Pentecost 2020

It is Pentecost - 50 days after Easter. It has been the strangest Easter that I can remember. Yesterday I had a brief conversation with my next door neighbor - from a safe distance - and he commented that it never felt like Easter at all this year. I’m not sure that I would go that far, because we have been reading all of the Easter texts and even though the church has not been gathering for face-to-face worship, I have been leading worship and planning worship and thinking about the meaning of Easter. But it definitely has been very strange - different than any previous Easter in my memory.

The conversations in our church are similar to conversations that are going on around the country. Our leaders are cautious, fearing that returning to in-person worship on a large scale might result in inadvertent spreading of the virus. Our people are eager to be together and some are ready to come back to church. There are advocates of a “soft” start in which we simply began to allow people to make their own choices while providing for distance inside the building. We’ve reconfigured the furniture in our fellowship hall and taped off pews in our sanctuary in anticipation of such an event. Still the Church Board is hesitant, not wanting to make a decision that would put people in danger.

The story of the first Pentecost, recorded in the book of Acts, gives no mention to physical distancing. One gets a mental picture of a crowded room. “When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.” The scene described is a bit chaotic, with so many people speaking in so many different languages. I understand the hyperbole that is used in this type of text. The claim that “there were devout Jews from ever nation under heaven living in Jerusalem.” Despite the list of languages that appears later in the text, there are plenty that are missing. There are no tribes from North America named, no Indonesian islanders, no Australian aboriginals. Still the scene was one with a lot of different people speaking a lot of different languages.

The amazing part of the story is that the were communicating. Those who spoke different languages were amazed to hear someone else speaking their native tongues.

I can’t help but notice the contrast between the scene described in the book of Acts with the scenes on the Internet from the last five nights in cities across the United States. We have a church member who is in Minneapolis who has been posting video on Facebook of what he is witnessing. What starts out as peaceful protest devolves into arson, damage and looting. People are shouting and screaming at one another, but there isn’t much communication going on in the videos. People are afraid and running and it feels like the normal boundaries of community and society are breaking down.

The horrible death of George Floyd while being arrested, with a police officer kneeling on his neck as three other officers stood by without offering assistance to the dying man has brought tensions to a boiling point, not just in Minneapolis, but in cities across our nation. The President has urged healing, but only after threatening more violence. Los Angeles, Denver, New York, Atlanta, Chicago, Indianapolis, Philadelphia, Miami, Portland, Louisville, San Francisco - not exactly “every nation under heaven” - but the list of cities erupting in violence is long and large.

It seems as if it is the opposite of Pentecost. Everyone is speaking and yelling and acting and no one is understanding. Lines of communication are breaking down and we are sliding into chaos and violence. And people are afraid: afraid of becoming victims; afraid that the violence will spread to other cities; afraid that nothing will change; afraid that racism is so deeply entrenched in our society that there no longer is a solution.

Centuries ago, our people were facing the political collapse of the Jewish monarchy. Leadership had failed to understand the threats to the nation from external forces and from internal corruption.Prophets warned, but change ddi not come in time. The result was defeat and exile and the destruction of Jerusalem. Isaiah said that even when the word of God was “sent against Jacob and it fell on Israel and all the people knew it” they responded with pride and arrogance. Adversaries arose against them and they were defeated. And in the midst of what may have been the most frightening and devastating time in the history of Israel the prophet, while issuing harsh words of condemnation, also give a vision of hope that has endured through all of the time since: “For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”

Christians have applied those words to Jesus of Nazareth, the one crucified and risen - the focus of our stories and seasons. We have spoken of a second coming and waiting seems to be one of the marks of the faith these days, not unlike the waiting for the messiah that characterizes prophetic literature.

Wouldn’t it be a good time for a prince of peace right now?

The sentence that immediately precedes this veery important vision seems to describe our cities today, “For all the boots of the trampling warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire.” That is the verse that came to my mind as I looked at pictures of burning police cars and a police station and a post office lit on fire. God’s judgment on arrogance and oppression described by Isaiah bears a striking resemblance to the scenes we see playing out on our computers and television screens.

Pentecost 2020 seems to be calling for voices of calm and peace and clarity. Despite the seeming chaos of everyone speaking a different language, the report of the first Pentecost includes those who hear and understand. In the mist of the scene of a mighty wind and divided tongues as of fire there is the report that there were people who were listening and understanding.

I dream that Pentecost might bring listening and understanding to our country.

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 time of endings

As retirement approaches, it makes sense that some of my ideas about my career are definitely “old school.” I remain convinced that ministers are not ordained to rule over people, but rather chosen from the midst of the people to serve. While preparing for ordination was a rigorous process in my case, I don’t think that the degrees I earned in any way separate me from the work of everyday Christians. I grew up in the church and received a call to the ministry. I followed the prescribed path of preparation that included a 4-year undergraduate degree and a 3-year masters degree, all earned while in residence. I completed internships and earned a professional doctorate. I was examined by a committee on ministry composed of representatives, both lay and clergy, from several different congregations.

I have never viewed my ordination as an honor that places me above the people I serve. I was, rather, called to pursue ministry full-time as a vocation while other Christians are called to pursue ministry part-time while earring their living from other sources. As such, I have believed that just as we ask the members of our congregation to volunteer, so too, I am called to volunteer. Alongside my professional career, I have tried to be an eager volunteer within the church, giving time and energy to church projects above and beyond what might be considered full-time work. In addition, I have been active in community organizations, supporting the communities in which we have served congregations. Over the past 25 years, I have served on the corporate boards of a dozen non-profit organizations that serve our community. I’ve participated in arts organizations, service organizations, and other groups. I’ve attended more fund-raising events than I can count. I’ve served as chaplain to service clubs and law enforcement. I’ve donated a portion of my income to those organizations and tried to be a servant not only to the congregation, but also to the community.

Although I intend to continue to serve the community after I retire, because our retirement involves a move to another state, it has made sense for me to end my term of service in a variety of community organizations. I set the end of May as the date to complete that service. The last few days have been a time of making my exit and saying my farewells to Black Hills Works, The Front Porch Coalition and the Pennington County Sheriff’s Office. I have a lot of friends in those places, some of whom I will not see again in this life. The organizations have been extremely gracious, offering me gifts and special recognition as I depart.

Of course new leadership will emerge in the places I depart. When I don’t answer the phone call, others will and life will go on. The agencies are remarkably resilient and their service will continue under the guidance of many capable volunteers.

Still, there has been a bit of sadness as this particular chapter of my life draws to its conclusion. I didn’t anticipate how much emotional energy it takes to say good bye to so many good people. And none of us could anticipate the impact of a pandemic on the process. There have been a few virtual hugs where actual hugs might have taken place. There have been a few fist- and elbow-bumps where we would have shaken hands. There have been a few video conferences where meetings would have taken place. I have been quite able to take all of that in stride.

