Strategic reserve

We’ve been reading of many shortages in this time of social distancing. A lot of the media has brought attention to shores that have empty shelves where the toilet paper once was. We are told that people are hoarding toilet paper. More seriously, supplies of personal protective gear are short in hospitals and medical centers across the country. Our health system is fairly dependent on disposables when it comes to infection control. Gowns, masks, gloves and in some cases even face shields are made to be used once and disposed. There is also a shortage of respirators, especially in the larger cities where the outbreak has been more severe.

Personally, and at the church, we aren’t currently experiencing any shortages. Occasionally, when I make a trip to the store to stock up on groceries, I see empty shelves and from time to time, I have trouble finding a particular item. Yesterday it was mint tea. With Susan avoiding caffeine as much as possible and me cutting back to just an occasional cup of black tea, we drink quite a bit of peppermint tea. Since we drink a lot, we have an ample supply on hand, but I put it on my shopping list only to find that the store was remarkably short of tea. I know another place that probably has a good supply, but so far, we’re doing fine.

What I did find at the store yesterday was toilet paper. They had a whole aisle filled up with what seemed like a usual supply. We didn’t have it on the list and I know we have plenty at home, but I purchased a single package anyway. It just seemed to make sense. I didn’t get the great big 36-roll package, however. I don’t want to be selfish. Others may need it more than I.

Years ago, I read an article about the strategic reserves that the federal government keeps of some commodities. Oil is kept in huge tank farms spread out across the nation so that in the event of some national emergency there will be enough to keep the military in business. There have been times when part of the strategic reserve has been sold on the general market and it is significant enough to affect the price of oil.

Apparently, however, we don’t keep a strategic reserve of personal protective gear, or respirators. We may, however, have a strategic reserve of toilet paper. Instead of having it in huge government warehouses, it is dispersed in the closets and storerooms of millions and millions of homes. If we really reached a crisis point, I wonder if people would go to their neighbors and ask for a spare roll. I’m thinking that it would work. After all, we have extra rolls in hour home. The church has been consuming less with the preschool not in session and no large group meetings at the church. We’ve got some cases in the shed that constitute a kind of reserve.

That got me to thinking about all of the extra things I have around my house that I could contribute if social distancing and stay at home orders persist.

I have a lot of books. And I’m willing to loan and even give them away to those who are bored and looking to read. A lot of them are solid academic theological works and may be boring to some readers, but I’ve got novels and history and biography as well. If I knew of any neighbors in need, I’d be glad to have them take a few.

I’m really well stocked with scraps of wood. I’m not sure what would constitute a shortage, but if we ever do have one, I’ve got pieces of 2x4 as short as 3 or 4 inches and as long as a couple of feet. I hate to throw out good wood that can be used for blocks. I have a good supply of cedar strips cut and milled for canoe or kayak construction. I may have enough to make a whole boat. I have quite a few planks. You never know when you need to get something from one place to another. If we have a national or regional shortage of wood scraps, I stand ready to donate.

For some reason, I have a really healthy supply of copier paper. We have a printer at home that we used to use a lot, but which gets less and less usage now that we send more documents electronically. Yesterday I went to get a bit more paper for our printer and discovered that we have nearly a full case of paper. I bought it because it was way cheaper by the case than by the ream. Now we have a lot more than we will use in a year or perhaps longer. We’d be glad to share.

I’m sitting pretty when it comes to empty plastic containers. We purchase yogurt and cream cheese and cottage cheese and sour cream in tubs. I save them because they make good mixing cups for epoxy. But it appears I have saved way too many. They are headed for the recycling bin before long, but if there is some kind of shortage, I still have them in stock.

I have one of the larger collections of t-shirts of anyone I know. I have t-shirts from fund-raising walks and from organizations I have supported and from youth events and from various events. I have “tough enough to wear pink” t shirts and black t-shirts with advertisements in bright colors all over the backs. I have t-shirts with dates from events in the 1990’s and 2000’s that aren’t worn out because I have so many that I don’t wear them often. I’ve got all sorts of colors, but most are either L or XL when it comes to size. I stand ready to donate if we have a shortage.

I might even have some useful stuff around here if I look. If you’re running short of anything, don’t hesitate to contact 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!

A grand adventure

According to the New York Times coronavirus map and case count this morning, South Dakota has the second fewest diagnosed cases of the virus in the US, when comparing state to state. Wyoming, has three fewer cases than South Dakota, and North Dakota leads South Dakota by eight cases at the moment. Our three states are the only ones with fewer than 100 cases. This unique status likely will not be the same a week from now and there are several possible reasons for the statistic. Certainly being a state with lots of rural areas that is distant from both coasts of the country and has less convenient airline access are among the factors. It is also possible that delays in testing have resulted in a statistical anomaly. It may just be the case that we are behind the rest of the country and the number of cases here will peak after peaks have been reached in other states. Finally, having relatively low population means that the total number of people infected will be lower than places with more people.

The statistics on the spread of the disease, however, are doing little to calm the fears of people. Within the last week I’ve spoken to several people by telephone or teleconference who are very frightened. I’ve witnessed tears and heard panic in the voices of people who seem to me to be very safe.

Without wanting to play down the tragedy of any person’s death, and being fully aware of the grief that comes to family members, I also want to point out that this is not quite the end of the world. People in the very highest risk categories, those with pulmonary disease or severe coronary artery disease, still have a better than 50% chance of surviving if they contract Covid-19. Those odds are way better than a large number of other diseases. I have a friend who has stage IV pancreatic cancer. About the only way that disease won’t be the cause of his death is if he is the victim of an accident.

The challenge for all of us, living under all of the changes to society that are coming from this pandemic, is balancing the information we have and the range of decisions we are able to make with the needs of our human spirits.

The fears comes from the randomness of the spread of the disease. There are many factors that are simply beyond our control. A virus is an incredibly tiny lifeform, much smaller than a single human cell. We can’t see a virus without the aid of a powerful microscope. We know that the virus is spread through droplets, which we can sometimes see. Add to that the fact that a person can be infected without having any symptoms and can therefore spread the disease to others without knowing it. There is a certain randomness about the spread of the virus that makes us all feel vulnerable.

I think that the reason we are obsessing with cleaning surfaces is that it is something we can do. We feel like we are losing control and washing and disinfecting doorknobs and tabletops feels like we are taking positive action. The reality is that the virus is dependent upon the bodies of mammals and doesn’t survive long on surfaces. If it is in a drop of water, the water evaporates and the virus dies. The way in which the disease spreads is from person to person. And that is why keeping distance between people slows the spread of the virus.

We are social animals. We don’t thrive when separated from others. Babies need the touch of their parents. Children need to be held and reassured. In fact we all do, and some of the tearful emotions I have witnessed may be coming not just from fear, but also from a lack of human contact.

It is a balancing act.

Jesus worked hard to calm the fears of those who followed him. In both the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke he says, “And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?” (Matthew 6:27, Luke 12:25) Of course, being told not to worry and being told that worrying is futile doesn’t stop us from worrying.

Here is what we can say with a fairly high degree of certainty. More people are going to contract the virus. People we know are going to become infected. Our risk of becoming infected ourselves goes up with the passage of time and the spread of the disease. Some of us may not even know we are sick. Others may feel bad for a while and the discomfort may last as long as two or three weeks. A few will need hospitalization. The threat of this pandemic is real.

But with an even higher degree of certainty, I can say that we all will someday die. None of us is immortal. One of the gifts of this virus may be that it reminds us of a truth that we have become very practiced at ignoring.

There is no life without risk. There are other random events that can be life threatening. As terrible as this disease is, any individual has a higher risk of slipping and falling in the bathtub than they do of contracting coronavirus. That hasn’t stopped us from taking baths. I’ve quoted Bad Luhmann in my journal before: “A life lived in fear is a life half lived.” We have to be able to set aside our fears in order to become fully alive.

There is little new information in my journal today. I’m saying things that I’ve already said and that my readers already know. So I will end by saying that I am not overwhelmed with fear. I am not sad about the state of my life. I am not willing to become a recluse and avoid other people. Neale Donald Wisch wrote, “adventure begins where your comfort zone ends.”

We find ourselves in another of life’s grand adventures.

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


We are each trying to figure out exactly what form our social distancing should take and how to live our lives with this new sense of isolation. From the beginning of the crisis our policy at the church has been to trust the judgment of our members. We understand that there are different levels of vulnerability and different people will make different decisions. This is quite natural for our congregation. We know we are not bound together by sameness. We have never striven for everyone to agree or to see things from the same perspective. We are a diverse group of people.

Yesterday I was exchanging text messages with a member of the congregation. Our church has a small staff and a large number of volunteers. Right now we are without a janitor and cleaning is being done by volunteers. Last week we had a deep cleaning event with about ten people, all well spread-out, systematically cleaning and sanitizing rooms. We also performed the usual chores of vacuuming, cleaning bathrooms, emptying trash, mopping floors, and washing the glass doors in the entryways. The person with whom I was exchanging messages has a family member who has compromised breathing and has every reason to be very cautious about reducing risk of contacting the virus. She was looking for a time to come to the church for some business “when there would be no possibility of someone coming into the building.” That last part poses a special challenge, because there are a lot of people who have keys to the building and I don’t exactly know when there is a time when there is NO possibility of another person entering the building. I know from experience that not many people come in between 6 am and 8 am. Our security logs show that no one comes into the offices between midnight and 4 am. It wasn’t hard to make a plan for this person to feel comfortable with what needs to be done, but I couldn’t provide an absolute guarantee that there is no risk.

Another member of the congregation touched base by telephone to report that her daughter had been hospitalized. Tests indicate that the daughter does not have the coronavirus, but she does need treatment. The mother is elderly and partially disabled. Her husband is recovering from a stroke. They have to be very careful. The mother said, however, that she would visit the hospital if she was needed. Her capacity for risk is higher when it has to do with her daughter’s care. I was touched by her very appropriate love and concern.

Each day it remains possible that I might become a vector of transmission. I am out and about more than many members of our congregation. I am careful about social distancing, but I do walk on public sidewalks and in the parks. I go to the office every day and work in a nearly empty building, but see the folks who come and go. I respond when emergencies occur. Yesterday morning I went to the site of an unattended death with several officers and a coroner. I spoke with bereaved family members. We’ve dropped the custom of handshakes and mostly conducted our business from a reasonable distance, but I was among folks whose medical history I do not know. My risk was no greater than that taken by the officers, but it isn’t fair to say that I was taking no risk.

My concern is partly for what will happen when the virus touches a member of the congregation. I’ve heard quite a few fairly harsh and judgmental words about those of us who are not completely isolating in our homes. I know that we have members who are trying to avoid all contact with other people. I wonder how the congregation will react when someone becomes ill with the virus. I suspect that there will be those who will blame the victim. They will point out ways in which the behavior of the victim contributed to the situation. I hope that they will show the kind of compassion that they show when someone is injured in an accident. I hope they can accept that we have different levels of risk-taking. But I don’t know. I worry that in the mood of social isolation we might fail to express compassion to those who are ill. I’ve certainly felt that in conversations about a nurse who has contracted the virus. She continued to work without knowing that she was exposed and inadvertently exposed others, including patients. There have been some pretty harsh words said about her from people who are normally caring and compassionate. Their voices sound angry. And I know the connection between fear and anger. What happens when dozens or perhaps hundreds of our community have contracted the virus? It is a worry if you think the way that I do.

The entire pandemic is a kind of huge social experiment. In Sweden, the government has taken a different approach than other European countries. While many in Europe are under full lock down, Sweden is allowing life to go on in a nearly normal fashion. Ice cream parlors are open. People are eating at outdoor cafes. Gatherings of less than 50 people are allowed. That stands in contrast to Denmark where no meetings of more than 10 are allowed or England where people are not supposed to meet anyone outside of their household. Prime Minister Stefan Lofven, in a televised address to the nation, said, “We who are adults need to be exactly that: adults. Not spread panic or rumors. No one is alone in this crisis, but each person has a heavy responsibility.” This high level of trust in the people is reflected in a high level of trust for public authorities in Sweden. The Swedes love the outdoors and believe that keeping people physically and mentally healthy is important in their response to the virus. It will take months, perhaps even a year or more, to know if the Swedish approach works better than the more restrictive approaches of other countries.

In the meantime, I continue to venture out of our home to do work at the church. I practice the social distancing rules and am careful, but I know that my behavior is not free of risk. I trust the wisdom and decisions of others who chose a different path. And I remain committed to community and the care of all. That includes the sick, regardless of the cause or name of their illness.

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!

More coronavirus ramblings

The website of the place where I usually get my hair cut says that it is closed every day of the week. They are protecting the workers who cut hair and the customers as well by observing social distancing rules. You can’t cut hair from six feet away. It isn’t a problem for me because last week when I needed a haircut, my wife stepped in and did a very good job. She used to cut my hair when we were first married, but somewhere along the line I started having other people cut my hair. In my case, I don’t think it is too big of a job. There isn’t a lot of hair on the top of my head anyway.

Our city is on an official lock down. The City Council at it second emergency meeting in a week last night adopted an emergency ordinance in hopes of curbing the spread of the coronavirus. The ordinance doesn’t name which businesses are “essential,” but it does order a long list of businesses to close. This closure will be reviewed on April 8. The council also passed the first reading of a related bill that will allow extensions and changes by resolution without requiring a second reading. The council debated the ordinance for over 2 1/2 hours and two members voted against it.

I’ve checked the list. Churches aren’t on it. Affected are:
  • Restaurants;
  • Food courts;
  • Coffee houses;
  • Bars;
  • Breweries;
  • Distilleries;
  • Wineries;
  • Clubs;
  • Cafes;
  • Other similar places of public accommodation offering food and beverage for on-site consumption, including any alcohol license with on-site consumption privileges, including casinos;
  • All recreational facilities;
  • Pools;
  • Health clubs;
  • Athletic facilities;
  • Theaters, including movie theaters;
  • Music entertainment venues;
  • Hookah lounges;
  • Cigar lounges;
  • Vaping lounges;
  • Other similar businesses which allow for on-site consumption;
  • Arcades;
  • Bowling alleys;
  • Bingo halls;
  • Indoor climbing facilities;
  • Skating rinks;
  • Trampoline parks;
  • Other similar recreational or entertainment facilities.

We have potlucks at our church when we aren’t in the midst of a crisis, but we’ve never allowed smoking, vaping, cigars, bowling, or trampolines. We don’t even play bingo, which I assume has been suspended in the nursing homes and care centers because they are pretty much keeping their residents in their rooms and away from communal gatherings.

It is hard to tell what additional restrictions may come, as we we don’t know exactly how the pandemic will unfold in our city. Some cities have issued a ban on non essential travel, which is a bit hard to define. Is it essential travel if I go to the church to pick up the things I would need to have to work at home? So far I’ve been going to the church to do my work. Although I’ve heard rumors about how covered with germs and viruses gasoline pumps are, I have no trouble operating one with gloves on my hands. Since we are driving a lot less, we won’t have to go to the gas station very often anyway.

The post office was in operation yesterday, something for which we are grateful, because we mailed out home Sunday School resources for families and we mail some items to elders who do not have computers and cannot access the church website or livestreams.

I happen to know one of the members of the council who voted against the resolution. He believes that shutting down all of these businesses is based more on fear than science. He points out that there is little evidence that the primary mode of spread is surface contamination. Initial outbreaks in the country were related to health care institutions, not restaurants. While theoretically the virus can be spread in any gathering of people there isn’t a lot of information about how effective mandatory closings are.

Those who argued in favor of the ordinance pointed out that there is a need to take strong preventive action and that the disruption is inevitable. They believe that acting quickly may slow the spread of the virus enough that it might even be less impact on businesses than an extended time of mass illness.

We’ll be arguing about this for years however it turns out.

In the meantime, I’m grateful for skin. It is a truly amazing organ that we all have. In the case of a virus that is spread by droplets, skin provides an incredible level of protection. We often come into contact with viruses that do not cause us illness because they do not invade our bodies. Our skin is remarkably good at keeping a separation between our outsides and our insides. And our bodies have secondary lines of defense as well. Once inside our bodies, viruses are met by several different protective factors, including our immune system and the way that fluids are handled in our bodies. Simply drinking water can help flush viruses from our system. Even so, repeated exposure to viruses can result in serious illness. The coronavirus doesn’t do damage in the stomach, but when it gets into the lungs, it can result in distress very quickly.

