June 2020

Conversations

I was talking to our three-year-old granddaughter and she said, “I used to go to school, but that Covid came and now I have to do my workbook!” She threw up both hands and looked at me. “What can you do?”

Now, to be clear, she had attended preschool for only about four days or so when the preschool shut down. She was just getting started on a very limited basis. And she likes doing the exercises in her workbook. With us visiting we often are working one-on-one with the children during their lesson times. She hasn’t seemed to be upset about the home school adventure.

On the other hand, I never thought that I would be discussing a worldwide pandemic with a three-year-old.

The children are very aware of the changes in their lives brought forth by the pandemic. Here in Washington, masks are required for all persons over the age of 12 in all public places. This community is in phase II, which means restaurants can serve in house if they have widely spaced tables, seat five or less per table, and require all patrons to wear masks unless seated at the table. But the children don’t go out to restaurants. The oldest two, aged 6 and 9, are allowed to go grocery shopping once a week. The youngest one is occasionally with her mother or father on a short outing. The whole family goes to parks and other place for walks and exercise. But most of the time they stay home.

What the children miss is contact with other children. They don’t have play dates. It is very difficult to arrange opportunities for other children to come to the house or for them to go to their friends’ houses. They don’t have contact with friends at school. All three are very creative and independent children and they are articulate and fun to engage in conversation. But their world is, for the most part, their siblings, their parents, and their grandparents. They do have the advantage over some of their peers of having a huge garden and chickens and a guinea pig that need care.

We don’t talk about politics very much, but the children are aware of our political views. Their father works for the city, so they overhear conversations about city budgets and the mayor and they know that their father has to go into his bedroom to participate in city council meetings and that they need to be quiet when he is meeting.

The dilemma that we faced with our children when they were growing up continues to be a conundrum for me as a grandfather. My instinct is to try to protect those I love from the pain and terror of the world. I don’t want them to grow up surrounded by pain and war and evil and all of the frightening things that are a part of this world. On the other hand, I do not want them to grow up isolated in a bubble, unaware of the evils of racism and greed and the politics of selfishness and wealth and power. How do we raise children to be citizens of the world without causing them undue fear?

Actually, it isn’t too much of a challenge with the three-year-old. We pretty much listen to what she says and respond to the topics she brings up. We can agree with her that there aren’t too many things we can do about COVID-19, but that it is important to wash our hands carefully and to cover our mouths when we sneeze and to wear face masks when going out in public. We can acknowledge that it places some restrictions on her and that she misses going to school.

The nine-year-old is a bit different. He has begun to study history and world events. He completed a unit on medieval history. He has drawn pictures of knights in battle and of castle walls. He did a report on cross bows and saved up and purchased his own. The rubber-tipped arrows fly pretty straight and he can hit a target from about 25 feet away. It has been an opportunity to teach some basic hunter safety about never pointing the weapon at another person and carrying it safely when he walks. But it is also important for him to understand how various weapons transformed warfare and that crossbows were used with deadly accuracy to kill people and to defend the consolidation of wealth and power. The weapons also allowed the use of warfare offensively to seize additional wealth and power.

In time he will need to learn about Pearl Harbor and Hiroshima and Korea and Vietnam and 9-11 and Iraq and Afghanistan. In time the children will need to know not only about coronaviruses but also about cancer and heart disease and injuries caused by accidents.

Already, living in a town where Spanish is the primary language of some households and where more than half of the children in the school receive free or subsidized lunches means that they need to know about race and class and the effects of unemployment and poverty. Living on a flood plain near an ocean, they need to understand global warming and rising sea levels.

We raise our children to be citizens of the world and that means that they need to be aware of the world, its history, its tragedies, and its problems. We count on future generations to solve some of the problems whose solutions have evaded our generation. We know that life will present our children with grief and loss and tragedy. We cannot shield them from the realities of life as much as we wish we could.

The conversations we have with our grandchildren are important as they learn and grow. Like all conversations they start with careful listening. You can’t answer a child’s question unless you understand the question. I am constantly reminded of the mother who took a deep breath and gave an elementary explanation of human sexuality to a child who asked, “Where did I come from?” only to hear from the child, “No, I meant, ‘What room was I in before I came into this room?’”

Our grandchildren have much to teach us about listening. Only when we learn that lesson can we impart a bit of our wisdom.

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!

Grandchildren

summerflowers
“Here Grandpa, I picked flowers for the camper! You can put them in a jar.” There is no shortage of blossoms in the garden where we are staying. We are surrounded by all kinds of beauty. And most of the time, we are happy to have flowers outside. But a bouquet that is hand picked by a granddaughter is a special thing to bring inside. I found a glass, filled it with water and put the plants on the table. For a few days they will brighten our living space. Of course they don’t add as much to our place as do the sounds of grandchildren on a sleepover.

Several years ago we found ourselves with a slide-in pickup camper that was well used and wearing out. The water system developed leaks. It seemed like as soon as I would fix one, another developed. It was a pot-top camper and the mechanism to raise and lower the roof was getting old and the cables stretched and it didn’t always go up and down correctly. The camper had always had a bit of a condensation problem and we had to keep on top of it to keep things dry. We had really enjoyed that camper and had lived in it for months at a time on sabbatical, but it was coming to the end of its useful life. We got lucky and found a hunter who could make use of it a couple of weekends a year and was willing to pay a small amount for it and it was sold for a modest price. As we shopped for a new camper, we were brand new grandparents, so wanted one with room for sleepovers in the future. We found a camper with a bunkhouse. In addition to the double bed there are four bunks at the opposite end of the camper. All of this in a 25 foot package! It is just right for the way we use our camper. As soon as our grandson was two years old, he was ready for sleepovers. Now we have four grandchildren and three of them are in the family where we have our camper parked. We have sleepovers all the time now.

Pancakes for breakfast is a camper tradition, and the garden is producing lots of strawberries at the present so we have strawberries in our pancakes. Later in the season there will be raspberries and blueberries as well.

“Grandma, the camper is my favorite place in the whole world!” That single declaration was worth the purchase price of the camper in my opinion.

We are certainly having fun with our grandchildren. All three have their own life jackets and are becoming comfortable with short rides in boats. Yesterday the oldest two (9 and 6) rowed with me across the lake. They aren’t big enough to handle the oars without some help, but they can sit in front of me and put their hands on the oars as I row. Both can handle a kayak a little bit in calm water. Yesterday they perched in the bow the boat and gave me directions. Rowing is a backwards art. You get used to navigating by looking over your shoulder and lining up with something that is behind you. I actually enjoy the change in perspective that rowing gives. But yesterday I had a couple of guides, who were practicing using “port” and “starboard.” They got pretty good at it.

skagitriverview
My life has always been full of all kinds of adventures. The last week has been filled with all kinds of new adventures. Each day brings new possibilities and fun places to explore. The children have their chores. There are chickens and a guinea pig that need food and water every day. They pick berries and peas in the garden and will help in other ways as the season progresses. They have inside chores of picking up toys and clothes and helping around the house. And since the pandemic interrupted their schooling, they have had home school lessons with workbooks and spelling lists and a routine. Still, there is plenty of time each day for adventures. There are fun places to go for walks and explores. The pace of a three-year-old isn’t quite the strenuous cardio workout that the grandparents need, so we get our daily walk in during nap time or in the early evening after supper. It is, however, a treat to slow our pace to follow the children as they explore. They are quick to point out things that we might not see. A hollow in a tree or a brightly colored stone might be missed when we are on our walks, but we take time to see those things when we are with our grandchildren.

Living in the church has always given us the opportunity to be around children. One of the great blessings of the past 25 years and one that I really missed when the pandemic forced a shut-down is the joy of working in a building with an active preschool. Being able to walk down the hall and listen to the activities going on in the classrooms, having artwork on the walls in the hallways, listening to the comings and goings of children as parents drop them off and pick them up all combine to provide the symphony of life in the church. On the days when the job consists of a lot of work at the computer or too many phone calls, a short break to walk to the other end of the corridor can be a real treat.

It is the natural way of people to be drawn to those of different ages. For generations grandparents have been the primary providers of childcare for many families. In our fast-paced, every mobile society, however, our children and grandchildren often live in distant places and we seek relationships beyond our family circle for the joys of having children in our lives. For us, who have lived and worked in the church, one of the luxuries of retirement is the ability to follow our children and live near to our grandchildren. We’re brand new at this adventure, and we know how quickly our grandchildren will grow up, but we will always remember the summer of 2020 as a summer of bouquets, walks and sleepovers.

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!

An abandoned mental hospital

northernstatehospital
The twentieth century was a time of growing understanding of mental illness. As the century dawned, there was a sense of compassion for those who suffered from various types of mental illness, but little understanding of effective treatment. Those who were mentally ill were often isolated in hospitals that separated them from other people. The hospitals were often in rural areas and contact between patients and the rest of their families was limited. The treatments pursued were experimental as little was understood about brain function and how to treat those who suffered.

In Washington, Western State Hospital is the second oldest state-run institution. In its early days, many patients were referred to the hospital by the court system, with mental illness understood as a criminal problem rather than a general health problem. The involuntary admission and incarceration of patients required high levels of staff and secure facilities. Patients were often treated with sedation in order to control behavior. By the turn of the 20th Century, the facility was so crowded that there was a demand for additional hospitals. Eastern State Hospital was opened and later Northern State Hospital.

Established in 1909, Northern State Mental Hospital was a town unto itself. The planned facility took three years to build. Olmstead Brothers Architects, famous for New York City’s Central Park were employed to design the grounds and campus. The attempt was to develop a self-sustaining colony of mentally ill persons. The hospital site included patient and staff housing, a water reservoir, sewage system, lumber mill, quarry, steam plant, greenhouse, canning facilities, gymnasium, library, chapel, laundry, dining room, bakery, dairy, and 700-acre farm for growing vegetables and raising livestock. A cemetery was also included in the site plan.

By the 1950’s the hospital was home to 2,700 patients. As the understanding of mental illness increased, the public perception of its treatment shifted and the use of large controlled hospitals became less important as state run facilities. Those being treated in the large hospitals were moved to other programs including community-based treatment centers that allowed victims to live near their families. In 1976, the Washington Legislature cut off funding and closed Northern State Hospital. The extensive campus fell into disrepair, with some of the buildings, including the farm’s housing ward being torn down. Other buildings were allowed to deteriorate and remain on the campus, but with crumbling roofs and empty interiors. A small section of the original campus is used for a job corps center and drug rehabilitation facilities.

In the 1990’s planning for the use of the property was handed over to a citizen’s task force and eventually ownership was transferred to Skagit County, which has begun to develop the site as a recreation area. Hiking trails now are maintained within the site and allow visitors to tour the old dairy facilities, walk by the canning plant and other crumbling buildings, as well as through forested and open grasslands of the farm. An extensive disc golf course draws groups of serious players. A veterans picnic area has been built. The open spaces allow for ample room to walk while maintaining social distance.

The site, located at the northeastern edge of the town of Sedro-Woolley, is very close to where our son and his family live. They often go to the site to walk. The children have discovered paths leading through tall cedar trees and bridges over a small creek and enjoy the open spaces. Yesterday we walked there with our three grandchildren in the morning and returned in the afternoon for a walk at a brisker pace to maintain our exercise regimen.

As we walked, I thought of those who had been taken to the hospital for treatment. For many, it must have been a frightening experience. Many were taken from their families as children or teens and the transition to institutional living must have been very frightening. They would have been surrounded by those whose symptoms included severe mental illness and sometimes violent outbursts. They would have been cut off from family and friends. Locked doors and bars kept them within buildings except when they were allowed to go outside as part of work teams. They would be provided with work assignments that might be very different from the things they had known.

calmcreek
Still, they would have found themselves in a very beautiful part of the world, surrounded by old-growth forest and a few hilltop meadows with expansive views of the Cascade Mountains. The creek that wandered through the property would have provided calm and refreshing places to enjoy nature’s beauty. Around 1,500 people are buried in the cemetery on the campus, each with their own stories. As we walked around the campus, we were aware that there is much more to see and many more stories to be told than we could understand in a brief visit.

I don’t believe in ghosts and haunting and the description of the site as a ghost town doesn’t make any sense to my way of thinking. But I do believe that a place becomes infused with the stories of the lives that played out in that particular location. The remains of the once-extensive hospital facility and farm tell part of the story of the history of the treatment of mental illness in our society. Part of that story is a sad tale of draconian measures and incarceration of those who suffered. Their stories are tales of missed opportunities and lives whose potential was stifled through a lack of understanding.

The continuing development of what is now known as Northern State Recreation Area as a nature park and place for recreation for persons of all abilities is an appropriate use of land that once was dedicated to care for illnesses that were largely misunderstood and often not treated. As our society has moved away from custodial care to other treatments we have been blessed with the contributions of those who suffer from mental illness.

A walk through the campus tells part of the story of what once existed. It is a story that needs to continue to be told and a bit of our history that we must never repeat.

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!

On the lake

lakeshoregrasses
I greeted the sunrise from the surface of Clear Lake yesterday. I went rowing shortly after I got up. I had my camera and a cup of hot tea and I rowed without pushing it. The yawl I was rowing is a boat that I made and launched about eight years ago, with the intention of having a simple row boat to give rides and introduce our grandson to human-powered boating. Now we have four grandchildren and our grandson can paddle a kayak all by himself. Our eldest granddaughter also is developing her solo paddling skills. What I did not anticipate when I built the boat is how much I would enjoy rowing. It is, for me, a very relaxing way to explore the world.

The pace of my life in the last couple of years, however, hasn’t supported much time for rowing. I would dash to the lake with a canoe or kayak simply because the row boat is heavier and a bit more of a challenge to launch and retrieve from the water. With a canoe, I wouldn’t be taking a cup of tea and I might not take my best camera. The row boat is stable and on calm water, I can carry much more with me.

Yesterday was a great day for rowing. I had the lake to myself when I launched and an hour later there were just two kayaks and another small boat on the lake. The other three were fishing. I was taking pictures.

I accompanied our son and daughter-in-law when they moved to this area, helping with the move. They moved into a rental home, however, and I did not discover the lake on that trip. After they had lived in Mount Vernon for about a year, they moved to the house they are buying next to Clear Lake. It is a beautiful location. They bought an older house and have worked steadily to make improvements to the house in the short time they have lived here. They have a large yard, with plenty of room for the camper and an extensive garden. Their back yard is a great place to observe the birds.

We’ve enjoyed sitting out in the evening watching the swallows capture insects as they fly. They dart and spin and perform arial acrobatics which provides us with quite a bit of entertainment. There is a pair of bald eagles who fish the lake and we’ve had several opportunities to observe them as they go about their work. We bought a pair of field glasses for our son shortly after they made the move and they have gotten a work out watching the birds.

baldeagle
I was looking for the eagles as I rowed, knowing that I might get an opportunity for some pictures. The row boat is quiet in the water. I use wooden oars and the boat itself is wooden. It is very quiet in the water with just the gentle splash of the paddles dipping. I can stow the oars and sit quietly in the boat with out disrupting the activities of the birds. I was rewarded with several good pictures of the eagle perched on a dead tree, surveying the lake.

The lake is high. There is a lot of water in Skagit County. There is nothing unusual about this. The Skagit River is running full, a little shy of flood stage, but there is a lot of water going by. The city of Mount Vernon has an extensive flood wall system to protect the downtown from flooding, but at present the flood walls are not needed. The lakes in the area are all quite full. Clear Lake has overflowed into the city park, flooding the area under the picnic tables and covering the sand beach where the children love to play. The park has been closed, but reopened a couple of days ago and our grandchildren were able to use it as a base for some kayaking. Grandpa got in a paddle that day, also.