I know I am growing older. The aches and pains I experience are different than what I knew when I was younger. My stamina isn’t as high as it once was. I have more trouble completing some tasks. But I also know that there is still plenty of service left in this old body. I intend to go straight to discovering new paths of service as soon as we have accomplished the move. It has been very reassuring to me to think of this as a kind of sabbatical. I’m taking a few months away from service to examine my life and set new directions. I’ve had sabbaticals before, but each of those has included the focus on return - to the same congregation - to the same areas of service. But we have moved in the past. I have said good bye to good people before. I have made new relationships with organizations and service groups.

I woke this morning with thoughts of a whole group of very good people with whom I’ve been privileged to serve over the years. My Sheriff’s Office duties have put me in the midst of quite a few young people just beginning their professional careers. My time at Black Hills Works has placed me next to people with different abilities and disabilities. The Front Porch Coalition has introduced me to some incredible people whom I met on the worst day of their lives. The congregation I serve is filled with people of all ages and walks of life. Those people have provided me with models of service. Some of them have been models of what retirement might be like. I’m going to miss the level of contact I now enjoy with those people.

Monday is a new month - the last of this phase of our lives. In fact, because we are taking two weeks of vacation at the end of June, we’re really down to just two weeks. I haven’t counted the number of meetings, but it isn’t very many. Things are winding down at the same time that the work load of cleaning and sorting and moving is winding up. My office is complete chaos of packing boxes, but the file cabinets are empty and the books shelves are nearly so. My desk will probably be the last to be cleared out.

This journal will probably be focused on the process of saying good bye and preparing for a move for a few weeks. I know my emotions will be close to the surface for a while. I’m fortunate to have writing as a way of expressing myself. I’m even fortunate to have a few folks who read what I write.

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!

Learning on the job

The year I turned 14, my uncle had purchased a Massy-Ferguson Super 92 combine that had been tipped over while unloading from a custom cutters truck. The combine was quite rebuildable, requiring a few new parts and some body work. There had been no header on the combine at the time of the accident, so that much was undamaged. My cousin was a good auto body repairman and he undertook the job of making the repairs to the combine. When I arrived, a couple of months ahead of the start of harvest, eager for a summer job, they put me to work sanding the combine, to prepare it for paint.

A combine is a big machine to sand! I worked day after day after day, filling my hair and my clothes with red sander dust, and occasionally with silver-gray primer dust. I don’t know how long it took to finish the job, but I suspect it was a couple of weeks of sanding day after day after day. When the combine was ready to be painted I was more than ready to head to the field to pull a duck foot for summer fallow with a John Deere R. Put, put, put, around and around the field. When I finished my cousin’s field, I switched to my uncle’s somewhat newer, but still well-used Alice-Chalmers tractor. I was so relieved to not be sanding a combine that I didn’t worry about the fact that neither tractor had a full cab, only sun shades and air conditioning on field tractors was not a part of the ranching operation. Air conditioning anything was not a part of the ranch in those days. When you work out doors all day long, a bit of shade and a jug of cool water is enough.

Then, one day, I noticed that one of the big rear tires on the tractor was getting low. I stopped the tractor and checked the valve stem, which at the time was near the bottom of the rotation of the tire. When i jiggled the valve stem, it came off in my hands and I was thoroughly hosed down with a steady stream of calcium chloride. The water in the tires added weight. The calcium chloride kept the water from freezing. The shower made me itchy. It was a little over two miles to walk to the house. By the time I got there, I was pretty disgusted. I was fairly disgusting myself as well. After a shower, I took the rest of the day off. Days off weren’t a part of ranch life then, either, except for Sundays.

I love to tell those stories. I’ve told our children and our grandchildren and almost anyone else who will listen. Neither sanding a combine nor getting a shower of calcium chloride are experiences I want to repeat. But I can’t say now, after all of these years, that I would wish I had never had those experiences. I grew up a lot that summer. I learned a lot. Part of what I learned was the importance of hanging in there and working even when things get pretty miserable. I can endure a lot more than I sometimes think.

I was thinking about that summer yesterday. We have an eager young man whose summer job involves doing janitorial and yard work at the church. He is an excellent worker and we are lucky to have someone who is willing to work at a wide variety of different tasks. And, so far, he has been willing to do what we have asked of him.

Yesterday he spent most of the day scrubbing, rinsing, waxing and polishing the floor in our sanctuary. It is a big room and we have pews and pulpit furniture and a lot of other objects that either need to be moved or worked around. The polish is stinky. The buffer is heavy. The wax applicator has a short handle. You have to bend over to reach under the pews. There are a lot of parts of the job that aren’t much fun at all.

Actually, I know that routine as well. The next year, after I returned from the ranch, I took the job of keeping the floors in a drug store clean. Every Sunday afternoon the routine was the same. Dry sweep the entire store. Mix wax stripper with water and wet mop the floor. By the time I got to the far end of the stop, the stripper would have done its job. Wet mop the entire store. Repeat, chasing the water often to make sure you got up all of the dirt and old wax. Apply the new wax, let it sit for a half hour. Run the buffer over the entire floor until it sparkles. it will be the same routine the next week.

I no longer have a job like that. There is very little repetition in my work. Most of the time I don’t feel the need to rush to the shower before I can sit down for dinner. I love the work I have done and perhaps some of the drive to complete my education and get the kind of job I have came from not wanting to spend the rest of my life sanding combines. But I wouldn’t trade those experiences for anything. Nor would I trade the summer a few years later when I rode around on the back of a garbage truck dumping cans into the compactor. It takes less time than you might think to get over the smell and just do the job.

Our janitor is a good worker and I’ve already found some jobs that he enjoys doing, so there will be some rewards for him after the floors are polished. But this is a big church and there are a lot of floors to polish. When we get done with that there are carpets to shampoo. Maybe we will even mix it up a bit.

I hope that when he looks back years from now, he will have a similar fondness for the work of his summer job and feel that it helped him become the person he wanted to become. In the meantime, he’s getting good at scrubbing floors.

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!

Eulogy for 100,000

I wake this morning to the same reality with which I went to bed last night. I want to find words of comfort for a hurting world. I am, after all, an eulogist. Part of my job is to speak comfort and peace in the face of pain and grief and loss. But I am at a loss for words.

The poem, “What They Did Yesterday Afternoon,” by Warsan shire rolls in the back of my mind:

“later that night
i held an atlas in my lap
ran my fingers across the whole world
and whispered
where does it hurt?
it answered
everywhere
everywhere
everywhere.”