Scientific medicine does a pretty good job of treating illnesses caused by viruses. But such treatment requires a lot of equipment and our hospitals are not primarily designed to deal with large numbers of victims. Rapid City has barely enough isolation rooms and respirators to deal with the normal seasonal viruses and antibiotic resistant infections that are already spreading throughout our community. It won’t take too many cases of this new disease to overwhelm the system. Our hospitals and nursing homes use disposable gowns, masks and gloves to stem the spread of infections. While it seems like inventories of such gear are high, The hospital can go through a tremendous amount of such items. Cases and cases of gowns end up in garbage cans every day. The supply would be exhausted quickly if a major outbreak occurred.

Our real shortage, however, is people. We don’t have enough skilled nurses to meet the everyday demand in our community. Factor in a few of them becoming sick and an increase in patients and there is potential for a real crisis.

Closing businesses won’t make more nurses available. It won’t increase the inventory of personal protective gear in health care facilities. It won’t address the inefficiencies of insurance and reimbursements for health care. But it might be a good idea nonetheless.

We’re in a place we’ve never before been. We’re making up our response as we go along. We’ll probably make some mistakes. But, as I often say, we’re all in this together. We’ll keep trying to do the best that we can.

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!

Still honing my skills

When I was in high school, one of the events at speech meets was called extemporaneous speech. The format was fairly simple. I don’t remember all of the specific rules, but when I competed, we were presented with three questions. We had a period of preparation, which was timed. During the preparation period the contestant chose one of the questions and prepared a seven-minute speech. At the end of the preparation the speech was delivered from memory, without notes to a panel of three judges. In our small high school, which had an equally small speech team most of us competed in multiple events. I competed in original oratory, which was a highly prepared speech, honed over weeks and polished. The speech had to be a self-written ten minute speech. It was good to have an emotional appeal to the speech.

I enjoyed participating in speech in high school and did fairly well, bringing home an occasional trophy from a meet. Extemporaneous and oratory were the two events in which I competed. Most speech meets involved several rounds, so I might give as many as six speeches during a meet. If you had asked me at the time, I would have said that I enjoyed oratory better than extemporaneous, but I was more successful in extemporaneous. My plan for approaching an extemporaneous topic was simple. Pick the question about which you had the most information. Sometimes topics would be foreign policy or issues specific to another country. Given the times in which I went to high school, you could count on drawing at least one question about Vietnam in each meet. I was pretty quick to select a topic, because I knew that wasn’t the most important part of preparation. The next step was to get an opening line that i could easily remember. Then I went for the conclusion - how I would end the speech. I knew it went better if I could find a story to illustrate the points in between.

I was thinking about high school speech meets recently because someone referred to my preaching style as extemporaneous. I think the person was complimenting me on my preaching, but I don’t think of what I do as being like a high school speech meet at all. And if it is, I think it is more like oratory than extemporaneous. In both events in high school, I spoke without notes. In oratory, I had memorized an entire ten-minute speech word for word. Occasionally there would be a lapse of memory and I had to keep going. I occasionally left out sentence or even a section of a speech, which resulted in a disaster and a shortened speech.

I still deliver most of my sermons without notes, although I always use manuscripts for funerals and weddings and I preach from a manuscript when I haven’t had enough time to prepare for worship. When I started preaching without notes, I essentially memorized a sermon, just like high school oratory. However, I found that I needed to develop a bit of flexibility. I remember well the Sunday I had a well-crafted sermon that I’d worked hard on preparing. I had even delivered it to the empty church a couple of times. Then the local high school basketball team won the state championship the night before the sermon. I knew that was a possibility. I had been following the team’s games very closely. I also knew that I had two churches, one where the team wasn’t competing in the state tournament and one where the team would either win or lose. I had to have a variety of different options for my sermon. After the victory and delivering an acceptable sermon in the church where the team wasn’t in the tournament, I only had a half hour or so to completely rework the sermon, knowing that what I had prepared wouldn’t work at all.

Over the years, I’ve gotten better a flexibility and adaptation. I used to follow the process of writing a manuscript, then outlining the sermon. For a lot of years, I had a sermon outline in the front cover of my bible when I stepped into the sanctuary. Many times I didn’t ned to refer to the outline, but it was there in case i needed support.

What I have learned, however, is that oral language is very different from written language. Good writing doesn’t always result in an interesting oral presentation. In oral language we use more repetition. Run-on sentences are acceptable. Sort sentences and even stand alone words can be effectively employed. Sometimes I transcribe a sermon from a recording. It usually needs to be edited before it can be given out as a written document.

Now I am being challenged by a need to develop a new way of speaking. When I preach in the congregation, I have the faces of the people that I can read. I can tell how things are going and whether or not I am communicating by the folks in the room. If I get a very quiet pause, I know they are listening. If there is a lot of movement and chatter, I know I need to focus their attention. Decades of delivering sermons has given me some experience on how to adapt. But it is very different facing a camera with my congregation spread out in their homes.

I’ve been delivering daily prayers with manuscripts. I write out the prayer before I set in front of the camera. This coming Sunday, we will be working from a full manuscript. With two of us, we need to practice the timing of delivery in order to get things the way we need. I think I could develop the confidence to become less dependent upon written notes, but it will take time. And, truthfully, I hope I don’t get the time to perfect the skill. I am eager for our congregation to get back together and we will do so as soon as we are able to with safety.

In the meantime, I’ve been thinking about high school speech meets and how nervous I used to get. I hope I can use that nervous energy to deliver meaningful messages to our people.

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

We're doing fine

South Dakota is one of two states that I know of where we have a hunting season on and eat our state bird. The other state is Alaska, where the ptarmigan is the state bird, There might be other states that eat their state bird, but the ptarmigan and the ring-necked Pheasant are both big enough to make a tasty meal. It would be a bit of a challenge to fill up on Idaho’s state bird, the mountain bluebird, or Montana’s western meadowlark. Anyway here we eat our state bird. I’m not a hunter, but I have the good luck of being friends with a hunter who gives me pheasants, dressed and ready to cook. While we are journeying with our friends through this time of social isolation, we’ve been carefully eating through some of the food in our freezer to cut down on trips to the store. Of course yesterday, I wanted to cook the pheasant in a particular way. I had the idea of making a pot pie. So, on my way home from work, I decided to make a quick trip through the grocery store to see if they might have any potatoes. We have sweet potatoes, but no russets. Walking through the store I noticed that there were some foods in the freezer section, and then I rounded the corner and “score!” The dairy case where they keep eggs, which has been empty for at least 10 days, was filled with eggs. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Knowing that we were down to three eggs at home, I picked up a carton and checked to make sure that there were no broken ones. Pleased with my selection, I headed on around to the produce department, which had quite a bit of food, but no potatoes, paid for my purchase and went home. Pheasant pie with carrots and cream sauce was a real treat for dinner. I cooked rice as a side dish and we didn’t miss the potatoes at all.

It makes me sad that the “normal” for so many children in our community is to get their meals at school, and now from whatever church or other site is handing out food. At the same time, we’re eating like royalty, with rich cream sauce over exotic meat. I know it isn’t fair, and we had enough to share, but didn’t know how to do what was required.

One of the things about having been around for a while is that people call you to check up on you. I spoke with both my sister and one of my brothers yesterday. It is a rare occurrence for me to speak to both in the same day. My sister is doing great. She’s a small town Montana girl. The thing about Montana ranchers is that they don’t have to change their lives a bit in order to practice social distancing. People don’t go into ranching because they want to be close to their neighbors. She’s perfectly happy that people aren’t driving down her driveway. Once a month or so she goes to Costco where the shopping carts are big enough to guarantee no one can come within six feet of you. The dog keep the UPS driver in his truck, where he slides the door just enough to hand her the package. Who knows how terrified he is being a UPS driver who is afraid of dogs who delivers in rural Montana? I don’t think he has any customers who don’t have dogs. That guy must hate his job.

My brother is a caregiver for a man who has cerebral palsy and so is considered an essential worker and isn’t house bound by the rules. He is a bike rider who absolutely enjoys empty streets and a lack of traffic. He likes to spout his philosophies, which are, to say the least, different from mine. Each conversation with him gives me an opportunity to practice restraint and to keep my mouth shut, a skill that could use quite a bit more practice, I’m sure.

So maybe the new normal will be talking with my siblings more. That wouldn’t be a bad thing.

Our son, who is enjoying a 15-day quarantine because the library where he is the director is across the alley from the city hall where someone visited and later tested positive for the virus. He has three children so just being at home means working. In addition, he has to find time to keep the digital portion of the library functioning and serving people. He has been researching the best ways to provide maximum service to their population. Last time I spoke to him he was researching specialized commercial ovens that can heat up books to a particular temperature for a particular amount of time to kill any viruses that may be on them without damaging the books. That will allow them to sterilize books as they come back from being loaned. I’m fascinated that his city is actually paying him to learn how to cook the books.

Our daughter lives on a US Air Force base in Misawa, Japan that is about to go on lock-down because there have been cases of Covid-19 within about 20 miles. Her son is approaching 8 months old and is clearly capable of entertaining her. She isn’t getting bored staying home and taking care of him. We get delightful pictures every day.

And we are fortunate to have plenty of work and enough space to walk outdoors every day. I feel slightly guilty because I see the front-line workers in the grocery stores and I speak regularly with hospital workers and cops and firefighters who have jobs that expose them to unknown bacteria and viruses every day. My job these days involves talking on the phone and learning new things on the computer. It is a challenge, but not a hardship.

The biggest thing is that I don’t have an audience for my jokes. I could have used the one about cooking the books in a sermon. So 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!


One of the effects of our social distancing is that the April 4 national testing date for the ACT test is not going to occur. The next dates for students to take the test are June 13 and July 18. When I heard about the cancelled date, I went into one of my grandpa “I remember when” modes. I tried to only express compassion and understanding and not express my own memories out loud, but it was a moment when I noticed how much the world is changing. It is common for students these days to take the test at least two times so that they can discard the lowest score and use the highest score to submit to colleges. It is also common for students to purchase the official ACT Prep Guide with a practice test at the end of the book and pay for the ACT Online Prep with its online preparation and study guidelines. You can even pay extra for live, online instruction and on-demand videos to help improve your scores. ACT Academy is a free online learning tool and practice test program that is available to all students.

So here’s my grandpa moment. Back when I took the ACT, we were told that there was nothing you could do to prepare except to get a good night’s sleep and bring multiple number 2 pencils with you. The test is curriculum-based, which means it covers topics common to most high school courses. The test is divided into four multiple choice subject tests: English, mathematics, reading, and scion reasoning. The number of correct answers are converted into a composite score that ranges from 1 to 36. It is generally assumed that a score of 28 is needed to get into elite colleges. That place the student in the top 88th percentile nationally.

For comparison, the other national test that many high school students take is the SAT, which uses larger numbers for its scores. A 28 on the ACT is roughly comparable to 1310 on the SAT.

At any rate, I think that probably my best skill when I took the ACT was the skill of test taking. Multiple choice tests can be taken following a simple regimen: First, read every question very carefully and mark the answers of which you are certain. Second, re-read the questions you skipped the first time and see how many answers you can eliminate as incorrect. If you have narrowed the choice to only two answers, follow your intuition - you have a 50% chance of making the right choice. Third, go back through the still unanswered questions. Re-reading them can give you insights that you missed before. Try to eliminate as many obviously incorrect answers as possible and make a agues from the remaining possibilities. That’s it. The test is timed, so those who read more quickly are rewarded. I’m a family fast reader so I usually had time to get through all three steps when taking a timed test.

I didn’t take multiple tests. I didn’t repeat the ACT in search of a higher score. I simply took the test. I applied to only one college.

The world is different now. College juniors are more uptight about test scores and more fearful about not getting into the college of their choice. While they are worrying, the coronavirus pandemic is re-defining college education. Most US colleges have changed to all online education for the remainder of the 2019-2020 school year. It is unclear which schools will resume residential programs and how quickly they will be allowed to do so. One educator with whom I spoke recently speculated that the pandemic might signal the end of residential graduate education with virtually all masters and doctoral programs being taught in online formats. That same person commented that there would be a temporary need for in person education at the undergraduate level because there are too many Americans who don’t have access to high speed internet. Online classes, he maintained, works best for students who are on campus and have access to campus Internet services. It is a bit strange to think of students sitting in their dorm rooms instead of walking across the campus to classrooms, but I guess that was already occurring on many US college campuses before they emptied out in an attempt to slow the spread of the virus.

It happens that I took the ACT test 50 years ago this summer. A half of a century is long enough for there to be many changes. It is also long enough for my experience to have little relevance for today’s high school juniors. For what it is worth, I think it has been about 50 years since anyone asked me what my ACT score was. I don’t remember. It was good enough that I went directly to college in the fall without ever attending my senior year of high school. But my ACT score wasn’t a factor in my choice of graduate school. I had taken the GRE by then. Those scores also are forgotten. With the degrees I earned, I easily gained admission to do graduate work without repeating the GRE a few years ago.

So my advice to high school students is to take a deep breath and relax. Go ahead and do all of the ACT preparation that you can manage. Use the free materials and avoid spending extra money. Then get a good night’s sleep before you take the test. Go in rested and use your test-taking skills. It’s important, but it isn’t the only important thing in your life this year and it may not be the most important thing. Right now our society is examining education and the role of college in measuring life success. Your ability to adapt to changing circumstances and to learn in an ever-changing environment will be more important than the scores on any single test.

As this pandemic is teaching us, life has many tests that are even more challenging.

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!

More coronavirus reflections

Here is a coronavirus observation. There must be an awful lot of freezer space in our community. We’ve probably like most of our neighbors. We have a deep freezer in our refrigerator and another chest freezer in our basement. Neither are completely full at the moment, though we have a good supply of food that will last us quite a while. My observation is based on the fact that the freezers in the grocery store are nearly empty. I understand why there might be a run on frozen pizzas when people are stocking up to remain at home for a while. We don’t eat many frozen prepared foods, but the aisle with the TV dinners was empty. There weren’t even any boxes of frozen puff pastry or pie crusts in the store I visited yesterday. I got a small carton of egg whites, but it there were no eggs available. If the store is having to run all of those freezers and refrigerators with nothing in them, it must mean that there is an equal amount of empty space in freezers and refrigerators around town on a normal day.

It is our habit to shop once a week for groceries with an occasional stop at the store to pick up a forgotten item during the week. With social distancing, we are trying to only make one trip to the store each week. Monday is our day off from work, so it has become our grocery shopping day. We don’t seem to be in a panic for anything in particular, so I went to the store in the middle of the afternoon, when it wouldn’t be so full of people. Keeping my distance in the store was easy. There were quite a few customers, but fewer than would be the case earlier in the day. The store had a good supply of fresh chicken, so I brought one home. We can get quite few meals out of a chicken. I was able to get everything on my list except eggs. There was a good supply of cabbage, which is a vegetable that keeps really well.

While I was out and about, I took a bicycle ride through the city’s parks. It was a beautiful day yesterday and there were quite a few people out enjoying the weather. Those walking, biking, skateboarding and roller blading on the pathways were being respectful and keeping their distance. Tennis seemed like a good game to get exercise while maintaining distance. Basketball players weren’t observing the six-foot separation rule, however. A friend who was also out for a bicycle ride stopped to visit with me as I was loading the bike onto the rack on the car. We kept the car between us as we visited, easily maintaining the recommended separation.

Observing the recommended separation doesn’t have to mean staying in one’s home all the time, at least not in our city.

One of the gifts of this new way of life is that I am spending more time at home in the evenings. I don’t have many meetings to attend. Last evening I sat down and hand wrote letters to three of our grandchildren. I don’t hand write many letters any more and the oldest of our three is a third-grader so I printed, working hard to keep straight lines and making my letters easy for a young reader to read. It is a skill I once had, but one that I don’t practice much these days. I do most of my writing at the keyboard of a computer. I enjoyed slowing down to make the letters carefully. It allowed me to think about each grandchild as an individual and think of things to write. Although we talk to them regularly over Skype, we are encouraging them to write letters. It is a good way for them to practice language skills during the time that they are home from school. Only one attends public school. The middle one is in a preschool and the youngest is still at home. So we’ll probably get pictures mostly, with a letter from the oldest, who will probably be the one to read the letters to his sisters. At any rate it is fun to have a slower way of communicating. It encourages thoughtfulness and reflection.

This spring is not unfolding the way we expected. The “we” in that sentence refers to almost everyone in the world, I suspect. Of course it isn’t spring in all parts of the world. For those south of the equator it is autumn. I think it might be even more difficult to deal with this virus and its effects if one were going into autumn with winter looming ahead.

We are all connected. The Pandemic is a reminder that all humans share the quality of mortality. We are all vulnerable. We all experience anxiety and fear. We all are capable of worrying in ways that are destructive to our mental health. We are all looking for ways to keep our spirits up. My usual technique, keeping very busy and working very hard, may not be the best solution for times when we are being asked to remain at home and keep our distance from others. Last week was filled with learning a whole bunch of new skills. This week I may be able to put some of those skills to work with regular Facebook live sessions. I’ve been writing out more prayers and trying to find just the right words to encourage those I serve. I’ve been trying to imagine who is looking at our videos, as it is a different congregation than our face-to-face crowd. It feels like the whole definition of church is being changed, and I don’t know what the new normal will be.