The high water has the boat ramp completely under water and it would be difficult to launch certain boats because of the gap between the edge of the water and the top of the concrete ramp. Our little sailboat, however, doesn’t have that problem. With a set of removable wheels, I can hand launch the boat without the need for a trailer. It fits my basic theory about boating. The less equipment required the more you actually use the boat. At least that works for me. I do, however, have a trailer that I often use with the rowboat so that I don’t have to turn it over and lift it to the rack on the pickup. That trailer is at home, so each launch involves unloading the boat from the rack on the pickup. I have rollers on the rack, however, so it isn’t very difficult.

Launching the boat without the pressure of a schedule is a big luxury that I haven’t had much opportunity to explore. Yesterday turned out to be such an opportunity. I didn’t need to consult my watch. I just slipped the boat into the water and enjoyed the sunrise and solitude of the lake. The marshes around the lake are filed with frogs and the red-winged blackbirds nest in the tall weeds that grow at the water’s edge. There are a few homes right on the water of the lake, but much of the shoreline is in a state that is close to natural. There has been quite a bit of logging on the hillsides around the lake, so the human presence is obvious, but it isn’t hard to overlook that and enjoy the natural setting. Despite our human interventions, the natural world goes on producing new life and healing the earth.

It heals my soul as well. Being on the water reminds me of the presence of the ongoing process of creation that is a part of our world. It gives me time to think.

I’ll be out on the water again soon. I’m learning a whole new set of skills to navigate retirement. The lake is a good place to figure out my new life.

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

The Post Office

I stopped by the Clear Lake, Washington, Post Office yesterday. I had some forms that needed to be returned to the Pension Boards as part of our application to begin receiving our pension benefits. Clear Lake is not one of Washington’s big cities. It isn’t even a big town. The post office has a small entryway and a tiny customer service area. Due to coronavirus, only one customer is allowed in the service area at a time. It was no problem for me, I was the only customer present in the building at the time. Still, the building had everything I needed and I was soon on my way secure in the knowledge that my letter will be delivered in New York City on Monday morning.

The Post Office has a long tradition of providing service to all Americans, regardless of their address. My cousin lived five miles from the nearest town, which was a very small rural community in Montana. His house was four miles from the nearest neighbor. He got his mail delivered every day. That is the way the Post Office works. It delivers mail in dense urban areas and in widely spaced rural areas. You can mail a letter from any Post Office to any address in the country and know it will be delivered.

I grew up in a town where we didn’t have in-town delivery. Those who lived in town rented boxes at the Post Office and our mail was delivered to the boxes. Those who did not have a box could call for their mail at the window. We went to the Post Office six days a week to pick up our mail. It was the same arrangement for us for the seven years that we lived in a small town in North Dakota. We enjoyed the routine of going to the Post Office to pick up our mail. It was an opportunity to get out for a walk and an opportunity to meet our neighbors.

For most of my life, however, the Post Office has delivered the mail to my house, or to a box that is very near to my house. We have learned to take the service for granted.

Over the years, we’ve watched the price of stamps go up as other costs in the community have gone up. I guess I qualify as an old timer because I can remember when postage was 3 cents and a post card went for 2 cents. Even at the current rates, however, it is amazing what the Post Office can accomplish. The important letter I mailed yesterday can be tracked on its journey across the United States. We can go to a web site and check to see whether or not it was delivered on time. While we are traveling on this trip, the Post Office is holding our mail. I get an email every day with scans of the outside of the envelopes that are being held. I know exactly what will be awaiting me upon my return from this trip.

In recent years the Post Office has been losing money. The cost of providing the services has exceeded the revenue from stamps and delivery fees. The losses have become the object of plenty of politics, with the President arguing that they need to charge businesses more for its services. He has singled out a specific business as his culprit and has threatened the Post Office in an attempt to get it to raise the rates on that business. The problem is that the Post Office is making a profit on package delivery. Its financial woes don’t stem from package delivery rates. The months of measures taken to prevent the spread of Covid-19 have been a boon to the Post Office. Revenues have soared as people have arranged for more home delivery of items that they used to purchase in person. Delivering packages works for the Post Office and may prove to be an important part of its long term financial picture.

We need the services provided by the Post Office. Our society is dependent upon safe, affordable and accurate delivery of mail. Even if the service needs to be subsidized by tax payers, it is essential to the way we do business. The Internet may have decreased the number of letters and cards that people send, but it has not eliminated the need for the Post Office.

When I was ten years old, the Post Office began encouraging people to use numeric codes called Zone Improvement Plan Codes or ZIP Codes. There was quite a bit of initial resistance to the practice in the beginning. I remember people refusing to use the codes. My father used to joke that the Post Office took a look at their options. On the one hand they could teach their employees geography. On the other hand they could teach the entire nation a system of number codes. They decided that teaching the entire nation number codes would be easier. The real reason for the codes was that the numbers provided for an increase in automation in the process of sorting the mail. These days we take the codes and the automatic sorting of mail for granted. Most of us have not only adopted the five digit ZIP codes, but also have learned to use the additional four digits that allow for even faster sorting of the mail.

These days most of the mail travels by air. Gone are the days when Post Office employees rode the trains, sorting the mail as they traveled. We used to go down to the train station to watch the system whereby bags of mail were picked up and others left without the need for the train to stop its motion. That same town now sends and receives mail by truck every day. There have been a lot of changes, but the service that now features automation and Internet tracking still delivers live chicks every spring.

People who love to complain about the Post Office still use its services. It is an amazing institution and a foundational part of our society. Despite all of the politics, the Post Office is here to stay. I’m glad it is that way.

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 new day

grass and mountain
There is a camp song that we often sang as a breakfast prayer. It has been in my head several mornings lately:

God has created a new day, silver and green and gold.
Live that the sunset may find us, worthy God’s gifts to hold.

We have had a few days to adjust to vacation pace, which I think may be close to retirement pace. Of course we don’t yet know, but one of the first things that I did when we reached the end of our active working days was to turn off the alarm that woke me each morning. I don’t think I’m sleeping that much more than before, but I am definitely sleeping a little bit more. It feels good. I’ve always loved the morning, waking to birdsong and listening to the world waking up around me. The low light angles gives the world a special hue and invites me to connect to the natural world.

Our camper is parked at our son and daughter-in-law’s place and we are surrounded by gardens. There are poppies blooming right outside our door and before long the sunflowers will be showing off their color. We can pick fresh strawberries and huckleberries from the yard and enjoy them with our breakfast.

Despite the intention to raise only hens, one of this spring’s chicks is a rooster and our daughter-in-law has been advertising a free rooster to give away, but so far there have been no takers. So we even have the morning crowing to remind me of the days when I was going up.

In the predawn light the colors are more muted. Silver and green and gold are among the dominant colors that I see as I wake. It really does feel as if each day is new and fresh and an expression of ongoing creation.

Last night we had a discussion about how the coronavirus pandemic is re-shaping some of the institutions of our society. Our daughter-in-law asked specifically about what changes we think will occur within the church as a result of the shift away from live, in-person worship to help prevent rapid spread of the virus. Of course there are some obvious differences, like changes in how the building is cleaned, the addition of hand-washing stations near the entrances, and spreading out the tables in the fellowship hall, that will probably become long-term changes. Offering people ways to pass the peace without direct contact will continue. It is likely that the use of social media such as live-streaming worship will also continue. The use of media to reach out beyond the walls of the building extends the ministry of the church.

However, the core of the church is relationship and I suspect that building relationships and forming community will always be a process that involves meeting face to face. As the church figures ways to gather safely, live worship will resume and little by little there will be a return to the community functions of working together, sharing food together and gathering for study, prayer and fellowship.

We won’t however, simply return to the way things were before. There will be people who have gotten out of the habit of rising on Sunday mornings for worship. They will continue to stay at home and listen to worship on the computer. There will be others who will have drifted away who never return.

Dramatically for us, we will have shifted our role in the community during the pandemic. There are a lot of uncertainties about our future right now, but one thing we know for sure is that we will be joining a new church family. It is hard to do so when the congregation is not meeting in person, but we will be making new connections. Our role in the congregation, however, will be a different one. We’ve been pastors for much of our adult lives. Now we will be members who aren’t leading worship every week. We’ll be able to participate in new ways.

God is still speaking, still creating, still bringing forth newness. Perhaps the colors will be more subtle, the hues more muted. Perhaps there will be new and different bright spots that stand out to us. We don’t yet know the details.

We have been looking at homes in the immediate neighborhood as we take our daily walks. Sometimes we notice a home for sale and after we have returned from our walk we look up the details on the Internet. We talk about what it might be like to live in a particular house in the neighborhood. We haven’t yet begun the process of shopping for a new home. We don’t intend to rush into anything. We’re taking a couple of weeks vacation and then we head back to Rapid City to begin the hard work of preparing our home there for sale. Before we move, we have a lot of sorting and cleaning and preparing to do. Our house can use a few repairs and a bit of paint to be ready to show to prospective buyers. Some of our things will go into storage as a part of the preparation to move.

Since we finished graduate school we have always moved because of the call of a particular congregation to come to be pastors in their community. We have moved into an already formed community that is eager to have new leadership. This move is different. We are moving to family, who are eager for us to be settled here. Our grandchildren are sleeping in our camper as I write. We are being embraced by love and community. We have done quite a bit of research about neighboring congregations, but since none are meeting for in-person worship, it is hard to know what it will feel like once we become settled.

For now, it is a process of recognizing the on-going process of creation. New things are emerging. Our lives won’t just go on being the same.

It is good to wake each day with a song and a prayer:

God is creating a new day, silver and green and gold.
Live that the sunset may find us worthy God’s gifts to hold.

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!

Exploring a new place

marsh and mountain
I’ve lived most of my life in semi-arid places. Rapid City averages 18 inches of rain per year, most of which falls as snow. This hasn’t been a problem for me. I like the snow. I enjoy winter sports and the cold doesn’t bother me. I have plenty of warm clothing and for my years in Rapid City, I owned snowblowers to help with clearing our somewhat steep driveway. Humans are remarkably adaptable creatures and we can live in a wide variety of different places and climates.

Now we are exploring a place where there is more rain, about 38 inches per year. As the Pacific Northwest goes, it is a fairly dry area. Olympia, the capitol of Washington, receives 53 inches of rain a year. All of that rain produces some dramatic trees. There are forests in Washington, filled with Hemlock, Spruce, and Douglas Fir, where the trees are 150’ tall. Ferns cover the ground. It is very different from the hills, where a Ponderosa Pine or Black Hills Spruce that is 60’ tall is considered to be a big tree.

Still, it is a different kind of climate. Average snowfall in Mount Vernon, Washington is 5 inches per year. Most of the precipitation comes as rain. Today the forecast is for rain showers to come off and on al morning. It doesn’t cramp the style of the locals. They have rain gear and are used to the showers.

The area around the home of our family here has a high water table. There are plenty of houses that are set on block foundations raising them 4 or more feet above the ground level. Our son and his family have a small basement under part of their house, but that kind of construction is fairly rare. Across the road is a field that is flooded part of the year and presently is nearly saturated with water. You don’t have to walk far to find marshes filled with frogs singing and standing water.

It is good country for gardens. Our son and his family have a lot that is roughly the size of the one we have at home, but more than half of it is taken up with gardens. They have berries and fruit trees and flowers and lots of vegetables. They are able to eat from their garden all summer long and they fill a freezer with strawberries and blueberries and raspberries. They have apples and in a few years there will be plums and a lot more apples.

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One of the things that amazes me is that everything seems to grow a bit bigger here than at home. There is a large hay field adjacent to our son’s place and I think the owner is waiting for things to dry out before bringing in the swather, but you’d never see the grass to tall in a South Dakota hayfield. There are places where the grass is taller than I am. It is a different experience to walk in a place where your view of the horizon is limited by the grass. Under the cover of the tall grass are all kinds of flowers. Purple and white clover, buttercups and other tiny flowers are all living close to the ground. Bees and other insects fly in and around the tall grass like birds in a forest.

We’ve vacationed here before and while this visit is a scouting trip to explore the possibilities of living here, we haven’t gotten out of the vacation mode yet. Thinking of this place as our home will take some time and some adjustment. Fortunately we have that time. For this week, we are mostly focused on enjoying our grandchildren and exploring the immediate neighborhood.

It is a stretch of my imagination to envision living in this place. We have quite a bit of winter clothing that we might not need here. You don’t see insulated coveralls on the folks around here. On the other hand, they all have good rain gear and workers have waterproof boots that come up nearly to their knees.

Once again, as the region goes, this particular community is not in the wettest part of the state. In fact the average rainfall in Mount Vernon, Washington, is the same as the average rainfall for all of the communities of the United States. People live and thrive in this kind of environment. It is just that we happen to have lived in places with a bit less rain.

The rain contributes to amazingly productive ground. Things grow well here. That is what attracted people to this country for so long. In this county are acres and acres of flowers grown. Growing tulip bulbs for sale is a big business for farmers in this area. It makes for a colorful spring and people form Seattle make day trips to drive up and see the flowers.

I’m pretty sure that we will find other adjustments that are as hard and harder than the change in weather. For now, on a scouting trip, I’m just trying to imagine what it might feel like to move to a new place and adopt a new lifestyle. Time will tell how we adapt, but we know that we will. Change is good for our minds and probably good for our bodies as well. The challenges of a new place are different from those of the place we are leaving behind.

Each day we take a walk. Our son and his family live right on the edge of a small town. Walk in one direction and you can explore the neighborhoods. Walk in the other direction and you are out in the country. We’ve had time to walk in both directions. Exploring the area is part of the fun of the visit. As we walk, I often comment on the houses that we see and speculate about the people who live in them. “That house must be filled with stairways.” “Here is one that is very tiny with a huge shop building.” “That long ramp means someone in that house must use a wheelchair or a walker.” In a couple of months, we’ll begin looking for our next house. The process will be different. I’m going to make sure it isn’t sitting in a puddle. A hill or a little rise might suit me better.

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

47 years

The planet Mars takes 780 days to complete an orbit around the sun if you measure in terms of earth days. Each time it completes 22 of these journeys, it returns to the same place in the sky in relationship to the earth. This cycle of motion was discovered by the ancient Mesopotamians and has been known to astronomers ever since. Here on earth that journey takes 47 years, or to put it another way. Once every 47 years the planet Mars aligns with other astronomical bodies in the same relationship as was the case 47 years ago. I’m not quite sure how the ancient Mesopotamians discovered this cycle. I know that making accurate observations of heavenly bodies was a passion among some ancient people. I also know that they had systems of recording their observations so that their learnings could be passed on. Still, it would have required multiple observers remembering data from nearly a half century ago in order to make that observation. And certainly they wouldn’t have discovered the meaning of their observations in the first cycle.

However they did it the pattern has been established and the number 47 has a place in the lore of astronomers. The role of 47 in astronomy combined with a special interest in the number by students and graduates of Pomona College in California to give the number a special role in the television series Star Trek. The number kept popping up in episodes. For example, in the Voyager episode "Parallax", we learn that the Emergency Medical Holographic Channel is 47 and that the EMH has the experience of 47 individual medical officers.

The story of the number 47 and Pomona College has to do with a mathematics teacher who was trying to illustrate the concept of mathematical proof and used 47 as a random number in his illustration. Somehow the lesson stuck and the number became a kind of mathematical joke at the college.

Forty-seven is a prime number - the fifteenth prime number if you are counting.

Yesterday we celebrated our forty-seventh wedding anniversary. The celebration was about as good as it could get. Our day started with breakfast with our grandchildren. Pancakes and French Toast - your choice - or you could have both. It also was, for us, a day without a formal agenda. We did some of our usual routines. We had tea together. We went for a walk. We played with our grandchildren. We shared meals with our son’s family. In the evening, after supper, we had a little family celebration because we had not been together on some recent birthdays. I received a hand made and hand painted bird feeder that started as a boy scout project of our grandson and was enhanced by the artistry of our granddaughter with the paint. The result is marvelous. It will have an honored place in our new home when we get moved.

