit of time to invest to make a huge set. The $700 Imperial Star Destroyer and $250 Bat Mobile are in the same category from my point of view.

If you go to the Lego web site, you can find specialized sets like the Disney Castle or the Manchester United soccer stadium, Hogwarts Castle, a giant roller coaster, the Taj Mahal, and famous buildings such as the Eiffel Tower, the White House and the Golden Gate Bridge. All of these sets cost hundreds of dollars and go beyond what one might think of as children’s toys.

Abha Bhattarai, writing for the Washington Post, published an article about adults who purchase Lego bricks and make the models as a form of stress relief. I guess Lego didn’t get to be the worlds largest and most profitable toymaker by limiting its audience. They already know how to target an audience by capitalizing on popular movies or trends. Now they’re seeing huge market in stressed-out adults and are responding with models like the apartment in the TV sitcom Friends. That one is aimed at people the ages of our children, not the ages of our grandchildren. There is even an acronym for adults who build Lego for themselves: AFOLs - Adult Fans of Lego. Fox is planning a television reality show called “LEGO Masters” which pits builders against each other in a competition.

There are articles about using Lego bricks in a form of meditation. Repetitive tasks are often used to help people concentrate on the present without being distracted by thoughts of the past or future. Called mindfulness or presentness, the practice has roots in Buddhism and Hinduism. Mindfulness is a kind of buzzword among millennials. It is also the target of marketing for companies as diverse as Apple, Nike and HBO. There are adult coloring books, crossword puzzles and craft projects marketed as mindfulness projects.

I admit that I find something soothing and relaxing about sorting the bricks back into the boxes after our grandchildren have visited. I’m not into spending any more money - we have a huge number of the bricks. And I don’t care about crafting the Empire State Building, but I don’t mind creating a bit of order out of the chaos of a tabletop covered with random bricks.

Now if you really want to move beyond stress, I suggest getting down on the floor and playing with your grandchildren whatever game they choose, or pursuing the reputation of always having time to read a story whatever else is going on.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!

A Century Later

Yesterday was the centennial of an amendment to the US Constitution that didn’t work out the way the sponsors thought it would. It is a centennial that would have been celebrated by my forebears even though it didn’t work out. So, since I have a personal connection to that centennial, I guess I should give some background.

My maternal grandfather was a staunch Methodist, a conservative Republican, a lawyer and a legislator. 100 years ago he was a senator in the Montana legislature from Chouteau County. He was definitely a grass roots politician. We have a few of his campaign materials, which amounted to glorified calling cards. He campaigned by going around the county and talking to farmers and ranchers and by being known as a lawyer who served the people of the County. In the hard times of the Great Depression he accepted eggs and chickens and milk as payment for his services, even when he was milking his own cow to support his five daughters. His religious principles didn’t allow charging or paying interest and he did neither. He didn’t play cards. He didn’t gamble. He didn’t smoke. He didn’t dance. And he didn’t drink.

In other words, he was a perfect sponsor for the bill to ratify the 18th amendment to the US Constitution.

He wrote impassioned speeches about the evils of alcohol. He told stories of situations he had witnessed where alcohol had led to violence and poverty and criminal behavior and all sorts of social evils. And he was convinced he was right. He honestly and seriously believed that things would suddenly get better in the United States as soon as it became illegal to sell, make, import or transport alcohol. He had the backing of the minister of his church and the dozens of other Methodist ministers he knew through his work with the Montana Circuit and the national setting of the Methodist Church. He believed that he was doing God’s work as he worked for prohibition.

He came by it naturally. His mother was a leader in the WCTU. His mother-in-law had been thrown out of the town saloon, the only building in their rural western town that had a piano, which she wanted to practice, for playing temperance songs and threatening to break every bottle in the place.

His daughters all took a pledge to never allow tobacco or alcohol to touch their lips as part of their Christian Endeavor groups. They kept that promise, too. In the case of my mother and at least some of my aunts, they also imposed temperance on their husbands.You never saw alcohol at a family reunion in my family, and my Uncle Irving’s root beer and ginger bear were suspect enough for the sisters to avoid drinking them.

My grandfather lived another 25 years after prohibition, so he must have been aware of how seriously it failed. By 1933, the amendment had been repealed, the only constitutional amendment to be repealed in the history of the United States. As a small town lawyer he must have known how much local law enforcement agencies hated having to enforce the ban, chasing down those transporting and selling liquor when they felt that there were more important criminal matters in need of their attention. He must have known how immensely organized crime profited from prohibition and how banning alcohol didn’t improve the lives of those who were addicted. Alcohol proved to be way more popular than temperance campaigners believed.

I don’t know for sure how my grandfather felt. He didn’t leave behind any speeches about the repeal of the amendment. He didn’t live long enough for me to have a serious conversation with him about the topic. His church continued to be a temperance church. His wife continued to be active in WCTU. He continued to practice law in a small Western town where problems that were directly connected to alcohol turned up in court on a regular basis. He protested the granting of liquor licenses to businesses. He worked to shorten the hours of operation of the State of Montana Liquor Stores. After the repeal of prohibition, the State was the sole vendor of hard liquor for decades.

A century later, only one of his grandsons is a minister and only one of his grandchildren ever became a lawyer. At least one of his grandchildren has worked on campaigns to end the prohibition on the sale of marijuana. I’m guessing that the majority of his grandchildren enjoy a glass of wine from time to time. I know I do. And, truth be told, I’ve been known to tip a glass with colleagues who are Methodist ministers from time to time.

The most serious and perplexing problems of society don’t have simple solutions. Increasing law enforcement efforts to arrest users and distributors of Methamphetamines and spending millions of dollars on advertising campaigns does little to treat addiction and the powerful grip that the substance has on its users. Making something illegal doesn’t mean that it will go away.

I am proud that my grandfather cared so much about others. I am proud that he stood up in favor of prohibition as well as the fact that he stood up for women’s suffrage when he was a student. I feel honored to be related to a man of courage and conviction and honesty. I might not have approached the issues the same way that he did, but I am honored to have inherited a bit of his passion and energy. I am proud that we share the same faith and devotion to the church, even though I picked a different denomination from his choice, and I wonder how he might have felt about that.

A century later what he did and what he said remain important. I wonder if anyone will remember the causes for which I took a stand a century later. His legacy is part of what makes me what I am. I wonder what legacy I will leave for my grandchildren.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!

A productive lunch meeting

I had lunch yesterday with a couple of representatives of non-profit agencies in our community. Our church routinely works with other non-profits to deliver services to our community. One of the people at the lunch meeting is someone that I’ve known for 14 years and worked with frequently over that time. The other is new to our community, but represents an agency with whom we’ve worked for even longer. The reason for the meeting was to discuss low income housing and how we can work together on projects to help families moves into affordable homes. The meting was productive and we came up with some very good ideas.

As we ate our lunch, our conversation naturally drifted to our families and life in general. The others know that I will soon be moving on from the church I now serve and I spoke of the attraction of living closer to our grandchildren. Both of them are roughly the age of our children - at least they would consider themselves to be a generation younger than me. One of the others has children roughly the same ages as our grandchildren and spoke of the busy nature of balancing home and job and working out ways to make it all work. His job, like that of the other two of us, involves quite a few evening meetings. That means that he has to be careful with scheduling to make sure that he doesn’t plan too many evenings away from his family. Our lunch meeting helped him be home when he needed to be with his children. The other participant also has three children the eldest of whom will become a teenager in February.

It was so evident from our conversations that the challenges of parenting children right now are immense. Wrestling with career and a sincere dedication to family is a struggle. And children are growing up in a world that is very different from the one their parents encountered. One big difference involves the technological devices that we now take for granted. Both of them can remember when their families got the first personal computer in their homes. It was considered to be an adult tool and they weren’t allowed to use it very much. They, like our children, got their first hands on experience with computers in a school “computer lab.” That was a short-lived phase when operating a basic computer was considered to be a separate subject, before computers simply became classroom tools. Their children, however, came into a world surrounded by computers. There were computers working in the the delivery rooms into which they were born. They have no memory of a world without screens in early every room. Their parents have to make decisions about access to technology - which devices and how often and with what supervision.

The father of the soon-to-be teenage son worries about cyberbullying and the pressures that can come from social media. His son does not currently have a cell phone, but there are plenty of pressures on the parents to provide one and a few good reasons to do so. The small device is harder, however, makes it harder to control access and monitor use than less personal devices. Having a cell phone will necessitate new rules about when to put the device down and when it is inappropriate to use it.

We agreed that it is not possible to raise children in our community and keep them totally isolated from technology. The world in which I was raised no longer exists. Children need to be provided the tools to participate in their educations and the social world of their peers. Still, it can be frightening for parents. As one of my friends stated it, “Children learn from mistakes and you have to allow them to make mistakes so they can learn, but as they grow older the consequences of their mistakes become so huge - and some of those consequences are things that you cannot live with.”

I admire the courage and vision of my friends. It isn’t easy being a parent in the complex world of today.