So, like those around me, I’m a bit restless. It will be interesting to see what today will bring. I feel like I’m writing too much about the virus in my journal, but that seems to be the topic of the day.

Be careful out there.

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!

Embracing change

Sometimes simple things entertain me. Back ion the 1960’s the television game show Hollywood Squares became very popular. It continued through 26 seasons with a fairly similar set throughout the run. Nine actors, usually stars in their own right, sat behind small desks in nine boxes arranged with three on the bottom, three in the middle and three on the top. Contestants played tic-tac-toe by naming an actor who was asked a question. If the question was answered correctly the contestant won that square. People watched the show more for the actors’ responses than to see who was winning the game. The delivery of zingers was so popular that the show’s producers began to plan for them, often giving them to the actors to be delivered prior to the answer.

So here is the thing. I think that this will work with Zoom, but it definitely works with Go to Meeting. You set up a teleconference with nine participants. The participants appear on the computer screen in the order that they log into the conference. If you have nine participants total (host plus eight) the people appear in nine boxes arranged just like the old Hollywood Squares game. Since everyone sees the participants in the same order, they can learn to look up and down and to their left or right just like the actors did in the old game show, appearing to look at each other, even though they aren’t actually sitting in a set like the old game show.

Its a pretty silly thing and not very significant at all, but it amuses me all the same.

The reality is that we are all reinventing our amusements. Of course there are some things that we can do that are very similar to our lives before the coronavirus. We can still go for walks alone in the woods. It’s find to go to the park as long as you maintain six feet of separation between you and others. Our parks aren’t allowing children to play on the equipment, but a walk is acceptable. We can still call friends on the telephone and visit with our grandchildren over Skype. We can still sit in our living room and read books.

But there are a lot of new things. I have commented to several others that the past week has been a steep learning curve. When I went to seminary to prepare for a career in the pastoral ministry, they didn’t teach courses in computer network management, copyright law or livestream broadcasting. I never aspired to be a media preacher, preferring to serve in congregations where live worship was the focus. In a week, I had to transform my worship planning and production to a whole new format. We went live on Sunday morning with a tiny “studio audience.” We now are capable, if need be, of producing a broadcast worship service with just two of us in the room, and the organist can be a long way away from where I stand.

We got there through a lot of quick research and a bit of trial and error. There were some sound problems with our initial test runs and we are learning as we go, but we made the transition fairly quickly. Our normal worship services average around 125 in attendance. Our first livestream video earned 557 views on Facebook, plus a dozen views on our church website. Of course we don’t know how many of the viewers watched the entire service. Certainly some clicked on the link and watched for a few minutes and then left. Still, it is a whole new way of reaching out to people. We aren’t exactly a neighborhood church. People come from all around our area to attend our services. But it is different to see comments from Idaho, New Hampshire, Arizona, Hawaii and Australia.

The circumstances have invited us to think again about the nature of community and the scope of the ministry of the church. At this point, it is all an experiment. We don’t know if the transition to online video will be self-sustaining. We do have an online donation stream and there was a bit more activity on that stream than usual yesterday, but it remains to be seen whether or not we can make the changes work. We don’t know how long we will be in this new mode of worship and ministry, but it seems that many are suggesting eight weeks as the amount of time we may need this heightened level of isolation. In the meantime the general economy is going through a radical readjustment which affects our ministry as well. Some of our people are out of work and worried about day to day survival. Many of our people are very worried about their health. As has been true in every generation, the church needs to be nimble and flexible and adjust to the changes.

Some of the changes will be permanent. We are already thinking about how we can mount cameras in our sanctuary to create a permanent place for live-streaming our worship. We want to continue to widen our outreach beyond the confines of our town. We want to be able to broadcast into the homes of our members who are not able to get out for worship. In the future, pastors will need a basic level of technological competency that was not required of us for most of our career.

I am going to have to hone some of my skills in new ways. I’ve never been good at telephone work. I call people and I answer my calls, but I much prefer being face to face. I know how to judge another’s reaction when I can see their face, but it is a different matter on the telephone. But I need to be on the phone more and learn to pray over the phone better in this phase of my ministry.

They say, “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” but this old dog is finding out that he needs to be learning new tricks at a rapid pace in an uncertain and quickly changing world. Who knows what new adventures we’ll find in the week to come? In the meantime, I can always play Hollywood Squares.

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!

Letters I won't send

I frequently say to my wife, “If I were going to write a letter, which I am not, this is what I would say.” It is a kind of mental exercise in which I express frustration or even anger without running the risk of hurting someone else’s feelings. I’m not one to write letters to the editor or even many letters to politicians, but sometimes I need to get something off of my chest. So today a couple of letters that I will never send.

Dear Mayor Allender,

While I understand your desire to provide leadership in a time of crisis and to help our community stay ahead of the coronavirus epidemic, I want to point out a problem with your rhetoric. You keep putting churches in the same category with theaters and casinos when you refer to “unnecessary businesses.” With your background in law enforcement, I would have thought that you would understand the need for spiritual health as well as physical health. I know that police departments often emphasize physical health and don’t pay attention to spiritual health, but when they forget spiritual health, they have problems with high attrition and disengaged officers. I also know that there are some churches in our community that are primarily in the entertainment business. They put on a good show every Sunday and are popular and growing. However, the primary business of a church is not entertainment. The success of a church is not measured in the size of the crowd. Churches exist for service to others. We tend to the spiritual health of our members and reach out with concern to serve the spiritual health of the community. We are seeking to be responsible and to follow social distancing guidelines. But just because we have temporarily ceased large group gatherings doesn’t mean we are out of business. Don’t you know where hungry children are getting meals now that the schools are closed? Don’t you understand who provides the food for Church Response? Have you no idea who is strengthening essential workers by holding them in our prayers? Have you forgotten where people turn when death occurs? If we are facing a life and death crisis, you really don’t want to proceed without faith, dear mayor. History has proven time and time again that when governments try to close churches, faith is stronger than official orders.

There. I got that off of my chest. Now one more. Yesterday I listened to part of a radio interview as I was driving. This is what I might write to the guest on that show.


While I appreciate you concern for the older citizens of your community and am grateful that you are at least showing some compassion, I must protest your condescending attitude. Just because you are young and healthy and not a member of an “at risk” group in this particular health crisis, it doesn’t mean the you and others of your age are somehow better informed than those who are older. When you characterize those who read paper newspapers as technologically illiterate and lacking the latest information, I need to remind you that Bill Gates will turn 65 this year. Had he lived, Steve Jobs would also be 65. The technologies, both hardware and software that you use are based on the ideas of the people you call senior citizens. Who do you think wrote the base code? Who doe you think deigned the systems? Just because you can’t remember how your devices came to be doesn’t mean that others don’t understand them. Don’t dismiss elders because they aren’t addicted to their devices as much as you.

While you were binging on watching zombie apocalypse and contagion movies some of your elders were attending the funerals of their peers. It is hard for you to know it now, but we are all mortal. No matter how many rules you make, some people are going to die. Even if we all follow every rule and suggestion and isolate ourselves to the fullest extent possible, this epidemic will result in illness and death. And it is simply true that your elders have more experience with illness and death than you. So don’t dismiss their wisdom just because they speak of service and sacrifice.

You describe young people checking up on their parents and grandparents. I’m sure that there are young people who do and I’m grateful that you have chosen to do so, but in our community there are far more elders delivering meals and essential groceries and checking on their neighbors than 30- and 40-somethings. Among other things, those younger people have never before experienced shortages of goods in stores and lacking that experience are too busy getting their own and hoarding rolls of toilet paper to understand that the best way to endure a real shortage is to share.

I was listening to your interview yesterday as I drove to our church where a team of volunteers spend the morning cutting and splitting firewood so that others could keep warm in cold winter months and spring blizzards at a reduced cost. We practiced social distancing. Chainsaws and wood splitters are loud. An outdoor woodlot provides plenty of space to spread out. This small group of 60- and 70- and 80-somethings were working hard and getting much-needed exercise. Your advice to us to stay home is based on a bit of ignorance about what we do when we go out and what it takes to remain healthy.

It is your choice to deny your children the opportunity to see their grandparents. I understand your fear. But know your decision has consequences. Grandparents passing on wisdom and tradition to grandchildren is as old as humanity itself. Isolation might slow the spread of a virus, but it also slows the growth of community. There is wisdom and experience that you are denying your children by keeping them from contact with elders.

We’ve experienced a lot of death in our years. We’ve said goodbye to friends and family members. We know a bit about grief. It is wisdom that might have value to you when it is your turn to plan a funeral.

I’m not going to send these letters, but writing them has made me feel 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!

Shiny objects

One of the deep joys of this world is the presence of children. I have an especially wonderful career that constantly gives me opportunities to observe children and parents. A week ago I was sitting at a table with a pair of five-year-old twins. I had arrived early for a meeting with the family and the girls were eating heir lunch. Their father invited me to have a seat while I waited for their mother and some others to arrive. The girls were in a talkative mood and were telling me about their lives as they ate. “We have the same birthday, but we are not the same,” one declared. She then proceeded to tell me about things that were the same and things that were different about them. “I have a peanut-butter chocolate bar, but she doesn’t like chocolate, so she has an apple pie bar.” One of my favorite memories of the conversation was the declaration, “Her favorite color is pink. My favorite color is sparkle.”

The conversation made me think of our five-year-old granddaughter. She would b hard pressed to choose between pink and sparkle. She loves both and purple and glitter, too.

We humans aren’t the only creatures that are attracted to shiny objects. When we were kids my cousin was very proud of the baby moon hubcaps on his car. He kept the car clean and the hubcaps shiny. One day while parked in our yard we notices that one was all smeared with something. Upon closer examination we discovered that the mess had been caused by a young rooster in our yard who apparently had seen his reflection, got riled up at the challenge and beat his head against the “rival” in the hubcap until he bloodied himself. In general, chickens don’t have a lot of brain for the size of their body and this rooster probably didn’t improve his intelligence by banging his head against a hubcap.

Another time we were hiking in the high country and watching some mountain goats high on a rocky ledge way above us. My father pulled out a mirror and showed us how the goats were curious about the light he reflected on the rocks nearby.

A few years ago, my sister purchased and installed a game camera to monitor the comings and goings in her yard. She was surprised to capture a few pictures of a bear that wandered by. Then one day he took the memory card from the camera and was surprised to see that it was completely full. She viewed the pictures and except for a couple of normal shots of a car driving by and a deer walking in front of the cabin, the entire rest of the card was filled with close-up pictures of a magpie. The bird had apparently seen the shiny lens on the camera and proceeded to model in front of it until it was filled with pictures of the bird.

Creatures are attracted to shiny objects. We humans are no exception. We like shiny things, too. One of our current fascinations seems to be with objects that have screens like computers and cell phones and smart watches. Scanning the news headlines today I was struck by how many news pictures include people who are looking at their cell phones. We seem to be attracted to shiny objects.

It may be a stretch, but I think that part of our attraction comes from long ago and is a part of the genetic code that is transmitted from generation to generation. I know that i am attracted to the shine of a body of water. Whenever I see a lake, i think about what it would be like to paddle across it. I love to go out in a canoe in the wee hours and watch the sunrise from the surface of the water. The reflections fascinate me. I feel the pull and attraction of water in a deep, visceral way.

Long ago, when humans found themselves in dry places, they had to find sources of water in order to survive. The ability to spot a shiny patch of water in the distance was a skill that was necessary. I wonder if our attraction to shiny objects doesn’t have some roots in the need to find water. Water shines. Look for the shiny. Thirsty critters are attracted to water - to shiny objects.

This is, of course, all speculation. I don’t know how one would design a scientific study of such a general characteristic.

What I do know is that we are growing hungry for community. It has been less than a week since our church board set new restrictions in response to the coronavirus pandemic and already I am missing the usual round of meetings and face-to-face gatherings. I know that more restrictions and isolation are coming. While we will seek to be responsible and to protect the safety of others, I know that we are, deep within ourselves, social creatures. We’ll use our shiny objects to FaceTime and Skype with each other. We’re learning to use a camera to create livestream opportunities. But it isn’t the same as being together. I sometimes experience the distance between us and our children and grandchildren as can ache. I get so eager to travel to be with them that it becomes more important than other priorities. We are good at staying in touch. We connect with technology on a regular basis, but that isn’t the same as being together. I even use the words “hunger” and “thirst” to describe my feelings of longing to be with family.

So I tell the stories. I make my plans. I figure out safe ways to be with people as much as I can. And I play with the shiny objects. Operating the livestream camera is a steep learning curve for me. I stared a couple of days ago to broadcast short meditations and we are nowhere near the slick productions that people are used to viewing on their screens. But we’re improving. I’m learning.

In the meantime, I’m still a thirsty creature.

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!

Managing the stress

When I was a child, our family held hands before every meal and we said a blessing. The blessings were usually quite short and designed so that children could easily memorize them. To this day, one of my favorites is:
We thank thee, Lord, for happy hearts
For rain and sunny weather
We thank thee, Lord, for this our food
And that we are together.

Our children were raised with the same practice and many of the same prayers.

Our grandchildren have a slightly modified practice that is so powerful that we have taken to imitating even when we are not with the grandchildren. They take a few moments to go around the table and each person says, “I’m thankful for . . .” It doesn’t take me long to come up with a lot of things for which I am very grateful. On a clod, blustery night with snow in the air, I’m thankful to have a warm home with lots of windows so I can look out at the cold without getting cold. I’m thankful to have such a wonderful wife and such great children and grandchildren. I’m thankful for my brothers and sisters and all they added to my life. I’m thankful to have deer and turkeys for neighbors and a few very wonderful human neighbors as well. I’m thankful fr professional colleagues who challenge my thinking and offer support for my ministry. I’m thankful for a congregation that supports me in my vocation. I’m thankful for the music that surrounds my every day. I’m thankful for the children in the preschool . . . . I could go on and on. And when I do, I feel much better for doing that.

My first piece of advice for people trying to figure out how to cope in these stressful days is to develop a practice of expressing your gratitude. Keep a gratitude journal. Speak your thanksgiving out loud at every meal. Think of all of the small things that bring happiness to you every day. Sure these days are filled with all kinds of reasons to worry. It probably is naive or irresponsible to not have a little worry. But you can reframe the way you look at the world. The same world that has brought coronavirus into our lives is the world that gave us raindrops and rainbows, snow crystals and trees, birds and hot summer days. There are a lot of things that bring us joy.

Joy is not the same thing as happiness. You can experience joy in the midst of trauma. Joy is much more than a burst of emotion. If you spend your life chasing happiness - living for the short bursts of emotion that overwhelm you, you will end up exhausted and disappointed. Instead, look for those little things that put a smile on your face and warm your heart despite difficult circumstances. The best way to get out of focusing your attention on your own surface happiness, is to pay attention to someone else’s happiness. Make someone else happy and you will feel joy.

When you are feeling overwhelmed with stress, it can help to have a diversion. A hobby or a pet are excellent things that demand your attention and draw you away from focusing on your worries. Sometimes we obsess on the stressful event, playing it over and over in our brains. It can give you a bit of respite to simply take a vacation from thinking about the trauma. Name a few things that you love to do and get a mental image of yourself doing those things. Create a diversion from the drudgery and stress of everyday life. Learn to go on a vacation in your imagination.

Take a deep breath. There are breathing prayers and meditation practices focused on breathing in every major world religion. You don’t have to call it centering prayer to appreciate the benefits of simply paying attention to your breathing. It is an incredible thing that is happening. You draw air, rich in oxygen into your lungs and your lungs help the oxygen to get into your blood stream to nurture all of your organs, including your brain. You can lower your blood pressure simply by taking a series of very deep breaths. Paying attention to your breathing takes you mind away from the problems and stresses of everyday living. You don’t have to become a mystic or a monk to enjoy the simple pleasure of breathing in and out. Exhaling as completely as possible and then pausing a second or two before starting to draw in the next breath can give you an incredible sense of well-being and relaxation.

When I taught stress management classes years ago, one of the things that was hardest for very busy, overcommitted individuals to do was to simply stop it. If something causes you stress, stop it. If relationships are dragging you down, stop it. If your worries are keeping you up at night. Stop it. It is easier said than done and it takes a lot of practice, but you can learn to simply stop doing the things that bring you the most stress.