We had an opportunity to video chat with our daughter and grandson, who live in Japan. He is starting to respond to our voices, faces and attention on the screen and his smile and responses make us laugh.

There was also time to just sit in a chair and read a magazine. I even took a short nap. The evening ended with three grandchildren sleeping in our camper - a treat for grandchildren and grandparents alike.

I can’t think of a better way to celebrate 47 years of married life.

Shortly after we were married we attended the 50th wedding anniversary celebration of a couple in the church we belonged to at the time. It was a fun celebration and much was made about the fact that we were newlyweds at a celebration of a long-term marriage. We enjoyed the attention. At the time, I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to get that old and to have been together for that many years. I assumed that one day we would get there, but it was so far in the future that I couldn’t think what it would be like.

These days 50 doesn’t seem like that big of a number. In just a few years we’ll be at our 50th anniversary. Over the years there have been some memorable anniversaries. We were traveling in Europe on our 5th anniversary. We had a new baby in our family on our 8th anniversary. Then there was the year when I was in Hawaii on our anniversary, but Susan was in Idaho. I was chaperoning a delegation of youth at a church gathering. Most of the years, however, we have noted our anniversary with a special dinner or other celebration of one kind or another.

Looking back and remembering all of our friends who have experienced divorce, I realize that there was probably a bit of luck in the way we found each other. We were serious about our commitment when we were married, but we didn’t know what the future held for us. In our case we found the right person with whom to share a life, and it has been exactly the right partnership. We have shared a career. We have shared parenting tasks. We have shared travel. We have shared so much. We can tell each other’s stories and laugh at the old jokes we’ve heard a hundred times before.

In the span of a lifetime perhaps there is nothing particularly unique about the number 47, but for us it is just the right number for this year. Episodes of Star Trek and Pomona College in jokes aside, 47 is a good number of years. We’ve been together long enough to be comfortable with one another. We are at the beginning of a whole new life adventure. We have our health and the promise of many more years. And 47 isn’t one of the big anniversaries that demands a party or a gathering. We kind of like the quiet, private celebrations that don’t require too much fuss anyway.

And at one day past 47 years, we will wake to our grandchildren arising and expecting pancakes for breakfast once again.

Life is good.

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!

It is well with my soul

First the travelogue: Our first Sunday of retirement found us waking in St. Regis, Montana with no knowledge of whether or not area churches were meeting face to face. We decided to make it a travel day, knowing that we could catch up on worship online. From St. Regis, it is a long uphill pull to the top of Lookout Pass. There were whips of clouds in the mountains and it was very beautiful as we pulled over the top and headed down to Mullan Idaho. The Idaho side of the pass has a brand-new and very smooth road. It didn’t take us long to reach Lake Coeur d’Alene and soon we were in Post Falls and caught up in the Spokane traffic. Spokane traffic on Sunday Morning isn’t very intense. We turned onto US Highway 2 at Spokane and, after a quick stop for fuel were headed across the prairies and wheat farms of eastern Washington. We stopped for lunch at coulee city, having “gained” the hour entering the Pacific Time Zone at the Idaho border. Another quick stop at Wenatchee to pick up a few cherries from a fruit stand and a short walk in Leavenworth and we were on the uphill pull of the Cascades. Stephens Pass had snow in sight on the ski hill. At that point, we knew we were going to go the rest of the way to Mount Vernon that day. On the downslope, we suddenly came upon a traffic snarl. There were so many cars coming down the pass that when they got to the traffic lights at Gold Bar and on down the road, the traffic backed up. It was stop and go for more than an hour. At times were would get going 25 mph or so and then it would all stop. Finally the traffic cleared and we were able to resume our normal speeds just shy of Everett. From there it was a short drive up to Mount Vernon, where we backed the camper into its parking place between the chickens and the woodshed.

Despite our pledge to stretch the trip into four days of travel instead of our usual three, we ended up making the trip in three days. Our first day was 400 miles to where my sister lives. Our second day was shorter, but our third ended up being the longest day of driving. Even at that pace we managed to walk several miles and keep up with our other routines.

It was a special treat to arrive at our son’s place on Father’s Day. I couldn’t help but think of my father, who taught me to drive, and Susan’s father, who taught me the electrical repair skills that enabled me to get our camper ready for the trip. I thought also of how much being a father has meant to me and how grateful I am to have been able to have children in my life. And I thought of what wonderful fathers our son and son-in-law are. One of the great luxuries of our life is the knowledge that our grandchildren are being raised in loving and caring families.

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We went for a short walk after supper. Our three-year-old granddaughter took my hand and led me along the path, talking constantly as we walked. I couldn’t suppress my giggle at her commentary. The world looks different when you are shorter than the grass and weeds alongside the trail. You notice the clover flowers and the buttercups and other things that are lower than my sight line. Aided by her commentary I took delight in a slower pace and a delightful view. It seemed as if half of her sentences began with “Look, grandpa.” The other half began with “Tomorrow we will . . .” She seems to have a large agenda for today.

We wake this morning to new sounds. There are different birds in this area. The chickens aren’t stirring yet, but they soon will be. Chickens being chickens, there is still one rooster in the mix. They didn’t intend to raise a rooster and they are looking for a new home for the bird, but despite appeals to the neighbors and a poster at the co-op, they haven’t yet found anyone to take the bird. They don’t want to be annoying the neighbors. So far, however, we haven’t heard a peep from the chickens who are a very short distance from our camper.

One week in, retirement hasn’t yet become a lifestyle. It feels much more like we are just on vacation. I’ve been ignoring my email a bit more than usual, but other than that, it is pretty much life as usual. I went to bed quite tired last night after all of the driving, but it was a good feeling to have traveled so far without any problems with the truck or camper and a great feeling to be with our children and grandchildren.

Just going for a walk with our 3- 5- and 7-year-old grandchildren reminded me of something about the pandemic that I have really been missing. Our job at the church, in its pre-pandemic state, gave us lots of opportunities to be with children. We had the children of the preschool in our building every day and the children of the church on a regular basis. The pandemic pushed us into a world of physical distancing and of children staying at home. That meant that we oldsters didn’t get to be with them. It left a real hole on my life.

I know that there are different types of personalities, but I am a person who really enjoys being with those who are a different age than I. Community, in my mind, is a gathering of all ages from infants to elders. I am used to people trueing me to hold their babies and listen to their children. I’m used to sitting with children during fellowship hour and listening to their stories.

Last night it seemed like a huge luxury to be able to read stories to our grandchildren. It reminded me without a doubt why we have been moving our life in this direction.

Many more adventures lie ahead, but for now being in this place, with these people, is good for my soul.

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

West of the Divide

For nearly half of my life I have lived in either North Dakota or South Dakota. In both states the Missouri River is a huge geographical feature. There is a cultural shift at the river as well. Dakota people speak of east river and west river with their distinctions. West river is largely ranching property. East river is more farming with corn and soybeans. East river is more urban with folks who are a bit more forma. West river is more rural and more casual. West river folks wave at strangers. East river folks are less likely to do so. Those of use who live west river have a bias about east river folks. We think that flatlands don’t know how to drive in the hills. They are afraid of the edge of the road, they slow way down for a simple curve. They cross over the center line way too much for our comfort. I’ve never lived east river, but I’m sure they have stories and tales to tell about us.

In Montana, where i grew up, however, the principal dividing feature is the continental divide. One of the stories that was told in my Montana history class is that when the surveyors came to measure the state, they mistakenly thought that the continental divide ran along the top of the Lemhi Pass, and so the state line between Montana and Idaho was drawn there. Later they found out that the continental divide was a long ways east of that point, but the boundaries were already set. In reality, there is no way that the Montana territory would have ceded Butte, which is west of the divide and which at the time of statehood was one of the richest mining regions in the world. Whatever the truth of the story, the state has this huge line of mountains with high passes running from north to south and dividing the state in roughly two thirds east of the divide and one third on the western side.

Growing up on the east slope, we had our own jokes about the folks who lived on the other side of the high passes. We had family who lived west of the divide and we went over the mountains a lot, so I know the names of all of the high passes and the roads are familiar to me.

Yesterday we crossed the Bozeman pass and then over the continental divide at Pipestone Pass, just east of Butte. We continued on to St. Regis, where we camped for the night in a beautiful pine forest with the Clarks Fork River rushing by. The river is high as there is still snow in the high country and each rainfall adds to the flow. Later in the summer the river will clear up and you will be able to see the fish, but right now it is just a rush of water, heading towards the Pacific.

The mountains are absolutely gorgeous with their snow-covered peaks. Sometimes they emerge from the clouds with the sun shining on the tops and put on a real display for us folks below.

We are taking our time with the drive, not wanting to rush too much.

Generalizations about culture and place are often not accurate. At least if you comment about trends, you run the risk of not understanding individuals. However, there is something about this particular cluster of mountains that has long attracted certain types of people. Before European settlers arrived, the indigenous people of the region that is now western Montana and northern Idaho were independent, self-sufficient people. They knew how to endure harsh and long winters and live off of the abundant game. They were superb trackers who found their way in the dense forests and hunted the abundant game. They were fierce warriors who defended their territory and families. The American explorers, Lewis and Clark, were nearly stymied by the mountain crossings required to reach the west coast. They tried the Lemhi pass, but what is now the Salmon-Challis wilderness area proved too confusing for them to find a way. They came back into the Bitterroot valley and turned north toward the region of present-day Missoula and followed roughly the route now taken by Interstate 90. There they finally met members of the Lemhi Shoshone tribe. Sacagawea, who was only 16 years old at the time and who had been with the expedition since their first winter in Mandan, had already had an exciting life, being taken to live with the Mandans in North Dakota before meeting up with Toussaint Charbonneau, member of the expedition. There in the mountains on what is now the Montana-Idaho border she was reunited with her people. Being able to speak their language, she was able to negotiate the necessary help for the survival of the expedition and the guides to help they make their way west to the Columbia river basin that led them to the coast.

The waves of immigrants that followed over the next couple of centuries were strong and independent people. Fir traders arrived and learned to live and trade with the native people. They were followed by miners and loggers and a few hearty ranchers who extracted wealth from the land. The incredible beauty of the land was not missed by those who came and those who settled. There is more to the story and there was conflict with the indigenous people as well as opportunities for cooperation.

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In the last half of the 20th century the region attracted survivalists who were trying to get away from the pressures of urban living. After the Watts riots and the subsequent reform of the Los Angeles Police Department, many former law enforcement officers relocated to North Idaho where they intentionally distanced themselves from the pressures of urban living. North Idaho is distant and separated from the state capitol in Boise. It is a good place for those who don’t want much contact with governmental authority.

Now the land has increased in value and the region is the playground of very wealthy individuals, who have cabins near ski resorts and summer recreation areas. The people are very diverse. But there is a unique character to the folks who live here and a bit of standoffishness that is typical of the region. You don’t want to make the mistake of picking huckleberries in someone’s territory. They are likely to defend it fiercely.

This part of the world has never been my home, but I certainly love to visit it. The mountains are spectacular and the forests are incredible. As a traveler on my way through I have it a lot easier than the members of the Corps of Discovery, but I remember their stories as I journey.

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

Home again

BTCrazies
If you approach Big Timber, Montana from the east, you get your first glimpse of the Crazy Mountains about 15 miles out. The Crazies are one of several isolated ranges east of the main Rocky Mountains that span Montana from north to south. The Crazies are dramatic. A relatively small range, they span about 40 miles from the Yellowstone River on the south to the Musselshell River on the north. They cover less territory than the Black Hills of South Dakota. But they rise much higher. Crazy Peak, the highest, is 11,214 feet above sea level. That is about 7,000 feet above the surrounding plains. They are rocky and craggy and when I was a kid, there were a few smaller glaciers, so they always had a snow-capped appearance. These days the snow all melts off by mid to late July, but right now there is quite a bit of snow and they appear to be blue and white against the background of the sky and clouds.

Perhaps nothing says “home” to me the way the Crazies do. We spent quite a bit of time in our “other” mountains, what is now the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness area, south of town. But we also knew the Crazies. We hiked and hunted there for deer and elk. The Crazies are also home to mountain goats and black bears.

The name of the mountains is the subject of many legends, the veracity of which cannot be fully checked. When I was growing up, the local story was that they were originally called the “Crazy Woman Mountains” after a woman who became lost there and became mentally unstable. I suspect that it is more likely that the name really comes from a mistranslation of the Crow name for the mountains. The Crow language is difficult for non natives to pronounce. They got their English name from European settlers who didn’t quite understand their own name for themselves, Apsáalooke. It is likely that the reference was to a smaller black bird and not the larger crows, but that is also a matter of interpretation. These days, most tribal members, even native speakers, are comfortable with the name, Crow.

They call the mountains Awaxaawapìa Pìa, which is more accurately translated “ominous mountains.” Translation was a problem all across the United States. In North Dakota Spirit Lake became “Devil’s Lake.” In Wyoming, Bear’s Home became “Devil’s Tower.” There was no devil or evil spirit in Lakota tradition, only trickster animals, insects and spirits that could change form.

I, however, have know the mountains as the Crazy Mountains all of my life. It gives me a great deal of peace just to see them and I enjoy looking at them from town every time I visit. Our house in town had a good view of the mountains, but you had to go outside to see it. We didn’t have any second-story windows in that direction. Our summer place was down next to the river and also didn’t have a view of the mountains. Still, we always knew that they were there and a short walk to the top of the hill was all it took for them to unfold in all of their glory.

One of the topics of conversation between my sister and I, as is the case in every visit, is the process of how to care for our summer place. It is the only real estate we own in the home town. It is held in trust of our parents’ surviving children and two of us are named trustees. The trust has no money to provide for taxes and insurance and maintenance, so my sister and I have a small limited liability corporation that manages the property. The property is rented on occasion for weddings and family reunions and campers sometimes stay at the place. With limited bathroom facilities, it can’t be used by large groups and with the potential spread of coronavirus, we are not hosting any groups this year. That means no income, a situation we could not sustain for more than a couple of years. So we talk and worry and suspect that the time will come when we will be forced to sell the place.

For now, my sister takes good care of things and it s a lovely place to visit. It is her home and she keeps things looking lovely and welcoming.
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I took a walk down to the river last evening and enjoyed the sound of the water rolling over the rocks. The Boulder River flows into the Yellowstone about two miles downstream from our place, so it is starting to spread out a little. The pace of the river is still fast enough to move around the rocks from which it gets its name.

A rock-strewn river and a set of ominous mountains are the frame of my growing up years. Both are so familiar to me that although I have not lived here for 50 years, it still feels like home.

Perhaps returning to my roots is a good way to begin retirement. They say that the stories you tell the most vary the most from historical accuracy. In the telling the stories grow and change until they have moved away from objective truth. Nonetheless, my stories of this part of the world have great power for me. I can remember the days when they drove the sheep right through town and cowboys didn’t go into the sheepherder bar and sheepherders didn’t go into the cowboy bar. I can remember seeing a bobcat in town and the occasional bear that would make a visit. A moose stopping by for a while wasn’t all that rare of an occurrence, either. I can remember the old timers and the feel of sitting in our little church and looking up at the preacher in his black robe. I can remember Sunday School picnics and school field day and the kids in my class. I can remember fishing the river and hunting the mountains.

Somehow all of those things contributed to who I am today. And one of the jobs of this phase of my life is to pull all of those pieces back together into an integrated puzzle. My return home is a bit of a pilgrimage to launch this thing we call retirement.

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 New Pace

Things didn’t work out as planned yesterday. We were slow getting started. It took a bit longer to button up our house and load our camper. We have been trying to give ourselves the gift of a bit of leisure and not push quits so hard as we had been during the final three months or so of our full-time employment, so we didn’t worry, we just kept working till we were ready to roll.