As our conversation returned to the challenges of working with people in our community to provide affordable housing, we had those children on our minds. Our agencies serve people with very different political views. The increasing partisanship and the divides within our community make it a challenge to get people to cooperate even on projects where there is considerable agreement. It seems like everyone, including our children, is encouraged to take sides. And there is no small amount of bullying when it comes to trying to get individuals to switch sides. We all seem to be spending more and more time trying to keep people who have political disagreements from being disagreeable to one another. It is almost as if the people with whom we work don’t even want to associate with those with whom they disagree. The work of our agencies, however, is dependent upon people working together. I cited a few projects such as our firewood ministry and building a Habitat for Humanity house as opportunities for people to simply engage in physical work together. When you are one in a line of people raising a wall, your political party affiliation isn’t a factor. Everybody is needed to lift the heavy object into place. When you are feeding wood into a wood splitter and stacking the split wood, the machine is loud enough that you just work and there isn’t room for an argument. Nonetheless, those of us who serve others find ourselves wading into issues of public policy and advocacy just to do the work that is before us.

Despite the challenges we identified as we shared lunch together, I left our meeting with a renewed sense of hope about our community and its future. There are some really good, really faithful and really dedicated people working on making life better for others. The other two are raising caring and contributing children. Despite the problems of contemporary society, there are some really good people who have chose lives of service.

And sometimes I get to have lunch with them. There are perks to this job.

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 in the cold

One of the gifts of Susan’s recovery is that we have started walking together daily. We try for a brisk 30 minutes each day. The walking gives us intentional time for talking, though sometimes we just walk in silence as well. Now that we are into the routine, with a couple of months’ practice under our belts, we are finding that we enjoy walking outdoors as much as possible. We walk outside even when it is cold. Having said that, our winter has been fairly mild so far. Yesterday when we walked temperatures were in the teens. The wind, however, was calm. We bundled up and walked to a cafe for lunch, where we could warm up before tackling the second half of our walk. I also walked to a meeting that was at another church yesterday, so I got my miles without suffering from the cold.

Today it is below zero and the forecast is for the cold to linger, only making it into the teens - perhaps as warm as yesterday, but later in the day. And it is a very busy day in which we might not have time to walk together. I’ve gone through my meetings and identified one that will give me a couple of miles, so it’ll be long underwear and layers of clothing for me today. I think we can find a help hour in the afternoon to walk together as well.

Walking is a way to feel alive. Even experiencing the cold is a reminder that we are alive and that we have certain strengths. I grew up where it gets cold - even colder than it does here, or at least that is the way I remember it. We had some rules about the cold that seem to reinforce that. I know that if the temperature is colder than -20f you need to wear a face mask. At -30f we could ask for a ride on our paper routes. At -40f there were no flights at our airport. I also know that -40 is the same on the Celsius scale as Fahrenheit. It seems to me that we got a stretch of -20f nearly every winter. -30 and colder was rare and worthy of quite a bit of conversation.

I get pleasure out of walking. Even when I have a small ache or pain, it serves as a reminder that I have muscles that work for me. I’ve never suffered the serious problems that many others have experienced. I’ve never had serious arthritis in a major joint. My hands get a little stiff, but my knees and hips work well. My ankles flex the way they are supposed to. I know that those who have serious problems with their joints cannot walk without pain. It is different for them.

Our walks this winter are taken in the context of a heightened awareness of our mortality. Susan’s brush with cardiac arrest and her time in the hospital made both of us deeply aware that our time in this life is limited. It gives us a deeper appreciation of simple, everyday things that we used to take for granted. I don’t know how long we will sustain that sense of the preciousness of our time, but it seems very present in our thinking right now. Each conversation is a blessing that we might not have gotten were it not for the swift and proper intervention of medical professionals. We are grateful for the time we have.

Because exercise is an important part of maintaining heart health, we have taken it seriously. When we had our first post-hospitalization with Susan’s electrophysiologist, we asked what we could do to participate in the healing. He responded, “Exercise.” We asked how much. He said “30 minutes, 5 times a day.” I was doing the mental math of how much that would alter our lifestyle when he corrected himself. “I meant 5 times a week, not 5 times a day.” “Wow, that save me 2 hours a day!” I responded. Still, making room for that 30 minutes a day means that I have had to realign my priorities. I’ve always been a person who buckles down and goes to work. I’ve worked through plenty of lunch breaks and the concept of coffee breaks doesn’t really fit for a minister. I sit with refreshments with others, but it is usually in the context of work. I even refer to the process as “working the coffee hour.” During the fellowship time after church, I try to go from table to table and talk to as many people as possible. It is a way of maintaining connections. Sometimes, I even succeed in getting people to talk to each other.

We are incredibly fortunate in that we have always worked together. For 42 years we’ve had the same employer and for many of them we’ve shared the same office. Before that we were students and shared the same typewriter. Still, it takes effort and planning to carve out a half hour each day that we spend together and are not working on a specific challenge. That doesn’t mean that we don’t talk about work as we walk. We do. It is often a very good way of sorting out issues and making plans. The motion and the fresh air sometimes serve to clear our minds and make us more prepared for the work we do. I don’t have a definite measure, but it seems to me that I am being more productive at work since we started being serious about walking. Those of us who spend long hours in the office know that we have times of being in the office, but not being terribly productive. We have lulls when creativity is low and not much actually gets done. I’m learning at this late stage of my career, the power of simply getting up from my desk and making a quick walk around the building to renew energy and increase focus.

So today is a day to bundle up and get out despite the cold. If we are lucky, the wind won’t be blowing.

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!

Continual learning

There is an old joke that I first heard in one of Garrison Keillor’s monologues on A Prairie Home Companion. He was speaking of the fictional “Rural Lutheran Clergy Conference.” He said that the conference was where Lutheran clergy got together and let their hair down. Since they don’t really have long hair, it isn’t a dramatic event. I’ve used variations on that line several times when speaking of my role and my relationship with the congregation that I serve. I don’t really need to go somewhere else to let my hair down because I’m pretty much the same person in front of the congregation as I am when I’m in a private place. At least I think that I’m pretty open and transparent with my congregation. I tell personal stories as a part of my sermons. I try to be completely honest with my interactions with official boards and committees. I know that the congregation is watching my behavior as well as my words. Pastors lead as much by who they are as by what they say.

Still, there are some places where I try to be a bit careful. I grieve when there are deaths in the congregation, but the grief is not even and consistent. Some funerals are harder for me than others. However, every funeral deserves the highest and best I can bring to it. As a result, I sometimes get my grieving out of sync with that of the congregation. I reserve my tears for moments outside of the funeral. I try to choose my words carefully so that my emotions will remain in control. I may need to break down and cry, but I attempt to do so in less public moments.

I also understand that the life of the congregation is not about me. Not long ago, I read a Facebook meme from a pastor that said, “If I were to give a Ted Talk, what do you assume my topic would be?” My reaction was pretty quick and pretty judgmental. I didn’t write a response, but what came to my mind was, “Yourself. I’ve never heard you talk about anything else.” You know that type of person - the one who can bring any story around to her or his story. I don’t want to be that person. The life of the church is bigger and more broad than my experience. Sure, decisions made by the church have a deep impact on my life, but I try to constantly remind myself that it isn’t about me. I give myself permission to tell my own story as an illustration, but I work hard not to make myself the center of attention or the center of the story.

That is a real challenge in a long-term ministry. There re members of the church who have belonged to the church a shorter amount of time than I. I’ve been around for long enough that some of them think of me and the church as being together and it is the only way they think of the church. I hope and pray that they didn’t just join the pastor, but rather are deeply committed to the church, but I also know that some people just don’t make that distinction. One of the things they like about the church is me and my style of leading worship.

Now, as the time for my leadership in the church to end approaches, it is important that those loyalties shift to the community of the church. I have been trying to step back a bit and to emphasize the leadership of others. I have tried to offer my opinions, but not make demands. It is a difficult balance and I’m learning as I go. I have hopes and fears for the congregation and for the continuing church. I have opinions about the way I’d like to see some decisions go. But I know that I need to step aside and allow new leadership to emerge and I know that a more hands off approach is the best way for the congregation to move into the next phase of its life. That doesn’t mean that I have stopped caring. As Mary Keithahn wrote in one of her hymns, “The hardest part of loving is letting go.”

One of my ways of evaluating my relationship with the church is to check to see if I am acting out of faith or out of fear. I don’t deny that I have fears about the future for the congregation. But I hear the Gospel call to lay aside my fears. Sometimes it doesn’t seem as simple as “consider the lilies of the field.” I’m not able to lay aside effort and the passion to work very hard, but I know that worrying is not the path to the future towards which God is calling us. When I am feeling afraid, it is a signal to me that I need to think things through in a different way. A conversation with a dedicated church leader last week was a gentle and very helpful reminder to lay aside my fears and allow God to work through the circumstances of our lives. Once again I learned that when I am acting or thinking in fear it is time to try to shift my perspective.

i am fascinated and encouraged by how much the final six months of a 25-year ministry are as challenging as were the first six months. I have a lot of work to do. I have a lot to learn. I need to focus my energies and stretch my understanding. It matters that I give my best in this phase of ministry. There are, however, fewer books and guides for this phase of the journey. I knew where to find the books to read when I was getting started. I knew which mentors to consult and how to learn. It is a bigger challenge. Some of my mentors for this phase of my ministry are no longer living. Others have been consulted, but there is much that I need to learn on my own.

One thing is certain. This will not be a time of boredom and repetition. I’ll keep trying new things as I learn and grow.

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!