Exercise for endurance. Figure out some way of getting into motion. Make sure you stand up for a minute or more every hour. Find an exercise program that works for you. Maybe you like to go for walks. Maybe you prefer going to the gym. Maybe you like equipment. Maybe you simply want to be yourself. Find some form of physical activity that you can pursue without injury and make time to engage in your practice.

The isolation demanded by our current situation means that you need to take responsibility for your feelings and your management of stress. There may not be an opportunity to talk it out with a professional counselor for a long time. Find out what works for you. Maybe you want to learn to meditate. Maybe you are looking for a service project. Maybe you are working for him as diligently as you did from your office until recently. Find your own spiritual disciplines. Then share them. There are a lot of other people trying to learn how to cope.

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!

First day of spring

The forecast for today calls for it to start snowing around 8 am and to continue snowing throughout the day. The winds will pick up during the day to about 20 mph, which isn’t really that much, but enough to feel chilly. Yup. It’s spring in South Dakota. March 19, vernal equinox, the whole bit. The days have ben lengthening for quite a while. We switched to daylight savings time. Here we are in the thick of spring.

Meanwhile, the layoffs have begun and the gains in the job market that have been fairly steady during the recovery from the 2008 recession are beginning to be reversed. The president who has been warning about socialism in his opponents, is proposing a huge cash payment directly to American voters - a move that doesn’t sound very much like the Republican play book, but then not much this president does sounds like any play book. They are laying off folks at the White House, too as the exodus of professionals from the executive branch of the federal government accelerates.

The pandemic has left us isolated from one another as churches suspend worship services, concerts and plays and sports events are cancelled, people avoid unnecessary contact with one another, except in the grocery stores which are crowded with people pretending that they can’t see each other. The store seems to have a distinct lack of disposable disinfecting wipes on the shelves, but people are really going through them at the front door, wiping down grocery carts before they head into the busy and sometimes empty aisles.

I have always been a fan of gloves. I have work gloves and dress gloves and even a couple of pair of protective gloves that are supposed to have a chemical barrier in them. I have boxes of disposable latex and nitrile gloves that I use when working with epoxy. We’re not hurting for toilet paper, but we’ll run out of toilet paper before we run out of gloves at our house.

It’s pretty strange working at the church with the reduced traffic of people. The halls are empty and quiet without the children. We’re often in our separate offices working on trying to figure out how to become better at using social media. Today I’ll be focusing on how to conduct worship on Sunday, in a nearly empty sanctuary.

I’m told that subscriptions for distance working and meeting software are skyrocketing. Go To Meeting and Zoom seem to be the favorites. Because I am a volunteer at an agency that provides services to persons with disabilities I happen to know that Go To Meeting is HIPPA compliant. You have to be careful to protect others’ privacy if you are going to broadcast your meetings over the Internet. I’ve used both platforms over the years, but currently am not a subscriber to either.

I invested at least an hour yesterday learning to use a livestream camera. The church made the investment to be able to get worship and other experiences out to our people. I know there are churches that were set up for this long before the crisis, but I’ve been a slow adopter of certain technologies and cabers and projectors have never been quite my style when it comes to worship. I am a big fan of people coming together to form community.

We’re learning to be careful about cleaning and protecting surfaces around the church, but there are so few people there that I think the various viruses are probably not finding hosts in most of our rooms. Preschoolers are pretty good about sharing whatever they have and seasonal illnesses travel around our building fairly freely most of the time. A few weeks without people will make a big difference.

But it is spring in South Dakota. We’ve never judged the presence of Spring by the weather outside, however. We’re waiting for Easter to remind us that resurrection is a part of God’s creation. While folks in other parts of the country are tending their gardens, we’re speculating on which day will be the last day of frost and when the last spring blizzard will come. Mind you we like this. I’m not a big fan of year-round lawn mowing and we’ve seen enough years of crackly dry forests to enjoy a walk on spongy ground.

I met a member of our congregation for lunch yesterday. He is a physician and has recently undergone chemotherapy, so is both knowledgeable and careful about infection risk. The cafe where we met was nearly empty and smelled faintly of chlorine, not unlike a swimming pool, but perhaps not quite as much. The cafe was operating on shortened hours, but did offer dine-in service for lunch. That may not continue much longer as people stay away from gathering places. For some reason the story of a very successful restaurant that was driven out of business by a case of legionnaires disease came to my mind as I was walking back to the office. Illness can be devastating to the restaurant business.

We are all in this together and we are social animals. People were designed to be with each other. Genesis 2:18 in the King James Version says, “And the LORD God said, It is not good that the man should be alone.” At its core our faith is a communal religion. We believe that faith is “caught” more than it is “taught.” We pass on the faith of previous generations by our behaviors and how we treat one another. That is a hard message to transmit over media. We do much better in real face-to-face interactions.

While we are trying to be responsible and we certainly don’t want to cause others to become ill, we are not enjoying this isolation. We are enduring it. Than again, we don’t actually enjoy every spring blizzard. We endure them. A blizzard day just won’t be the same if we’re already self-quarantined.

Let’s hang in there and let’s stay in touch. I think I’ll work on writing letters with part of my day today. We’ll get through this together.

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

Lenten pilgrimage

Lent is a traditional time for introspection and personal reflection. However, as a pastor, the season of Lent has been a time of thinking about communal activities and events. In 2011, going through a season of grief myself, having lost a brother and then my mother and finally my father-in-law dying on Ash Wednesday, Lent was an usual salon of facing my personal grief. Holy week that year was a dark week for me personally, as I led worship but felt inadequate and ill prepared for the task. My usual technique of “suck it up” and work harder just wasn’t working. So in 2012, we went about reinventing the season in the plans of our church and put a huge emphasis on Holy Week. We planned services for every day of the week and promoted Holy Week as an intentional time of practice for the very real grief that enters every human life. Since that time, I have redoubled my efforts at providing meaningful times of communal prayer and reinforcing the sense that we are all in this together.

Lent this year is turning into a completely different discipline. Perhaps it is time to reinvent once again. The corona virus means that we have cancelled some worship services. Our congregation will not be meeting for Sunday morning worship for at least two weeks. The suspension of gathering may last even longer, depending upon circumstances. We will still have Sunday Morning services and will make them available to our congregation through live-streaming on Facebook and YouTube, but it will be a different experience entirely. The decision was made at the meeting of our Church Board last night and the rest of the week will be a real scramble for me to make sure that the word gets out and that as many people as possible are able to access our worship services. I’ll be learning some new techniques, working with musicians, and reaching out all week.

That leaves Holy Week up in the air for us. We may be able to gather for worship on Palm Sunday morning and we may not. Our community Palm Sunday parade has been cancelled for the year. Our shared Seder service with the Synagogue of the Hills has been postponed. Dr. Steve Benn has suggested that when we do get to celebrate, we may have to add COVID-19 as the 11th plague. We have decided to cancel the choir cantata scheduled for Maundy Thursday. Likewise the community Sunrise Service for Easter morning has been cancelled. Our board also decided to postpone our annual blues concert, hoping to have an expanded jazz and blues session at a later date. Holy Week then will have the reading of the Passion Narrative, which might be with a gathered congregation and might be done remotely. We will have some kind of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday Services. With luck we will be bale to have a real Easter revival with a return to communal worship.

While we are seeking to be responsible, to follow the leadership of health experts, and to respond to the needs of our community, I am deeply aware that one of the deepest needs in this uncertain time is for community. When we cannot gather face-to-face as much as previously, we need to be attentive to the ways in which we remain connected.

The Christian Church has a lot to offer to this circumstance. We believe in a transcendent God. The good news of the Resurrection is that we don’t need a physical presence to know that Jesus is alive. The love of God reaches beyond human limits of time and space. The sacrament of Holy Communion celebrates our connection with Christians in all times and all places. Our unity is not dependent upon being in the same place at the same time.

Still, the discipline of this particular Lent feels very unnatural for me. The church building is empty. After this week’s deep cleaning, the doors in the hall will be shut and we will be only entering some of the rooms. I’m used to working in a building filled with preschool children. The quiet is strange and unnatural for our structure.

Some things remain the same. The hospital is, for now, allowing me to visit. I can make calls those people. I have a telephone and although that is not my greatest strength as a pastor, I am learning to pray with people over the phone. We have videoconferencing capability and we managed to have a meaningful meeting last night with about a third of the participants joining over the Internet. I ran a brief test of FaceBook live last night just to make sure I know how to do it and we’ll be using social media more and more.

throughout the history of the Christian church, from the earliest desert mothers and fathers, individual Christians have undertaken the discipline of solitude. People have gone off by themselves to listen for the voice of God. They have ventured into the wilderness to experience being alone. The season of Lent is based on the Gospel reports of Jesus going into the wilderness where he was tempted by the devil for 40 days. If we can embrace this new reality as a Lenten discipline, we may be able to emerge with more clarity about God’s call for our lives.

Christian Pilgrimage, however, is not about taking time away from the community solely for the purpose of personal development. It is always about the community. A pilgrim journeys away from the community for the sake of the community. A pilgrim returns knowing that the pilgrim and the community have been transformed by the absence. The return is a time of teaching and learning about the new insights and transformations that have taken place.

A pilgrimage is a self-imposed discipline. The pilgrimage of this lent is being imposed from the outside. But like every pilgrimage, this one begins with a prayer. We place our congregation in God’s hands and we open ourselves to careful listening to God’s call. May we become a blessing for others even though there is distance between us.

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

A dystopian novel

Like a lot of other writers, I keep thinking that I am able to write fiction. I’ve written a few short stories, and I’ve started drafts of three or four novels over the years, but so far I haven’t really produced anything significant. In all likelihood, I’m just not a fiction writer. My form appears to be personal essays, which I churn out every day.

Lately, however, I’ve been thinking about writing a dystopian novel. It is a popular genre these days. Margaret Atwood’s novel, “The Handmaid’s Tale” was made into a television series that was very popular. N.K. Jemisin’s “The Fifth Season” was gripping enough that it got me to read the entire trilogy she wrote.

The future of humanity lies in the balance in Jemisin’s stories and the reader is left wondering whether or not our species will survive. Atwood’s tale may not put humanity itself in danger, but rather our most human qualities such as justice, fairness, compassion, and understanding.

I think it would be fairly easy to write a dystopian novel about the collapse of American democracy. You could imagine a scenario in which the basic rights, enshrined in the first ten amendments of the constitution were suspended and people were forced into submission without due process.

In such a novel, the troubles might not occur in the same order as the bill of rights, but instead of slipping away slowly, the rights might fade quickly in the midst of a panic. Perhaps something dramatic, like an asteroid speeding towards a collision with our planet or a pandemic virus.

In the novel all of the freedoms that get stripped away are taken away for the good of the people. The leaders continually say that the restrictions in freedom are temporary and that they are mandated by extraordinary circumstances.

Take the freedom of assembly, guaranteed by the first amendment. In this dystopian novel, leaders first call for an end of assemblies of more than 250 people, then reduce it to no assemblies of more than 50 the very next day and the day after that, call for no assemblies of more than 10 people.

In the novel, they would ignore the eighth amendment to the constitution, the protection from cruel and unusual punishment. Without any du process, they would order that certain citizens, perhaps the frail and elderly, be detained in solitary confinement, restricted to a single room with meals brought to them, and denied any visitors, even the closest of family members. This would be said to be for their own good, to protect them from illness that would be brought in by their families.

Along with the suspension of freedoms, basic rights would begin to be denied. For example the right to vote could be taken away in the middle of a primary election. It wouldn’t happen in all of the states at once. Maybe it could take place in a populous and significant state, say Ohio. The governor would suggest that the election be delayed, a judge would reject that postponement, as a “terrible precedent,” then the governor would respond by ordering the polls to be closed.

This is starting to become a very frightening picture of the world. The novel seems to be heading toward all kinds of terrible consequences.

Somewhere along the line, the entertainers and artists who have provided social commentary and voiced opposition and dissent would be silenced. Perhaps they would start by not allowing studio audiences to gather. Without audiences, the comedy routines would fall flat. Shortly after a few final shows, filmed without audiences, the late night shows would be taken off of the air completely, the voices of the critics silenced. I can imagine working that into the novel one way or another.

In order for the totalitarian state to quickly gain control with a minimum of opposition all of the restrictions would be promoted as essential and for the good of the people. Even worse things might happen if the restrictions on freedom weren’t imposed. Stories of mass disease and death would be circulated by news media. The coming threat would be billed as much more severe here than in other countries. All borders would be sealed. International airline travel would be suspended. Contact with the rest of the world would be restricted to the stories reported on a select few media outlets. Rumors would run wild on the Internet and people would stop trying to verify the truth of the reports of what they heard.

In the dystopian novel, they would suspend all schools. College students would be sent home and told to take online classes instead of going to class. Those who had access to high speed internet would be able to access the classes. Those who did not would not be able to study. High school closures would start with the suspension of all sports, concerts, plays and extra-curricular activities. Within a few days classes would be suspended. At first the students and parents would be told the closures would be temporary, perhaps for a week. That would be expanded to six weeks and more. Elementary schools would be closed and all of the social programs such as free meals suspended. At first churches would try to pick up the slack, providing meals for the children, but they would be told not to allow gatherings of more than 10 people and soon the volunteer pool would disappear. Preschools that followed the schedules of public schools also would cease to meet.

I know myself well enough to also know that I will never get around to writing such a terrible dystopian novel. I don’t enjoy reading dystopian literature all that much. I prefer stories with happy endings and a lot less crazy scenarios. So don’t expect to ever see this novel on the shelves of your bookstore. Of course in the novel, there would be no more bookstores, having been replaced by online vendors that become monopolies and engage in individualized price gouging.

Since I won’t write the dystopian novel, perhaps I could start a conspiracy theory. Probably no one would believe 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!

A matter of perspective

The radio show and podcast, “On Being” with host Kirsta Tippett features beautifully edited interviews with a wide variety of thinkers and writers. Because of the process of careful preparation, transcripts of the interviews are available a few days before the episodes appear on the air. The episode set to air today features an interview with physicist Carlo Rovelli. Although my background isn’t in science, I am fascinated by my conversations with and readings of physicists. Like philosophers, physicists are big picture thinkers and often attempt to understand the world by looking from different perspectives.

In the interview Rovelli playfully posits the difference between a thing and not a thing. “A stone,” he says, “is a thing because I can ask where the stone is tomorrow, while a happening is something that is limited in space and time. A kiss is not a thing, because I cannot ask, where is a kiss tomorrow.” He then goes on to place that observation in a different time frame: “We live 100 years, but suppose we lived a billion yars. A stone would be just a moment in which some sand gets together and then it disaggregates, so it’s just a momentary getting-together of sand.”

In essence, he uses a very unique approach to helping others to understand that reality is not some fixed entity, but rather a process. Even objects that seem to be fixed and permanent are not so if you view them from a different perspective. It is a scientific updating of the old adage, “This, too, will pass.”

Religion and philosophy have been asking those same big questions for millennia. What is real? What is permanent? How does this appear from a perspective that is not limited by time? Religions, for example, frequently posit the existence of God who is beyond time and not limited the way we humans are. If time does not exist, the reality of a kiss and the reality of a stone are equal. Both are fleeting instances here and then gone. Religion adds a twist, however, both remain forever in the memory of God, and thus are equally important in the overall scheme of things.

Rovelli notes that physics, philosophy, and history are all linked. All are parts of a common desire to better understand the world around us. The conversations about physics, philosophy, and history fascinate me. I frequently write about my frustration with STEM-only education that focuses on part of learning while seemingly ignoring the humanities as if it were possible to learn science without learning philosophy or if engineering without history would yield well balanced individuals. It is my firm belief that the failure to teach the arts and humanities is a failure to teach. A science-only curriculum fails to transmit learnings that are essential to the survival of society. In a sense Rovelli’s writings, like those of other physicists reveal that the study of what is often called pure science leads to philosophical and religious conclusions.

Recently Susan and I spend some time wandering in an art exhibit at the Dahl Arts Center. The exhibit featured 51 of Dick Termes’ rotating three-dimensional paintings. Posters on the wall explain how Termes employs a six-point perspective to paint one-of-a-kind objects. If you stare at one of the creations you are fascinated how what appears to be a straight line is really a curve and how a series of curves can make a triangle or a diamond appear. Some of the spheres are painted on the inside and the outside with some clear areas left without paint so that the viewer can see both the inside and the outside at the same time. Because the spheres are in motion, sitting or standing still and staring at the objects presents an ever-changing perspective.

Viewing the exhibit, I couldn’t help but think about the sphere we call home, our earth. We, too, are constantly rotating and traveling through space at a great speed. Still, the ground around us appears to be flat and fixed and solid. It took generations of thinkers and explorers to figure out that the earth is a sphere, and even more to understand the relationship between the earth and the planets and stars we can observe.