Only we weren’t really ready to roll. Before we even got out of our subdivision, the dashboard display in the truck read “Trailer Wiring Fault.” I stopped, got out, played with the plug a bit, but couldn’t find the problem. We decided to head for Dakota Battery and Electric. They were able to schedule a repair for a week from today. That wasn’t soon enough to get us on the road when we wanted to go. I got on the phone. Big Tex might be able to work us in on Monday. Blake’s Trailers had three in front of us but would try to help us assess the problem. We ran by Blakes and it was clear we weren’t going to get on the road as planned.

I purchased a new cable from Blake’s and headed home. I was pretty sure that the cable itself wasn’t the problem, but it was a starting point in what might be a long process fo eliminating possible causes one by one. As we were driving home the dashboard display became more urgent: “Trailer Disconnected.” Obviously the trailer wasn’t disconnected, but it gave me a clue that the problem was a ground fault.

My multi meter and I went to work. By 3 pm the problem had been found and corrected. We decided to give it a road test just to be sure. It isn’t hard to find bumpy roads around here to shake things down, so we made a loop. Success! Everything was working properly.

It was only just then that I began to realize an important thing. We are retired. We don’t have to meet a schedule on the other end. We can delay a day without a problem. In our previous life, we probably would have started out at 4 pm. We might have stopped short of our day’s planned destination, but we might also have just pushed on into the wee hours. No such push is necessary. We notified our children and my sister of the change in plans, went for a nice walk, had a pleasant supper and caught up on a few things before showering and turning in early. Today is a new day and we’ll get an early start and will be able to take things at a slow pace.

Throughout the history of philosophy, great minds have invested a lot of energy speculating about the passage of time. It is easy to observe that one does not always perceive the passage of time in the same way. Sometimes it seems to be going quickly. At other times it seems to be going slowly. Scientists have tried to establish the passage of time as a fixed reality, something that can be measured. The passage of time is a directly observable fact. That worked for a while. Universal Time is a standard based on the earth’s rotation. The concept started as Greenwich Mean Time, starting at 0 degrees of latitude as a way of regulating train schedules. Prior to Greenwich Mean Time, each locality had its own clock, based on the observation of the sun’s highest point in the sky during the day. Greenwich and the Universal Time provided a standard for coordination of activities around the globe.

Of course we humans couldn’t leave well enough alone and introduced Daylight Savings Time to confuse things, though only a little bit.

The real wrench in the theory of time being an observable absolute came in the 20th century when the theory of relativity transformed theoretical physics and astronomy, superseding the 200-year-old theory of mechanics developed by Isaac Newton. The Einstein Theory of Relativity integrated observations of space and time into spacetime. The passage of time is not a fixed reality, but rather varies depending on the point of view from which it is observed. An object traveling experiences the passage of time at a different rate than another object traveling at a different pace in a different direction.

Humans knew this long before scientific theory caught up. Waiting for the weather to clear for a planned activity feels different than waiting for a baby to be born. The passage of time when one is engaged in recreation fees different than the passage of time when that same person is waiting for the return of a loved one. Different times have different qualities and how we perceive the passage of time depends on our circumstances.

So there is a different quality to retirement time from the time when we were working. If I don’t accomplish a task today, I can put it off to tomorrow in a way that simply wasn’t possible when tomorrow held so many new tasks. All of this is set in the simple context that I am much closer to the end of my life than was the case decades ago. The measurable amount of time that I have left is less than it was before. That shortness of time, however, doesn’t seem to have the same urgency that was once the case.

On June 15 I turned off my alarm. I woke the next morning at nearly the same time as before, but not with the precision of the clock. Today is my 4th day of operating with the clock off. I’m not really sleeping any more hours than before. I’m not sleeping in. I’m just a bit less regulated, a bit less precise in the minute of my climbing from bed. So far it has just been a few days. I feel like I’m on vacation. It will take a while for me to adjust.

This is a season of shifting the pace of my life. Time will tell how it goes.

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!

Home

Years ago a friend and colleague was preparing for a retirement move. After having lived in South Dakota for most of his professional career, he and his wife were preparing to move to a retirement community. It was a place where several other clergy friends had moved and they were looking forward to a big change in their lifestyle. After a long and successful pastoral career, this friend had served in several interim positions, including a stint as an Associate Conference Minister. He had then served as interim pastor of several different congregations. Now his health was catching up with him and he needed to pull back from the pace and stress of full-time work, so they made their choice and put their home on the market. It sold quickly and his wife, who is an organizer, went to work packing everything up. His study was dismantled. Boxes of books were given away. Everything was prepared for the move. He came to meet with a clergy group for one of the last times before leaving the state.

He came into our meeting looking a bit down. Someone asked him how it was going. He paused and said, “I’m homeless. I’ve never been homeless before.” We didn’t know how to respond. We knew that he had a place to live waiting for him at the retirement community. We knew that they had not long before downsized to a townhouse and had the proceeds from the sale of that place as they moved into the community. His wife had been so confident and happy about the move. He was showing some of his reluctance that morning.

As it turned out, that move wasn’t their last. They had moved a lot of times in their married life and there was yet one more interstate move after that one. We kept in touch throughout their lives and he went on to have many more meaningful years. We had just caught him at a moment when he was asking some of the questions that everyone asks about change and one’s place in the world.

I’ve remembered that morning ever since it happened, however. His feeling of being a bit lost in the midst of a move stuck with me as I thought about my own life. Our lives, to be sure, are very different. Our careers have taken very different paths. I have a lot more options than he did when he was my age. But I think I know a little bit of what he was feeling that day.

Today, we’re heading off on an adventure. Our plan is to tow our camper out to northwestern Washington where our son and his family live. It is a trip we’ve made several times before. Our camper has made a trip to the Pacific Northwest every summer that we’ve owned it. The tires and bearings have been checked, things have been prepared. And this trip we are going to take a bit slower pace and not put in too many miles each day. It should be relaxing.

The first stop is about 400 miles away. It is a place that I called home during my growing up years. My folks bought a cabin property when I was about six years old and we spend our summers there during my elementary and high school years. When I went away to college and later, after I was married, to graduate school, I thought of that place by the river as home. I proudly told anyone who would listen that I was from Montana and I believed that I would be going back to Montana as soon as I completed my education.

Of course, it didn’t work out that way. When we graduated from seminary there weren’t many congregations in Montana looking for pastors and we accepted a call to serve in North Dakota. From there we served in Idaho and South Dakota. Our children never lived in Montana. I filled out a few applications and I even interviewed with committees in Montana, but I never received a call to serve there. We have lived in the house where we live longer than either of us ever lived in any other house. I’ve called South Dakota home for 25 years and it has been a very good home.

Part of this trip will be some preliminary scouting for a new place for us to live. Our plan is to move to Washington later this year. We’ve got a lot of things that need to be done before we get to that point, including preparing our South Dakota home for sale. We expect it to take months for us to pull of the move. This trip is partly vacation, after several months of very intense working. It is partly family reunion and time to be with our grandchildren and it is partly a scouting trip to think about where we will live for the next phase of our lives. It should be fun. I’m not feeling like my colleague who declared that he was homeless. Just the opposite. I have several homes. I have our home here in South Dakota, filled with memories. I is the place where our children graduated from high school. It is the place where my mother and Susan’s father lived at the end of their lives. It is a lovely home with great neighbors, including wild deer and turkeys. Then I have my home in Montana, where I grew up. My sister lives in the cabin and we are welcome whenever we want to go there. I own the property together with my siblings and have a stake in managing the place. And now we are going to pull our camper - a kind of mobile home - out to our son’s yard in Washington, where it will remain for several months. We’ll begin establishing a home there. I’ve got at least three good homes going - all at once.

Of course it isn’t practical to live in three states. We have to choose a place to put down roots, register to vote and settle down. But for now, we’re getting ready to head out. The trailer is hitched to the truck. The tank is full of fuel. We’re almost ready to go.

I also know that we’ll be back before long. After all, I have an appointment on July 9 to renew my South Dakota Driver’s License. It’ll have the same home address that has been on my driver’s license for the past 25 years.

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!

Journey with a prayer

One of the spiritual disciplines that I learned fairly early in my life is an ancient practice sometimes called a breath prayer. There are many forms of this discipline and not all of them are Christian. It is likely that the practice existed before Christianity and at some point Christians adopted the practice. At its core, a breath prayer is simply paying attention to the rhythm of your own breathing. When you pay attention and take care to breathe deeply, you can increase your oxygen levels, calm your anxieties, and clear your mind. I frequently close my eyes and simply pay attention to my breathing. Because breathing is controlled, in part, by your autonomic nervous system you don’t have to be conscious in order to be breathing. I can happen without you thinking about it. However, when you do give your breath your attention, you can exercise some control over the rate of your breathing.

Focusing your attention on your breathing is a form of meditation that has been practiced for millennia. People learned that taking time to simply pay attention to breathing had positive benefits. It is likely that some Christians practiced breath prayers from the very beginnings of the church. However, it is such a natural practice that there isn’t much written in church history about it before about the sixth century. In more modern times it has been associated with the Eastern Church, particularly Greek and Russian Orthodox churches in a specific discipline. In those traditions is is known as the Jesus Prayer or Prayer from the Heart. Practitioners repeat a phase to the rhythm of their breath: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.” Sometimes this is shortened to “Jesus Christ, have mercy.” Two words for the inhale, two words for the exhale.

The prayer has been used as an example of the advice in the 1st letter to the Thessalonians, “Pray without ceasing.” (1 Thessalonians 5:17)

For me, a breath prayer is a way of slowing down my mind when it gets going too quickly. It helps me to focus when a task needs to be accomplished or when I am tired. I find that if I simply take time to breath deeply my thinking becomes more clear.

Nearly 20 years ago, I was burned. The initial treatment for the burn was quite painful as they cleaned my wounds. I used the breath prayer to turn my attention away from the pain. It worked very well for me. The dermatologist I saw for follow-up commented about my “Zen meditation.” I assured him that I didn’t know much about Zen at all, but discussed with him how I was able to think of other things than the pain and how it helped me. After that experience, I began using a similar prayer technique when I found myself becoming agitated for other reasons.

Patience has not been my long suit, and I used to get irritated when I was forced to wait. Places like the waiting rooms in doctor’s offices often led to me thinking about the injustice of one person thinking their time was more valuable than another’s. Why should I have to wait? I learned, however, that if I saw waiting as an opportunity to take a few deep breaths and pray without words, I became calm and relaxed. It was like a tiny vacation in the midst of the stress.

Now I have come to a point where I will learn to use the technique in new and different ways. My life needs to take another change of pace. I don’t intend to become sedentary, but I do intend to shift gears.

Here is my confession. I’ve been a bit of a workaholic. I’ve had such meaningful work that it hasn’t been a chore for me to do it. Even though I know the commandment about Sabbath, I haven’t always observed it in terms of a whole day. When the pandemic became a reality and people were staying home, I didn’t. I went to the office every day. I tried to think of new ways to reach out to the congregation. I made it a priority to build up the community in the ways I could. Although I took time for personal concerns, accompanied my wife to medical procedures, had my own doctor’s appointments, and took time for my family, I did some work at the church every day. I even cheated by going to the office yesterday - a day after my last official day at work. I went in early, dealt with a few details that need to be done, and sat in the sanctuary for prayer for a while.

Today, I will not be going to the office. It is no longer my office. I’ve turned in my keys. And it is the first day since March 16 that I haven’t gone to the office. I didn’t want my ministry to end with a wind-down. I wanted to give my full energy to the job to the end of it. I’m not sure that 92 days without a full day off is a good practice for anyone, but it was my way of saying to myself, “I’m giving my all to this congregation.”

So the pace needs to change. I need to slow down a bit. And I know I’ll ned to use my spiritual disciplines to guide me through this transition. I’ve taken vacations and sabbaticals successfully in the past, so I am starting with a vacation. Susan and I will be traveling with our camper starting tomorrow. We will be taking a trip to see our grandchildren and we are intentionally adding a day to the time in transit. We’ll be staying off grid and keeping distance from others. Outside of fuel stops we shouldn’t need to buy anything during our trip. We plan tot take our time and learn a bit of a new pace.

As the advice has come from friends, “One day at a time.”

For me one day at a time begins with one breath at a time. My prayers go with me.

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

Self discipline

Nearly forty years ago, we were being interviewed by a social worker as part of the process of application to adopt a child. The process at that time involved a fair amount of paper work, a series of classes, which in our case took place in a city 150 miles from our home, and a home study where a case worker came to our house to see that we had space for a child. I don’t remember too much about the whole process, but I remember that I was asked something about self discipline or self control. In my answer I cited my educational background as a sign that I could be self-motivated. I think I also spoke about my eating and health and our spending and finances as examples that we were mature and responsible adults. Looking back now, I think that my answer might have sounded more like braggadocio than self confidence. I was young and quite full of myself. I had a lot of lessons to learn and some of them were taught to me by the child we were allowed to adopt. The story turned out well for us. We were placed on the adoption list. We did adopt. It was a wonderful experience and our daughter has become a responsible adult herself, a mother and a continual delight to us as parents.

Now, as I enter yet another new phase of my life, I have been thinking about self-discipline once again. We are needing to do a kind of reset on so many areas of our lives and I know it will take time to figure out all of the responses to the new challenges we face. One of the areas were I will be doing some resetting over the next weeks and months is this journal. I started the journal as a discipline to help me improve my writing. The theory was that writing an essay every day would help as I sought to hone my skills as a professional writer. I set up the website, in part, to be a showcase of my skills as a professional. The process was never purely professional. I’ve been quite personal in many of my essays and the journal has provided me with recreation and new ways to think about myself.

My general plan is to continue to write. My semi-retirement should give me more time to write and writing is a good way to help me sort out the stories of my life. Who knows? I may even try my hand at memoir writing. There are a couple of shifts that are coming, however. I am going to experiment with writing at different times of the day. With a few exceptions, my journal posts have been written first thing in the morning. It was a practical way for me to maintain the discipline while working at a full-time job. I could finish my writing and get to the office before the phone started ringing and others showed up. On the rare occasions when I had to scoot out of the house during the wee hours to accomplish a particular task, I would write the night before.

After waking to an alarm clock for most of my adult life, I’ve turned it off. I plan to pay more attention to my body and to sleep when I’m tired. That means that the time of writing might vary quite a bit. Today, I plan to write and then perhaps take a nap. Some days, I won’t start writing until mid-morning. One of the luxuries of retirement is freedom from the clock. I’m sure I’ll develop a routine, but I hope it will be a new routine at least.

Over the next couple of weeks we will be traveling and our travels will be done with due care and respect for physical distancing. We don’t want to be part of the spread of the coronavirus. As a result we’ll probably be doing some camping in off-grid locations and not have as regular access to the Internet as we do at home. I’m not going to worry if I don’t get my journal published each day. I’ll continue to write and I’ll publish when I have a signal to connect to the Internet. It is, however, much easier to upload my journal than it was in years past, so regular readers may not eve notice the difference.

Long term, over the next six or eight months, after we’ve dealt with the business of getting our house ready to sell and figured out the details a making a move in the season of coronavirus, I plan to invest more time in photography. I’d like to return to publishing photographs with my journal. I may even find time to spruce up my website a bit with some new images.

If I were with the social worker at this point in my life, I think I might answer differently than I did when I was in my twenties. I’ve been disciplined enough to have a successful career in a vocation that doesn’t have much direct supervision. I’ve managed to nurture nonprofits and motivate donors enough to allow us to focus on our mission. I’ve shown up for work and put in my hours without it being a big problem. I’ve followed a fair number of tangents and side interests. When something captures my imagination, I’m likely to explore it. When I find something that works, I’m likely to stick with it. I don’t think of myself as particularly self-disciplined, but I’ve been able to focus enough to accomplish the things that are most important to me. As to whether or not I have sufficient self-discipline to be a good father, you’d do better to ask my wife and children than me. They are the true experts. What I do know is that being a father is something that I’m so glad I got to experience. It continues to be one of the parts of my identity that guides me every day.