For the moment, however, the whole world seems too big to contemplate. I stare at the graphic on the Washington Post web site:

New York City area: more than 35,000 deaths
Chicago area: more than 4,600 deaths
Boston area: more than 4600 deaths
Detroit area: more than 4100 deaths
Washington D.C. area: more than 2,300
Los Angeles area: more than 2,200 deaths
Denver area: more than 900 deaths
New Orleans area: more than 1200 deaths
Seattle area more: than 750 deaths

I read the headlines in our local newspaper:

“RapidRid suspends operations for two weeks after third driver contracts COVID-19”
“Monument Health projects West River COVID-19 cases will nearly triple in the next two weeks.”

I run my fingers across the keyboard of my computer:

50 dead in South Dakota
102,000 dead in the United States
356,000 dead worldwide

“where does it hurt?
everywhere
everywhere
everywhere.”


How do we even begin to fathom the depth of grief that has come across our world? In just there months our nation has lost more lives than the number of US servicemen and women killed in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan - 44 years of fighting. 102,000 family systems thrown into grief and mourning over lives cut short by a virus that most of us had not even heard of when this year began.

And that is not all of the grief.

A million and a half Americans have been infected.
More than 36 million have filed initial unemployment claims. Millions more are unemployed at least temporarily.

How does one respond to such grief?

“where does it hurt?
everywhere
everywhere
everywhere.”


When I was in grade school we were taught Walt Whitman’s elegy in honor of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Three verses, each ending with the same words, “Fallen cold and dead.” When I was an elementary school student, just reading those words out loud made me shiver. They seemed out of place in our classroom. There were giggles at the exaggeration and over dramatic reading:

My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still,
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will,
The ship is anchor’d safe and sound, its voyage closed and done,
From fearful trip the victor ship comes in with object won;
                         Exult O shores, and ring O bells!
                            But I with mournful tread,
                               Walk the deck my Captain lies,
                                  Fallen cold and dead.

I now know, however, that Whitman found words to express the grief of a nation as it inched slowly toward recovery.

Who will speak the words to express the grief of our nation, of our world?

There is no eulogy for statistics. The numbers simply overwhelm. It is in the stories of the individuals that we find clues that point toward healing.

The father who was whisked away from his family in an ambulance to a hospital where they could not visit him in his dying hours. The janitor who fell ill at work and never came home. The nurse suddenly become patient for whom the ventilator came too late. The grandmother whose nursing home banned visits in an attempt to slow the spread of the virus. The list goes on and on.

“where does it hurt?
everywhere
everywhere
everywhere
.”

As a pastor, I know that we need to speak of grief. I know that it is not healthy to pretend that it does not hurt. I know that grief denied is only grief delayed. I also know that this is not the moment for gathering.

When the towers fell on 9/11, the numbers were much smaller, but we got together. We held special worship services. We prayed for those who had died and we prayed with those who were grieving.

These days we turn to social media to livestream a poor substitute for a real funeral and gather in small groups with masks and physical distance to say muffled prayers over the graves. We can’t even follow our rituals and traditions.There are no visitations. There are no funeral lunches. There is no one to wipe away the tears, not even someone to hand you a tissue. And the shelves in the store once packed with every size of box of tissues now stands bare. And the pews in the church are empty.

But we will not despair.

We are survivors.

Survivors do not forget. Survivors do not ignore the pain. Survivors endure. When they cannot make it day by day they go forward minute by minute, refusing to forget, refusing to “get over it,” refusing to be quiet.

As the news of this pandemic was just reaching us, before we had any understanding of how it would affect us, I stood at the front of the sanctuary with a small pot of ashes in my hand - the remains of last year’s palm branches, burned by our confirmands. I put my thumb into the ashes and touched the foreheads of the congregants one by one, making the sign of the cross. It was a reminder of our mortality. I’ve been doing that for years and years. I try to look the people I serve in the eyes and remind myself of how precious each individual is. I think of their stories as they come forward to receive the ashes. I notice the ones who were there last year and are gone this year.

When we ask, “where does it hurt?” and when the answer is “everywhere, everywhere, everywhere,” then it is time to pick up the shattered pieces of this life and form them into a cross.

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!

Preparing for the launch

I think that our house had the book, “You Will Go to the Moon” by Mae and Ira Freeman and illustrated by Robert Patterson, as soon as it was available in our town. I think it might have been part of a young readers book club to which our parents subscribed. At any rate, I can remember pouring over that book again and again. This was a decade before the first Apollo moon landing. As I remember it, the book was written for children the age of my younger brothers and I read it out loud to them several times. It was the illustrations that really got to me. There was a later edition published after the moon landing that had pictures that were more like the Apollo moon lander, but the version we had showed a remarkable amount of accuracy before the fact. In the book, the travelers ride in a 3-stage rocket to an orbiting space station where they board a lunar lander for the trip to the moon.

I thought that the book was a pretty good description of my future. I believed that there would be opportunities for regular citizens to visit the moon and perhaps other planets within my lifetime.

I got the timeline wrong. Even a trip to the edge of space is well beyond my mens and space tourism hasn’t started to take off yet. Today, however, I’ll be paying attention as two astronauts are launched toward the International Space Station aboard a SpaceX rocket. It will be the first launch of astronauts from US soil since the Space Shuttle was retired in 2011. Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken are experienced astronauts. Both have made two previous space flights. It is also the first launch of a private spacecraft carrying humans to the space station and marks the beginning of what may be the opening of space travel to more people.

SpaceX has already proven their mettle in the rocket business, successfully launching reusable rockets that return intact to landing sites instead of being destroyed by use as is the case with previous rocket designs. There have ben some spectacular failures of SpaceX equipment, but the system is now well tested. Probably the thing which has the biggest chance of changing the planned trip is the weather. There are some thunder storms closing in on Florida and they may be a factor for this afternoon’s scheduled launch.

The worldwide coronavirus pandemic has meant that extra precautions had to be taken to make sure that the virus didn’t hitch a ride into space. The astronauts have been quarantined longer than any previous space team. The stringent procedures are all part of the many details that are a part of this revolutionary mission.

There is plenty of human interest in he story. Of course there is the story of Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX. He has previously started the company that became PayPal and the electric car company Tesla. He makes no bones about the fact that he believes that human colonization of other planets is one of his goals. The sometimes controversial figure has garnered a lot of press over the years.

Then there is the fact that both of the astronauts are married to astronauts. Perhaps no previous space mission has had families who better understand the mission their partners are undertaking.

Everything is innovative about the launch. Even the space suits that the astronauts will wear are unique in their design. NASA by partnering with a private company is signaling the opening of a new chapter in space exploration.

The Falcon 9 rocket with the Crew Dragon spacecraft will lift off from Pad 39A, where the Apollo 11 started its journey back in 1969.