Of black holes and God

Being a child of the space race years, I grew up at a time when public schools were focused on science education. Before the days of STEM education, students were encouraged to study science and to pursue technological educations. For reasons that aren’t entirely clear to me, I resisted that push even though my family was involved in aviation and I had every opportunity to pursue a career that was related to flying and space exploration. Instead, I plunged into the humanities, studying philosophy and theology in my college career. At that time, however, a bachelor’s degree required some balance. Even a B.A. required basic science and math courses and a B.S. required some basic humanities. Things are much different these days with humanities departments disappearing from university education and students urged to pursue STEM courses without any exposure to the humanities. At any rate, I took only the basic requirements of mathematics and science during my college career.

Without formal eduction, however, I have maintained an interest in science and exploration and have a deep appreciation for scientific method. I simply do not buy into the false dichotomy of science vs. religion. The two fields of exploration are not opposed, but rather enhance each other. Those who portray religion as opposed to science often betray not only misconceptions about the nature of science, but also misconceptions about the history and traditions of religion.

Yesterday we had a presentation by a NASA Solar System Ambassador at our church. The presentation was focused on black holes. The presenter was Arjun Ayyangar, an amazing young man who has been a part of our congregation since he began his collegiate studies at the age of 15. He is a musical prodigy in addition to his studies in science that have brought him to the completion of a masters degree and the beginning of another and a prominent position at Lockheed Martin at an age that is younger than most students have completed their bachelor’s degree. He has served internships at NASA and received recognition from many different arenas. You can check our his web page or YouTube channel to get to know more about him. Although his videos are mostly of musical performances, he has started to post some of his NASA presentations on his YouTube channel as well.

After his presentation, we had a bit of time to go for a walk. The weather was cooperative and although there is a bit of snow and ice around our town, we were ale to pick up our usual vigorous pace and get some exercise. We talk as we walk and our subjects are wide ranging. Having just attended the presentation on black holes, we discussed that presentation. Our conversation drifted to languages and the challenges of translation as well as a wide variety of other topics.

Among the concepts we were discussing was the nature of gravity as presented by Arjun. We often think of gravity as a force of attraction. Things fall to the earth because the mass of the earth attracts them. This is a misnomer and thinking of gravity this way leads to a misunderstanding of black holes. Gravity is not a force of attraction. Black holes do not “suck” material like some kind of giant vacuum cleaner. Rather the curvature of the universe means that the universe presses down on items and creates the force that makes objects in the universe move the way that they do. Instead of a pull, gravity is in reality a push.

In decidedly non scientific lay terms, a black hole is a region of space that surrounds an incredibly dense and most compressed point, know as a singularity. This singularity is surrounded by a region of space from which nothing, not even light, can escape. The speed required for escape from that event horizon is greater than the speed of light, thus trapping those objects that are within it. According to the theory, everything within the event horizon is irreversibly drawn towards the singularity, where the curvature of spacetime become infinite. Gravity, therefore is infinitely strong, pushing towards the center. As a result it is impossible to directly observe what is going on in the black hole because information is not able to escape. What we can do is to observe what lies around the black hole.

The concept requires complex mathematics. Mathematicians suggested that black holes existed before they had been named and before there was anything remotely like observation of even the areas around the black holes. Einstein’s theory of general relativity opened the way for other mathematicians to predict that the phenomena exists.

The concept, it seems to me, is a form of theology. We do not directly observe God. The ancients taught that to look upon the face of God is to die. They also reported encounters with God and moments when Moses and the prophets engaged in direct conversation with God. Those seemingly contradictory concepts emerge from the inability of language to express the complete nature of God. Cosmologists observe the universe, but the reality is beyond the capacity of language to express. Even mathematics, when used as a language, is insufficient to explain the universe. So humans develop hypotheses about the true nature of the universe and set out to prove or disprove the theories extended.

God, like gravity, exists whether or not we have the language to speak of God. And, like gravity, God affects every bit of our existence. Without God we do not exist. It may simply be the way that I think, but I cannot listen to a presentation on the cosmos or think of astrophysics without thinking of the nature of God. Just pushing my mind to expand its understanding makes me think of the nature of God in the universe. And each new concept expands my vision of the universe and expands my concept of the nature of God.

Thus we participate in a church where a discussion of Black Holes is presented on Baptism of Christ Sunday and the conversations spun off from that convergence last all week long.

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!

Baptized for belonging

The folks who do the weather reporting and keep the records on such matters say that the year just ended was the wettest since they have been keeping records here in South Dakota. Of course South Dakota is a big state and we don’t always have the same weather across all of our territory. The most rain fell at the other end of the state, but still, where we live moisture has been generous. Our lawns stayed green without being watered all of last summer. The forest is feeling healthy when you walk around the hills. The reservoirs are full and the creek is running with plenty of water. And we’ve had a reasonable amount of snow so far this winter with the forecast calling for more.

I’ve lived most of my life in places that might be considered to be semi-arid. The closest we lived to a real desert was Boise, Idaho, where we lived for ten years. Boise has an annual rainfall of about 11 inches, which isn’t much, but it has the advantage of being close to some powerful rivers and a heritage of irrigation and systems of water management. The hills were we have made our home for nearly a quarter of a century have no natural lakes, but are dotted with reservoirs that store water and give us opportunities for recreation.

Water is essential for life and the people who settled into the countries of the Middle East have been aware of water and the simple fact that it is a precious and limited resource for as long as they can remember. In the time of Jesus, people had learned to live in the region by keeping track of the natural springs, digging a few important wells, crafting vessels to carry water and learning to treat water with care. The few streams that flowed in the arid country we often as small as a trickle, muddy and shallow.

All of this is to say that when Jesus was baptized John in the river Jordan, there is no record of how the baptism took place. It is assumed that Jesus was immersed in the water. That would have been the tradition. Rituals of cleansing often involved large jugs of water so that the bath would be enough to cover the body of the one being cleansed. The Jordan has some deep areas and pools where it would be practical for those going to be baptized by John to be completely covered by the water. But the bible records no discussion about the method of baptism or the process used. The Christian tradition of three immersions in the name of the three persons of the trinity would not have been in place. Jesus was the second person of the trinity and the concept of the Holy Spirit was not at all well developed in the theology of the time.

Jesus and John and those who witnessed the event understood that the action was symbolic. A ritual cleansing isn’t the same thing as a thorough scrubbing. It is a symbol of leaving behind unwanted characteristics and commitments and assuming a new relationship with God. The language used by John was “repent,” which means to go in a new direction. Those baptized did so as a sign that they intended to leave behind their old ways and head out in a new direction.

The baptism of Jesus is recorded in Matthew, Mark and Luke. John doesn’t directly describe the baptism. Matthew, whose Gospel we read today reports that John was reluctant to perform the ceremony for Jesus. Perhaps he thought that the symbolism was all wrong. He had been calling on people to repent and then baptizing them as a sign that they had made the commitment to repentance. John saw no need for Jesus to repent. He suggested that instead, Jesus should be the one doing the baptizing and John the one to receive it. Jesus dismisses his protests, saying, “Let it be so now.”

In a sense, the church has been arguing about baptism ever since. People struggle with symbols. They want to make the symbol into the thing that it symbolizes. They don’t see the distinction that was at the heart of the conversation between John and Jesus. John understands who Jesus is. He knows that Jesus is not a person who has sinned by ignoring the needs of others or failing to demonstrate compassion or falling into idolatry or forgetting God’s love of the people. Jesus does not need to repent and start over with a new life.

It is not unlike the precious infants that parents bring to the church for baptism. These children are not filled with sin. They are not estranged from God. They do not need the actions of the minister or of the church in order to get into heaven. God loves them before they are baptized. The baptism is rather a symbol of their acceptance into the community of the church.

Jesus, too, participated in a symbol of his entrance into human life. He accepted all of what it means to be human, pain and sorrow and suffering as well as joy an hope and love. Fully human, he emerged from the water to be reminded that he had not cast off his special relationship with God. His baptism demonstrated that he was both fully human and fully divine. The baptism didn’t change the nature of Jesus. It didn’t change his relationship with the Creator. It revealed more of Jesus’ identity to those who witnessed it. The story remains with us to remind us of this identity.

We, who have been baptized in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, are not materially changed by this symbolic act. We are not less likely to make mistakes. We are not more loved by God. We are baptized for belonging. By our baptism we are welcomed into the community of the church. And we acknowledge that faith is not something we do alone. We need others. We need to belong.

The water is a symbol of that belonging.

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!

Happy retirement

One of my friends from my growing up years left his job as the laboratory manager of Bozeman Deaconess Hospital yesterday. He posted a video of himself on Facebook with the following caption: “I just left work for the last time today, this week, this month, this year, this lifetime.” There was a party at the Copper Whiskey Bar and Grill and a lot of positive comments and tributes from friends. He has a lot of friends and he has been active on Facebook so there are a lot of comments there as well.

In preparation for his retirement he posted that his retirement “bible” was going to be a parody by Sarah Knight with a rather vulgar title. Knight has written a stack of books with swear words in the titles. I guess it is her way of talking, or at least of writing. She used to work in the New York publishing industry until she discovered how to forge her own free lance life. With her publishing connections and what I assume is considerable talent she has come up with a whole list of advice books. The subtitle of the book my friend has quoted is: “How to stop spending time you don’t have with people you don’t like doing things you don’t want to do.”

I don’t really know the life story of my friend. We did quite a few things together when we were young teenagers living in the same town. Then I went off to college and from there to the rest of my life. We haven’t lived in the same state since the 1970’s and we haven’t really reconnected. With Facebook we now have access to a bit of each other’s stories, but I’m pretty guarded about what I post in that arena and, frankly, I don’t spend much time looking at it. I could easily have missed his retirement, but I received a notice on my Facebook page because a mutual friend had commented on his retirement. The mutual friend spends a lot of time on Facebook it seems.