And those children-become-adults who are in my life have been the greatest gift of all. I’m sure glad I somehow convinced that social worker that we should be on the adoption list.

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!

Sixty-seven

25 years after he started Sky Flight, Inc., my father sold the Yellowstone Air Service division of his company. Included in the sale were the airplanes and equipment for the application of chemicals and fertilizers, the airport fixed base operation, and the air charter business. He cited 25 years of accident-free operation and said that 25 years was long enough to work in a high risk occupation. At that time, he retained the parent corporation and the divisions that sold farm machinery and a leasing company. Around a decade later he sold Big Timber Farm Supply, the equipment business. He had been in that business for 25 years. Once again he said that 25 years was enough for that business. Looking back, I don’t think he actually planned to do those things in exactly the way they worked out. In fact, I suspect that when he started the flying business, he intended to do that for the rest of his career and he had no intention of going into the farm machinery business. He had an entrepreneurial spirit and responded to opportunities as they arose. It was just the way things worked out and the numbers happened to be neat.

I think of my father a lot when I am thinking of my life. I admire his spirit and his dedication to his family. I loved being with him and was usually energized and engaged in whatever we were doing. I enjoyed his support for my educational career and my choice of vocation. He was a really great dad and I’m lucky to have been born into his family. Our lives, however, have taken different courses. Still, I think I have imitated him a great deal in the course of my life.

He would often talk to me about plans that he had for his life. He had goals that he was pursuing. They often had to do with serving institutions he loved. He was a huge supporter of church camp and he had a passion for Rocky Mountain College, a church-related liberal arts college on whose Board of Trustees he served. He spent countless hours improving the campuses of both places by going to work and doing jobs such as roofing buildings, doing remodeling, donating equipment, and caring for grounds.

As I grew into adulthood, I thought I was imitating him by having plans. I set goals, like completing my degrees by the age of 25, and becoming a published author by the age of 30. I met some of my goals - both of those actually - but others didn’t work out the way I’d planned. I often used round numbers like 25, 30 or 35 because they are easy and also because somewhere I had heard that careers unfold in five-year increments. “You need to have a 5-year plan to achieve career goals,” is something I’ve carried in my mind.

As the years stretched on, I continued to make similar plans. Some worked out. Most did not. Although I knew I wanted to become a father, I had no idea what impact that would have on my professional writing. Sleep deprivation doesn’t enhance your book-writing time. Also, opportunities don’t open up in even five-year spacings. So we attended college for four years and graduate school for four years and served our first parish for seven years before receiving a call to our second parish.

Still I thought in five year blocks of time. So my plan was to actively work until the age of 70 and then retire. That would be 45 years of service as a pastor to local congregations. I like the numbers.

Today I turn 67. It isn’t a year that ends in a 5 or a 0 and I had not planned for this to be a significant birthday. But the reality is that although I remain technically employed until the end of the month, my retirement party was yesterday. We are in the midst of huge change in our lives. I have to figure out a plan for retirement. We’ve meet with a financial advisor, we’ve done some calculating, we have a rough idea of a general direction for the next phase of our life, but we don’t exactly have a plan. When people ask me about what is going to happen next, I keep answering, “We’re waiting to see what happens with the pandemic.”

It isn’t the pandemic that has thrown off our plans, it is more my general understanding of the planning process. Planning is good and necessary when building something that is fixed and understood. Planning is essential for building a house or a road or any number of other things. However, building a life is a different kind of problem. The goal is not fixed. More importantly, we don’t have the required information to plan our lives. We don’t know how long we will live. We don’t know what health challenges we will encounter. We don’t know what new options will open up. We are also missing information about ourselves. We humans are constantly changing. Interests and passions change. Something like the current unrest in the streets of our country, for example, has caused me to re-think my work as a law enforcement chaplain. It seems to be a very good moment to pull back from that particular part of my career. I didn’t see that coming at all. I thought that I would continue that part of my work long beyond my retirement, and I may still pursue that path, but I’m aware that things are changing. I don’t want to end up doing what I wanted to do 20 or 30 years ago. I’d rather pursue my current passions.

In design theory a distinction is made between a planning problem, where you have sufficient information, and a wicked problem, where you lack sufficient information. Wicked problems are more complex and solved not by having an overall plan, but by following a line and solving problems as they come along.

I think my life has always been a wicked problem. I’ve learned to react to the circumstances and respond to the current issues. So, at 67, I confess I don’t have a plan for the next three or five years. I have some ideas. I have some streams I want to follow. I have some ideas I want to pursue. And that will have to be enough.

Maybe I’ll have a clearer picture when I turn 70, but I doubt it.

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!

Change

It has been two weeks since I was last “on call” as a first responder. I’m starting to make the adjustment. Last night, I got up in the middle of the night to use the restroom and I didn’t take my telephone with me. I won’t need to do that any more, but training myself to follow new habits will take a little time. I’ve taken a few weeks’ vacation before, so two weeks isn’t enough to make the change. I’m surprised how quickly I’ve been able to not worry about it. This morning was a bit different, however. I still have an application on my phone set to notify me if there is a call for CPR within ten minutes of my location. It is really wonderful technology and I’ll continue to keep it because some day I may be in the right position to help someone. The application went off just as I was waking this morning and the address was closer to a fire station than to my home, so I knew that an emergency unit and a medical unit would be there before I could get dressed. Still I felt that surge of adrenaline and found myself full awake within a few seconds. It is going to take a while for that to calm down. The particular application I have on my phone is not in use in all communities, so it may not work outside of Rapid City, but here I still like to check and make sure that someone is responding.

There was an occasion, many years ago, when I was called upon to actually perform CPR. I was trained as I was volunteering as an ambulance driver in our small, rural community. I was in the city on that day, however. Actually North Dakota doesn’t have many cities, so it is a matter of perspective if you call Bismarck a city. For us it was a major shopping center. At any rate I was at a meeting and a man with whom I was speaking suddenly experienced a heart attack and collapsed on the floor. Fortunately, there were a lot of others around, so my call for someone to call 911 was heard and responded and within a very short time another person trained in CPR came running. The two of use performed CPR until the ambulance arrived. I don’t know how long it took the ambulance to get there. It was probably under 10 minutes, given the location. It seemed much, much longer. The results were not good. The person was pronounced dead at the hospital. We learned of the death a little more than an hour after the ambulance left. We were, however, praised by the ambulance crew and later a couple of others, for our prompt action.

I hope I never have to do that again. The only other time I’ve witnessed CPR in person in an actual crisis was when my wife needed it in the hospital. I realize there is no comparison in the emotional impact of the patient being a near-stranger and the patient being my wife of 46 years. I have no desire to be with someone who needs CPR, but if that occasion occurs, I want to be well prepared. A couple of ours every couple of years for recurrent training seems like a discipline that I will continue for the next phase of my life. I have, however, moved my rescue breather from the backpack with which I carry things back and forth to work to an emergency first aid kit that I carry in my vehicle.

The location of a rescue breather and the settings on my telephone are really minor things in this season of transition that we are entering. I’ve got some really big things coming down the pike, like the first month of my adult life without a paycheck, and preparing a house to be sold, and planning an Interstate move while the pandemic is still a factor. My brain, however, isn’t as able to think of the really big issues in the same way as the small decisions that come each day. “Where do I put this one item?” “Is this something that should be kept, recycled, or thrown in the trash?” I can deal with those questions. And if I deal with enough of them, I finally get to the point where I’ve gotten some big things done.

For me, moving out of my office and preparing it for the next person to occupy was a huge task. It is nearly completed. There are just a few worship notes for today, a couple of notes to staff and one or two items that go home with me today. We are unsure whether tomorrow or the next day will be the day to turn in our keys, but it will be one of the two. Just having fewer keys on my keyring will be another little thing.

Change is necessary in life. Even though it is natural for us to resist change, we cannot stop it. Life goes on and we are a part of that flow. I don’t have to do too much to remind myself of that. All I have to do is to look in the mirror. There is a lot less hair on the top of my head than was the case when I moved to Rapid City 25 years ago. If I decide to let down my hair when I retire, it isn’t going to be a dramatic event. I feel a few more aches and pains at the end of a day when I’ve been working. I seem to be a bit more eager to take off my shoes at the end of the day. There are lots and lots of changes that occur in every life.

Much of my career has been advocating for and guiding people in the midst of change. A pastor is continually innovating and changing. I hope those skills will serve me well in the next few weeks and months as I adjust to a big change in my life.

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

We're all in this together

For most of my life I’ve heard terms like “self-made man” and “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps.” In a small western town there was a lot of pride in hard work and self-sufficiency. The truth, however, is that I have never been self-sufficient. I have always depended on others around me for survival and support. I was proud to think of myself as independent from my parents when I went away to college at the age of 17. The reality is that I was nowhere near financially independent. In addition to regular support, I had the “fall back” of knowing that I had a job waiting in my father’s business if I ever needed it. And that is where I worked for the first two summers of my college experience, and for the summer after I graduated from college. All the way through my college and graduate school years my car was on the company’s fleet policy, which meant that I wasn’t paying for the insurance on the vehicle. My college and graduate school years were subsidized by generous donors who supported those educational institutions.

When we began our careers, we moved into a parsonage owned by one of the congregations we served. It isn’t a small luxury for a young couple, fresh out of school, to move into a three bedroom two bathroom home with an attached garage. We lived in that house for seven years. When we moved to Idaho we began purchasing our home, but we always had a mortgage on that house. It is an interesting thing how easily we became comfortable with a mortgage. We didn’t think of the house as belonging to the bank or not being fully ours. The timing was not the best and interest rates were high, so we felt like we were paying all of our expenses. We’ve had a mortgage ever since, but we continue to think of our home as our own, even though we haven’t yet paid for all of it.

Beyond all of that, there are some tax advantages that are afforded to clergy. Like members of the US military, we do not pay taxes on the portion of our income that goes to our housing. That is a really big advantage to us and a direct support that is afforded to us by the generosity of others.

We have the luxuries that we do in our lives because we have worked hard, but also because we have received support from others. There are plenty of others who have put in the same kind of hours we have and have not reaped the same benefits.

Perhaps my theme song should be that old Beatles hit, “With a Little Help From My Friends.”

I’ve had a lot of help and support from others as I have gone through this life’s journey. I have been a product of community. My family, my schools, my church - I have been surrounded by supportive community all of my life.

One of the wonderful parts of this process is that since we graduated from seminary, we have always moved to a church. Each move, we have known what our job would be and which congregations we would be serving. That meant that when we arrived in our new town there was an already-formed community of people who held pot-luck meals, provided volunteers to help unload the truck, gave us advice on shopping and getting set up in our new place.

Even now, contemplating retirement, we have already been scouting churches in the place where we are planning to move. Before we make the final commitments, we’ll know where we will be attending church even though the coronavirus pandemic is making “attending” a funny word when it comes to churches. We don’t know the exact pattern of how church membership will evolve through all of this, but we do know that there will be a supportive community that will be a part of our lives in the next phase. Besides, we are moving to be nearer to family, so we know we have love and support and an extended network of people in this new phase of our lives.

Some of the phrases and aphorisms that I have heard over the years aren’t very accurate in reality. We have enjoyed good fortune, but we haven’t exactly “earned everything we have.” We have been the recipients of incredible generosity. I have never truly been “financially independent.” Before I was independent from the generosity of my parents, my finances were intertwined with those of my wife. We have always both worked and provided income for our family. I’ve never don it all by myself. Except for a few semesters in college, I’ve never even had my own bedroom. I’ve always lived with others and I prefer it that way.

When I encounter those who are less fortunate than I, I am learning to understand that their circumstances are not the result of a moral failing or a failure to work hard. They have encountered circumstances that are different from my own. The massive unemployment and shift in the economy that is a result of this pandemic is re-shaping a lot of people’s lives. Those who thought they were in stable positions find themselves unable to make their mortgage payment and buy groceries. The hard times are primarily not the result of their choices, but rather of forces outside of themselves. Sure, I know people who make bad choices. I’ve met folks who could use their talents in different ways. Sometimes people suffer because they have done the wrong thing. But as Rabbi Kushner said in his popular book, there are times “When Bad Things Happen to Good People.’ This pandemic is one of those times.

One of my signature phrases was borrowed from the Canadian actor Steve Smith and his Red Green Show: “We’re all in this together.” Indeed we really are. And when we learn to not only help others, but gracefully accept their generosity we are all better for it.

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!

One week to Juneteenth

The history of African American Christian churches is long and complex. By and large the areas of Africa from which slaves were seized and taken into slavery were places where Christianity was not the predominant religion. Most of those taken into slavery encountered Christianity while they were enslaved. Part of the process of slavery was the imposition of European culture and religion upon the enslaved people. The stories of the Bible, however, inspired hope in those hearing them for the first time. Moses leading the children of Israel out of slavery became a very enticing story for those enslaved. Jesus reaching out to those who were marginalized and forgotten was inspirational. Because slave owners generally discouraged the education of slaves, many did not learn to read. In place of reading, a powerful oral tradition developed. Biblical stories were passed on by the telling of stories. Because the original stories of the Bible have such a long history of being transmitted orally, they lent themselves to this method of teaching and learning.

As the Christian faith took its unique path in the slave community, churches became the first legally owned property to be held by African Americans. Groups of slaves formed churches and associations that were able to own land and construct churches. As the popularity of Christianity among African American slaves grew, white slave owners became wary of the institution. Fears that churches could be used to organize insurrection rose. Some slave owners tried to suppress the practice of Christianity. But, as the Romans discovered long before, Christianity, when it takes hold, is impossible to suppress.

The church became the center of African American communities. Prayer and praise and other disciplines of faith took hold and powerful religious leaders emerged. When President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation became official on January 1, 1863, churches were among the first institutions to celebrate. People gathered to thank God for liberation and to pray and offer their praise.

The news of the Emancipation Proclamation did not spread evenly across the United States. The tensions and disruption of the Civil War affected lines of communication. It is also possible that there were serious attempts to disrupt the distribution of the news. Cotton farmers wanted to deny the announcement to have slave labor for one more harvest. Warriors were still willing to fight and kill to preserve the status quo. The nation was not of one mind about emancipation. The bloody war was still fresh on people’s minds and some were willing to continue fighting even after the war’s official end. Whatever the reasons, it took two and a half years for the news of the Emancipation Proclamation to reach all of the South. With the surrender of General Lee in April of 1865, the resistance was finally overcome. Military officials from the north began to travel throughout the south and carry the news of the emancipation. The arrival of Major General Gordon Granger in Galveston, Texas on June 19 is recognized as the final official notice that the war had ended and the enslaved were now free. It was two and a half years after the proclamation was first put into order.

African American churches greeted the news with festivals and dinners, worship and prayer. June 19 became known as Juneteenth and has been observed ever since as a day of liberation and freedom, but also as a day of faith and prayer. It is a day to gather in churches and give thanks to God.

Our Christian faith teaches us that God is always on the side of freedom. From the exodus from slavery in Egypt to the healing of lepers in the New Testament, rom the ten commandments to the liberating faith of Paul, the Bible speaks continually about God’s intervention in human history to act for freedom. For African American Christians, Juneteenth is one more recognition of the power of God’s presence in the lives of faithful people.

As African American families attempted to reunite following the emancipation, many drifted northward. South Texas slaves headed north and some found family in Oklahoma. For many complex reasons, the African American community in Tulsa, Oklahoma became a center of business and commerce. The Greenwood District in Tulsa was known as Black Wall Street and became a center of commerce and trade. Over Memorial Day weekend in 1921 a 19-year-old African American, Dick Rowland, was accused of assaulting Sarah Page a 17-year-old white woman. An angry crowd gathered at the courthouse where he was being held. African Americans came in an attempt to prevent a lynching and violence erupted. Within hours the Greenwood District was in flames with explosives, and incendiary devices being delivered in may different ways, some dropped from airplanes. 26 African Americans and 10 whites were confirmed killed, thought the actual number of African Americans killed was likely in the hundreds. More than 800 people were admitted to the hospital. 6.000 African Americans were interned in large facilities. 10,000 African Americans were left homeless and the property damage was in the millions of dollars. The story was largely covered up and not reported in history books until a century later when a bipartisan group in the state legislature formed a Commission to study the event. The final report of the commission recommended payments of reparations to survivors and their descendants, the establishment of an economic enterprise zone in the historic area and a memorial for the reburial of the remains of the victims.