Thinking back I remember how important books were to me when I was a child growing up. I was fascinated by the US space program and followed it closely. The children’s book about travel to the moon soon gave way to adult literature. I have two copies of “We Seven” the story of the first US Astronauts on my bookshelf because I owned a copy before my father’s copy was passed down to me. Those books are in a short section of my library that is just to the left of my desk and starts with books about Lindbergh and continues through the books on space travel. I’m trying to sort my books and pass on many of them. Weeding out duplicates is a simple part of the process, but I keep hesitating when it comes to We Seven. I know it makes no sense to keep both copies and my father’s copy is the one to keep, still I’m not sure what will happen when it comes time to slip the books into boxes. There are a few extravagances in my life that are irrational. This might be one of them.

It makes me wish we had kept our copy of “You Will Go to the Moon.” I don’t know what became of that book.

Commercial aviation opened up flight to the general public and it seems quite possible that commercial space travel will one day open up space flight to more and more everyday people. Though it now seems that it is unlikely that I will ever travel into space, it seems quite possible that my grandchildren will one day make trips into space. I hope that part of their learning activities and home schooling today will include a look at the SpaceX launch. It may be a pivotal event in the story of human travel.

For now, the opportunity to lift our eyes to the sky and think about the future is a genuine gift in times when we have been so preoccupied with all of the concerns of the pandemic. We need a bit of a diversion. We need a good book to pour over.

Godspeed Bob and Doug. May your journey be safe. Thank you for making history. Thank you for helping us all stretch our imaginations and turn our eyes towards the sky.

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!

Leaarning new ways from Elders

Our sabbatical in 2006 included visits to other areas of the globe were people live in relative isolation from the outside world. We sought out communities that were similar in size to Rapid City, but with access to more remote places. We were especially interested in indigenous communities and sought out opportunities to visit them in British Columbia, Canada and in central Australia. Our sabbatical was all to short to establish a definitive study, but with the reading that we did during our travels, we gained a sense of those communities. We learned enough to be sure that we want to return.

With our retirement looming, we have once again been thinking of the people of British Columbia. Our proposed retirement community is near the coast about 90 miles from the Canadian border, making it possible for us to return to some of the coastal communities across the border. Those visits, however, won’t be occurring this year.

The Great Bar Rainforest is famous for its eco-tourism opportunities. Bella Bella is a remote community accessible only by water or air and hot to the Heiltsuk Nation. The Heiltsuk completed a new Big House and expanded the opportunities for non natives to visit and learn about their culture as well as use Bella Bella as a starting point for trips into the wilderness.

All of that is on hold now. US Citizens aren’t allowed to cross the Canadian border unless they are engaged in essential business. And the residents of Bella Bella are keeping their community locked up and isolated. They have every reason to worry about the threat of Covid-19. The Heiltsuk have lived in the region for 14,000 years. At the peak, there were as many as 20,000 people in their communities. Then in the 1780s contact was made with Europeans. And with that contact came diseases for which the Heiltsuk had no natural immunity. Smallpox and measles devastated the tribe. A century later in the 1880s the population had dwindled to around 200 survivors.

Then the 1918 flu came. Entire households passed away with no time or resources for proper burials. The cultural devastation matched that of other indigenous communities on the North American continent.

The threat of Covid-19 carries an especially devastating aspect because it is especially dangerous to older people. Elders are essential to the culture of the Heiltsuk. Their laws and traditions are all oral, passed down from generation to generation. Knowledge Keepers are a group of Elders who have learned the customs, traditions and protocols of the nation. The Heiltsuk have perhaps 30 Elders left who are fluent in their language. Protecting these Elders is essential to the survival of the language and culture.

The normally tourist-friendly communities of British Columbia are protected by checkpoints. Guardian Watchmen, whose usual job is that of cultural ambassadors to tourists now need to track and intercept any boat that enters their waters. Appointed to protect the land and the fragile ecosystem they have a new role win protecting the health of the people.

The Great Bear Rainforest is an amazing place to visit. Home to wildlife including whales, coastal wolves, black bears, grizzly bears and the spirit bear, there is a lot to see and much can be seen from small boats in somewhat protected coastal waters. Visiting this area in normal times requires that visitors learn how to stay away from sacred sites and follow regulations to protect the wildlife and the rainforest itself. Now is the time for visitors to simply stay away to allow nature to care for the animals and the people of the land.

Throughout the history of human occupation of the world, there have been circumstances when plagues and pandemics have spread widely while missing a few pockets of isolated people. Despite the loss of tourist dollars that have supported some of these communities, this may be a time for them to return to isolation in order to survive.

The coastal tribes, being more remote than the indigenous communities of the South Dakota Reservations, have a better opportunity to remain isolated. While there have been efforts to limit travel to and from Reservation lands, there are many roads, including state and federal highways, that criss cross the territory and those who live on the Reservation need to travel off-reservation for essential services such as grocery shopping and health care. Folks on the plains simply don’t have the same options as those living in the rainforest at the edge of the ocean with no access by roads to their communities.

The time will come once again when it is reasonable to pay a visit to the remote places. I hope that we will be able to make some visits. But now is not that time. Patience has long been a virtue of the culture of Pacific Northwest tribes. Patience may be essential to their survival in these times of pandemic. Visiting them in their own places will require patience of would-be visitors as well.

There is much of watching and waiting going on all around the world. As the leaders of our church consider when and how to begin in-person worship it is clear that not every one agrees with the decisions of the Church Board. As we go forward there will be many more discussions and other decisions that will be questioned. We are exploring uncharted territory as a community. Like the Heiltsuk people, our community has many elders with increased vulnerability to the disease caused by the virus. Like them, we need to have ways of making decisions that respect and honor people of all ages and circumstances. There is no “one size fits all” solution to the circumstances in which we find ourselves.

We, too, will need to learn to practice patience as we wait to see what our next steps may be. And patience is not one of my best qualities. Th crisis contains an opportunity. But that opportunity may take time to reveal itself.

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!

Memorial Day 2020

I am old enough to have heard a few first hand stories from veterans of World War I. When I was a child the WWI veterans led the Memorial Day parade in our town. They set a pace that was somewhat slower than we usually marched and I remember being a bit frustrated with the slow pace of the parade. The old guys weren’t as sharp in their uniforms and didn’t march in quite as straight a line as the WWII vets.

One of the stories of the time that I’ve told over and over is of C.C. Ricketts, grandfather of my wife whose war stories had to do with driving an army ambulance in St. Louis, Missouri. He said that when he was drafted they asked him if he could drive. He said, “Yes,” and they made him an ambulance driver. He was newly wed and his bride was able to join him in St. Louis. They would take the ambulance out to see the sights, sometimes with another couple along for the ride. One story involved being chased by the St. Louis police. They sped toward the base hospital with the lights and siren going and the police had to give up the chase. I’ve read several books about the war. I know a bit of the suffering of the troops who served in Europe and stories of those who died of the flu on the transport ships trying to make it back home. Still, my sense of the war is that there were some good memories along with the bad. There was death and suffering and sadness, but there were also stories of courage and survival. Of course the ones whose stories I heard were the survivors. That is the way it is with war.