My own life corresponded in time to the beginnings of human exploration of space. I was just coming into adulthood as the first image of the entire earth as viewed from space began to be available. This change in perspective had a dramatic effect on all of the earth. The clean air and clean water acts were passed shortly after those images appeared. Looking at our planet as it appears from outside of it helped us to see that we share a common atmosphere and that we are all linked. There are no natural national boundaries. There are no walls that stop the flow of air and clouds around our planet. We are all in this together.

It is all a matter of perspective and changing our perspective makes a big difference.

For me, the link between art and science is so obvious that I wonder how this is not completely obvious to others.

It is all a matter of perspective.

The times in which we live seem to us to be particularly chaotic and unsettled. It certainly seems to me as if things that I once could count on are much less certain. I scan the headlines repeatedly throughout the day to see what dramatic changes are occurring. I have lived most of my life with a sense of vocation and calling and now it seems like I rise each day having to discover what it is that I am meant to do. What once were routines are no longer routine. Things that once seemed stable are now uncertain. In a sense it is like my perspective has shifted and the rock is now as fleeting as a kiss.

Perhaps this uncertainty is simply a part of having reached the final three months of my employment at this particular congregation. Perhaps it is as normal for this stage of my life as questions were a part of my adolescence. Maybe I will understand better after a few months or a few years have passed. At the moment it is unsettling.

It is all a matter of perspective.

As such, I am grateful for physicists like Carlo Rovelli and artists like Dick Termes who call me out of myself to look at the world from a fresh point of view.

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 need community

The thing about a pandemic is that becomes news around the world. I like to begin my day with a scan of headlines in a variety of news sources from around the world and all of them seem to be focusing on coronavirus stories. That is a challenge for my daily journal, because I want to be topical and aware of the news, but I tire of writing on the same subject cay after day. At the same time, like most of the other people in the world, I have been thinking about coronavirus and the appropriate response of the church to the pandemic.

I don’t think that we should be surprised that the response in the United States seems to be a bit disjointed. We don’t really have a centralized national health program. We have resisted putting authority for healthcare decisions in a single place. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has limited authority over state and county health officials. Funding for the CDC has been cut during the current administration. The affordable care act has been under attack from many different fronts. We don’t have a national health plan or policy. And without a plan and without policy we don’t exactly know how to respond.

This is further complicated by the for profit health care system we have embraced in our country. Even nonprofit hospitals have dozens of for-profit enterprises embedded in them. This means that extraction of wealth from illness is built into the system, It also means that there are companies who will continue to put profits ahead of public health. If your income stream is based on making money from treating sick people, there is no financial incentive in keeping people well.

So our system has more chaos than might be a part of a more coordinated system. However, as we have seen in recent decades, overhauling the nation’s health care system is a difficult and politically fraught enterprise. We have a lot of work ahead of us before we reach some form of equity in terms of access to health care.

One of the concepts that I want to explore is a relatively new term that now has been touted over and over: social distancing. It seems to be a part of nearly every pandemic response plan and the news medial are using the term as if it has a common meaning among all people, but it really has not been defined. We don’t know what it means. There have been some articles about keeping a six foot distance between you and anyone else. This means no touching, no handshaking and no physical contact. That, however, is impossible for most people. Except for a few hermits and recluses, we are social animals. Study after study has demonstrated the negative effects of depriving infants and children of personal contact. There are all kinds of personal care and health care functions that require touch. We play many games that bring us into close contact. We make music together and gather audiences. The concept that we would simply cancel all of these actives leaves us with a bleak and fearful world.

There are ways in which isolation can be helpful in slowing the spread of disease, but simply trying to isolate everyone from contact with others has a myriad of consequences, many of which may be more detrimental to health in the long run than contacting the virus.

I suspect that the real reason for cancelling schools has little to do with a rational approach to disease control. It gives the appearance that leaders are doing something and they need that appearance. I get that. But this disease, while contagious has nowhere near the rate of spread among children of a disease like measles. Children tend to become slightly ill for 2 to 3 days and the death rate among children from coronavirus is very low. The spread of coronavirus among children might even promote the development of natural immunities. Children, however, share their diseases with their parents and grandparents. The parents might be sick for two or three weeks with the same virus. It could be life-threatening for grandparents. So closing schools is mostly an attempt to keep the virus from spreading to adults.

So I don’t know what social distancing really means. I understand that large crowds present the possibility of spreading the virus more quickly. I understand that person to person transmission is more common than becoming infected from contacting surfaces. But how far apart are we supposed to remain? Is closing down our communities really the answer.

I confess that at the core of my faith and my being is a deep commitment to community. I attended a funeral on Friday. I will officiate at another on Monday. I routinely witness the power of community to heal some of the deepest wounds and sorrows of life. I believe that gathering community is essential to dealing with grief and loss. I know that one of the most important parts of end of life care is presence. For many the fear of dying alone is very real. The transition from this life is much easier when surrounded by loving family and friends. I’ve sat with too many people as they have died to wish to be alone at that moment when my time comes.

Worship is about sharing with others. As skilled as some have become at attempting to use media such as television or the Internet to offer worship, communal worship is quite different from watching entertainers on a screen. Media is a poor substitute for real relationships.

In the midst of this crisis, our church is reluctant to cancel worship. We will, of course, comply with direct instructions from public health officials. We are, of course, being diligent in cleaning and hand-washing. We are responding with limiting touches such as handshakes and embraces. I will, however, lead worship in our sanctuary as long as I am able. It is central to who we are and what we do. If that is a failure of social distancing it is because we continue to be a society. There are limits to our ability to live at a distance.

There are unintended consequences of social distancing. To face this crisis we need social solidarity. Ardent self-preservation leads to families stocking up on essential items as if the needs of others didn’t matter. Blatant selfishness won’t solve this crisis. Our faith speaks of sacrifice and caring for the needs of the community. We are all in this together. We need each other. We need community. And we need our children to get together so that they learn to share and care for each other. It seems to be a lesson some of their parents and grandparents have forgotten.

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!

Hubris meets Nemesis

Students of history often study the ancient Greek gods. In a kind of hybrid philosophy/theology, the ancients organized abstract constructs by assigning them to personalities often understood by modern interpreters as gods. The religion was a set of ideas organized around mythical personalities that were illustrations of those concepts. Studying Greek gods is another way of understanding the concepts of their philosophy. Many of the Greek gods were adopted by the Romans and have expressions in the pantheon of Roman gods. And many have survived the test of time and are used as illustrations and representations of contemporary concepts even though most modern philosophers don’t embrace the concept of multiple gods. One example is Lady Justice. Statues of justice adorn courthouses and law school buildings and the figure is familiar to many. She id depicted as a female figure, often blindfolded, holding a set of scales aloft and usually holding a sword in the other hand. Those who see the statues and other elections understand that this is a symbol. There isn’t a real woman who make the decisions in cases, but rather the concept of justice giving equal sway to all involved and being impartial. The blindfold signifies impartiality, the scales fairness and the sword punishment. The word justice comes from her name in the Roman pantheon which is Lustitia or Justitia.

Lustitia is the Roman derivation of the Greek goddess Themis. Classical depictions of Themis show her without the bliindfold. In the stories and oracles of Greek mythology, Themis is the personification of fairness and natural law. Her name means “divine law” as opposed to human ordinance. The Greeks understood that human justice systems fall short of the absolutes of justice. Sometimes things don’t turn out to be fair for all parties engaged in human disputes, but there is a sense that there is a justice beyond the remedies of human courts. Themis embodies this ultimate justice.

In Greek mythology, another goddess, Nemesis, is charged with carrying out the judgments of Themis. Nemesis is also depicted with a scale and a sword, although in some ancient sculptures and engravings the sword is much bigger and the scales somewhat smaller. In the ancient stories she is charged with bringing retribution against those who succumb to hubris. In Greek philosophy, hubris is the name for humans challenging gods. It has come to describe cases of foolish pride, dangerous overconfidence and arrogance. Those humans who think too highly of themselves and their abilities are brought down by the sword of Nemesis.

The concepts are interesting in a modern context in part because they remind us that there are a lot of large ideas which did not begin in our generation. People thought about philosophical concepts long long ago and our ideas have been shaped by an enormous inheritance of ideas and concepts. Simply by using language, we become connected to ideas that are more ancient and much bigger than ourselves. The study of Greek and Roman gods is a way of gaining an introduction to philosophy and understanding the history of certain concepts.

I have no way of knowing how much of the history of philosophy or the gods of the Romans and Greeks has been studied by the writers of contemporary news stories. It is more likely that they simply use the common vocabulary that has been shaped by ancient concepts than that they are actual students of ancient subjects. Still it is interesting to me to read stories that use the word nemesis in reference to the coronavirus outbreak and the panicked response of leaders and everyday citizens. A New York Times article addressed the current situation as the President’s nemesis.

Further examination reveals that contemporary use of the word nemesis has a slightly different meaning than the ancient use of that word. In our contemporary usage, nemesis is often an adversarial force that can be overcome with extreme effort like Voldemort or the Wicked Witch of the West. In the ancient understanding, Nemesis isn’t an evil force. A goddess is not a villain. And in the oracles of Greece, goddesses won in the end, not the other way around.

It is hard to know exactly what is meant in the articles, then. Do they say that the coronavirus will eventually be overcome, or that it is a natural response to an excise of hubris?

In Greek mythology those who defy natural laws will meet and be defeated by nemesis. In that sense, it seems that perhaps the crisis of a world pandemic is a nemesis for certain ideas and overconfidences of contemporary American politics. This very real force of nature has clearly exposed the difference between airy promises and stark realities. The president can say that coronavirus test kits are available to all who need it but the reality is that kits are in critically low supply. Behind that reality is the administrations actions in slashing the budget of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention a part of even broader cuts to the Department of Health and Human Services. Nemesis comes into play when the empty promise meets harsh reality.

An administration that has been based on concepts such as experts are unnecessary, hunches are a substitute for knowledge, that competence is overrated, that criticism is hoax and that conceit is a virtue now is being tested, and found to come up short in the face of a virus that cannot be stopped by building a wall or instituting travel bans. The base of support for this administration has often declared that having an epic narcissist in the White House isn’t a risk. The stark reality of a worldwide pandemic is illustrating that they are wrong. Hubris meets Nemesis. The reality of a federal government that has been ineffective and profoundly inefficient in addressing a national crisis has political consequences. More seriously it has consequences in terms of human suffering.

With panic settling over the nation and people stripping the shelves in the markets bare because they don’t know what else to do, calm reassurance is not coming from the nation’s leadership. People don’t trust their government to do the right thing. It is a classical scenario straight out of a Greek oracle. As such it is helpful to remind ourselves that Nemesis is not evil. The natural order exists for the good of all people. The correction is necessary but it is not for the sake of imposing pain, but rather checking the unrestrained hubris of those who think they are above the natural law. We are all in this together and thinking that some deserve privilege is a thought that will be corrected.

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!

March Madness

Well, folks, March madness is upon us. Yes, I know that both the men’s and women’s NCAA basketball tournaments have been cancelled due to fears of contributing to the spread of coronavirus. In general, people are choosing not to participate in any large group gatherings. The Kennedy Center is canceling performances. The Library of Congress has closed. Late night talk shows are off the air until the end of the month.

March Madness this year is expressed in some overreaction to the very real pandemic that is sweeping our country.

People are panic buying everything from toilet paper to bleach to canned soup. Fears of running out have made people intensely competitive in the grocery store and less than pleasant for others who share their space. The theme seems to be, “I’m getting mine, who cares if you don’t have any.” It’s madness.

The theft of cleaning products including hand sanitizer and surface cleaning supplies has spread to the hospital. That’s right. People are stealing hand sanitizer from the hospital at such a rate that the hospital has decided to suspend the placement of dispensers at the entrance of every patient room. The hand washing stations with soap and water remain and I think you can obtain hand sanitizer from the nursing stations. My hands are perfectly happy with soap and water, which seems to dry the skin less than the alcohol-based products, but that means the hospital is going to go through a lot more paper towels. It’s madness.

Nursing homes are, for the most part, on lockdown. The people who are among the most isolated in our community no cannot receive visitors. I know of once case where family members were told they could not visit their loved one for the next six weeks. They decided the only rational response to that ban was to take their loved one out of the nursing home and move her back into their own home. It’s madness.

Residential colleges are telling their students that they have to finish the semester online. Families who have designed their budgets around students living in dormitories suddenly are scrambling to find places for their students to live. Students whose access to the Internet has been based on the free wi-fi available on campuses are struggling to find connections so that they can keep up with their classes. I spoke with a college student yesterday who doesn’t yet know if she will be returning to the campus after spring break as her college had not yet made an announcement. It’s madness.

Some people are choosing to self quarantine even though they have no evidence they have been exposed. Despite the claims by some of our leaders, the US still does not have enough testing kits. The US has tested about 26 per million people, compared to south Korea who has tested 4,000 per million or the United Kingdom testing 1,000 per million. We don’t know the extent of the rate of infection, because we haven’t done tests. So some people who consider themselves to be vulnerable are simply choosing to stay home and avoid all contact with others. They’ve stocked up on groceries and are hunkering down for an uncertain amount of time. It might help to slow the spread of the disease, but there is a big social cost to the behavior. They are giving up their trips to the gym and swimming pool and giving up on physical exercise for an indeterminate amount of time. It’s madness.

“Do you think we should cancel the Palm Sunday Parade and the Easter Sunrise Service?” a colleague emailed yesterday. Both are outdoor gatherings of less than 250 people in spaces where folks can maintain separation from each other. Neither involve excessive hand-shaking or physical contact. Both are still weeks away. Making a decision this week seems to me to be crazy. It seems like madness.

The Gospels are filled with Jesus’ instructions about not living a life of fear. We are called to make our choices based on faith, not fear. But there is no doubt that fear is taking over our community.

March madness is in full swing.If they decide to close the public schools in our town, chaos will ensue. There won’t be enough workers to staff essential services. It’s madness.

A bit of calm thinking is in order.

We know that Covid-19 is a pandemic. That means it has spread around the world. It doesn’t matter where you are, there is risk of contacting the virus. We know that it spreads quickly through human contact. We know that the number of cases rises exponentially. We know that people can be sharing the virus with others before they have symptoms of the disease. The best scientific estimates are that the death rate is significantly higher than other strains of the flu because there is no vaccine and there is little acquired immunity to this particular strain of illness. We know that elderly folks and those with compromised immune systems are most vulnerable and that the death rate among children is significantly lower. A coronavirus diagnosis is not a death sentence. Most people are going to survive even if they contact the disease.

There are sensible precautions that we can take. We can be more diligent about personal hygiene. Washing hands more frequently is a good idea. Washing surfaces more often is a good practice. We can decrease contact with others by using non-contact forms of greeting. A bow is as gracious as a handshake. It takes some practice. We aren’t used to it, but we can do it. We can listen to health officials. We’ve been asked to limit gatherings of 250 people or more. That means some congregations will need to add additional services so that they can serve their people in smaller groups. It has no impact on our church, which rarely sees crowds of more than 250. We will have to make decisions on a case-by-case basis when it comes to certain funerals and a few other special events. Attendance has already dropped off and I suspect we will see an even more dramatic decrease this weekend. I doubt if we will have a problem at all.

And we can remind ourselves that we are all in this together. We don’t have to hoard supplies and put our own concerns above those of others. We can reach out in genuine love and care. In a little over two weeks March will be over. I hope that some of the madness subsides as well.

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

Smart watch, same guy

In 1995 when we move to Rapid City, I borrowed a mobile phone from my father-in-law for the trip when we came to town to close on the purchase of our house. I carried the device with us in the car and I used it once while parked. At the time it seemed like a device that simply was unnecessary for my life. I even remember saying to friends, I don’t want a phone in my car. My car is where I go to get away from the phone. Within a year I had a mobile phone. I started my ministry here as is typical, by making a lot of visits. I went to nursing homes and the hospital. I visited people in their workplaces. I attended meetings of civic organizations. I got to know the town where I was living and working. And it was difficult for the office secretary to know where I was. I tried to coordinate my schedule with her, and I reported what I was doing, but it was a frustration for her. So I wen to a mobile phon company and bought a phone and a plan. I quickly started to use the device a lot. It was handy to be able to check in at the office without physically being there.

When our son went off to college, he didn’t have a cell phone. A few of years later when our daughter went to college, it seemed important for her to have a cell phone. Then, when she got her own plan and her own phone, we had two cell phones at our house and my wife and I each had our own number. It made me think of what I had been told by Japanese exchange students who had stayed in our home, “Phone numbers are for people, not for places. Everyone has their own phone number.” Japan was quick to adopt nearly universal cell phone usage due in part to the geography of the country. A large population and islands with very tall mountains makes it easy to connect a lot of people with very few towers. It is quite unlike the open spaces of the western United States where, until fairly recently, it has been easy to find a place with no cell phone service.