Given the history, it is an extremely poor choice for the President of the United States to plan a rally for Tulsa on Juneteenth, 2020, as our nation is reeling from protests and the President has taken a racially charged stance. It should be a day for going to church and offering prayers, not a day for political rallies and the stirring of racial tensions. I’m well aware that the President does not read my journal and if he did he would not take my advice. However, I feel compelled to appeal to him anyway. Mr. President, please, just don’t do it. Don’t even go to Tulsa. And if you must, then go to church. Instead of standing outside for a photo opportunity, go inside and pray. This nation does not need more anger and violence.

This nation needs prayer. Juneteenth, 2020 is a day when we should all dedicate ourselves to prayer.

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!

Libraries

I decided to get my hair cut yesterday. Like many others, I’ve been sporting a lockdown look for quite a while. My wife did help me by trimming some of my hair and I have to admit that my covid look isn’t quite as dramatic as those who can actually grow hair on the top of their heads. Nonetheless, the place where I usually get my hair cut has been open for more than a week and I figured that they might have worked out the bugs in the system. I knew in advance that I would still have to deal with my own beard. There is just no way to trim a beard with a face mask on. I was impressed with the organization and care taken by the salon. I was able to set up my appointment online, so I didn’t have to wait. I was greeted outside of the building by an employee who had me wait for just a minute until they were ready. Inside there were only about half of the usual number of people working, with plastic shields between the stations. Everyone was wearing a mask and there was a display of certificates from a training program that certified the employees were all trained in proper infection control procedures. I got a fresh drape and the haircut was completed efficiently by an attendant wearing mask and gloves.

I can see how we could safely proceed with those careful procedures for many months if the pandemic continues. I’ve read some articles that suggest that we need to learn to live with the new precautions even after a vaccine is developed. At any rate, we are in the circumstances we have right now and I was pleased at the precautions taken by the salon. It feels good to have my hair cut.

As the father of a librarian, I’ve been paying attention to news stories about libraries and how they have been fairing during the pandemic. Many have been closed, often because of a shortage of city funding. As a few are beginning to reopen, they are re-thinking how they can provide their services. Like many other places, there has been significant fear of surface contamination. In reality, the virus does not do well outside of human bodies. Although they make special ovens for heating books to kill viruses, simply quarantining books upon return will make them safe. Many public libraries simply carefully date books when they are returned and hold them for a a specific amount of time before returning them to the shelves.

Libraries are, however, more than just books. Keeping the books safe is important, but libraries are places where people gather. Parents bring their toddlers for story time. People come to use computers, Book groups meet. Public libraries provide a lot of service for homeless people. If you don’t have a computer, you can’t file for unemployment. The public library used to be the answer. When libraries closed, people lost access to basic services far beyond the books.

When it comes to books, however, there are some innovative ideas and programs being explored. Libraries are offering curbside services. Reserve online or over the phone and pick up the book curbside. Bookmobiles are being transformed so that readers can select books without entering the mobile library. Libraries are delivering books. There are bicycle delivery systems and even drone delivery systems being put into place by some libraries. Libraries are exploring tiny branch locations with no public reading rooms and no places to sit, but access to Wi-Fi as well as a place to pick up resources to take home.

Libraries are expanding their online services, offering virtual story times, virtual book clubs, author interviews and much more. Even when the libraries were closed, many had plenty of cars in the parking areas where people were using the free Wi-Fi to connect with loved ones, complete school work, apply for assistance and do distance work. New York public libraries reported over 500 visits a day when they were officially closed and the city was under a mandatory lock down. There are many library services that are deemed to be essential to the public. Libraries are usually a small portion of a city’s budget, but often times they are the city agency with the most direct contact with people. Compare a library to a fire department. No one is saying we don’t need fire departments, but firemen come into contact with a tiny fraction of the number of people served by libraries each day.

Librarians are masters of research, and they have been working hard to figure out the best ways to reorganize for opening safely. Furniture is being put into storage to open up spaces. Research into the ways people move in public places is being conducted. People are studying the essential services needed by the most vulnerable populations in communities. Computer monitors are being moved to make distance between work stations. Shelving is being re-thought. Some libraries plan not to allow public browsing in the stacks, but rather patrons will browse online and make a request and staff will get the needed books and resources. There will be a lot of innovation as libraries get back to business in a much-changed environment.

Part of the change will be a radical re-working of public library budgets. While corporations and individuals have received substantial economic support during the pandemic, no one has rushed to bail out local governments. Reduced tax revenues and a general slowing of the economy including record-setting unemployment has forced cities to cut funding at the same time as demand for library services is growing exponentially. Libraries across the nation are struggling to expand services with fewer employees. The stress is significant. The creativity is impressive.

When I consider all that is occurring in our public libraries, a haircut seems trivial by comparison. No one really cares what my hair looks like. But there are a lot of people who need the services our libraries provide. It may be a long time before libraries can return to being gathering places for our communities. In the meantime, they will continue to strive to serve. They deserve our support.

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

Changing law enforcement

A week ago, I turned in my badge to the Pennington County Sheriff. The action had nothing to do with the protests in the street. It was what a chaplain does when retiring. I also turned in my dress uniform, my proximity card that functions like a key in the public safety building and jail, and my key to the chaplain’s office. I am no longer officially associated with law enforcement in our city, but it is a role I have assumed for several years. Having worked to serve those who serve in law enforcement, I think I have a unique perspective. It is a perspective that is not often recognized.

In May those who are on the email list for regular updates from our United Church of Christ received a message celebrating the role of chaplains in hospital settings. These often unsung heroes continue to serve on the front lines of our response to the pandemic. Having a hospital chaplain who is a member of the congregation I serve, I am acquainted with the work of that calling and I have deep respect for the specialized training and unique contributions of that form of ministry. I agree with the message we received that we should give special recognition to hospital chaplains.

Over the years, I’ve been aware of efforts by our denomination to bring more recognition to military chaplains as well. However, law enforcement chaplains don’t receive that kind of attention. That’s OK by me. I didn’t go into law enforcement chaplaincy for recognition in the first place. I got involved in law enforcement chaplaincy through my work on our county’s LOSS team. The LOSS team is a first-responder group who provide resources and referral to those left behind when a suicide occurs. For years, I took my turn at being read to respond 24 hours a day to a suicide. I visited scenes of suicide, homes of survivors, hospital emergency rooms, the public safety building and a lot of other places so that I could be with those who were experiencing this traumatic loss. Along the way, I spoke to a lot of investigators and officers who had been called to the scene of a suicide. I soon discovered that these people were themselves survivors. They witnessed death and its aftermath in ways that affected them. From that realization, it wasn’t a huge step for me to begin volunteering as a chaplain and working with officers.

I know a little bit about how law enforcement agencies look from the inside. As such, I think that we are in a unique position to make some important changes in how we conduct policing in our country.

Law enforcement agencies are paramilitary institutions. They have ranks and titles that reflect military organization. Some of the training received by officers is essentially military training. Some of this training is important. Physical fitness and athletic training helps to make officers more efficient in their work and better prepared to endure the stress of the job. Those who use weapons in their work need the best training possible in the use of those weapons. There has been, however, a definite change in the militarization of police in the US over the past 30 years. The first Gulf War, fought in 1990 - 1991, resulted in huge amounts of military equipment being placed on the surplus inventory. Barley-used equipment was replaced by new equipment through the special funding for the war. The surplus items were made available to police departments across the country. Armored personnel carriers and other specialized war vehicles were obtained by many law enforcement agencies at no or minimal cost. During the Clinton administration communities received federal funding to boost the number of police officers on the street. This additional funding also allowed for additional equipment. Following the 911 attacks additional federal support and aid directly from the military poured into local law enforcement agencies. These resources are often deployed to assure overwhelming force in situations where such equipment is not necessary. Last year when protestors gathered on the Standing Rock Reservation to resist the installation of an oil pipeline under the Missouri River, local law enforcement responded with automatic weapons and armored personnel carriers to close roads and prevent the movement of unarmed and peaceful protestors. We were able to see first hand how the disproportionate application of power increased tensions and danger in a local situation.

We now have the opportunity to demilitarize our police forces. There is an important difference between the military and local law enforcement. In addition to the federal military, we have the National Guard to provide military assistance to states and communities when needed. Unlike the military which is deployed in special situations of extreme threat, local law enforcement officers need specialized training in how not to employ weapons. Law enforcement agencies have less lethal weapons and need to understand how to use them effectively. And, in most cases, officers need to know how not to use weapons. Intimidation may be appropriate in rare occasions, but most of the time the role of police is to calm and diffuse situations.

Diffusing anger is not something officers do well. Their weapons and uniforms act as barriers, but so does their training. As a chaplain, I know that many officers are not trained at diffusing their own tensions and experiences. I’ve spent more than a few hours listening and helping officers regain control of their own emotions. I’ve seen officers who resigned because of the stress of their job. When a person is frightened and unable to accurately assess danger, that is the wrong person to give a lethal weapon.

Law enforcement agencies have introduced more diversity training and some courses in deescalation, but much more could be done to provide officers with the resources they need to decrease violence. Current training encourages officers to be afraid, shoot first, and think later. Officers who have chosen not to shoot have been reprimanded for their choice, being told they placed themselves and others at risk, when there is no evidence that this is the case.

The protests in our country are giving us the opportunity to re-think law enforcement training and equipment. There are solutions to our problems. I hope we use common sense to make the changes that are necessary.

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!

I amy be losing it

The clock is ticking and the time is counting down. I have been staring at my computer for more than a half hour without writing a single word. It is hard to take inspiration for the kind fo writing that I do from the news these days. The temptation is to go on a rant. There are plenty of things that are very upsetting. But a rant isn’t what I need right now. I need to focus and get to work. Today will be a day of carrying boxes from an office that I have occupied for 25 years. It will be another day of “lasts,” including my last meeting with Black Hills UCC clergy. Our little group of colleagues has undergone several transformations over the years. We started as a book club and still occasionally read books together. Today will be a video chat, mostly focused on checking in with one another. The group has been more popular with retired clergy than with those who are actively serving congregations, but a couple of us have stuck with it in part because supporting retired clergy is a part of our ministry. The congregation I serve has always had at least four retired clergy and at times we’ve had as many as 10. One of the dynamics of my ministry has been providing support and care for those who served the church faithfully. Now, it seems suddenly to me, I’m on the verge of joining their ranks.

There are a ton of items that need to be dealt with in this final week of work. One week from today my office needs to be available for someone else to occupy. One week from today the church needs to be ready to take responsibility for a whole host of jobs that have been mine. I’m sure that there will be things that I forgot and that slip through the cracks, but I wan to leave things in as good shape as possible.

That is my personal story and it is a repetition of things that I have written before. One of the challenges of working when I am a bit tired is that I get a bit repetitious. I also make mistakes. Here is a story of yesterday that has kept me baffled:

In the morning, I decided to take a piece of salmon out of the freezer to grill for dinner. We had just one piece of salmon, but it would be big enough to split, especially since we had a big sweet potato. I decided to grill some asparagus with it to make a meal. I was doing a lot of other tasks in the morning. I was making sure that the garbage and recycling were out for curbside pickup, I was making myself a cup of chai tea to take with me to the office to record my daily prayers. I was setting out a gallon of water with tea bags to make sun tea. I was getting the truck ready to remove the camper from storage. At one point I made a trip from the basement where the freezer is located with my backpack, a gallon jar and a coffee cup. I stopped by the laundry room to drop of a few things that need to be washed. I proceeded to have a busy day. My phone records steps and mileage and it says I walked 8.8 miles yesterday.

In the late afternoon, I started some charcoal, which was a bit of a challenge in the spitting rain, but I got the grill warmed up and put on the sweet potato to bake. Then I went to get the salmon from the refrigerator. Only it wasn’t there. I looked in the freezer downstairs. No salmon. I looked in every room in the house. No salmon. I checked the cupboards. I’ve been known to put things in the wrong place. I looked by the tea bags. I looked in the car that I drove to work. I looked everywhere I could think. Susan came home and dinner wasn’t ready. I got her to help me look. No salmon.

Fortunately we have a freezer. I got out a couple of big pork chops and grilled them with the sweet potato and asparagus and we had a fine dinner.

No one wants a piece of salmon sitting out in your home for days. I’ve continued to keep looking. My best theory is that somehow the salmon slipped into the garbage can when I was emptying garbage to take out to the curb. That doesn’t really make much sense to me, but it’s the best theory I have. We don’t have a cat any more to search for the salmon, and it was sealed in plastic in the freezer, so I don’t know how much aroma it will emit. The garbage truck has come and gone so its too late to check there.

I think I might be losing it. On the other hand if misplacing a piece of frozen salmon is the worst mistake I make this week I guess I shouldn’t worry too much. No one got hurt. No significant property damage has occurred. I accomplished the most essential tasks of my day. We had a really nice dinner, fresh off of the grill. And, by this time, I’m thinking that I want the salmon to remain a mystery. I’d rather not find it someplace strange later in the week.

I’m sure that this will be a season of mystery and unsettled events. It is all part of making a really big transition. At least the salmon gives me a story to tell.

Howard Schultz, former CEO of Starbucks Coffee Company, wrote a book that he titled, “Onward.” In it he says that he often closes letters and memos with that simple word. I have no aspirations to emulate the successful businessman, but I like his use of the word. It is a good word for my life today and in the next few days.

Onward.

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!

Not going back

For those who are planning for the future, I have a simple word of advice: Don’t expect things to go back to the way they were. The disruptions caused by the pandemic and the George Floyd protests are a couple of signs that things are changing. Here is a simple example: On Thursday in a phone conversation and official for one of the Boards of our church promised that we would receive an important document by close of business on Friday. We did receive that document, but not be what we call “close of business on Friday.” The document was sent at 1:48 pm on Sunday. That’s 3:48 pm in the time zone from which it was sent. When the employee responsible for sending out the document was given the instruction “before close of business on Friday,” it was translated to “Before opening of business on Monday.” And the employee, working from home, no longer is working the same hours that were worked when that employee was working from an office 9 - 5 each day. I know nothing of the personal life of that employee, but now that the employee has gotten used to working on an altered schedule, it is not going to be easy to go back to working from an office.

And there is another thing I’d like to point out. This story comes from a church. The employee was clearly working on Sunday (and didn’t seem to be working on Friday). Now that the people who work for the church don’t go to church, I suspect that some of them won’t be coming back.

Were it not for the pandemic, we would have received a packet of forms weeks ago. They would have been paper forms that needed to be filled out and returned in the mail. What we received instead was an email with a combination of attachments, which can be printed and forms inserted into the body of the email, which print with page breaks in the wrong places. We’ll figure out how to get the necessary information returned, but quite frankly the haste with which the paper forms were scanned and inserted into the email is a real pain. There are ways to create secure electronic forms that can be filled out on a computer. That’s not whaat happened in this case. We are forced to respond with paper forms, but we have to create our own forms in order to get the information returned.

As things go on, they’ll work out that kind of bug in the system. Someone will know how to create the correct kind of computer-based forms. But that person probably doesn’t want to work 9 - 5 in an office. Now that people have been allowed to se their own schedules, they aren’t going to give up that freedom easily.