Back to the first friend. I wish him well in retirement. He is in a happy marriage. They have been prudent with their earnings, Their health appears to be very good. They should be able to travel and adventure and have lots of good times.

It does, however, make me a little bit sad that at least part of his final years of working was “spending time that he didn’t have with people he didn’t like doing things he didn’t want to do.” He was a manager. He ran the lab at the hospital. They had a mission of providing essential information for the treatment of people who have serious illnesses. Their work had great purpose and meaning. He had control over who else worked in the lab and how procedures and protocols were developed. I know that there is a bit of stress working in the corporate hospital environment. I know that he had to put up with a few too many meetings and learn to deal with hospital politics, but I can’t imagine that it was all that bad.

It is entirely possible that I am reading too much into it and I don’t want to pour cold water on his retirement party, but I’m hoping for a somewhat less dramatic transition from the life of everyday work for myself.

I don’t hate my job. I don’t hate the people I work with. Sure, there are some tasks that make me feel like I’m spinning my wheels. There are some meetings where I feel like I haven’t accomplished as much as I had hoped. There are some people that I have to struggle to understand. But even those things are part of what makes the work I do interesting.

I once served a congregation with a member who had a particularly prickly personality, at least from my perspective. He would put on a nice face, but underneath he seemed to be incredibly selfish and just plain mean. He said things on occasion that felt like a kick in the gut to me. He didn’t seem to understand that I was balancing the concerns of others whom I served and always wanted his concerns to be my highest priority. It took me years to figure this guy out. I had to learn to provide care for him when his life was dramatically changed by a serious illness. Working with him taught me that there is a grave danger in walking away from a relationship too quickly. I could have just dismissed him and not spent time with him and if I had done so I would have failed to understand his story. I would have missed the goodness that is inside of him.

Sticking with things even when they are uncomfortable has been a blessing in my life. I don’t want to get away from challenges. I don’t want to avoid people with whom I disagree. I don’t want to think of my life’s vocation as something I need to escape.

I think my friend and I are very close to the same age. I took a few years longer to begin my professional career because of graduate school. He has changed jobs a few more times than I. But he has been in the same job for the last fifteen years, and it is a direct promotion from another job he held int he same hospital, so he has had stable and steady employment. We seem, however, to be approaching retirement from different perspectives.

I am trying to teach myself to savor each task and each day, to rise to the challenges without too much of an attitude. I admit that this is a struggle some days. I won’t miss some of the surprises and curve balls that get handed to me. I find it harder to get up in the middle of the night to respond to a call when there have already been other calls the same week. I get tired a bit more easily. I have a few more aches and pains. I can’t make a bottle of Aleve last to its expiration date the way I used to.

But I am not unhappy. And I expect that my last day of work at this job will feel more sad than happy for me. I’m preparing to move on and I’m looking forward to new challenges, but I’m also dragging my feet just a little bit. It’s just the way I am.

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!

Dad jokes

My friends at the Well were teasing me about my “Dad jokes.” I’m not exactly sure of the definition of dad jokes, but thinking of it got me to remembering my father. My father had several puns, rhymes an other jokes that he loved to tell. They were mostly silly sorts of things like these:

Old Mother Hubbard went to her cupboard to get her poor daughter a dress.
When she go there, the cupboard was bare, and so was her daughter, I guess.

Why don’t ducks fly upside down?
Because if they do they’ll quack up.

Did you know there were instructions for seduction in the Bible?
Solomon gave her wine and nectar. (necked her)

There is also marijuana in the Bible.
Paul says, “I myself was once stoned.”

He had quite a few others. When I was a teenager, I used to groan at his jokes. Partly it was that I had heard all of them before. Part of it was that I though my dad was a bit silly and maybe was a bit embarrassed when he told jokes to my friends. His jokes really weren’t the most difficult parts of his personality, just something I didn’t appreciate at the time.

Now, 39 years after he died, I like to remember him and his jokes make me smile. I tell them on occasion. And, after all I am a father and a grandfather, so I guess having a few dad jokes is pretty much expected. Furthermore our grandchildren are just the right ages to begin to understand the concept of jokes.

Knock, knock.
Who’s there?
Orange.
Orange who?
Knock, knock.
Who’s there?
Orange.
Orange who?
Knock, knock.
Who’s there?
Orange.
Orange you glad I didn’t say banana?

Grandpa, how do I look?
With your eyes.

Do you know the Christmas alphabet?
ABCDEFGHIJKMNOPQRSTUVWXYZ
No L

How can you tell if a pterodactyl is using your bathroom?
You can’t. The pee is silent.

My grandchildren laugh at my jokes. My children roll their eyes.

One of the types of humor that i have enjoyed for much of my life is a simple pun. I like it even better if the pun requires a significant bit of storytelling for a setup.

Did you know that two of William Penn’s aunts settled in the new world with him. They opened a bakery and sold their goods. Some people, however, thought that their prices were simply too high. They complained about the pie rates of Penn’s aunts.

Then there is the related one: A slice of apple pie is $2.50 in Jamaica and $3 in the Bahamas. These are the pie rates of the Caribbean.

When I was a student, I had a few friends who would try to make serial puns, each picking up where another left off. The jokes were pretty silly and we’d get to giggling. My wife would say to others, “Don’t encourage him!” and she got really good at not reacting at all to a pun. I’d look for some kind of giggle or even a groan, but she tried to give no reaction whatsoever.

Did you hear about the guy whose wife said he had no sense of direction/ It made him so mad that he packed up his things and right.

Did you know that the first French fries weren’t actually cooked in France? They were cooked in Greece.

Don’t ever buy a pair of shoes from a drug dealer. You don’t know what they’re laced with and you could be tripping all day long.

It’s easy to make holy water. You just boil the hell out of it.

I have a young adult friend who is younger than our children. He probably thinks of me as being of the generation of his grandparents. He likes puns and he will laugh at my silly jokes. Sometimes when we are sitting together in choir we can even be a bit disruptive laughing and giggling at our silliness.

Do you know why the orchestra tunes to the oboe? Because there is no such thing as an oboist who could admit to being out of tune.

Did you know the bassoon was invented by a duck hunter? He just crossed a shotgun with a duck call and a new instrument was born.

If a preschooler won’t lie down at nap time is he guilty of resisting a rest?

The secret service no longer yells “Get down!” if there is a threat to the president. Now they have to yell, “Donald, duck!”
.
I think my friends are right. I probably am guilty of making dad jokes.

It reminds me of the book I read about overcoming gravity.
It was impossible to put down.

I like words. I like thinking about things in language. I enjoy reading and writing and talking. I love to tell stories. I’m pretty susceptible to dad jokes.

Did you hear that FedEx and UPS are merging. They are going to be FedUps.

I was named after Thomas Jefferson.
But your name is Ted Huffman!
True, but Jefferson was named in 1743 and I was named tin 1953. I was definitely named after him.

Hey, pirate, I heard it is your birthday.
Aye Matey
Wow! You don’t look like you’re more than 40.

I used to tell the guys at the coffee shop that clergy needed to go to retreats in order to exchange pulpit jokes. They said that was a waste of time because they told jokes every morning at coffee. I reminded them that they hadn’t ever told a joke I could repeat from the pulpit.

Actually I don’t tell many pulpit jokes. One has to be careful not to hurt someone’s feelings. And if your job is to tell the truth, you need to be careful with your choice of words. People laugh when I preach because I tell stories about the things real people do and we do tend to be funny at times - and sometimes we laugh when we recognize ourselves.

You’d better take your passport to the bathroom because you’re an American when you go in and you’re an American when you come out, but while you are in there European.

Even I know I should quit telling jokes sometimes.

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!

Created for Community

There is quite a stir in the British press over an announcement recently made by the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, Prince Harry and Meghan that they intend to step back from some of their duties as senior members of the Royal Family and work to become financially independent. I’m not much of a royal watcher, but I have followed some of the ups and downs of the British monarchy simply because I read British news sources. I like the stories and photographs of the babies born to the family and have marveled at the stamina and resilience of the Queen. But I have no clue what the announcement means other than the fact that it appears that Harry and Meghan have decided to have two homes, one in England and one in Canada.

The couple has spent the last six weeks or so on vacation in Canada with their eight-month-old son, Archie. Meghan is American. Her mother lives in California. And she lived in Toronto before the couple married.

I admit I haven’t got a clue what the announcement means. I don’t understand how the British royal family works at all. It appears that the royal family has significant wealth through inheritance from previous generations, that they receive additional support directly from the government and that anyone born into that family doesn’t have to worry about money or working for income to their family. Part of their duties is managing significant amounts of historic wealth and properties. Part of their duties is administering various charities that distribute small amounts of their wealth to those in need. Part of their duties is participating in official functions and being a kind of public face for the British people. I’m pretty sure than no royal and probably no true royal watcher would accept my analysis.

The move, however, reminded me of something that my father frequently said when one or another member of our family got upset. “We’re a family and you can’t resign from a family.” We human beings are bound together in deep and important ways. We are not meant for solitary existence. Whatever announcements are made, wherever they choose to live, Harry and Meghan are forever bound to their family and will forever be seen as part of that family. Harry will remain in the line of succession for the British throne. It is unlikely that h will ever ascend to that position. When his grandmother dies, his father is next in line, followed by his brother and his brother’s children. There are plenty of people in line in front of him. And they are all family.