I was a fairly early adopter of a smart phone. Because I was already carrying a personal digital assistant for my calendar and contacts, it just made sense to carry a single device instead of two.

Then for a while I resisted getting a connected watch. Family members and friends had Apple watches and fit bits and other devices, but I didn’t feel the attraction. In the first place I have been, over the years, fairly rough on watches. I wore a rugged watch, purchased in a climbing store, that could take a lot of rugged use. I also am not a big fan of digital displays, preferring a watch with hands that go around the face. I wear a watch to know about what time it is as opposed to exactly what time it is. Then, when Susan was recovering from her hospitalization for AFib, we decided to purchase watches for ourselves that could measure heart rate, record exercise, and give a simple EKG to determine sinus rhythm and detect AFib. Although the watches weren’t purchased exactly at Christmas we called them our Christmas gifts to each other and started wearing them.

Like other technological gadgets, I soon became quite attached to the watch. The display is easily changed, and I have found a display that looks like a traditional watch with hands that go around. Because the device records motion and exercise, I tend to put it on first thing in the morning to record the fact that I stand and walk around nearly every waking hour. Previously to getting this watch I wore my watch all the time, including while sleeping, so it seemed a bit strange to take off my watch at night, but it has to be charged and so I quickly adapted. So now when I rise, I grab my watch and phone from the nightstand and have both with me for almost all of my waking hours.

The watch is programmed to nag me. It will display messages like, “Your move and exercise rings are usually farther along by now. A brisk walk will help you meet your goals.” I don’t want to become a slave to the device, but I do find that that the exercise goals and challenges issued by the device are a bit of a challenge and I catch myself checking my display to make sure I’ve been walking enough each day. We even turned on notifications so that my watch reports Susan’s activities and she can see mine.

The devices, of course, were designed and programmed by people who are much younger than we. They are continually suggesting that we set higher and higher move goals, something that makes sense for a twenty- or even thirty-something person, but which has limits for those in their late sixties and older. I’m not going to be able to keep up with ever greater exercise goals. The concept of unlimited progress is reserved for those who are a bit younger. My goal is to maintain. I’m not an inactive person. Having owned the watch for a little over four months now, I know that I average 6 miles per day of walking. That’s well ahead of the 10,000 steps recommended for heart health. Yesterday I was over 15,000 steps and over 17,000 the day before. Who needs a pedometer? The watch records that, too. I think they need to have a senior citizen version of the software for the watch that is a little less ambitious with the goals and allows the user to set the pace.

Like lots of others, I have become a bit overly dependent upon technology and devices. It is a challenge that I need to address as I plan for the change of pace of semi-retirement. For now, however, I don’t seem to have much time for reflection, except when my watch nags me to pause and focus my attention on my breathing, which it does on a regular basis.

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!

Taking care

There is little doubt that the coronavirus will disrupt some activities around here. We are waiting for confirmation of a death in our county where the virus is suspected. It is on of five cases in our state according to health officials. There are usually many people who have been exposed before a case can be confirmed, so it is likely that the numbers will rise quickly here as they have in other parts of the world. With all of the travel and connections in our world, it seems likely that we will see cases of the virus in our community. There is reason to hope that the sharp rise will moderate somewhat as spring turns to summer, but around here that date is uncertain and could be months away.

I have heard anecdotal reports of shortages of disinfecting wipes, face masks, hand sanitizer and toilet paper in conversations with folks around town. I haven’t been shopping myself, but I’m pretty sure that hand sanitizer was in short supply in at least one warehouse store in town because a member of our Department of Building, Equipment and Grounds went shopping for supplies and hand sanitizer was on the list and I haven’t seen a new bottle. The request was for convenience. We’re not out. We can refill smaller dispensers from a large one. We just thought that for convenience we’d have a bit of extra supply. I have two containers in my pickup and several more around the house that can go to the church if needed. We’ll definitely be using more in the weeks to come.

I wouldn’t consider a temporary lack of hand sanitizer to be a crisis, however. We have plenty of sinks and soap and we can wash our hands the old fashioned way. The same is true for disinfecting wipes. The disposable wipes are convenient, but there are other ways to disinfect surfaces. When we managed a church camp that was nearly 50 miles from the nearest store, we wiped down surfaces with a mild bleach solution with dish rags that were washed in hot water. As far as I know it was as effective as disposable wipes. Toilet paper is a slightly larger challenge, but I stopped by the grocery store to purchase my lunch yesterday and saw someone leaving with a couple dozen rolls so they aren’t all the way out at that store - or weren’t yesterday. And, in a pinch, I’d favor using wash cloths and running the laundry a bit more often over going back to newspapers and magazines. We don’t have an outhouse and I’m not sure magazines would be good for our septic system.

I’m not worried about shortages having a deep effect on our personal lives at this point. Just as a point of human interest, I think I will pay attention to the random items that run in short supply. Our son, who lives in Washington State, where there have been more confirmed cases and now a single case confirmed in his county, reported that there have been random, unexplained shortages. For example the local grocery stories were out of tomato paste for a few days and then stocks returned to the shelves. If it weren’t for the the corona virus, such an event might not have been noticed. It’s hard to think that tomato paste is related to people’s virus fears, but it is possible that it is a standard pantry item and people are stocking pantries in anticipation of needing to stay away from stores for a few days.

I’ve heard rumors of other shortages, but so far haven’t noticed any big issues. We generally restock on groceries on Mondays because it is our day off. We went shopping as usual this past Monday without encountering any problems. And I did make a brief stop in the grocery store yesterday and didn’t notice any empty shelves. But if I do encounter an item that is in short supply, I might have more of a tendency to wonder if it is related to panic buying. For example, the grocery store where we shop most often doesn’t stock the largest size of our favorite brand of peanut butter. Frequently they are temporarily out of the next largest size jar. Most of the time we just wait until our next trip for them to restock. Sometimes we buy one or two jars of the smallest size. Since this was happening long before rumors of the virus were in town, I don’t think there is a connection, but now, if I were to encounter an empty shelf, I might wonder. No worries, however, we bought two of the larger sized jars on Monday. That will last us for a while.

I am worried about isolation’s effect on our people. The people who are most vulnerable to the virus are people who are already somewhat isolated. They may live in assisted living or nursing homes and crave visits from the outside which could be curtailed. They might be self isolating at home and missing out on regular social events. It has been my observation that when people stop attending church for any reason they are slow to resume the practice. Shrinking church attendance has a lot of effects on our institutional health and I’m worried that the virus could cause a drop in attendance. On the other hand, a drop in attendance means there is more physical space in the room and people can spread out more and that alone is helpful when it comes to spreading the virus.

The virus is already getting us to be more attentive and careful about personal hygiene. We are wishing our hands more often, and being careful to disinfect surfaces. Now we need to get more creative about how we render pastoral care. I’m used to holding hands with people when I pray with them in private settings. I would never have though about the practice before our awareness was raised by the threat of the spread of the coronavirus. There are a number of pastoral tasks, such as anointing with oil, and just laying on of hands that involve touch. We may be less welcome to visit in the homes of the most vulnerable of our people. Nursing home communion practices may be questioned.

We need to think carefully and thoughtfully as we plan to extend our ministries as we go through this together.

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


Sorting through boxes yesterday I found an old toy airplane. The toy is metal and you can tell that it had been painted so the wings were yellow and the fuselage red, though the red has faded to pink. On the left wing is hand painted the letters MHS and on the right the date 5-25-37. On the bottom of the airplane the initials WH are etched. I know the story of the plane, but am pretty sure that it is a story I have not told to my children. Once the toy is separated from its story it will have no meaning for anyone.

The toy was a favor for a high school graduation of a very small school. Minnewaukan High School is still in operation next to state highway 281 on the west side of Devil’s Lake, northwest of the Spirit Lake Reservation in North Dakota. My father was a member of the class of 1937. Despite the effects of the Great Depression, the class of 37 underwood a grand adventure for their senior skip day. Members of the class traveled 159 miles one way to Bismarck, the state capital. They rode the modern elevators to the top of the new State Capitol building. The news that the former capitol had burned to the ground was among the first stories that my father ever heard on the radio. The new capitol, a modern skyscraper 21 stories high was a marvel of engineering and construction. For my father, however, the high point of the day was the airplane ride that he got at the Bismarck airport, which in those days was little more than an open field. That ride started a lifelong passion for airplanes and aviation that saw him earning his pilots license and instructor’s certificates before enlisting in the Army Air Corps where he served as a multi-engine flight instructor and service pilot. After completing his army service he used GI funds to go to school to earn his airframe and power plant certificates and began his career in aviation, operating the airport in our town, running charter flights, flying fire patrol and game counts, crop dusting, operating an air ambulance and doing whatever else he could think of to be able to afford to fly airplanes.

He taught me to fly and was very proud that I earned my private pilot’s license the summer of my 17th birthday.

The years have passed. The airplanes have been sold. The company itself has passed to other owners. This year marks 40 years since my father died. But I still have that toy airplane. I’ll keep it for a while yet.

Minnewaukan isn’t one of the world’s largest towns, but it is one of the places in that general area which retains its original Dakota name. The same is not true of the lake that lies to the east of town or the region’s larger town. Minnewaukan is the Dakota word for spirit water or spirit lake. It might be translated “sacred water” as well. When European people came to the region they misunderstood the words and the concepts of the Dakota residents. Somehow sacred was translated into spirt as in spirt beings and the settlers misconstrued the name to mean “Bad Spirt,” and the name “Devil’s Lake” became the common way of naming the lake and the town on its eastern shore. The lake can change in size greatly depending on the amount of water in a huge, but nearly flat drainage system. Some of the creeks that feed the lake only drop a foot per mile. The lake has been a popular fishing and recreation site for a long time, but boat ramps and other access points have to be adjusted periodically to respond to the rise and fall of the lake. This dramatic change in the size of the lake may be part of the reason that it gained the name “Spirit Lake.”

The misnaming of places due to misunderstanding of the indigenous language and culture is common across the United States and Canada.

One of our favorite places to visit in British Columbia is Kelowna, a city in the southern part of the province known for its wineries, water sports and hiking. It is a stunningly beautiful place with the huge lake ringed by mountains - the extinct volcanoes of the Thompson Plateau. The pine trees grow right down to the shore of the lake and it is easy to feel the power of the beauty of the place. The spirit of that lake is n-ha-ha-it-koo according to the Okanagan/syilx people who originally inhabited the area. The spirit of the lake is said to watch over the lake and can be sensed in the ripples of the water. When settlers came to the region attracted by the natural beauty and comparatively mild weather, they misinterpreted the indigenous stories. They replaced those stories with stories of a serpent that lived in the depths of the lake. They called that serpent Ogopogo and it has become a feature of the region, with cartoonish drawings on local promotional materials and a great and white concrete sculpture near the waterfront that reminds me a bit of the dinosaurs atop the hill here in Rapid City. Back in the 1980’s the tourism association offered a $1 million reward for proof of the creature’s existence. The reward was never paid.

The little metal airplane with MHS painted on the wing is a reminder that my roots lie in land that was sacred long before my people arrived. The meaning of a place is deeper than the current generation or even the stories we can tell of previous generations. Long before any of our ancestors had come to this place there were people who recognized how sacred it is and who revered the land and told stories that had been handed down to them for generations.

At least I can remember the name Minnewaukan and its Dakota meaning: mni (water) and wak’an (sacred). And when I tell the story of the airplane to my grandchildren, I can remind them that there are even older stories of that place.

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!


Herbert Sebastian Agar was a journalist and historian who served as editor of the Louisville Courier Journal. He won the Pulitzer Prize for History in 1934 for his book, The People’s Choice, which was a critical look at the American presidency. It was his 1950 book, The Price of Union, that inspired John F. Kennedy to take a look at the concept of courage, especially political courage. A passage from that book about an act of courage by John Quincy Adams is said to be the inspiration for Kennedy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Profiles in Courage.

John Quincy Adams is one of the heroes of the story of the United Church of Christ. We tell the story of the slave ship, La Amistad and especially the 1839 trip with 49 adults and four children who had been taken from Mendiland, now known as Sierra Leone and illegally transported from Africa to Havana to be sold into slavery in Cuba. The United States and Britain had at the time banned the Atlantic slave trade, Spain still allowed slavery in its colonies. The slaves successfully revolted and gained control of the ship. The slaves demanded that the ship take them back to Africa, but the navigator deceived them about their corse and it ended up on the eastern tip of Long Island, New York. The ship was discovered and a lawsuit followed over salvage rights to the ship and its cargo. More famous was the court case over the status of the Mende captives. If convicted of mutiny they faced execution. Their case finally reached the US Supreme Court, which finally ordered the captives to be freed. The court cases were supported by funds raised by the United Missionary Society, which has its roots in the Congregational Church. The attorney selected to argue the case before the Supreme Court was another congregationalist, none other than former president John Quincy Adams. The story of the Amistad and its freedom-seeking Mende captives inspired the building of the replica ship, Freedom Schooner Amistad, which was launched in 2000. That ship is dedicated to educating the public about the story of the Amistad.

It was a series of events that happened before the Amistad, however, that inspired Kennedy’s book. Elected as a Federalist in 1803, John Quincy Adams was the only Federalist to vote in favor of the Louisiana Purchase. That vote began a split between Adams and his political party. in 1807, Thomas Jefferson called on Congress to enact an embargo against Great Britain to retaliate for British aggression towards American merchant ships. The embargo would have a disastrous effect on the economy of Massachusetts. The Federalists opposed the embargo. Adams, however, was persuaded by Jefferson to go against his party and steer the bill into law. Protest followed and Adams resigned his seat in 1808.

John F. Kennedy was so inspired by Agar’s telling of the story of Adams that he wrote an essay on Adams. He then asked Ted Sorensen to help him find other stories of US senators who had displayed uncommon courage. The result was the eight biographical essays in the book Profiles in Courage.

Profiles in Courage is not a big book. Up to 1956, when Kennedy wrote the book there were only eight instances of US Senators standing up to their party on critical votes enough to be reported as courageous. One of the conclusions one can draw from reading the book today is that we probably shouldn’t be surprised at the intense partisanship that is present in the US Senate today. Senators with the courage to stand up to their party are rare and, it seems particularly rare in our time of history. One wonders if Kennedy were writing today how he might have interpreted Senator Romney’s vote to convict President Trump. Will that story go down in history as another profile in courage.

Courage seems to be a rare commodity in all generations and ours is no exception.

The Australian writer Baz Luhrmann wrote, “A life lived in fear is a life half lived.” While fear isn’t exactly the opposite of courage, the quote seems especially poignant in today’s world. Fear seems to dominate much of US politics. In the United States House of Representatives and the US Senate where elected officials spend as much time raising funds as they do engaging in the business of legislation, fear of not being reelected seems to color every activity. Multi-million war chests are deemed necessary for all members of both houses, even in cases where reelection is assured. Not long ago here in South Dakota, an incumbent US Senator flooded the television stations with election ads when he was unopposed in the general election. The addiction to money and the fear of not having enough drives many decisions made by US Senators and members of the House of Representatives. It is so intense that many elected officials forget who they represent and have become so beholden to large donors that they act against the best interests of those they were elected to serve.

Political courage is indeed a rare commodity.

Not only do our elected officials live in fear and pursue half lived lives, they seem to only be capable of doing half of the job to which they were elected. It is not at all uncommon for legislators to average more than four hours each day in modern call center rooms raising funds. There are official scripts to follow and leader board posted with the same kinds of technology and approaches of major fund-raising organizations. With the average legislator spending 2 hours or less per day in actual committee meetings and on the floor of congress, you can easily see where their priorities lie. It is no wonder the average approval rating for a member of congress is 14% while 90% are reelected. They conform and they act out of fear, but they lack the courage we expect of them.

An institution of those who act in fear based on a distinct lack of political courage is unlikely to provide leadership in a national crisis that demands clear thinking and courageous action. Don’t look to the federal legislature for solutions to the corona virus epidemic. Real courage is being displayed on the county level where public health officials are making difficult decisions. Real courage is being displayed in hospitals and care centers where nurses and doctors are using the best science to treat those who are ill.

A life lived by Washington DC standards is a life half lived. The reality of today’s world demands courage, but don’t look to our senators or representative for that courage.

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!