The assumption behind much of the way business is operating during the pandemic is that workers are independent individuals. But there are plenty of jobs in this world that can only be performed by teams working together. A half-hour Zoom conference doesn’t create the kind of trust that is required for people to collaborate. The result is that there is a lot of top-down decision making going on. Bosses order workers to accomplish tasks, but they don’t ask workers to participate in creating solutions to problems. Workers do the tasks assigned, but don’t pay attention to the larger processes.

And customers and people served by businesses are forced to be patient and expected to understand that when phone calls aren’t answered and promises aren’t kept and messages are muddled it is just part of the response to the crisis.

We’ll get better at this. We always do. We’ll learn better ways of doing business. But it won’t go back to the way it was before.

Yesterday we had a few more people in our sanctuary during worship than usual. We invited the families of confirmands to attend. We have a large room that seats nearly 500, so accommodating 25 allowed us to maintain physical distance. During our livestream there were another 25 or so watching at the same time. By the time I went to bed last night, the video on Facebook had been viewed 180 times. Just now while I was looking, a member of our church commented on a video I recorded on Thursday. Our congregation is viewing some of the same videos, but we aren’t viewing them together. We don’t all watch at the same time. Our experience is very different from forming community by worshiping together. As much as I prefer face-to-face worship and have no aspirations to be a media preacher, I have to admit that things will not go back to the way they were. Some of our people are not going to want to get up and get dressed and show up at the church at 9:30 in the morning when they can watch the service at 11 or in the afternoon, or even at 5 am the next day. They are going to continue to want to have control over their schedule and are going to be less willing to adapt their schedule to the group. Why mark the effort to get together when we can watch the video later?

Under that set of rules, we can’t sustain a choir. A choir requires a group of people to gather in the same place at the same time to rehearse and then return to the same place at the same time to lead worship. That goes for a lot of other things we do as a congregation. I remains to be seen which parts of the community can be re-started once physical distancing is ended.

I don’t think that churches are the only institutions that will be radically reshaped by these times. I expect that colleges will be a very different experience going forward. I have a friend who is a college professor who already was thinking, “Since I am teaching online, it doesn’t matter where I live.” Students, too, are going to resist having to move to campuses. Individual instruction is a long weals from collaborative learning. The name of the institution, “college,” derives from collegium, which is a group of people who choose to live together for the efficiency of joint living in order to have more time to devote to study and learning.

The pandemic will one day end. The rules will be relaxed. But we’re not going back to the way it used to be.

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!

Trinity Sunday 2020

One of the jobs of historians is sifting through stories, sorting fact from fiction. It is an important job, because we want to know the truth. However, some of our stories are products of creative imaginations, and not of objective reality. A good example are some of the stories that have grown up around St. Patrick, the fifth-century Romano-British Christian missionary and bishop in Ireland. Patrick was never formally canonized by the church, so from an historic point of view, he isn’t really a saint, but nonetheless he has become a saint in the minds of many people. He is known as the patron saint of Ireland. And there are many legends that have grown up around him.

One is the legend of the snakes. The story goes that Patrick was in the midst of a 40-day fast upon a hill when he was attacked by a snake. He responded by banishing all snakes from Ireland and chased them all into the sea. Thus Ireland has no snakes. It is a fun story and one that gets told a lot. However, there is absolutely no evidence that there had every been any snakes in Ireland. In fact there are no reptiles on the Island. The climate wasn’t favorable for them to be there. It is the Ice Age, not Patrick, that is responsible for a snakiness Ireland.

Another story told about Patrick, however, may be fully or at least partially true. Patrick was born around the year 400 in Scotland. He was considered a romanized Briton and was named Magonus Saccatus Patricius. His grandfather had been a priest and his father a deacon. At the age of 16 he was abducted and taken into Irish slavery. He was taken to the northeast of the country and employed as a sheepherder, a role he served for six years. During those years he discovered a life of solitude and prayer and later became a priest and missionary. The story that is often told is that he used a Shamrock as a way of explaining the Holy Trinity to converts. There is no way to absolutely confirm or deny the story, but it seems very plausible. There are several different plants that have been called shamrock, but they share in common a three-leaf pattern.

The stem of the shamrock is a singular plant. The three leaves at the top do not make it three separate plants, it remains one even though there are three plants. It makes a good teaching tool to illustrate the Christian theological doctrine of one God expressed in three forms: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Even if the teaching illustration did not originate with Patrick, it is a good teaching tool and a story that can help people to understand a very complex theological concept.

Complex theologies and challenging intellectual games are not the essence of faith. The Gospel of Matthew reports that when his disciples asked him “who is the greatest,” Jesus responded by calling a child and putting it among the disciples and saying, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:3) The Gospel presents it as a lesson in humility, but there is something very true about the ways in which our complex thinking and our tendency to make ideas and concepts challenging become barriers to simple faith.

Throughout my ministry I have often discovered that young children, people with cognitive disabilities, and elders suffering from memory loss, do not have any less faith simply because they don’t engage in wordplay. A large vocabulary of technical terms is not required to express faith. Sometimes all of the words and concepts get in the way of faith. From my perspective the concept of the trinity is a bit like that. If you simply say, “There is one God,” and then continue to say, “The creator is God,” “Jesus is God,” and “The Holy Spirit is God,” it is enough. You don’t have to worry about people somehow becoming pagans simply because there are three different ways of talking about God. If you embrace the radical monotheism of the Judeo-Christian tradition, there is only one God and there can be only one God. Therefore experiences with Jesus or with the Holy Spirit are all about the same (and only) God.

Often, however, we tend to over-think our ideas. We delight in wordplay and vocabulary and discovering new ways to talk about ideas that are important to us. I enjoy academic pursuits. I love to read and study and discuss and develop complex ideas and thoughts. But all of those complex thoughts don’t add up to faith. I live my faith in many arenas. I think about God, to be sure. But I also pray. I also listen. I also look for the presence of the holy in the midst of the lives of the people I serve. Thinking enables me to know about God. Serving others allows me to witness God in the world.

So today, Trinity Sunday, seems like a great day to practice the Rite of Confirmation with the four students who have been studying in preparation for the moment of confirming their baptisms and moving into an adult relationship with God and the church. They can give you a plausible explanation of the concept of the Holy Trinity. They will publicly state their beliefs in their statements of faith as well as their confirmation vows. The church, however, will be transformed more by their lives than by their ideas. Living their faith in places outside the church is far more important than getting the words right while they are inside the building.

Years from now, when we tell the stories of these days, I hope that we will remember more than ideas and concepts. I hope we will look back and tell the stories of lives of faith invested in serving others in the name of Jesus.

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!

Remembering Abraham Lincoln

I’ve had the opportunity to visit the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. as a child and as an adult, to climb the stairs and gaze up at the giant sculpture and to read the words inscribed on the walls. The words from the close of his second inaugural speech remain among the most powerful words ever spoken by a U.S. President:

“With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”

Meaningless comparisons are often drawn between Lincoln and modern presidents. The comparisons are meaningless in part because the circumstances are so different. The name of Abraham Lincoln is often invoked to justify a particular behavior or action of a sitting president and when this occurs it is almost always done in such a way as to trivialize the contributions of our nation’s 16the president.

Abraham Lincoln was president during what may have been the most divided time in the history of our nation. States literally took up arms in an attempt to divide the nation. Brother fought against brother in a bloody violent war that left scars that still are evident in our nation to this day. It takes more than words to heal, but inspiring rhetoric can call people to elevate their actions and aspire to a more just and equitable society.

“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with fairness in the right, as God give us to see the right . . .”

I watched a dozen or so folks with their pickup trucks assemble at the Trump shop last evening as I drove home from work. They were shouting and gesturing and preparing for another evening of attempting to stand off against the much larger group of demonstrators who peacefully gather each evening in our city. It isn’t necessary to take sides or to have a publicly-expressed opinion in order to see that this is a group that could benefit from taking Lincoln’s words to heart. They definitely were not feeling “malice toward none.” They had no intention of expressing “charity for all.”

I quickly drove by, headed for a walk in the park with my wife before heading home for a late supper on our deck on a beautiful calm evening. “Malice toward none,” invites me to closely examine my feelings and reactions to people with whom I disagree. “Charity for all,” includes charity for those whose actions and words are offensive to me. 155 years after he spoke those words, Lincoln’s legacy continues to play out in our world today.

We are a nation divided. And there is no shortage of politicians who are willing to exploit those divisions for personal gain. With money and power at the center of American politics, those who lack both often feel that their voices are not being heard. But it is hard to ignore nightly protests in virtually every city in our nation. It is easy to see that our system has left a large number of people who feel that they don’t have a voice in everyday conversations of government.

Politicians spout rhetoric about economic recovery when wage earners see year after year of declining wages. What is a recovery to someone who is working 60 hours a week and cannot make rent and groceries? What is a recovery to a person whose retirement was forced by the pandemic and a lack of income for businesses and public services agencies? What is a recovery to students who are shut out of classes into a learning environment where the person with the most money and technology has the most access to teaching and learning? Arguing about the numbers and counting the unrealized gains of a volatile stock market do little to “bind up the nation’s wounds.”

Here in the Black Hills we have a different monument. Mount Rushmore is a huge mountain carving that was directed by Gutzon Borglum and his son Lincoln, completed in 1941. It depicts George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt all together and just a short distance, set apart, is Abraham Lincoln. There are structural and engineering reasons for the arrangement of the faces. They aren’t exactly as originally envisioned by the artist, but when you look at the giant faces, you can’t help but have a sense of awe and notice how Lincoln is set apart from the others.

Comparative greatness is meaningless. All four contributed to the nation in many different ways. All four deserve to be remembered. But whenever I visit the monument, I admit I take a bit of extra time to stare into the face of Lincoln. He was a moody man, prone to bout of depression, having experienced more than his fair share of personal tragedy. He was a humble man, at times self deprecating and plagued with self doubt. He was not at all sin the style of contemporary politicians who seem unable to admit mistakes and whose advertisements claim perfection, who surround themselves with admirers and distance themselves from all criticism. They say Abraham Lincoln was his own worst critic. The manuscripts of his famous speeches, including his second inaugural address, are filled with strike-throughs and re-writes. He was constantly editing himself and questioning his words. But the words he left behind are worth noting.

In a month there will be a carefully orchestrated rally as part of the campaign for the fall election of the president of the United States. The event will not be aimed at creating unity. It will not be undertaken with malice towards none. It will not be a charity event in any sense of the word. Crows will cheer. Fireworks will be displayed. Security will be tight.

And, as is the case with history, Lincoln will rise above it all.

We would do well to read and talk his words to heart.

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!

Courageous leadership

It is not my instinct to become overtly political in my journal entries. I understand that I have chosen to publish them and therefore they cannot be considered to be private. And I understand that I serve a diverse community with many different political views and opinions. The diversity of opinion in our congregation has been a point of pride for me. With increasing polarization of our nation, our congregation remains a place where people with differing opinions can gather in peace and unity. My role is not to stir up controversy and division, but rather to bring people together.

The times in which we are living, however, are at the very least unusual. I can find no good models for life in these times. There are members of my congregation who are reaching out to other members with social media posts, challenging them to put their ideas into action. I have received requests to “take a stand” and make my position clear, which I take to mean “say that you agree with me and that the opposition is wrong.” Throughout my carer I have believed, and continue to believe, that the way the church moves forward is through worship. When we disagree, we worship together. When there are challenges, we gather and pray together. Worship is the heart of our community and the area of my ministry that receives the largest share of my time and energy.

Now that we are not able to worship in person, it becomes a definite challenge to hold the community together. These days call for courage and vision from leaders. And then there is the simple fact that our congregation is on the cusp of a major change in leadership. After 25 years as pastor and teacher of this congregation we are down to the deadline as it were. In ten days I will hand in my keys and cease to be the pastor of this church. I won’t stop caring. I won’t stop doing whatever I can to support it, but I know the rules of professional ethics and I will abide by them.

I haven’t been one to count the words in the bible, but I know that such people exist. I often refer to the results of some of their counts. One count that I have not personally made, but to which I refer frequently is that that the most common one liner in the Bible is “Do not be afraid.” According to the counters, it appears in the Bible 365 times. That’s once for every day of the year. When the Bible advises people to cast aside our fear, it is not referring to bravado or show of force. It is, rather, referring to a deep trust that one is not alone. God continues to be an active participant in human history. No matter how terrible the circumstances, no matter how deep the pain, we will not be abandoned.

It seems to me that we are enduring a period of history where there is a distinct lack of courageous leadership. In the spring of 1989, when protesters took to the streets in Tiananmen Square in China and the government responded with military force to crush the protestors, we thought of our own country as a leader in the world’s moral conscience. We would never let that occur here. Now, just over three decades later Chinese leaders point to the military in the streets of our capitol as a sign of our hypocrisy. When peaceful protestors are disbursed with tear gas and rubber bullets to make way for an expansion of the security zone around the White House, it is unclear to outside observers who is causing the disruption. It looks as if those who are supposed to be keeping the peace are the ones provoking violence. What we need in these circumstances is courageous leadership. It is not what we are seeing from our nation’s leaders.

When I talk to friends and colleagues about what is going on - something done more often over the computer than face-=to-face these days - it certainly seems like there is a lot of fear across a wide spectrum of our community. People fear the protests in the streets will get out of control and there have been cases of looting and violence. People fear that the freedom to assemble is being denied and we have seen authoritarian rule in our country. People fear that the protests are contributing to an acceleration of the spread of the coronavirus and there seems to be less social distancing than was the case in our cities a couple of weeks ago. People fear that the shut down has plunged our economy into a fall from which recovery will be a decades-long process. People fear that joblessness will increase and that homeless and hunger are not far behind. It seems as if I have heard a fear for each of the Bible’s 365 examples of “Do not be afraid” in the last week.

We are also reassured by the Bible that God will provide the leadership that is needed. Before he lead the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt, Moses wasn’t recognized as a leader. When he was called to speak words of prophecy, Jeremiah protested that he was too young. When Jesus asked John to baptize him, John said, “You’ve got it backwards, I should be baptized by you.” The stories of our people are filled with great leaders who were reluctant to assume the mantle of leadership. There have been many times in our history when we have wondered where we would find leaders for our people. God has provided the leaders.

God will provide leaders for our time as well. There may be dark days ahead. There may be more doubts and questions to arise. We, however, have not been abandoned. We are not alone. New leaders will arise. And in the meantime, we are all in this together. We can listen more carefully and offer our love and support to one another. Sometimes the best expression of courageous leadership is to simply be with those you serve.

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!

Integrity vs. Despair

One of the great classics in psychology is Erik Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development. Published in the late 1950’s the theory has been an important contributor to the understanding of education and psychology for my entire career. I still refer to the book from time to time for its perspectives. Of course we continue to learn and books produced in the 1950’s and 1960’s are not the final word on any topic. One of the basic problems with developmental theory is the simple fact that it is not prescriptive. Not everyone goes through the stages at the same age or in the same order. And the stages themselves are meant to describe certain observations, not to provide a roadmap for growth. I have had more than a few conversations with colleagues who use the fact that Erikson used two poles to describe each stage of development as a kind of “pass fail” for human development. It doesn’t work that way. Rather than a conflict, each stage presents a balance.

Erikson’s first stage of development is titled “Trust vs. Mistrust.” Infants and children, however, don’t experience that spectrum as a completion or an “either or.” Rather they move on that spectrum, sometimes feeling complete trust and other times experiencing mistrust. If an infant were to never be allowed to experience any mistrust, that person wouldn’t be able to develop autonomy in the next stage of development.

So Erikson’s theory is not complete, nor is it the only way to think of human development. It is, nonetheless a very helpful tool in further developing educational throes and strategies as well as understanding the journey through life. I have kept returning to Erikson over and over throughout my career.