The late John Cacioppo was a professor at the University of Chicago who did extensive scholarly work on loneliness. He wrote that the only real biological advantage humans have over other species is our connection, our belonging; our ability to collaborate, plan, and be in relationship in special ways. He argues that the desperate need to belong is not a neurosis. It is, rather a part of our DNA - the result of an evolutionary process of survival.

I use different language to express the same reality. Humans were created by God for the sake of relationship. God seeks relationship with humans so much that in Christ, God became fully human. The resurrected Christ is present and available to each person. Furthermore, we were made for community. The body of Christ is not a single individual, but rather a community of people.

Whatever words are used, the simple fact is that not only are we all in this together, we all need one another in order to get through this life. As it says in Genesis 2:8, “It is not good that the man should be alone.”

I think that there are other species of creatures that are also deeply connected. At least I observe the deer and turkeys in our neighborhood traveling in groups and staying connected. Geese seem to never do anything alone. If one flies, a half dozen fly. If one is on the shore there are others on shore. Insects are communal and live in close colonies. Maybe the urge to belong and to be connected is not something that distinguishes humans from other creatures, but rather something that is essential to many forms of life. Plants require other plants of the same species in order to pollinate.

I have been reflecting on the connections that bind us together because our family is spread out over a lot of geography. Our son lives with his family in Washington State. Our daughter’s family live in Japan right now, but will likely make an international move in the next couple of years. I have a sister and brother in Montana, but my sister spends a lot of time in Oregon where her children live. I have another brother in Washington. Susan has sisters in Montana and Oregon. We are all family. We feel close to one another. We invest a lot of energy in being together when we can. The distances that separate us do not divide us from one another.

Harry and Meghan and Archie won’t cease to be members of the Royal Family when they are living in their home in Canada. They won’t be less royal in another setting than they are living in Frogmore cottage, which by the way, was recently remodeled at taxpayer expense.

All of us belong to one another. Our lives are inherently connected. I am deeply aware of that when I work with survivors of suicide. The person who has died may not have been consciously thinking about their impact. That person might have felt lonely and cut off, but there are a lot of people affected by the act of suicide. A wide circle of people are plunged into grief by the event. I sometime think that if the victim had known how many people genuinely cared their lives might have taken a different course.

So, my friends, we are all connected. We need that connection. Nurturing community is in our best interests - and in the best interests of others 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!

Facing fear

“I’m afraid we have no other choice.”
“I’m afraid that is the new norm.”
“I’m afraid we’ve ignored our own policies.”

I’m not sure what it was about yesterday and the particular meetings that I attended, but somehow it struck me that people were using the word “afraid” a lot.

Of course there are many reasons to be afraid in our world.

Iran tried to target two US bases in Iraq with the intention of killing US troops yesterday in an escalating conflict that keeps bringing the Middle East closer and closer to open war. It is a war that likely could involve major world powers in global conflict.

The Australia bushfires are just one of many signs that global climate change is permanently affecting the lives of a lot of people. And it isn’t just bush fires. Rising sea levels are threatening all kinds of coastal properties from oceanic research stations to residences. Decreasing glaciers and melting polar ice caps are threatening wildlife and traditional sustenance activities. As the Harvey Weinstein trial gets underway in New York City, more and more reports of the ill treatment and abuse of women by powerful men continue to make headlines. A Ukrainian airliner carrying 176 people has crashed in Iran and officials say there is no chance of finding survivors.

Scan any news source and it isn’t difficult to find reasons to be afraid. There are real threats in this world.

What strikes me, however, is not that people are afraid when real threats enter their lives. It seems to me that I keep encountering people who are afraid when there is little to threaten them.

Our own church is not exempt. We seem to live in fear as much as others. Occasionally a stranger will wander into our building at a time when we are not having public services. Usually it is someone who is seeking help. Perhaps they are hungry and have no money, or are traveling and have encountered unexpected expenses or problems. Sometimes those who wander in are impaired by addictions and abuses of substances. A couple of times in the past 25 years items have been stolen from our building. For longer than I’ve been at the church, there has been a basic security system in the building that involves fire, heat and smoke detectors. The system also has basic entry and glass break alarms on the church offices. A couple of times the system has reported attempted burglaries and thieves have been caught. Within the last year, however, a new system that involves a half dozen security cameras and keeping our building locked with and electronic lock so that visitors can be buzzed into the building after being identified on camera has been installed. It was deemed to be necessary for the safety and security of our employees. I don’t believe that it is any more dangerous to work in our building than was ever the case. We are ini a safe place in the city and we have not experienced threats to those of us who work there. I spend hours and hours in the building alone and have never been afraid. Somehow however people have become frightened enough to spend significant amounts of money on enhanced building security.

People are afraid.

There are many problems with fear. It doesn’t bring out the best in us. When we are afraid we fail to recognize strangers as the gifts of God that they are. When we are afraid we invest our energy in making our world smaller instead of recognizing the wide and wonderful glory of God. Furthermore, most of the time when we are afraid, our reaction is disproportionate to the actual thread. Fear when no threat exists can become a debilitating form of mental illness. Unrealistic distrust of others can inhibit normal human interaction.

Jesus message to his disciples on fear is very clear. It appears throughout the Gospel narrative. It is simply, “Be not afraid.” And it isn’t just Jesus. The reassurance of God and the invitation for us to live in faith and not fear is throughout the Bible.

“So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God.  I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” - Isaiah 41:10

“When I am afraid, I put my trust in you."  - Psalm 56:3

“Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.  And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” - Philippians 4:6-7

“Peace is what I leave with you; it is my own peace that I give you. I do not give it as the world does. Do not be worried and upset; do not be afraid.” - John 14:27

For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.” - 2 Timothy 1:7

“There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” - 1 John 4:18

It still remains the job of the church and its ministries to help people to come out from under the oppression of fear. Fear enslaves those who are trapped by it. They lose the ability to sleep, to live fully and to trust.

I wish I knew better how to inspire courage. I wish I were more able to respond to those “I’m afraid” statements when I hear them in meetings and other activities. I know that whatever people face, whatever turmoil or struggles, whatever anxious thoughts occupy our hearts and minds, God is greater than all of those things. The power to live courageously, body and fearlessly in this life is available to those who live in faith.

I pray that i will find ways to help those around me to live strong, hope-filled lives. I hope that today I will hear less of the fears and more of the hopes.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!

A monstrous threat

Biblical scholars disagree a bit bout the exact dates, but it is generally accepted that one of the major turning points of the Old Testament is the Babylonian exile.It is generally agreed that the exile lasted for around 70 years, which is the length mentioned in the book of Jeremiah. The exact date of its beginning, however is subject of discussion. At issue in terms of the dates is that the complete conquering of Israel took a long time. The conquering of Israel may have begun as early as 720 B.C.E., but the city of Jerusalem and Solomon’s Temple continued to exist as a lone center of Jewish culture and life. That temple was finally destroyed in 586, by Nebuchadnezzar following the site of Jerusalem. That date marks the complete domination of Israel and many historians mark it as the beginning of the exile. Using 586 as the date of the beginning of the exile and 516, the year of the dedication of the built Temple in Jerusalem, the span is 70 years and those are the used most generally used in the teaching of the history of Jerusalem.

The dates are of some interest in the light of contemporary culture because it was during that time that Cyrus the Great completed the conquest of the Median, Lydian and Babylonian empires creating what is known as the first dynasty of the Persian Empire. The shipping dynamics of the exiles who were carried off from Jerusalem were, in part, caused by the dynamics of the conquering of the conquerers.This history is not generally known by westerners, even those of us who have studied Old Testament history. It is clear that the exile coincides with the expansion of the Persian Empire to include most of the Middle East and stretching around the Mediterranean Sea at least as far as Greece. Without modern communications, the empire was so vast that it had to be administered by a series of smaller units where enormous powers were afforded to local authorities. During this time of expansion, there were multiple language groups spoken and used for administrative purposes. In the region around Jerusalem Greek continued to be the language of scholarship though certainly Hebrew, Arabic and many dialects of those languages were used by locals for conversation.

The languages of the region are especially important to Biblical scholars because our scriptures come from documents that were in two languages. What we call the “old” testament was originally written in Hebrew, while the new testament was originally in Greek.

There are several important sites that are key to the study of the history of the region. Many ancient sites are important not only as local cultural sites, but as ways to learn more about the history of the region and therefore critical to serious students of the Bible. Archaeology has been critical to expanding our understanding of the ancient texts that we hold so dear. Among the ancient sites are things such as the Tomb of Cyrus and many other sites of specific cultural and historical significance.

The center of the Persian empire was located in what is now known as Iran, which makes that country especially important to archaeologists and scholars. The study of the Exile and its impact on Jewish culture, the rise of Old Testament prophecies of the messiah and the eventual formation of the Christian church is deeply influenced by access to cultural and historic sites within Iran.

Serious biblical scholars are alarmed at the treats of President Trump to destroy 52 Iranian sites some, “at a very high level and important to Iran and the Iranian culture.” There are many casualties of war and the anger of world leaders, but the threat to destroy the very sites that are important to learning our own history and culture seems extreme. Among the sites threatened are places recognized by the United Nations as world heritage sites.