My father was a veteran of World War II. He was a pilot before he entered military service and served as a service pilot for the entire war. Mostly he was an instructor pilot teaching multi-engine skills in Beech AT-11 trainers, later transitioning to heavy bombers, always in the role of an instructor. After the war ended he transferred to a transport unit, where they flew planes from the ships arriving on the west coast to a boneyard in Arizona. It was during that duty that he was forced to bail out of a plane with a failed engine and earned his purple heart. His war stories were airplane stories and I love airplane stories.

Most of the stories I know about the Korean war come not from the war or from veterans, but from the television show M*A*S*H. I’m sure that there are times when fiction can be employed to reveal deeper truths, but I doubt that the antics of the television doctors tell very much of the story. Those days weren’t fun and games for those who lived through them.

My generation’s war was in Vietnam, not a popular war and one from which the stories weren’t treasured. I’ve spent enough time with veterans near my age diffusing the trauma they experienced to know that there is plenty of ugliness in war.

Memorial Day, at its best, is about remembering people, not about remembering the trauma. Memories are interesting things. As we go through life we are continually sifting and sorting our memories. Some of our memories are transformed in the telling of the stories. Some are less frequently remembered. We set aside one day of the year as a time to remember. We visit the cemetery and we tell the stories. There are memories that we have pledged to never forget. There are stories of sacrifice that deserve to be preserved and told again and again. There are heroes who have gone before whose lives we still honor.

A parade like the ones that used to mark Memorial Day in my home town would not be a good idea in these days of physical distancing, self isolation and quarantine. Traditions grow and change in the face of major events. With the death toll from coronavirus nearing 100,000 it is impossible to escape being changed by the circumstances of this spring. We like to talk about life returning to normal, but all survivors know that life does not return to normal. A new way of living emerges after the pain and grief.

In trauma, there are painful memories that can become a burden, but there are also memories that we want to retain. We have promised ourselves to never forget the lessons of this life. We have promised to never forget the heroes who have sacrificed. We have promised to remember. And, when our memories are properly resolved, they can become our friends. Memories of good time and happy events can bring us deep joy. Memories of good people can remind us that there is still goodness in this world.

On this Memorial Day, I am wondering what we will remember from this time in our lives. Will we remember the protests against distancing, those who refuse to wear face masks, and the arguments in social media? Or will we remember the doctors and nurses and clerks and officers and firefighters and truck drivers who continued to bravely serve in the face of threat and risk of illness?

If past times of national trauma are an example, we will remember the good and speak of the heroes. The stories of this time will be the ones our grandchildren tell. My three-year-old granddaughter already has the term Covid in her vocabulary. Her sister and brother will remember this as the year they cancelled school and new routines were developed at home. They will be the stewards of the stories of our time. And perhaps they will also remember some of the stories that we tell them of other times as well.

A day dedicated to memories will continue to be an annual holiday. And each year we add to the memories and the stories to tell. Happy Memorial Day. May your memories be rich in meaning.

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

Changing times

Last evening I invested a bit of time on the telephone and computer to assist a couple of family members in setting up their devices to participate in a family teleconference to be held this evening. The occasion is the 100th anniversary of the birth of my wife’s father. We are getting together sisters and cousins and nieces and nephews for a video chat. Most of the participants were able to gather at our home a decade ago for a 90th birthday celebration. A few had not yet been born. Two of the great granddaughters had birthdays yesterday. Ours is a relatively small clan, so putting together the video conference isn’t as big a chore as it is for same families.

I’m getting fairly accomplished at talking someone through the process of setting up their computer, tablet or smartphone to participate in video conferencing. Between our home and our office, we’ve set up PCs, Macs, phones and tablets for the job. Some desktop and a few older laptop computers aren’t equipped with web cameras and there is a shortage of webcams available these days. Most people have smartphones which are fairly easy to set up. Some people have never added a new application to their smart phone or tablet and don’t know their passwords for the application store. I’ve run into a lot of different issues when helping people to set up their computers. One of the common issues has to do with windows being layered over other windows on the display. The user thinks something has disappeared, when what has happened is that they have selected a different window to display on their screen.

I never imagined that I’d become a telephone technical support person, but it is part of what is required in this set of circumstances. One of the challenges is that the set up for video conferences is “old hat” to me. I’ve had days when I’ve had as many as 5 video conferences. Some days I only have one. Then I also do a live cast every day. I’m often setting up lights and cameras and checking sound levels. And when you do something over and over again, the basics become automatic and you forget how intimidating the process is for a first time participant.

Some of the basics are even older than the technologies we are using. Photographers know that you need to light the thing you want to see. If the light is behind the subject, the subject will be dark. People, however, like to sit with their back to a light source. If you sit in front of a large picture window with a sunset outside it might be a pretty picture, but your face won’t show up on the conference. It will look like you are sitting in the dark. I’m surprised by how many participants in video conferences struggle with the basics of lighting.

All in all, however, we are learning new skills and adapting to our situation. Our urge to remain connected gives us energy for overcoming technical challenges and gives me a bit more patience for the job of giving instructions to those who need a little help.

There have been a few cases where frustration has overwhelmed folks.. I’ve worked with people who have just given up and participated in meetings without the video portion. Try as I will to describe the process for allowing the sharing of the camera, my descriptions don’t make sense to them.

It has been a demonstration for me of how much we are eager to be with one another. The videoconferencing isn’t the same as being together, but it is better than no contact. Deep within us is a desire to get together with one another. If we can’t get together in person, we seek whatever other possibilities we can find.

One of the things that worries me is that we aren’t doing a very good job of helping one another with grief. The major events, such as the death of a loved one, are being forced into new forms. Deprived of funeral services and lunches and the other things we once did to support grieving people, livestream services are a poor substitute. And people are grieving more than just the deaths of those they love. People are grieving the loss of jobs and income. They are grieving the loss of contact with family members. They are grieving the loss of freedom to travel. So many losses have occurred in such a short amount of time that we are all grieving and in our grief are a bit less effective in providing support and love and care to others. Other times of big social change gave rise to new social conventions, and I suspect that one of the long term outcomes of this time will be a complete reexamination of how we deal with grief. Display of the deceased might not be as big a priority as once was the case. We may need to find different ways of expressing our grief. Whatever emerges, however, human contact will continue to be critical in working through grief.

I have a couple of friends who are psychotherapists and who have gone to videoconferencing for their counseling sessions. They are busier than ever and have been getting positive feedback from those they serve. Their services seem to be helping others. But it is a strain on the system. Video counseling takes a special kind of concentration. It is unclear how much of this kind of service will return to in person and how much will remain technology assisted, but long-distance counseling is probably here to stay.