The eighth and final stage of development in Erikson’s theory is “Integrity vs. Despair.” I found myself thinking about that yesterday as I continued the process of emptying out the office I have occupied for a quarter of a century. It wasn’t the book that got me to thinking. I picked out my Erickson months ago and took it home to be among the books that will move with me to a new place out of boxes and boxes of books that will be passed on to others. Rather, I was simply thinking of the process. Sorting out an office at the end of a career is very much the process of continuing psychosocial development.

At the time, Erikson stood out among developmental theorists simply because he wrote about development continuing for the entire life cycle as opposed to many other developmental theorist who focused only on childhood events. The concept that aging is a part of human development was novel and challenging at the time he wrote his book. Having passed the 65 year mark myself, it makes perfect sense from my point of view.

Erikson posits that each stage of development involves a crisis that acts as a turning point. If one successfully resolves the crisis, that person develops a virtue that contributes to overall well-being. The crisis for aging adults comes with the awareness of our mortality. The awareness of mortality can come through retirement, loss of a spouse, loss of friends, facing a terminal illness or other major life changes. In my own case, my wife experiencing a life threatening drug reaction in the same year as we are planning our retirement from this job has put me squarely in Erikson’s “integrity vs. Despair” camp. There are times when I seek to deny the reality. After all, my wife has made a full recovery and is once again healthy and I keep telling myself and others that I’m not retiring and that I plan to continue working as soon as we get relocated. But the truth is that I no longer have a hot resume. I may have certain skills, but I’m not the most desirable candidate for the kinds of job that I’m trained to do. And none of us will live forever. As long and as wonderful as our marriage has been, it is a simple fact that we will oneway die and it is most likely that one will die before the other.

Erikson says that looking back is an important part of facing this crisis. My developmental task involves reflecting on the life I have lived and examining it. Do I consider mine a life well lived or do I have an overwhelming sense of regret and despair over mistakes made? Of course it is not an “either/or” situation, but rather a balance. When I look back I have fulfillment and regrets. I see successes and failures.

One of the things that Erikson doesn’t discuss is the sense of releasing some life tasks as things that won’t be accomplished. As I clean out my office, I keep discovering projects that we might have pursued that now will not be done on my watch. There are so many other things we could have done. Despite the fact that our ministry was full and busy and we did a lot of things, we had a lot more ideas than could be accomplished in the time we had. I have complete sets of curricula for courses that we did not teach. I have resources for projects that never got off the ground. I have files of notes about possibilities that have not come to fruition. Just in order to move out of my office and leave it in a condition for my successor, I need to get rid of some of those objects.

Of course there are some things I will leave behind. The next person to occupy my office will have to decide whether the past 26 annual reports are worth keeping or should be discarded. I’m also leaving behind a collection of bibles and a collection of hymnals. I found the old books to be rich resources for my ministry, but it is entirely possible that the next person to occupy my office will turn exclusively to the Internet and see no need to keep dusty old hymnals around.

My goal is to continue to seek balance between integrity and despair as I sift and sort through the collections of my life. The timing is good for me, but there is much work that remains.

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!

Pause to think

The BBC posted an excerpt from a press conference with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau yesterday. A reporter asks Trudeau for his comments on recent actions by US President Donald Trump and if he has no comment, why this is so. Trudeau pauses before answering. You can see him stare directly into the cameras and imagine that he is thinking and choosing his words very carefully. By the clock the pause isn’t very long - about 22 seconds. We, however, are not used to silence in a video clip. A few seconds seem like an eternity. Then he speaks very slowly, very precisely and very carefully about the realities of racial injustice in Canada. Rather than point his fingers or direct his rhetoric at another country, he speaks of changes that need to occur in Canada.

I’ve watched the minute and a half clip several times. As awkward as the silence is, I am grateful for it. Politics aside, I hope that I can develop the same kind of thoughtfulness about what I say. Of course, I will never be put on the spot at a press conference. There aren’t that many people who are interested in what I have to say. On the other hand, I do have a small audience. According to Facebook, 277 people have watched the prayer I offered on Monday morning. They are probably the same people, but I routinely get over 100 views for daily prayer. Worship livestreams are running between 150 and 225 views. Certainly those people deserve carefully chosen words. I write out the prayers and read from manuscript for daily prayer. I do not write out my reflections and commentary. And I’ve made a few mistakes over the months that we have been live-streaming daily prayer. I had trouble coming up with the name of someone with whom I regularly work. I mis-spoke the date of a prayer once. I’ve made a few mistakes that made me wish I had better prepared.

It isn’t just the silence that is remarkable about Trudeau’s answer. After the silence he spoke carefully and deliberately about now being a time to listen and a time to learn about injustice and how persistent injustice can be in many different cultures and countries.

A colleague asked me in an email message yesterday about what we as clergy are doing in response to the death of George Floyd and the protests that are occurring across the nation. He quoted the oft-sed aphorism, “Silence is violence.” I have not yet responded to his message, though I definitely will. My initial reaction was to simply answer, “What are you doing? What have you organized?” I was a bit taken back that he was waiting for others to provide the leadership in a critical moment. But I didn’t send that note. I also thought about previous protests and actions that have addressed issues of injustice in our community and what role I played. I have tried to serve as a witness to the events in my community without becoming a direct participant in marches, rallies and protests. There are some who might say that my position is cowardly - that I should speak out and participate. And there is some truth to what they say. I am reluctant to take a stand that might stir division within the congregation that I serve. I don’t think, however, that it is just about playing it safe to preserve my job. I may be justifying my behavior, but times of social unrest seem to me to be times to nurture unity within the church and shift the focus from the immediate crisis to a bigger picture of the world.

The bigger picture is so hard to grasp in the chaos of the daily news cycle. Who would have thought just ten days ago that any news story would be able to dominate the headlines in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic? I expected that this week the headlines would be much like those of two weeks ago. I was wrong. The reporters and pundits have had their attention distracted by something else.

Some of what we are witnessing seems a bit like deja vu. The 1969 Watts riots in Los Angeles garnered national attention as frustration devolved into fires and looting and uncontrolled violence. In 1991 the beating of Rodney King sparked more protests and rioting. In both cases there were voices of calm and the majority of protesters were peaceful, but violence erupted nonetheless.

This, however, is different. It isn’t taking place somewhere else. As horrified as I am by the headlines and videos of major cities erupting in violence, it isn’t as frightening to me as watching last night as a line of sheriff’s deputies and city police officers, not in full riot gear, stood between a handful of shouting Trump supporters attempting to confront participants in a peaceful protest in Main Street Square right here in our own home town. It was pretty clear that dialogue was not possible. You can’t reason with someone who is shouting too loud to listen. I don’t think the participants or the officers were in any real danger and there were no punches thrown or property damaged that I witnessed, but the raw emotions were pretty palpable. It certainly was enough to make me sit quietly before saying or writing anything. I’m a bit speechless at the divisions that are so evident in our own community and the intensity of the words that are spoken. Frankly, I don’t use that kind of language and I’m offended by the words that get spoken, by the way that the flag is brandished as a weapon instead of honored as a sacred symbol, and by the disrespect and treatment of law enforcement officers as if they were not real people. You don’t have to ignore cops. You can talk to them.

Fortunately, it is Wednesday morning. I don’t have to preach a sermon until Sunday. I have some time to think and choose my words carefully.

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!

In search of humility

If it weren’t so dangerous, it would have been silly yesterday when the President ordered peaceful protesters to be attacked with tear gas and rubber bullets so that he could walk across the street to an historic church and hold up a bible for a press picture. The cordons of police keeping the street clear were necessary to provide for the President’s safety and he was allowed to walk with no one near him and the press corps in tow to take pictures. The cordon of police was, of course, not allowed such luxury of space. They had to stand shoulder to shoulder to make the stroll work. The walk followed a short speech in which the President urged governors and mayors to use whatever force necessary to dominate city streets, saying that if they did not he would impose troops, threatening a military takeover of public spaces. In his speech he mentioned the second amendment to the constitution, but seemed to have forgotten the first amendment.

I understand that peaceful protests, where there is no looting, where no one is injured and where there is no shouting and shoving don’t make for dramatic news. It is, however, a tragedy that people are forgetting that these events are occurring all over the country, including one in our city on Saturday. I don’t understand the reasons behind the looting, but I do know that there are those who are stirring up violence. It was reported that bus loads of outside “accelerators” were brought into Minneapolis and from there transported to Fargo ND on Saturday and Sioux Falls on Sunday evening. If this is true, one has to wonder who is paying for the buses.

The First Amendment to the United States Constitution prevents the government from making laws which regulate an establishment of religion, prohibit the free exercise of religion, or abridge the freedom of speech, the freedom of the press, the right to peaceably assemble, or the right to petition the government for redress of grievances. It was adopted on December 15, 1791, as one of the ten amendments that constitute the Bill of Rights.

When George Floyd died while being arrested it sparked mass protests across the country. The frustration of many people over abuse of African American citizens at the hands of those who are supposed to be enforcing the law is not just a single incident. It is part of a pattern of abuse that has occurred in many locations. Protestors have taken to the streets to speak about police brutality and abuse of power as well as systemic racism. The use of military force to deny people “the right to peaceably assemble” and “the right to petition the government of redress of grievances” will not calm the anger and frustration that is driving people into the streets.

The philosopher Socrates argued that humility is the greatest of all virtues. He observed that the wisest people are the first to admit how little they really know. A number of studies conducted over the last decade have affirmed the truth of Socrates’ observation. According to recent research, people with greater humility are better learners, decision-makers and problem solvers. One study found that a person’s humility trumps IQ in predicting performance. Humility is especially important for leaders, Humility can improve strategic thinking and boos the performance of colleagues across an organization.

The world is coming face-to-face, although not easily, with the simple fact that top-down leadership is incredibly ineffective in the face of a pandemic. Autocratic, authoritarian leadership has been ineffective in the face of the spread of the virus. Humble, collaborative leaders have been visibly more effective. Compare the rates of infection, illness and death in New Zealand to those in our country if you want a dramatic comparison.

For several decades educators and public officials have touted self-esteem and self-confidence as essential qualities for leadership. Indeed self-confidence is an important quality, though, as Socrates argued, perhaps not the most important quality. To the extent that the self-esteem movement encouraged parents and teachers to provide unconditional positivity and optimism at the expense of any criticism or doubt, it has failed. Without the capacity to receive criticism and make changes and without the capacity to experience doubt, people do not develop the capacity to collaborate well with others.

Right now in our world we are facing problems that are too big for any individual to solve. We will solve the problems we face only through the power of working together. It doesn’t matter how bold or brash or confident a leader at the top is. If that person cannot work well with others, the problems will not be solved. An out of control virus is spreading across the world. It is not possible to prevent mass infection by taking care of just one segment of the population. We will come up with solutions, but the process demands information sharing across boundaries. It requires leadership that is willing to admit that mistakes have been made and changes are necessary. It requires listening to others.

Collaborative leadership is equally essential for our country to confront and overcome centuries of systematic racism that has left people feeling powerless to affect change. The officer who knelt on George Floyd’s neck for more than seven minutes until he died, did not engage in his abusive behavior because of a lack of self-confidence. George Floyd’s death could have been avoided if he had simply asked for help from the three other officers who were standing by. The model of one officer restraining while others stand by is an example of the failure of collaboration.

Without humility, leaders become isolated and unable to govern, whether they serve in elected political office or at the top of an organization. They become dependent upon group think, where everyone in a group expresses the same opinion, afraid to stand out from the crowd. The surround themselves with sycophants who seek to promote their own advantage through imitation and false praise.

The solutions to the crises of this day will not come from the top down. Check out the grassroots. Listen humbly to the others around you. And, when things out in the streets become too crazy, turn off the TV and computer and spend some time with the ancient philosophers. There is wisdom yet to be revealed.

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!

Racism right here

I think I became aware of race as an issue around my 10th birthday. Our family hosted “Friendly Town” guests. They were African-American children from Chicago who had signed up for vacations in Montana. They took the train from Chicago for about ten days living with host families in Montana. In preparation for becoming hosts, our parents spoke to us about the history of slavery and the injustices suffered by African-Americans. When our guests arrived, it was obvious that they were different than us. It wasn’t only the color of their skin, thy also spoke differently, had different slang, favored different foods and had different experiences to report. My parents had been active in the Civil Rights movement prior to this experience, joining the NAACP and speaking to us about racial justice. We watched Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the television news.

What is strange about my awareness of racial issues and injustice in my mind, however, is that I was, even after our Friendly Town experience, mostly unaware of the racial divide in our own home town. We lived in territory that had been the historic home of the Apsaalooke people, otherwise known as Crow Nation. When their reservation was downsized, most were forced to move south and east of our town, but there were a few who lived in our town and worked as sheepherders and lived in small houses near the edge of town. We visited Crow Fair in the summer and toured the Little Big Horn battlefield. But I was not particularly aware of the racial issues between Native Americans and European settlers as I grew up. Racial issues were, in my mind, reserved for places where African Americans lived in numbers - mostly down south and in the big Cities.

In college, I began to develop more understanding of how race and racism figured into my own story. There were a few Native American students and more talk of race. Our college was not very large, but it attracted students from all across the world, and had enough African American students to support a small Black Students’ Union.

A lot of my education on race and issues of racism came from the years when we moved to Chicago. Racial justice was built into the curriculum of our seminary. Our years in seminary coincided with that school’s first African-American president and relationships with the city’s African American community was strengthened through the addition of more African American students. All of us were encouraged to get out into the city and participate in consciousness-raising exercises.

I paid attention a half dozen years ago when Michael Brown, and 18-year-old black man was shot and killed by a white Ferguson, Missouri, police officer. I have a friend who at the time was an interim pastor of a congregation in Ferguson and heard him tell of how people gathered for peaceful protests and marched through the streets, of how the police established a nightly curfew and of how the protests attracted people from out of town. As he reported to us, the protests would begin peacefully, but later, as day turned to night the protest became more violent, with the looting of businesses, vandalizing of vehicles, and confrontations with police.

But, once again, I had the luxury of thinking that these events were distant from where I live. It’s 950 miles from Rapid City to Saint Louis.

As June begins and the summer starts to heat up this year, however, things are different and it isn’t just the Covid-19 pandemic. Protests that started peacefully turned violent in Fargo ND on Saturday and yesterday there were rumors of bus loads of violent protestors heading from Fargo to Sioux Falls. Our Mayor issued an emergency statement as the National Guard was called out in Sioux Falls. George Floyd, the victim of a killing by a Minneapolis police officer while at least three other officers watched and did not intervene, is known to Rapid City residents. His uncle Selwyn Jones and his first cousin are members of our community. So far the protests in our town have been peaceful, but there is a lot more tension than I’ve felt before.

I know many of the participants in our Rapid City event, and I know how dedicated they are to maintaining peace. But if busloads of people are being brought to other cities as accelerators to cause violence, we aren’t that far away.

The bottom line isn’t violence and it isn’t fear that violence will come to our town. It is injustice. There is a long history of entrenched racism in law enforcement agencies in our country. You don’t have to go to large cities or places with more African American residents to encounter racial bias. You can hear it in the conversations in our town. I spend a significant amount of time with law enforcement agencies and people in our town and I have deep admiration for the officers who serve us. I have watched as our agencies have recruited a force that is more racially diverse than our general population. I have been with officers who were talking about the death of George Floyd and the failure of the officers to follow normal protocol. The officers with whom I spoke are in agreement that all four officers present should be arrested and charged with criminal behavior. They, and I, believe that our officers would not stand by if someone was caught up in the emotion of the moment and engaged in such dangerous behavior.

Racism is not going away in our country, despite significant efforts and generations of working for justice. Having racism stirred up and encouraged by leaders at the highest levels sickens me. I don’t know how we have come to this place. I wonder who will be the voice of reason and calm as the protests continue to expand.

The conversations stirred by the protests are essential conversations for our people. They are important and must continue if we are to become a nation with liberty and justice for all. And some of those conversations will be painful. May we find the courage to speak frankly of race and racism in our community.

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!