International Woman's Day

They laid the old woman to rest yesterday in the family cemetery in Kyle. Her heath has not been good for several years. She has struggled in so many ways, requiring dialysis in order to stay alive. Finally, on Tuesday the time came for her to die. She was at the Kyle Health Center at the end. How many struggles there were in her life. She was the mother of six, one daughter and five sons. One of those boys preceded her in death. There were fourteen grandchildren, always a few of them living with their grandma. Just keeping the house warm and food on the table was a challenge. And there were always struggles with cars. They’d figure out how to get a car that worked and that would break down. Most of the time whatever they were driving was on its last legs. Her boys had to give her rides. And they had to have a car because her dialysis treatments were at Sharps Corner and she needed to go multiple times each week. And it seemed like there was always mud. Not just a little bit of mud, but the kind of mud that meant that no one could get in and out of the road to their house. She lived a life of money troubles. There was a time when her husband had a good job. After years of struggling with addiction, he seemed to get on top of that problem and even became qualified as an addiction counselor. But then he got into trouble with the law and that money stopped coming. They’d have to go to Rapid City for the doctor or for some supplies and would head out without enough money for the gas to get home. Sometimes they got lucky and someone would help them. Sometimes they spent the night in the car. It seems like there was never enough money to get the propane tank filled. So when they were out of propane they’d turn on the electric oven and open the door to provide some heat in the house. But that was expensive too and the power company turned off their electricity on more than one occasion. They had a wood stove, but you have to have wood to keep the house warm that way. Sometimes they would get a load of firewood, and then they’d really get it warm in the house, sometimes so warm that they were opening the windows. And then they’d run out of firewood. She would try to make some calls and get some help. Sometimes it worked.

Then, last week the struggle was finally over. She relaxed and peace came into her after so many years of hard times. Her spirit went to join the spirits of the ancestors in ways that those who are left behind don’t really understand. The old woman was gone.

Only she wasn’t old. I was amazed at the birth date in the obituary. She was a decade younger than me. I thought she was least a decade older. There were times when I would meet her at a gas station at the edge of town. Maybe she was in a friend’s car, or perhaps one of her sons was driving. She was so hard of hearing that I would be a bit embarrassed at how much I had to raise my voice just to communicate. I thought that anyone else around the gas station must think that I was yelling at her. Her face was wrinkled and tired and she was a bit bent over. It always looked like she was living with pain.

Sometimes you just think the wrong thing about another person. I realized that although we had known each other since shortly after I met her husband, and although we had spoken on the phone a lot, and although I’d recognize her when I saw her, I didn’t really know her. I had made some inaccurate assumptions about who she was and how her life had gone. There isn’t a picture of her in her obituary on the funeral home web site. Just a couple of pictures of red roses. But I can picture her in my mind.

I’m thinking of her this morning as we begin International Woman’s Day. It was way back in 1908 when 15,000 women marched through New York City demanding shorter working hours, better pay and the right to vote. A year later they declared a national woman’s day. The next year Clara Zetkin suggested the idea of an International Woman’s Day at an International Conference of Working Women held in Copenhagen. The first official International Woman’s Day was celebrated in 1911, so this year’s recognition is the 109th even though the United Nations gave the day official recognition only in 1975.

In China it is a tradition to give working women a half day off on the day. In Italy it is the custom to present a woman with mimosa blossoms. There won’t be much of either this year. Fears of corona virus means that there are a lot of women who can’t go to work because of closed workplaces in China and flowers aren’t exactly the highest priority in Italy, where the disease has spread. Here in the US March is Women’s History Month and it is a time to tell the stories of the many contributions to our history made by women to our daughters and granddaughters. It is a good time to tell those stories to our sons and grandsons as well.

The theme for International Women’s Day this year is “An equal world is an enabled world.” We are all challenged to work for equality for all people. I can’t get the image of one woman out of my head. She never got an equal chance in this world. She was born into hard times in a hard place. She suffered discrimination because of her heritage. Life on the reservation is always hard. She struggled to get by in the ways she knew. She fought desperately to care for her children and grandchildren. And she died way too soon.

We still have a lot of work to do.

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

Health care for some

I’ve had at least three conversations with people who are working on obtaining health insurance coverage this week. One was getting documentation in order to change to a spouse’s health plan following a recent marriage. Another had resigned from a job and the health plan from that job ran only until the end of the month. Another had reached the age of medicare and was trying to figure out the maze of possible supplemental plans. Heath insurance is complex and confusing in our country, to say the least.

The basic concept of health insurance is that everyone puts money into a pool through their premiums. When someone becomes ill, they dip into that pool to pay for their health care. the system works because not everyone gets sick. In fact it works so well that the insurance company can also dip into the pool for its profits and those profits in turn benefit shareholders who purchase stock.

There is a problem with profit in anything to do with health care. The problem is that there are fewer dollars available to pay for care. Profit is a process of extraction. Of course insurance companies aren’t the only ones seeking profit from the health care field. There are pharmaceutical companies and some medical laboratories. There are for profit hospitals that usually are niche hospitals, treating only a narrow band of health concerns and avoiding those which are more expensive and have less predictable demands. There are companies that handle billing and records and, of course there are collection agencies. And the list goes on and on. So much profit is extracted that per capita spending in the U.S. is almost twice the average of other wealthy, developed countries. And all of this expense is not purchasing the best health outcomes in the world. It is, however, producing record profits.

But profit is only part of what is broken about the U.S. healthcare system. Our system is based on unequal distribution of health care coverage. Some people have access to the system and others do not, or at least their way of being involved is vastly different. The three people whose stories I hinted at in the first paragraph of this morning’s journal entry all are either currently experiencing or have recently experienced significant financial distress. They know the struggle of trying to cover housing costs and groceries on limited incomes. They all have experienced delaying or failing to get preventive health care because of the cost.

All three stand in stark contrast with our situation. Both my wife and I are eligible for medicare and we have supplemental policies. Our employees pays the premiums on our policies. And we have excellent coverage. When my wife was in the ICU last fall the billed costs were tens of thousands of dollars a day. One day approached six figures. The amount that we had to pay after medicare and our supplemental policy was very low - in the hundreds of dollars. One of the people with whom I was having a conversation was struggling to afford a monthly premium of $1,600 for a plan with a $10,000 deductible for the family and an out of pocket maximum of $16,300. That means that virtually any hospitalization or major medical expense will exceed the family’s ability to pay.

We see the impact in the church all the time. The cost of health insurance is literally beyond the means of small congregations. They might be able to afford a pastor, but they can’t afford a pastor’s health insurance. The rapid rise in costs meant that the early 2000’s saw a dramatic decrease in the number of congregations that could no longer afford an educated clergy person.

So our system is definitely one of health care for some instead of health care for all. Because so many people find themselves unable to pay for major medical cost, hospitals are forced to spend millions of dollars trying to collect past due bills and then end up writing off huge volumes of unpaid bills which in turn drives up the cost of health care for others. Health care for some ends up with an uncontrolled upward spiral in costs for all. It is an inefficient system.

And the system may be coming face to face with a crisis that it simply cannot handle. A major pandemic of a new disease that is easily communicable. As the disease spreads there are people who are avoiding treatment because they cannot afford it. There are also infected persons who are spreading the virus because they have no paid sick leave and they cannot afford to take time off from work. Those who are working while sick include those who are responsible for critical elements of infection control, such as cleaning laundry and dishes and serving in nursing homes and other health care institutions. To put it bluntly, healthcare for some does not work when a virus is quickly threatening all.

The virus will spread. The number who get sick will grow. The death toll will rise.

The situation has been politicized with the party in power committed to repealing the affordable care act. They have already succeeded in repealing the individual mandate, which was an incentive for all people to have some form of insurance. We’ve gone back to large numbers of people going uninsured. And thought the rhetoric was “repeal and replace,” there has been no replacement, only repeal. No plan for addressing health care costs has been put forward.

Our system is broken in part because our process is sick.

Within this broken system are some brilliant researchers and physicians. There have been advances in treatment and care of injured and ill people and those advances continue. There are genuinely caring and serving individuals who work diligently to provide the best care possible for those in need. Well trained and qualified scientists are researching new cures and treatments with unprecedented accuracy and innovation.

It’s too bad that we are not allowing all of those who are ill access to those good people who are working to provide better health care.

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 hard day

Yesterday was a difficult day for people that I know and love and serve. Actually, I guess things started to feel a bit painful for some on Wednesday evening. Our choir rehearses on Wednesday evenings and we have started to work on a cantata for Maundy Thursday. Lent and Holy Week anthems have a lot of power and they can elicit some intense emotions. And there is a lot about death and grief and sorrow and sadness and suffering in the music of the season. Rehearsing that music can be a bit somber for a choir that is usually full of jokes and laughter and teasing. I noticed that one of our choir members was struggling and I knew why. She needed to leave before the rehearsal ended, so I followed up with messages to her yesterday.

Yesterday was a hard day for her. March 5 is the birthday of her granddaughter. Only her granddaughter died unexpectedly on February 9. Today would have been her eighth birthday, but instead of a family celebration, it is a day of somber memory. The pain of the death and the funeral are just too close. The day triggers intense feelings and it will never be the same - it can never be the same. The tragedy that visited their family is so fresh that there is plenty of grief that has not been processed. We tell them we love them. We tell them we will be there for them. But we know we cannot make it easy for them. We know we cannot fix broken hearts. Only God and time and faith can restore the hope that seems to be hidden.

Then, in the evening, I spent 2 1/2 hours with a young couple and their friends and family. Last week their 1 1/2 year old son died after suffering a cardiac event a few days earlier. He was flown to Sioux Falls for more intense care. We prayed for a miracle. The miracle we got was that at least 5 people received life-saving donations from him at his death.

The room had a lot of young people. Many are those for whom I care in my role as chaplain at Western South Dakota Juvenile Services Center. Many of them, including the mother of the child who died, are younger than our children. They probably think of me as being in their grandparents’ generation. But there are advantages to being a bit older. I’ve been to a lot of funerals. This isn’t my first experience with the anguish of parents who lose a child. I know the names of all the people who work at the funeral home and they all know me. We’ve been with grieving people before. But these young people aren’t at home in the funeral home. They don’t have much experience with death at all. It turns out the the mother had just been to her grandmother’s funeral a couple of weeks before tragedy struck her household. It was one of the first funerals she had ever attended. Then, last night, she is in the funeral home with an open casket with the body of her child in it and a lot of people with a lot of tears coming. Her friends, mostly her age, surround her and try to comfort her, but they don’t know what they are doing, either. There was a bit of nervous laughter. There were a lot of hugs. There were tears enough to go around.

You see, I knew that I was witnessing another miracle, but they don’t know it yet. The miracle I was witnessing is the power of community. There is plenty of pain and grief. It is so intense that some of them feel like they’re losing control. But they don’t have to face it alone. They have each other. And they are practiced at providing care.

The officers and others who work at Western South Dakota Juvenile Services Center work with some of the most troubled and challenging young people in the entire nation. WSDSD is one of only three fully certified detention centers that can receive juveniles from the federal court system. Some of those kids experienced intense trauma early in their lives. Some have been abused and neglected. All of them have seen and experienced more than the human body can take. The corrections officers and teachers who work with those youth day in and day out are special people. It is an honor and a privilege to serve as their chaplain. They are good people. And they are learning how to be good to each other.

Of course they responded with a flurry of online activity. There was a “Go Fund Me” page and Facebook posts inviting people to a fund raising event. The chaplains sponsored a pizza luncheon at the Public Safety Building to solicit donations and raise money for the family. I struggle to keep up with all of the online activity, but it is second nature to the people the age of the parents. I can identify them by the bulge in their pockets. They never go anywhere without their cell phones.

As the years go by, they will have more experiences with grief and loss. I have been lucky in that department. I have seen grief on a regular basis. I don’t fully understand everything, but I am less surprised by my own reactions and the reactions of others.

In the book of the prophet Isaiah, there is a section referred to as the songs of the suffering servant. Many Christians believe that they are predictions of Jesus of Nazareth that came long before he was born. “He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity;

I’m not the person about whom the writer is referring, but I do feel that after more than 40 years of serving as a pastor, I have begun to think of myself as one who is acquainted with infirmity. I myself haven’t suffered any more than others, but I have been asked to be present with those who are suffering injury and sometimes I am in the right place to just get away from its activities. Sometimes I am surprised, but I have learned to trust the gift of grief.

These young people can’t see it as a gift yet, but I pray that one day they’ll look back and see it for what it is - a genuine and heartfelt offering from God who helps us through life’s darkest hours.

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 good day

As I was driving him after a very long day yesterday a thought came to me. The best part of my day yesterday was going for a walk with my wife and holding her hand. It reminded me of the days in the fall when she was in the ICU and I sat at her bedside and held her hand. What I thought then came to me yesterday. We’re in this together for whatever comes. It was a kind of silent renewal of our wedding vows. And it felt right at the time. It felt even better yesterday. Since she has been feeling up to it we try to walk together every day. We also go on separate walks, but walking together is a priority in our lives. Many days, like yesterday, we are able to take a lunch break, walk from the church to someplace to grab a sandwich and then walk a bit more before we get back to the church. We can walk a couple of miles, have a quick sit-down lunch and be back in the office in about an hour.

It was the best part of my day, but it wasn’t the only good part.

At the church family night, I went through the line last and when I had my plate filled, I looked around the room to choose a place to sit. Normally, I sit with parents and talk, but I was in the mood to be with the children. I chose a table with three young girls, their mothers sitting at the next table. I asked the youngest if I could sit at their table. She replied, “This is the kids’ table.” I asked, “If I act like a kid can I sit here?” “Ok,” she said. When I sat down, she asked me if I had “hot pickles.” I said I had regular pickles. “OK.” All three girls seemed to be enjoying the menu more than I. We had hot dogs, macaroni and cheese and vegetables with ranch dressing. I liked the baby carrots and snap peas. I don’t mind a hot dog, but wasn’t quite in that mood last night. I looked over and saw that two of the girls were really enjoying the macaroni and cheese. The youngest one, next to me, was eating her hot dog which she had pulled out of the bun. “Do you like macaroni and cheese?” I asked. “It’s too hot,” she said. I was thinking of the question about the pickles, so I responded, “It’s not spicy,” taking a bite of mine. “Not that kind of hot!” she declared. I finally got it. “I think it has cooled while you’ve been sitting here.” She took a tiny bite and declared that it was OK.

That was a good part of my day, but not the only one.

I got to the church early, around 6:30 am. The building is quiet at that time of the morning and I can often get a lot of work done. I sat at my desk and got all of the worship notes into the computer, a task often reserved for the end of the day on Wednesdays. Then I made up the worship bulletin for Friday’s communion service at an area care center. That is usually a Thursday task. I looked at my watch. It was getting close to 7:30, but I misread my watch. It has an old-fashioned display with a big hand and a little hand. It only has lines where the numbers are. At my glance, I thought it was 8:30, which was near the time I had to leave for a meeting. I pulled out my phone to check for messages and discovered that I had mis-read my watch. The phone has a digital display with actual numbers. I had a whole extra hour and I had accomplished a couple of hours work in a single hour. I was “clicking!” I sat back at my desk and got most of a report written before I had to leave for my meeting.

It was a good part of the day, but not the only one.

I was frustrated when I headed up to the choir loft for practice a little before 7 pm. I had been wrestling with a computer problem for most of the day. I sat visiting with the other choir members waiting for the practice to start and my phone vibrated. It was the computer tech support person. I had to leave the loft and go to my computer. Later, after I missed the start of the rehearsal, I sat next to a young man who I’ve known for almost all of his life. His father was sitting next to him on the other side. The young man wasn’t enjoying the music we were singing or the rehearsal very much. Since I know him pretty well, I started to whisper puns and jokes to him between songs or when the choir took a break. I’d lean in to him and make a silly comment when we had a few measures’ rest. He started laughing and giggling. Then we tried to suppress our laughter so as not to distract the others. Pretty soon we were both enjoying the rehearsal.

It was a good part of my day, but not the only one.

I was sitting in the outer office going over long report forms that we have to complete every year for the yearbook of the church’s national setting. None of us like all of the questions and numbers we have to provide, so we tend to put off completing the job. It takes most of the office to get the various answers we need. A church member walked in and showed us a gift he had made for some musicians who will be playing Irish music at our church in a little over a week. It was beautiful. I commented that we needed some kind of gift for our janitor who will soon be leaving the job, but not the congregation. At first he kind of frowned and said he couldn’t think of anything. A few minutes later he said, “Let me look at home. I might find something.” I know that he will bring a very nice gift that we can give the janitor. He can be a bit grouchy, but he is a real gem. I’m so glad he belongs to our church.

It was a good part of the day, but not the only one. There were lots of others.

The day was long and tiring and there were more than the usual count of frustrations. But it was a good day.

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!