One thing that I hope will change during this time is the convention of waiting rooms. We are learning that we don’t really need waiting rooms if scheduling is more reasonable. It is kind of nice to go straight from the parking lot to the exam room for a doctor’s appointment. Right now, they’ve moved the waiting to the parking lot, but they will learn to shorten those times with practice.

The world is changing and we need to change with it. Perhaps we can learn to change some things for the 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!

Luxury lifestyle

I am aware that we have some great luxuries in our lives. Last night, after a long day at work, I lit the barbecue. I still cook with charcoal because I enjoy the flavor. After the coals were warm, P put a couple of baking potatoes on the grill. 45 minutes later I added a couple of rib-eye buffalo steaks. We ate outside on our deck with the sun sinking low on the horizon and the shadows of the pine trees stretching out. The deer in the back yard decided to cross to the other side of the road and we watched them jump and run. They caused a couple of cars to slow a bit, but all made it across. We lingered for a few minutes after we had eaten, enjoying the evening and being together.

Mornings and evenings in the hills are especially wonderful. The animals are moving about. The air is cool. The smell of the pine trees is refreshing.

I know that there are people who live in cities who have bigger places than we did when we lived in Chicago, but I remember the feeling of living in a one bedroom efficiency apartment with no balcony and a few of a small area of grass with one tree that is maybe the size of our current home.

If one has to ride out a pandemic at home, we have a deep luxury of space. Our home sits on a half acre lot. I’ve been known to complain about the size of the lot because we don’t have a riding lawn mower, but it is an incredible luxury.

And one of the biggest luxuries of our lives is that we can go to sleep in our house with the ground floor windows open to the sounds of the coyotes and crickets and birds. We can sleep with no fear of burglars. In Chicago first floor windows had to have bars to prevent break in.

Last night I was on the phone with a representative of our Internet service provider. The Internet service to our home, which includes our “landline,” a voice over internet system, was not working. There is utility work in our back yard and it is likely the cable was disrupted with some of the work. The representative was polite and kind and lives in our state. With so many service providers employing international call centers, it ls nice to have some local service. The representative apologized for the disruption in service and promised to have a repair person out this morning. I’ve had a lot of calls for service that were way more frustrating than last night’s call.

What is more, we have a reliable cellular connection and can use our cell phones as mobile hot spots to remain connected. I’ll be able to upload this journal entry when I complete it even though the high speed Internet in our home is down.

We live a life of high luxury.

When one lives with such privilege, it is a challenge to discover how to share. I’m well aware that there are a lot of people in our community who do not have such a privilege. I walk along the greenbelt regularly. I walk by the Hope Center and the Rescue Mission. I know that there are situations in our town where people are living 8 or 12 people in houses that are a fraction of the size of ours. Many of those people don’t have access to cars. For them the ten mile commute from our house to our office would be an incredible challenge. We rarely use the same car, preferring to stagger our work hours and using two cars.

When sickness draws near, we have the resources to obtain treatment. In the case of the current pandemic, we have not even had to disrupt our workplace. The building is pretty quiet because others can’t come in the ways that we once took for granted, but we have had full access to our offices and workspace. There are a lot of people who don’t have the luxury.

I am also aware that much of the privilege I enjoy is unearned. I was born into a family where education was valued and supported. I was encouraged to travel and explore. I had choices when it came to career and though a bit more limited, choices about where I would live. We have sought to be faithful to our calling and go where the church asked us, but we have been able to have our careers in the general areas of the country we chose. While there are a lot of careers that might have resulted in more income and more savings for retirement, we have not suffered. Our needs have been met.

The years, however, have passed. I find myself a bit more tired after a day of work. I rise with a few aches in my joints. I climb the hills at a slower pace these days. I have more days when I work but accomplish less than I used to be able to accomplish. I’m getting ready to downsize to less grass to mow and less house for which to care. We’ve been thinking and talking a lot about the next phase of our lives. So we are savoring the luxury of the big deck and the big back yard and the cool of the evening and the taste of well seasoned food cooked over a fire just a little bit more these days. We know it is about time to allow another family to discover this home and enjoy its deck and yard. By the time we get it sold, the Internet service will be restored and it will be a great place for a family.

What is more, the next place we go will be a place of privilege and luxury as well. The very fact that we are able to make a move is a sign of our privilege. We’ve been very fortunate in this life.There is yet more joy to come.

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

Technology

Approaching the end of this phase of my career, I am surprised at how much of my time is being invested in technology. I imagined that this phase of my career would be dominated by face-to-face visits. I imagined I’d make a round of calls an meetings to express my farewells to the various organizations in which I’ve served over the past 25 years, have a few meals with friends, and generally be out and about amongst the people. Instead, I’m doing three or four video conferences each day, conducing a full digital audit of the church to make sure that there are no user names or passwords that aren’t documented for the next generation of leaders, trouble shooting glitches in the church’s Internet technology, and broadcasting daily prayer over Facebook. None of these tasks even remotely entered my mind when I began my career.

I am not a luddite. I have embraced technology where it makes sense for ministry. I was an early adopter of a personal digital assistant and I continue to use my smartphone for calendaring and address functions, with some of those addresses having been entered into that original palm pilot device. I’ve learned a lot about cloud-based technologies and database management over the years.

But I watched a video the other day that has me worried about technology taking over too much of the old ways. There is a technology company Rocos that is working with Boston Dynamics to develop robots for dangerous search and rescue operations. The basic idea is that the small robot, equipped with a lot of cameras, including ones that can “see” in dark places, can be used to search for human survivors in extreme situations such as earthquakes, fires and floods, where it might not be safe to risk the life of human searchers. It is a job that currently is done by a wide variety of specialized search animals. I was interested in the video because, as chaplain for Pennington County Search and Rescue I have been around searchers who work with dogs and have seen their value.

The video I watched was made in New Zealand, where a 2011 earthquake killed 15 people and injured thousands.I can understand why officials were eager to give the robot, which has received the nickname of “Spot” - through its paces and begin to assess its effectiveness and envision changes which might make the device more capable at its task.

The robot can right itself if it falls or is pushed over, even if it is completely inverted. It can maneuver over rough terrain and obstacles. I don’t know how it works, but I suppose it has some kind of stabilization similar to that used in flying drones and sensors that can determine direction and even which way is up and down.

So far so good. I’m in favor of using the best of our technology for search and rescue. I’m delighted that brilliant minds have collaborated to create a device that might help save lives without risking the lives of others. I can see the devise as a supplement to the already dedicated human searchers and the highly-trained and very capable dogs that are currently in use. I can imagine our Search and Rescue team embracing that technology as they have already embraced advanced all terrain vehicles and unmanned arial surveillance systems. When it comes to lifesaving technology, there are plenty of people who can see the value and justify the expense.