It is often true that anger damages the one who expresses anger. For us to cut ourselves off from our own history because of our anger at contemporary leaders of other countries would be a tragedy.

It takes years, even decades, of study to fully understand the ancient stories of our people. One of my professors said that a lifetime is too short to fully understand even one of the books of the Bible. What we know is certainly the result of generations of study passed down from teachers to students who become teachers in their own time.

World leaders and especially our current President are known to say things rhetorically that are not backed up by actions. There is a difference between threatening to destroy cultural sites and actually causing the destruction. But the threat is taken seriously. What has been threatened would certainly be a violation of the 1954 convention protecting cultural property in the event of an armed conflict and the 1972 convention to protect the world’s natural and cultural heritage. World leaders have, in the past, set limits on the use of military power to destroy sites of important cultural and historic import. The world roundly condemned Taliban destruction of Buddhist sites in Afghanistan. Again we watched in horror when the Islamic State targeted mosques, shrines, churches and famous sites such as Palmyra in Syria. Cultural attacks threaten our capacity to know our own history and destroy forever the possibility of gaining additional knowledge and understanding.

Of course the differences between national leaders often come from differences in the interpretation of history and the understandings of the past. Threats made in anger and the actions that often follow those threats are not new to our generation. Nebuchadnezzar really did destroy Solomon’s temple. Roman legions under Titus destroyed much of Jerusalem including the Second Temple in 66 CE. Critical cultural and historical information has been forever destroyed, and people still mourn at the site of the rubble.

The philosopher George Santayana is credited with saying “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.” It is sometimes quoted as “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” It makes me wonder what is said of those who intentionally destroy sites of historical and cultural significance.

What, even, of those who threaten to do so?

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!

Duck, Duck, Goose

ducks on lake
I had a little bit of extra time last Saturday, so after rising and eating a light breakfast, I decided to grab my camera and head down to Canyon Lake for a game of Duck, Duck, Goose. Canyon Lake is still completely open, with no ice in sight and thus it is a real attraction for waterfowl. Canadian Geese are birds of opportunity. As long as they have access to open water and a sufficient food supply, they see no need to migrate further south. They seem to thrive on the crowds of geese that have gathered at the lake. I have no idea how many geese were there, but it was a lot. In fact, if the game was Duck, Duck, Goose, I think you’d run out of ducks a long time before you ran out of geese at the lake right now. The geese definitely had the bigger number.

I am not a birder. I enjoy looking at birds, but haven’t gotten into making all of the identifications. We do, however, own a couple of books that help with identifying birds and, of course the Internet is filled with resources for those who want to verify what they have seen.

geense on water
It was as a casual observer that I walked along the shore of the lake and watched as the birds took off and landed and paddled around the water. My arrival at the lake wasn’t first thing in the morning, but it was early enough that there weren’t the numbers of people who would later show up to walk on the trails in the park. As I walked down to the lake, the birds would slowly paddle a bit farther from the shore to move away from me. When I would sit very still, they would paddle back so I could get a closer look.

There isn’t much variation in the geese. They are all pretty much the same type of bird. They are loud and they splash a lot when taking off and landing. They seem to be social birds, always going about in groups whether walking on shore, paddling on the water or flying. I managed to get a few pictures fo flying geese both with their beaks open and with their beaks closed. The birds like to honk to each other as they fly.

mallard
I was, however, fascinated by the ducks. Probably the most common ducks around here this time of the year are the Mallards. They raise their chicks on the various reservoirs in the hills and are a common sight. The bright green heads of the drakes are showy and they are fun to watch.

There were also several large groups of Golden Eye ducks on the lake. An amateur like me might misidentify an individual bird, but I’m pretty sure I also saw a lone merganser and what I think was a pair of redhead ducks. There was plenty to see as I sat by the lake.

I am so used to looking at birds from the perspective of a boat. A canoe or kayak allows me to sit at the level of the water. My wooden boats are very quiet on the water and if I use what we call the Indian stroke, I can move through the water without bothering the other creatures that are on the lake. However, I’m pretty sure that the lake was crowded enough that had I brought a canoe with me on Saturday, I would have created quite a disruption, with ducks and geese taking to flight and moving around the lake in large flocks. So watching from the shore seemed like the least invasive way to see what was going on. Canyon Lake is a very small lake, so it is easy to keep track of what is going on.

The perspective of being on shore, however, is a bit more dramatic than I expected. I’m not a very tall person, but when I stand, I’m a lot taller than a goose sitting on the water. I found myself trying to get as low as possible to get the pictures that i was after.

The morning was good for clearing my head and disconnecting from some of the worries that have otherwise occupied me lately. And it did get me to thinking about playing Duck, Duck, Goose. The game is a good one for a group of preschoolers and there are versions that can entertain older children briefly. The “picker” walks around a circle of children seated on the ground, tapping each one on the head and saying, “duck.” When another player is chosen, the picker says, “goose” and the “goose’ gets up and chases the picker. If the picker gets to the place where the “goose” was before being tagged, the “goose” becomes the picker and play resumes.

There is a version, best played in the summer and perhaps more suitable for older children called Drip, Drip, Drop. In this version, the picker has a cup of water. A small amount of water is dropped on each seated player until the picker chooses a chaser. Then the rest of the cup of water is poured on the chaser and the picker yells “Drop!” The chase ensues and the cup is refilled for another round. It doesn’t take long before everyone is wet and a general water fight ensues.

geese in flight
The geese and ducks, however, don’t mind being wet. Their feathers are well suited to being in and out of water all day long and they have sufficient stores of fat to keep themselves warm. Liquid water, furthermore, is above freezing, so even though it feels very cold to us, it is not too cold for the birds. The birds also don’t go in for circles much. Their game at this time of the year has mostly to do with feeding and surviving. They do, however, at times appear to be chasing one another.

There really isn’t much about watching birds on the lake that connects it with children playing games other than the name of the game and the way my brain works. But in the midst of a very busy day yesterday, it was a distraction to think of the ducks and geese and it captured my attention enough to become the topic of today’s journal entry.

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!

Praying for Peace

Isiah 9:6 is one of the most frequently quoted verses in Christian theology. People know it because it is sung by a a chorus in the Mesiah, written on Christmas cards, and declared every Advent in the liturgy: “For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”

Christmas is the season of celebrating the Prince of Peace and an appropriate time to speak of pursuing peace.

This Christmas doesn’t feel like a time of peace. Tensions between the United States and Iran have been mounting since the United States pulled out of a treaty designed to limit Iran’s development of nuclear weapons. Despite the urging of other NATO leaders, our President chose to end the deal and exert “maximum economic pressure” on the Iranian government. This did not lead to an easing of tensions. Iranian backed militants began to operate in Iraq in the aftermath of US troop reductions there. Eventually protestors stormed the US Embassy. When President Trump’s top military advisers offered options for a response, the President chose an option that those leaders thought sure would be rejected because it was too extreme: to kill General Qassim Sulemani. That is the option the President chose. The decision has dire consequences. Imminent threats now exist. All non-military US personnel have been ordered out of Iraq. The world seems to be waiting in fear of the response that most pundits are predicting. The focus on conflict with Iran has distracted leaders from the fight with ISIS. It may make it impossible for US forces to stay in Iraq, which will certainly make it easier for an ISIS comeback. Despite the President’s statement that he made the choice he made because he wants to prevent war, Americans are not safer in the aftermath of his decision.

For the post 9/11 generation, there is nothing new about war. Everyone born after October 7, 2001 has lived their entire lives with the United States engaged in the longest ward in our nation’s history. We’ve seen Presidents come and go. Infants have grown into adulthood. Other wars have begun and ended. All of this occurred while we continue to be engaged in war and the count of victims continues to rise. There are soldiers in the U.S. military who have never known a time when the U.S. wasn’t officially at war.

The founders of our nation weren’t able to envision a state of perpetual war. The authors of laws addressing the balance of powers, especially when it comes to war, did not envision the US engage in multiple wars at the same time.

Despite an acceptance of constant war, there is considerable fear in our country about what this new war - or threat of war might mean.

It is hard to stand up in front of people and declare the reign of the prince of peace. I am afraid that there are people, even faithful people who worship regularly in our congregation, who have begun to lose their faith in peace.

And it isn’t just the world’s political situation that brings dark shadows over our community.

Our brothers and sisters in the United Methodist Church are facing a church-wide vote, to be taken in May over splitting their church into two separate denominations. Details have been worked out about how much money the “traditionalist” churches would get ($25 million). Another $2 million has been set aside for the possibility of potential new denominations that might emerge. Prominent Bishops were involved in creating the proposal for the denominational split that contains the details about ownership of property and other issues. The split comes after the fracturing of the church last February in a vote over the ordination of openly gay ministers and acceptance or rejection of gay marriage. Plenty of faithful Methodists have been fleeing the denomination in advance of the split. We see a few of them in our congregations. Researchers say that most of them have chosen not to affiliate with another church.

Record-breaking temperatures and months of severe drought have fueled so many massive bushfires in Australia that the fire map makes it look like the entire continent is on fire. Air quality in the country’s major cities is so bad that residents are wearing gas masks whenever going outside. It is virtually impossible to find an air filter for sale in Australia right now. And it is early in the fire season. The federal government has called out military troops to assist with fire fighting efforts, but experts agree that these are fires that cannot be contained by human effort. Flames as high as 70 meters have been reported. That’s taller than the Sydney Opera House. The fires cover an area five times that of the 2018 California fires.The count of homes destroyed goes up each day. The town of Blamoral has been completely destroyed. Residents of Mallacoota rushed to the beach were only a last minute change in wind direction saved them from being killed. The states of New South Wales and Victoria remain on catastrophic alert. parks, trails and campgrounds are closed. The smoke is so intense that it is affecting air quality in New Zealand.