Toilet paper

Our church holds its annual meeting at the end of January, which means that newly-elected officers start their terms in February. February and March are filled with meetings where people are learning about their new roles in the church. Most of the orientation for folks new to their jobs comes from those who have been doing he job before them. Our Departments are structured so that about one third of each group changes each year with the other two thirds continuing terms. The transition usually feels pretty gradual. But there re some learning curves. Sometime within the last month I was in the storage room of the church with one of the people who will be responsible for stocking the janitorial supplies. He noted that there were two kinds of toilet paper on the shelves and commented, “I was told that the preschoolers need special paper that is softer than the rest of us use.” I’ve been in this church for 25 years and have been through two major bathroom remodeling projects. Only two of the bathrooms in the church are in their original configuration from before I was pastor. I had a completely different explanation for why there were two types of paper.

Here is the story as I remember it. We had switched vendors for paper products and the new vendor was pushing larger, coreless rolls that didn’t have to be replaced as often. As an incentive they were giving new dispensers to the church and even installing them without charge. The day the representative of the paper company came to install the new dispensers, the preschool was filled with children and so all of the other dispensers were replaced, but he bathroom in the preschool area was not addressed. A new dispenser was left and I assured the representative that we could install a single dispenser. When I asked a volunteer to replace the dispenser, he did not understand why I was asking him to do so, but being an eager church volunteer, he proceeded to take a look at the situation. Since the existing dispenser was inset into the tile wall and the new one was designed to be surface mounted, he thought, “This new one isn’t right for this room.” He went out and bought another dispenser that fit the hole in the wall, complete with a core that is too big for the new rolls of paper.

A toilet paper dispenser doesn’t inspire much passion in me, so I thanked the volunteer for the work and we’ve continued to stock paper with a larger core for that bathroom ever since. Not being a trained judge of toilet paper, I have no idea whether one type is better or softer or somehow different from the other.

I told my story to the volunteer and a week later I noticed that the room was fully stocked with appropriate paper products. We also have an unheated shed in our parking lot that has several cases of paper from which the closet can be restocked. Looking around at the supplies, it is an impressive amount of toilet paper. I know that a public building with lots of visitors goes through a lot of toilet paper and I also know that the experience of generations of volunteers means that we are sometimes a bit overstocked. It is better to have some on hand than to run short. After all we get all of our crowds on Sundays when there are fewer stores open.

Somehow I was thinking about our supplies at the church yesterday when the conversation turned to the shortage of toilet paper on the shelves in some area stores. Apparently part of the coronavirus scare is that people are afraid of running out of certain household supplies, so they are stocking up, creating temporary distribution shortages. The United States is not short of toilet paper, the increased supplies are just sitting in warehouses as stores ramp up to meet the new larger demand.

Being curious, I took a quick look at the Internet and, sure enough, toilet paper shortages are real and they are pretty much spread around the world with a few exceptions. In Sydney, Australia police were called to a dispute with a knife-wielding customer arguing with other customers in the midst of panic buying. Some stores are placing limits on the number of packages a customer can buy. There are pictures of people with shopping carts filled with dozens and dozens of rolls standing in line at checkout counters. A story tells of armed robbers stealing pallets of toilet paper in Hong Kong.

So I need to report to all concerned that we aren’t experiencing any shortages at the church. There are several cases of products on hand. We appear to be fully stocked. The same thing appears to be the case at our home, as well. In the fall, Susan was hospitalized for a while and my sister and her sisters and our son all came to stay with us and support us. They all were looking for jobs to do and ways to support us and I think that they all went shopping and that each one of them thought, “I’ll pick up some toilet paper so they don’t run out.” Then they all went back to their own homes and there are now just two of us in this house with three bathrooms and copious supplies.

If the shortage grows deeper, we can support our neighbors, though I’m not sure how word gets out who has supplies and who is suffering shortages. It hasn’t become a major topic of conversation in my circles yet.

So far there have been no confirmed cases of coronavirus in the Dakotas. Our neighbor to the south, Nebraska has a closet of cases, which so far are all at the opposite end of the state. There is a map on the New York times website just below another map showing the delegate counts from Super Tuesday. Both maps have about the same number of states colored in. In both South Dakota is not colored in. No there is no apparent connection between coronavirus and early primary dates. But we know that it is only a matter of time. It is likely that our state will be affected. When it comes to South Dakota it probably will be a bigger surprise than the count of convention delegates.

At any rate if it appears, we appear to be stocked up on toilet paper. Maybe if shortages get severe we’ll see an increase in attendance so folks can get access to tissue.

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!

Who we are and where we came from

In a conversation with someone I do not know well, a reference was made to Montana. Having grown up in Montana, my attention was struck and I asked a few questions. Before long, I realized that the person with whom I was speaking was born and raised about 30 miles from the place where I grew up. Suddenly we had a lot that we could talk about. It is a common question that comes in many forms, but when we become interested in other people, we often end up with some form of “Who are you and where did you come from?”

When I tell people that I am a pastor, a question that often comes is, “How long have you been doing that?” There are several different ways that I can answer that question. I have been serving 1st Congregational United Church of Christ in Rapid City, South Dakota for nearly 25 years. I have been an ordained minister serving full time as a pastor since 1978. I was called as a supply preacher in 1973 and served internships in a church during my seminary experience. But in a sense, I’ve been doing church much longer than that. Members of my confirmation campaigned for and received positions in the church when we were 14 years old. I served a term as deacon of our congregation at that age. I was baptized as an infant. I went to church camp for the first time when I was less than two months old. My parents were members of and regular worshipers at church before I came onto the scene.

I have a friend and colleague whose father was serving our church when I was born and my mother was doing some part time nursing in our local hospital when she was born. When asked how long we’ve know each other, I sometimes respond, “since before we were born.”

There are a lot of ways to tell our stories. I’ve lived in South Dakota for nearly 25 years. Before that I lived in Idaho for 10 years. Prior to that I lived in North Dakota for 7, Chicago for 4 and Montana for 21 years. To be specific, I lived in my home town for 17 years and my college town for 4. For a very long time, when people asked me where I was from, I answered “Montana.” That doesn’t tell my whole story.

I was the second child born to my family of origin, but the fourth to become a part of that family because my parents adopted before they had children born to them. I’m the middle child of seven, but my mother delivered only three babies. My folks kept adopting after they had the last child born to them. I am the middle kid, but the oldest son. That doesn’t tell my whole story.

As a result, it should come as no surprise to us that our people have had many different answers to the question, “Who are you and where did you come from?” Perhaps the most ancient answer to that question that we know is a story that goes, “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.” (Deuteronomy 26:5b-9) Apparently we told that story so many times that it became a kind of liturgy that was said when gifts and tithes were made at the temple. It is a great story, but it doesn’t tell the whole story of who we are and where we came from.

In 589 BC, Nebuchadnezzar II laid siege to Jerusalem. The conflict ended with the destruction of the city and its temple in the summer of 587 or 586. Some of the survivors were hauled off in exile to Babylon. It was there, at a dark time in our history that they encountered the stories of others who were quite different from us. Those people told fantastic stories of multiple gods. They even had a long poem about human mortality and the eternity of gods. At that point in our story, our people had become staunchly monotheistic. They didn’t like the fact that their children were being taught a poem with multiple gods. Somewhere around the time, our people began to tell a different story about who we are and where we came from. In this story the origins of the universe are addressed, as had bene the case with the stories of our captors. We started to tell our story that began, “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.”

Meanwhile, some of our people continued to live in Jerusalem under the government of the conquerers. They tried to maintain their way of life, language and religion, but they too sensed pressures on their culture. Their children were being taught strange stories by those in power. They were being exposed to ideas with which their parents disagreed. A story arose among our people that began, “These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created. In the day that the Lord] God made the earth and the heavens, when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up—for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground; but a stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground— then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.”

When some of the exiles returned the two stories were put together, but they don’t read as a single story. Those two stories eventually got placed together at the beginning of a book that is simply known as ‘beginnings,” or Genesis. It tells part of our story. But it doesn’t tell all of it.

Over the years, we have found a lot of different ways of answering the question about who we are and where we have come from. None of our answers are complete. There is always more to the story. Those who cling to a single line from one of our stories or claim to understand everything because they have read part of the story still have much to learn. In that we can be drawn together because we all have much to learn.

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

Working with emotions

A lot of my life involves responding to he emotions of other people. Today I will invest a few hours working at a fund-raising event for a family who experienced the tragedy of the death of their one-year-old son. Obviously the family’s grief is intense and their emotions are running high. My participation, however, is at a different level. The emotions of the community are also running high. The tragedy affects us all. Parents and grandparents of small children have been reminded of how vulnerable these little ones are. It causes us pain to see our friends go through such intense loss and grief. But I also see the positive power of emotions, when compassion moves people to action. Volunteers emerge. People give sacrificially. It is genuinely heart warming to see the power of community rushing in to provide support. There are plenty of positive emotions in the event.

Later today I will meet with a somewhat disgruntled former employee of a small nonprofit in our community. For some reason, the past few weeks have brought a series of similar meetings. I do some human rights consulting with another nonprofit and so have had at least four such meetings in the past two weeks. People want to feel appreciated and they want to receive recognition for the work they have done and the contributions they have made to an organization. The motivation for those who work for nonprofits is generally very altruistic. They aren’t involved for personal financial gain or glory, but rather because they believe in a cause. They want to contribute to a mission. When something goes wrong, or when the time comes for their employment to change or end, they need to hear that their contributions have been meaningful and that their gifts have been recognized. Corporations, big and small, aren’t always good at expressing that kind of appreciation. Feelings get hurt. People become angry. Add to that the elements of uncertainty and fear that come with unemployment and they can be particularly volatile.

I like to think that I have some ability at diffusing emotional situations and de-escalating when anger is present. Doing so requires a strange mix of rational decision-making and emotional compassion. Anger is rarely a stand-alone emotion. People who are angry are often afraid. They often are in pain. Encountering anger with force or a need to win rarely results in less anger.

I’ve witnessed religious leaders who engage in emotional manipulation, playing a crowd and using the power of the emotion to elicit responses. Music and lighting and other effects can be used to stir up a crowd and there has been plenty of that done in the name of religion over the years. Emotions out of control can result in all kinds of terrible results for society. Lynch mobs and market bibles are made of out of control emotions, and there are those who will take advantage of such hyper emotional situations. I hope and pray that I do not fall into emotional manipulation.

Our emotions have positive effects, as is demonstrated by the community gathering to support a family in the midst of their grief. But emotions can also pose a danger, as I am aware when working with people who are angry and hurt. I sometimes think of emotions in terms of positive and negative, higher and lower. We have feelings that bring out the best in us and other feelings that bring out the worst. When working in emotional situations, I try to appeal to the best. Grief can spiral into depression, but it can also bring gratitude for a shared journey. One way to think about these different types of emotions is to think in terms of emotions that pull us out of ourselves and emotions that pull us deeper into ourselves. Self-transcendent emotions include feelings of empathy, gratitude and awe. They bring us out of ourselves. They encourage his to invest in mutual benefits. They enable us to manage complex cooperative situations. They enable us to delay our need for instant gratification and reward. Working for a better community will inspire a team of volunteers to conduct a fund-raising event not for their own personal profit, but to express compassion to a grieving family - to remind them that they are not alone. When we act out of these emotions, we often make decisions that bring forth futures and inspire hope.

When I work with those who are hurt and angry like the former employees, I need to remind myself that they, too, have experienced these “higher” emotions. They too have engaged in feelings that brought them out of themselves. They have a vision of the good of the community. Their vision may not match mine. We may not agree on details. But my denying their self-transcendent feelings does not lead to solutions. When I can sense the empathy of another, we are making progress towards a solution that is mutually satisfying. Empathy, however, can be fragile. It can fade when difference is encountered. People shut down and close themselves, especially when they feel threatened. Part of the process is creating a sense of safety that allows positive emotions to emerge and for empathy to extend beyond our immediate spheres. In the big picture, we are all involved in these small organizations because we care about others. Remembering that is an important part diffusing the situation.

Once in a while, I am aware of the power of awe and wonder in our relationships. I am awed by the power of community coming together. I am awed by the will to survive that enables people to go on even when faced with overwhelming circumstances. The resilience of the human spirit is indeed inspiring. In the rare moments when we experience awe together we can take steps that lead us away from anger and confrontation to seeking solutions.

Awe can come from thinking about the future. When we harness our emotions to invest in the future and recognize the possibility of contributing to making things better, we can become awed at the possibilities that lie head. Hope will emerge.

And that, my friends, is how I’m going to spend my day off today. I may even learn some things that help me do a better job at my work.

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!

Cronavirus fears

We began our career in the ministry 60 years after the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918. There wee still a few signs of that deadliest ever epidemic. People could remember when it was a big deal. There were stories of deaths. We heard about the local cemetery having trouble with burials in the coldest days of the winter when the frost line was deep enough to make digging graves a real challenge. It was a big deal. An estimated 500 million people worldwide got the illness, about one-third of the world’s population. An estimated 20 to 50 million people died, including 675,000 Americans.

As a point of reference, World War 1, which the United States entered in 1917, claimed the lives of 116,708 US military personnel. That confused things a bit because some of the soldiers who died during the war died of influenza.

The point is that at this point the coronavirus epidemic that is spreading around the world is a much smaller phenomenon. It is hard to know for sure, but according to the New York Times this morning there are 70 confirmed cases in the United States and one confirmed death from the virus, also known as Covid-19. The virus has been detected in 60 countries worldwide. The CDC is recommending that all non-essential travel be avoided to Italy, Iran,China and South Korea. They are also recommending that at-risk groups avoid travel to Japan, where there have been 900 cases.

We’re paying attention if for no other reason than we have a grandson in Japan, who lives in the Aomori Prefecture, where there have been no confirmed cases. We also have three more grandchildren in Washington State, where the first US fatality confirmed and where officials suspect that the virus was spreading infected for a while before they began to confirm cases.

The good news is that this particular virus has been most deadly with older people with compromised health. So far children have been able to regain health after contacting the virus at a higher rate than adults.

Should we be concerned? Yes. Should we panic? No.

As is the case with other respiratory viruses there are basic things that we can do to protect ourselves and others. Hand washing, maintaining reasonable personal distance, always covering the mouth and nose when sneezing or coughing and avoiding public places when feeling ill are all good advice for limiting the spread of the virus.

The financial markets took advantage of the fear of the virus to stage a much-needed correction last week. There were a lot of overpriced stocks on the market falling an unprecedented long record-setting high market. The correction occurred at a blinding speed, with stocks falling faster than in previous times. And since market prices have a lot to do with our retirement income at this point, we’ve been a bit nervous watching prices plunge. Still, that is what markets do. They go up and they go down. And a correction does not mean that we’re headed for recession.

As is the case with all illnesses, there is a relationship between disease and finances that goes beyond the effects on the global supply chain. Here in the US people avoid getting medical treatment because of the fear of high costs. I read one article that mentioned a man in Florida who had symptoms and an coronavirus test last month. He was handed a $3,270 bill from his insurance company for the test that was not covered by his insurance. If that is repeated in other places, people will definitely decline testing. Many Americans are reluctant to take sick days because they do not have paid sick leave. Workplace culture in the US encourages toughing it out when you feel ill. Given the fact that with Covid-19 people can be infected for up to two weeks before displaying symptoms, workplace spread could be significant once the number of cases rises above current levels.

In the midst of all of this, we are trying to minister to our people, which means addressing not only their immediate needs, but also their fears. And it seems that there are plenty of fears out there. One of the answers to fear is information. With plenty of rumors and less than reliable news floating around, it is important to use a rational approach and choose sources of information carefully. The present political climate hasn’t been supportive of such mature and critical thinking. Social media and other news sources tend to be less than accurate when it comes to news and information.

Comparing this particular virus with other viruses is not particularly helpful when it comes to calming people’s fears. About a billion people catch influenza every year with deaths ranging from about 290,000 to 650,000 depending on the year. The fact that we already have a highly contagious and deadly virus spreading around the world every year can help to put Covid-19 into perspective, but does little to calm fears. Pharmacies are reporting shortages of gloves and face masks in some parts of the country and a friend recently became alarmed when the face masks she ordered from Amazon were shipped directly from China. There is little risk of contacting the virus form new face masks, regardless of the source. On the other hand, we don’t need to go around wearing face masks, either, unless we are feeling ill or will be having close contact with those who are ill.

I’ve visited people suffering from clostridium difficile (d. diff.) in the hospital and know the routine for putting on gloves, gowns and masks to help with infection control. That illness is bacterial in nature and not a virus, but the protective gear is similar. Our hospital is well set up for those cases, but would be overwhelmed if there were hundreds of cases. It isn’t difficult to imagine a scenario where we would have inadequate numbers of isolation rooms.

So I will continue to read and learn as much as I can and to serve the people in our congregation as well as i am able. Things might seem to be getting worse for quite a while, but hope does not die. And we’re in the business of hope.

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!

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