The red flags went up in my mind, however, when Spot the robot, as part of the New Zealand testing program, was turned out into a pasture along with the sheep dogs to see if it could herd sheep.

(Quick reminder aside: I grew up in sheep country. My high school mascot was the Sheepherder.)

Researchers had already noticed that there was a distinct difference between the way urban pet dogs and working farm dogs. In the urban setting the dogs reacted with fear towards the robot, barking and even attempting to bite it and knock it down. Out on the ranch, the robot was ignored by the sheep dogs. They reacted to it in a similar way they react to vehicles and other ranch technology. They stayed out of its way but mostly just didn’t pay attention. At any rate, the robot wasn’t intuitive and quick to react like the live sheep dogs. It could get a band of sheep to move, but wasn’t effective in moving the sheep to a desired location without the assistance of the working sheep dogs.

I breathed a sigh of relief when I saw that the robot dog couldn’t really herd sheep by itself. My twisted imagination can envision some future time when robot dogs herd robot sheep that produce genetically manufactured protein for humans to eat. They have already figured out how to make synthetic substitutes for wool. Maybe it is only a matter of time before technology renders sheep obsolete. That would be a dim future indeed.

I don’t know if they know it but there are some people in this world whose whole way of life is caring for farm and ranch animals.Take away those animals and there is little meaning or purpose in their lives. And ranchers are among the best people in the world. I don’t want to live in a world without ranchers. I don’t want to live in a world without sheep. I don’t want to live in a world without sheep dogs. Just to play it safe, I’m going to make sure that Cody, my sister’s Australian Shepherd never sees the video of the robot sheep dog. Cody is a bit challenged when it comes to herding sheep. He’s not the best sheep dog and I’m pretty sure that when they start the layoffs he’d be the first to get a pink slip. Our friend Rick thinks Cody aspires to be a cow dog, not a sheep dog. My sister has no interest in raising bum calves.

I think there are still some things that require living, breathing souls and that technological devices won’t replace all of us any time soon. At least I hope there will be sheep dogs around for as long as I’m around.

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!

Statement of Faith

Yesterday I taught a class on the United Church of Christ Statement of Faith to our confirmation class. As I was preparing for the class, I thought of a lot of stories that I know about statements of faith and creeds. I didn’t tell the confirmands all of my stories in part because it would have taken too much time, in part because I was more interested in what they believe than in telling my stories. So I thought a journal entry with some of the stories might be interesting for today.

The way many Christians are taught about the council of Nicea is that in 324 Constantine convened a council of all of the bishops of the church. 318 responded to his call and after Constantine made his entrance in a stunning purple robe adorned with priceless jewels and gold, he opened the conference by appealing for unity. He stressed that the council should come up with a single view of the basic tenets of Christian faith, especially the relationship of Jesus to God. The council came up with the Nicene Creed, which was later revised on a couple of minor points and stands to this day as a statement of faith used in liturgy throughout the church.

Well, that isn’t quite the way the council unfolded. As soon as the bishops were assembled they began to argue. Eusebius of Nocomedia was the first to speak and he began to expound what was called the Arian doctrine. Arius, author of the doctrine was not himself present, not yet having been ordained bishop. Alexander was the spokesperson for the orthodox view, which was held by the majority of the bishops. The argument continued back and forth until Eusebius of Caesarea introduced a draft of a creed into the assembly. It impressed the bishops and even more so Constantine. A few minor revisions were suggested. Constantine suggested that the creed be signed by all of the bishops. Two bishops, Thomas and Secundas, both of Libya, refused to sign. They were officially censured as was Arius. They were declared heretics and ordered to be hanged.

Another story says that Arius, although not a bishop was present at the council and allowed to speak. The more he spoke the more agitated Nicholas became. Finally, feeling that Arius was attacking the essence of the Christian faith, he became so outraged that he rose, crossed the room, and slapped Arius across the face! This shocked all of the bishops. Could a bishop be such a hothead that he would lose control in a solemn assembly? Nicholas was stripped of his bishop’s robes and thrown in jail. The way the story is reported by the Nicholas center is that he prayed for forgiveness in his jail cell and Jesus and Mary appeared to him in the night, asking “Why are you in jail?” “Because of my love for you!” came the reply. Jesus gave a copy of the Gospels of Nicholas. Mary give him the official garnet of a bishop. When the jailer came in the morning, he found the chains loose and lying on the floor and Nicholas dressed in bishops robes, quietly reading Scripture. He reported to Constantine who ordered Nicholas to be freed and reinstated as bishop.

It has been a long time and there have been many people who have told stories about the council. Our memories are incomplete at best.

But I do know part of the story of the creation of a more modern statement of faith. The Statement of Faith of the United Church of Christ. The United Church of Christ was formed in a General Synod on June 25, 1957. Its constitution was declared in force on July 4, 1961. The Statement of Faith for the new church was adopted by the Congregational Christian Church and the Evangelical and Reformed Church (the two uniting groups) meeting in 1959 in Oberlin, Ohio. The statement had been drafted by a committee of 30 - 15 from each denomination. They had worked long and hard and had gone over every word of the proposed statement over and over again. Reflecting the time in which it was drafted, the committee was all male and they used male pronouns to refer to God. More importantly, they came up with a shared statement. It was a statement of what the church believed, not an individual statement of faith. In that, it reflected the language of the nicene creed, which begins, “We believe” as opposed to the Apostles Creed which begins, “I believe.” That distinction was important to the committee. They were creating a statement of shared belief. They were envisioning a church that would be made up of people who would believe together. They believed that it is insufficient for an individual to be able to state individual faith. For the church to exist a community must be able to speak of shared faith.

Over the years the leadership of the church has changed. Having historically ordained women since 1853, the number of women clergy in the church increased greatly during the 1970’s. In 1976, Robert V. Moss, president of the United Church of Christ proposed an inclusive language version removing all references to masculinity of God. This statement was used unofficially by many different congregations. Then, in 1981 the Executive Council of the United Church of Christ approved a version of the statement of faith in the form of a doxology. This version, the one used on our congregation and the majority of other UCC congregations addresses God directly: “We believe in you, O God, Eternal Spirit, God of our Savior Jesus Christ and our God, and to your deeds we testify.”

Used as a testament of faith, but never a test of faith, the statement is employed in liturgy to give words to shared beliefs, but never in an attempt to weed out those who disagree. Members of the United Church of Christ speak boldly of the deeds of God without condemning those who use different language or express their faith in different ways.

The statement continues to grow with the denomination. It is worthy of careful teaching as we prepare confirmands to affirm their baptism and declare their faith.