While the rest of world engages in debate over global climate change, Australians are living in the midst of a global climate crisis.

We could sure use a “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”

I could go on and on with stories of conflict, war, and near apocalyptic conditions around the world. I could tell stories of refugees fleeing for their lives, of children raised in conditions of perpetual war of child soldiers enmeshed in conflicts that they have no chance to understand and of innocent victims, who are always part of the story of war. It would not be difficult to make this journal entry without hope.

If ever there was a time when we need to confess our need of God, who is greater than our human powers, now is that time. So we will worship together today. We will pray for peace. And we will once again look for the hope that cannot be turned back. And while we are at it, we will pray for others to join our prayers.

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!

At the Electronics Show

Technically, the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) doesn’t start until after Epiphany. The official dates of the show are January 7 - 10, 2020. But technology reporters and others who are interested in the latest cutting-edge electronic gadgets are already descending on Las Vegas for what is one of the nation’s largest shows of electronics.Hot topics for the show this year include 5G cell phones, digital health, privacy, smarter home, and something known by its acronym I0T, the Internet of Things.

I won’t be going to CES. I’ve never attended the show. I am not concerned about being left behind. We have so many electronic gadgets in our home that there is no particular need for more. One of the gadgets that I read about in a preview of the how is a counter-top dishwasher that is designed to hold just two place sets. Since there are only two people living in our home, we often do not use our dishwasher. I’m the main dishwasher in our house. Trust me, I can wash two place settings in the skink, have them dried and put away in less time and with less effort than loading them into a machine. There will be plenty of machines on display at the show that don’t add anything to the quality of life for people.

Smart speakers are considered to be “yesterday’s news” at the show. It is generally assumed that anyone who wants one already has one. You can give voice commands to the device and the device can “learn” your preferences. It also collects data about you in the process. We don’t have one and I don’t want one. I find it to be a bit creepy to think of a device that is always listening to me. The “Siri” in my phone already occasionally will say “I didn’t catch that” when I had no intention of using the service. It creeps me out to think that my phone is spying on me. I’m definitely not a customer for Kohler’s Moxie showered that integrates an Alexa-enabled speakers and microphone. I prefer to take my showers in private, thank you very much.

Hot in the show are applications focused on health and fitness. I have a little bit of interest in such things. After my wife’s scare with AFib and her reactions to some of the medicines used to treat the condition, we decided to buy smart watches for each other for Christmas. Actually, we got them at the beginning of November, well in advance of the holiday, because that is when she was recovering sufficiently for the device to give us some reassurance. The watches can monitor heartbeat and take a rudimentary ECG that can detect signs of AFib. Since we both have some heart rhythm issues, it seemed like a good way to reassure ourselves that things are going well and reduce worry. The watches also have fitness monitors that keep track of how much we exercise, how much overall movement we make, how many steps we take, what distance we walk, and how often we stand for at least part of an hour. The application also sets goals for us. We’ve sort of become addicted to checking our “fitness rings” multiple times per day, and we’ve ben known to adjust our schedules to make sure that we get the rings closed each day.

Before I go farther, an aside: I turned 25 in 1978. We didn’t own a computer for about 7 more years. We had a manual typewriter. I’ve been continuously employed and have worked as a pastor ever since. When I was 25 I wasn’t capable of imagining how technology would impact my life and work. I turned 45 in 1998. By then we owned a computer and used computers in our everyday work life. I still wasn’t capable of imagining at that time how our church would have a seamless Wi-Fi network and a series of remotely-accessible cameras throughout the building. There is a lot of tech that has developed that I didn’t see coming. More importantly, when I was 25 I couldn’t imagine what it would feel to be me at this point in my life. A 25-year-old can’t sense what it is like to be 65 years old. The same is true for a 45 year old. And I’m sure that now, as I face my 67th birthday I can’t imagine what it will b like to be 85. However, I’m pretty sure that I have less physical stamina now than I did at 25. I’m thinking that the primary engineers who designed our smart watches are likely between the ages of 25 and 45. They designed the watches and applications around what they know. I’m sure that they had baby boomers in mind as customers for their devices and applications, but they also built their own experiences into the watches.

Trust me, the fitness application on my smart watch wasn’t designed by a 67-year-old. I don’t want to become a slave to my watch, but I admit that the fitness rings have motivated me to do things I didn’t used to do. For example, I’ve returned home aver a 12 hour day and spent a half hour on the rowing machine or an equal amount of time going up and down staircases in our home or going for a late night walk around the neighborhood just to get those rings closed before I go to sleep. I didn’t used to do that. My problem is that each time I complete a week of fitness goals the devise sets goals for the next week that exceed the previous week’s goals. The assumption behind the program is that I will become more and more fit and more and more able to meet goals. That is pretty much 25-year-old thinking. It might have been true of me 40 years ago, but I’m her to tell you that my future is not one of becoming more and more fit. I will continue to age. I can’t work as hard as I once was able. I need more sleep than used to be the case.

So I’m skipping CES again this year. I don’t need any new devices. At my age it takes a few years to get used to a piece of technology. And I no longer believe in a world where growth and consumption are without limits.

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!

Investing time and work

You wouldn’t know it from shopping in any of he retail stores in our town, and you wouldn’t know it from visiting some of the churches in our city, but today is still the season of Christmas. In fact we still have four more days of Christmas left. The twelve days of Christmas is a somewhat arbitrary count. The reports of the events in the life of the infant Jesus, found in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, do not give direct evidence of exact amounts of time. The feast day of Epiphany, on January 6 was first established in the Eastern Church. Since there was no schism between the eastern and western expressions of Christianity, some assume that the formal observance of Epiphany couldn’t have started before 1054. That date, however, is almost certainly late in terms of the establishment of the celebration. The exact origins of the festival have been lost. The establishment of the date of Christmas occurred around 354, when Christianity became recognized throughout the Roman Empire. There is significant evidence that the early Roman church did observe Epiphany on January 6 not long after the establishment of Christmas as December 25. After the Great Schism in 1054, the Eastern Church recalculated the dates of Christmas and now celebrates Christmas Eve on January 6 and Epiphany on January 19.

It is clear that the church has for a long time separated the reading of Luke’s narrative of the birth of the Christ Child and Matthew’s report of the visit of the Magi and recognized them as two separate events. It makes sense from a variety of different perspectives. If the magi had to travel far to see the child, the journey would necessarily have taken time. Though we often associate camels with the magi, the Bible makes no mention of them as the mode of transportation for magi. It also doesn’t give an exact count, though three gifts are mentioned. From those three gifts, a tradition of three magi has developed.

For contemporary Christians, there is value in seeing the two events as being separated and there is value in spreading out the celebration of Christmas over all 12 days. We live in a culture of instant gratification. I get upset if it takes too long for my computer to upload my essays. I’ve heard people complain about how “long” it takes to warm food in a microwave oven. When Amazon fails to offer next day service, people get upset. We want things to happen quickly and are used to instant responses. There is, however, great value in waiting, in patience, and in things that require a bit of time.

Unlike many contemporary members of the church, the magi were willing to undergo an arduous trip and invest time in coming to worship the child. This contrasts greatly with the prevailing culture, where we often hear that people are simply unwilling to make any effort to worship. If we don’t make the church very convenient and cater to each wish of those who worship, we are viewed as not being in touch with the needs of modern worshipers. No one seems to mention that perhaps the discipline of making and effort and investing time might make the rewards of worship that much more meaningful for those who are willing to make the investment. Return is often related to investment. When little is invested, little is gained.

Personally, I enjoy this “in between” time in which we are now living. Christmas day passed over a week ago, but Epiphany Day has not yet arrived. In this in-between time we are called to wait and to think of our investment in the community of Christ. Since the church often is referred to as the body of Christ, we need to consider what we are willing to invest in that body if we are to draw close to the incarnated Christ.

In the cycle of readings and the traditions of the church, we often designate the Sunday nearest to the day of Epiphany as the Baptism of Christ. Sometimes it is recognized a week later. Of course Jesus was baptized as an adult, so that period of delay is much longer than just 12 days. It is fairly easy for a worshipper to be confused about the holidays and festivals that surround the season of Christmas. The cycle of readings speeds up so much during the season of Epiphany. It generally feels like we are on a headlong rush to get to Good Friday and the crucifixion fo Christ. Along the way we want to tell the entire story of his life. so we cram a lot of readings into a relatively short amount of time.

Christmas, however, gives us the luxury of slowing down and paying attention to what is going on. When we don’t rush to get beyond the season, we can savor the incredible gift of God coming to us in human form. There is an ancient greek word that refers to any appearance of God. Theophany is the place where a human witnesses God’s presence. Jesus is the ultimate expression of that term. The manifestation of the Christ child in a form that could be recognized by those from outside of the Jewish faith is considered to be a significant moment in the story of our faith. The gift of the child wasn’t just to a select few, but rather to the entire world.

We will have much to celebrate when the season of Epiphany arrives. The gift of light and the revelation of the true nature of the Christ child all lie ahead for us as we tell the story of our faith. This week, however, we submit to the discipline of patience and waiting. It is, however, a different sort of waiting than we experienced during Advent. Now we have the precious infant to celebrate. Like a family with a new-born baby, it is appropriate to simply savor the power and wonder of the moment. There will be time for other pursuits soon enough.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!

A thousand words

The season of Christmas gives me some time to do a bit of thinking about a lot of things. With the New Year’s holiday a week after Christmas, there are two days off in the season and both happen to have fallen in the middle of the week for us, so work has been divided into smaller than usual pieces and there has been more time for taking walks and thinking about things. As I have been reflecting, I have also been in the process of rebuilding parts of my web site. My web site is fairly unusual. Most web communications are based on small doses of data, but the heart of my web site are these thousand word essays. So I have a lot of relatively large files on my site. Periodic reloading of the content usually involves a certain amount of looking for, finding and correcting small errors. If you look closely at the site, you will find that there are a lot of archival documents that are temporarily unavailable. I doubt that many people are sifting and sorting through my 2018 and 2019 journal entries, but at the moment the archive is incomplete. I haven’t lost any files. I have all of the documents in other places, but it has been time consuming to go through and discern why things aren’t loading properly. This process also gives me a bit of an opportunity to think about myself, as my journal is, after all, a record of my life. I pause to read entries from time to time and recall the events of my life.

On the other hand, some of the files that people do want to access are not currently available. For example, I have written a journal entry in the form of a letter to each grandchild on the day of that child’s birth. Our oldest grandchild is now 8. I plan to give the letters to the children on the occasion of their 10th birthdays, when they are confident readers who can read them on their own. I don’t know if their parents scan them from time to time, but I enjoy reading them. There are a few other journal entries that get read from time to time.

I also post book reviews, with a bit less discipline than I apply to my journal. Occasionally an author or publisher will find the book review and create a link to that review on their web site. This can cause a surge of visits to my web site. I got all of the book reviews up and going yesterday, so that process is working.

Anyway, I’ve been trying to come up with new systems of organizing information on my web site. Of course, as web sites go, even with what is now over 4,700 1,000-word essays, my web site doesn’t have a huge amount of data. Wikipedia, for example is a huge web site. Compared to that, mine is miniscule.

I came up with the idea of setting the personal goal of writing a 1,000 word essay just before I began to publish my journal online. I had kept journals prior to this, but was not disciplined to write every single day. I was working as a free-lance writer and editor on the side of my job as a pastor at the time and I wanted to improve my writing skills. Most of the information I could find about writing at the time indicated that the best way to develop skills is to develop a discipline of writing every day, in every mood, in every state of tiredness or energy. So I started writing an essay every day. Then I started publishing to create a little pressure to maintain the discipline. It worked. I’ve been able to maintain the discipline through major life events and challenges. I wrote on the days that family members were born and on days when family members died. I wrote essays from the intensive care unit of the hospital when my wife was being cared for in that place. Granted, I have not faced major illness or hospitalization since I started this discipline, but I’ve been able to maintain it through a lot.

The concept of 1000 words is based on the phrase “a picture is worth a thousand words.” I’ve heard that phrase attributed to Confucius. That attribution is not likely to be true. The term was popularized in the 1920’s by Fred R. Barnard, who is often credited with its origin. It is likely he got the phrase from Tess Flanders, a newspaper editor who discussed strategies in publishing, editing and news reporting. Barnard, however, would sometimes say the origin of the phrase was a Chinese proverb. He also ascribed it to Japanese origins. He also said, “a picture is worth ten thousand words,” either greatly enhancing the value of a picture or devaluing words to only about 10% of their original value.

The phrase is probably only about a century old and probably originated in English, where it makes a lot more sense than it would in Chinese, which is a pictographic language in the first place. In Chinese, it takes several pictures to make a single word. Each Chinese character is a representative drawing. Of course many characters are complete words, making a picture and a word of equal value. It seems that the phrase almost demands an alphabetic language where letters are a bit more symbolic. For certain the value of a word is higher than a picture in a hieroglyphic language such as ancient Egyptian.

I do intend to incorporate more pictures into my web site as I move from full time work into semi-retirement. Over the course of the year to come, I hope to spend more time with my cameras and have more illustrations to add to my web site. But I suspect it will be a bit more like a single image each day or perhaps several images some days and none on others. I’m not sure. I suspect that photography is also a discipline that benefits from regular work. In the meantime I plan to keep writing essays.

And, for what it’s worth, I seem to be getting a bit more wordy. So far my 2020 essays have been a bit longer than my usual. I have no idea what that means.

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!

Happy New Year

We discovered it when I went to the first grade in public school. I couldn’t read the blackboard clearly from the back of he classroom. My folks took me to the ophthalmologist and sure enough I needed to wear glasses. It wasn’t a huge surprise. My mother wore glasses. My sister wore glasses. I had an aunt who had been one of the first people to wear contact lenses and was under the care of specialists at a Chicago research hospital. There were quite a few people in my world who wore glasses. My father, however, did not. He was able to wear eyeglasses and to have a class 1 medical certificate to the age of 50. Even then he was only slightly farsighted. He maintained his ability to see clearly until a brain tumor began to cause vision problems near the end of his life.

So I have known for a long time that 20/20 is the term that is used to describe clear vision. I was a bit of a problem for my parents when it came to glasses. I broke a lot of frames. I learned to repair glasses with tape, band-aids or whatever was available. We even learned a bit of early plastic welding, with heat applied from the kitchen stove to make some repairs. I seemed to be unable to make a pair of glasses last a whole year. One pair was lost in the river when I fell. We offered a reward of a new fishing pole to whoever could find the glasses. My family members and friends all spent a lot of time that summer wearing goggles or facemarks and looking into the river. When the glasses were finally found, they were nearly a half block from where they fell into the river and the lenses were so scratched that they were not any good at all. They did, however, provide a pair of back-up frames for the replacement glasses that I had been wearing for some time.

When I was 15 I had my first flight physical, preparing to solo in the airplane. The doctor ended up putting 20/200 on the form and checked a box stating that the bearer of the certificate must wear corrective lenses and have a spare pair of corrective lenses available whenever operating a private aircraft. I was proud of my class 3 medical certificate, but I also knew that I wouldn’t ever earn a class 1 certificate. A couple of years later that fact translated in a “you need not apply” for the smokejumper program. Apparently when you are parachuting onto a burning hillside, you can’t risk having your glasses snatched away by tree branches.

So, it seems like a kind of symbolic event to have reached 2020. I’ve thought of it for a long time as a year of clear vision. I don’t think that I have attached too much significance to the year. Earlier in my career, I identified 2023 as a possible year for retirement, so I wasn’t thinking at that time that there would be special significance to 2020. However, as things have turned out, we will be making a big job change midway through 2020, so it is a year of vision for us.

Vision, of course, does not refer only to optical clarity. The dictionary also speaks of what is seen in a dream, trance or ecstasy. The third definition is “the act or power of imagination.” So if I am making the connection between the year and vision, it might be good to include the concept of imagination.

I think that in all of the definitions, 2020 will be a year of vision for us. We will develop a clearer image of what the next phase of our life will be like. We will employ our imaginations to envision new ways of thinking and living.

Of course, there is nothing particularly special about the year 2020, when one considers the vast sweep of history. Even if one only considers human history, 2020 is nothing spectacular. The earliest fossils of humans who are anatomically similar to us are about 200,000 years old. Humans have been around for enough years to make a couple of thousand quite insignificant. 2020 is maybe 1 percent of human experience.

And we don’t all cost the years in the same way. According to the Hebrew calendar, the year is 5780. That places Jesus’ birth around the year 3760. We come from people whose memories stretch back a long ways and our Bible contains stories that our people had been telling for millennia before Jesus was born. The new year in the Hebrew calendar comes in September on our Gregorian calendar. Actually, there are four new years celebrations each year in the Hebrew Calendar (though only one advances the count). One of the new years’ is the new year for trees. The one in September, or Tishri on the Hebrew calendar is said to be the anniversary of the creation of the universe. The Hebrew calendar is called lunisolar, which means it is based on the phases of the moon, but corrected to the seasons of the year. It uses a complex system of leap months to keep the new year at roughly the same season each year.

The Chinese calendar is also lunisolar, but the date of the beginning of the year doesn’t line up precisely with any fixed point on the Gregorian calendar. This year the Chinese new year will be January 25 on the Gregorian calendar. Each new year is named after one of 12 zodiac animals. Each animal plays an important part in Chinese culture. The year coming will be known as the year of the rat. The count of years isn’t as important in Chinese culture as the animals, but the year to come is 4718. In Korea, they follow the Chinese calendar, but also celebrate the Gregorian new year as “new new year.”

In India, there are a wide variety of different new year’s celebrations. Hindus in different parts of the country employ different calendars to mark the year. The Tamil calendar marks new years on April 14 on the Gregorian calendar. That calendar has a 60-year cycle. The years don’t have numbers, but names. The next year will be Saarvari.

In the Islamic calendar, the year is 1441, which began in August. The count of years dates back from when the prophet Mohammad moved from Mecca to Medina. The Islamic calendar is a lunar calendar so the celebration of festivals moves around the Gregorian calendar.

For Iranians, it is the year 1398 and new years is celebrated on the vernal equinox. It is a completely solar calendar. The celebration is over 3,000 years old.

So i may or may not be 202, but wherever you are and however you count, I hope the year to come will be one of renewed vision. Our world can use some clear vision.

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!