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 random pandemic thoughts

I saw a bumper sticker the other day that said “Raider Forever.” It was a reference to the mascot of one of our city’s high schools. There is a similar phrase for the other high school: “Once a Cobbler, always a Cobbler.” I’m sure that there are people who retain their loyalty to their high school for all of their lives, but the sentiment somehow eludes me. Maybe it is because my high school mascot was the Sheepherders. Somehow “Sheepherder Forever” or “Once a Herder, always a Herder” doesn’t seem to do much for me. I’ve never raised sheep myself. I’ve never worked as a sheepherder. I do have friends, including high school classmates who went into the business and still, to this day, have herds of sheep, but somehow I’ve moved on. Or maybe I never was that loyal to my high school. After all, I didn’t graduate. I don’t know which class to which I belong.

What I remember about high school is that I was eager to get out of high school. I know not everyone has that same feeling.

I’ve been paying attention to things that are being done in our community to respond to the unusual nature of this year. Because of the pandemic high school proms and graduation ceremonies were cancelled. The high schools held virtual ceremonies, but I’m sure it wasn’t the same. There have been tributes on Facebook and some displays and posters around town. People are tying to show support and to offer congratulations for the accomplishments of the high school seniors. It has interested me that much of the attention has been raised by parents. I think it is appropriate for parents to support children and to offer congratulations to their offspring for passing this milestone, but it seems a bit as if what is going on is that the parents are missing the vicarious pleasure of their children’s events. In a couple of cases, it seems that the parents are more upset than the teens themselves.

When I was in high school, I couldn’t wait to leave my small town for the big city. Of course the big city where I went to college wasn’t big at all, but it was the biggest that Montana had. There were about 100,000 people in Billings at the time and there were a couple of places where you could find a bit of traffic if you went there at the right time. There certainly were more choices in stores and restaurants than was the case in my hometown. Then, after four years of college, we made the move to Chicago. Chicago really is a city. We learned about traffic and how to drive on freeways that are filled with cars. We learned to ride the trains and get from one place to another in a big city. We learned about shopping and about apartment living. We also learned to go to the lakeshore and look out at Lake Michigan to be reminded that the city has a border and beyond that are places that aren’t filled with people.

Throughout human history people have been attracted to cities. The increasing urbanization of all of society is evident when one studies the sociology of the globe. Cities are growing larger and larger while rural areas are becoming less populated despite increases in overall population. People congregate. Other than four years in Chicago, I’ve been drawn to less populated places. I enjoy the size of Rapid City: large enough to have diversity and services, small enough that there is no real rush hour.

It is too early to tell, but the coronavirus pandemic may force a re-thinking of cities. I’ve seen the pictures of San Francisco where they have painted squares in a public plaza to designate physically distanced areas for homeless persons to pitch their tents. If you are trying to slow the spread of a virus, one of the ways to affect it is to get people to spread out. People have long known that physical space is an aid to health. Before the full mode of transmission of tuberculosis was known, sanitariums were established in rural areas believing that the fresh air outside of cities was more conducive to healing. I suspect that developing ways for the economies of the world to be more decentralized and for there to be less congregation of people into large cities will be part of the response to this pandemic, but large cities will remain and people will continue to be drawn to them to live and work.

If the trend continues, the majority of the class of 2020 of the Rapid City high schools will move away from Rapid City and from the state of South Dakota. They will seek their livelihoods in many different places. Most of them will never again live in our state. Exporting youth is one of the contributions we make to the health and economy of our nation. I’m not sure, however, that it always has to be this way. I think that there are things that can be done to make South Dakota a more attractive place to develop a career. We’ll have to learn to value our workers better and discover ways to make wages more competitive, but that can be done. We have wide open spaces, beautiful scenery and great recreation to offer. So far, however, it doesn’t seem likely that either of our children, who graduated from Rapid City High Schools will ever live in South Dakota again. I’ve been exchanging texts with our daughter in Japan this morning and we’ve been discussing where they might live next. It doesn’t look like it will be this state.

So I don’t think our children are “Raiders Forever” any more than their father is a “Sheepherder Forever” or their mother a “Bronc Forever.” Perhaps the real challenge is not whether loyalty to high school remains, but what loyalties endure through adult life. A pandemic gives us the opportunity to sort our priorities and discover those things to which we can be true over the long haul.

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!

Unpredictable future

One of the services offered by the Pension Boards of the United Church of Christ is personalized financial advice. The Boards contract with a firm of professional financial advisors and those of us who have our retirement funds invested with the Boards can access a personal advisor over the telephone and consult on retirement plans and other issues. We have taken advantage of the service and have given our financial advisor the information on our pension savings and other investments, retirement goals, housing costs, and other items, which have been entered into a formula that the firm uses and gives projections on what to expect in retirement. Of course the formula makes all kinds of assumptions, such as how long we will live, what the inflation rate will be, what our needs might be, etc. In the end, the advice has value, but it isn’t a solid prediction. There are simply too many variables to control. As carefully as I try to consider the advice we are receiving, it does seem like a lot is left to luck and timing and a whole lot of guessing.

One of the people who has gained a lot of attention for giving financial advice is the author and podcast host Suze Orman. From 2002 to 2015 the Suze Orman Show ran on CNBC television. She has an extensive background in finance, having worked for Merrill Lynch and serving as vice president of investments at Prudential Bache Securities before founding her own Suze Orman Financial Group. She is author of ten books on the topic of financial planning. She also happens to be about the same age as I. So I found it interesting that there is an article in the Style section of the New York Times proclaiming that Suze Orman has gone back to work after retiring. Basically the article says that the unique financial situation posed by the coronavirus pandemic inspired her to feel that people need additional financial advice on how to weather the storm.

I probably have a unique and rare sense of humor, but it strikes me as funny that someone who has invested most of her life advising people how to plan for retirement was so quick to abandon her own retirement plans.

It is also reassuring to me.

I’ve been reluctant to think or speak of retirement. I know that retirement is upon me. I’m one month away from the end of my ministry in this congregation. I’m in process with the Pension Boards to begin drawing down the funds that have been invested for my retirement. I’m on my way to officially becoming a senior citizen. But I also have, in the back of my mind, a sense that I still have something to contribute. I could serve the church in some ways going forward. I might have a bit of a job. At least right now the prospect of being retired has its attractions and its fears combined. So knowing that someone who is considered to be the best financial planner for retirement has changed her plans shortly after retiring seems reassuring to me.

It enables me to not take the sessions with our financial planner too seriously. I am grateful for the service provided by the Pension Boards, but it isn’t the whole picture of the rest of my life. I’m glad there are some unknowns.

Facing uncertainty isn’t reserved for those who are my age and thinking about retirement. I have a friend who is fairly new in his professional career. He is highly educated and so far has been successful, but he is unemployed and seeking a new job at a time when companies that are hiring are slowing the process and many aren’t even offering face-to-face interviews. He’s nervous about what comes next and worried about how he is going to support his family. He makes jokes about becoming homeless, which isn’t an imminent threat, but we both know the jokes express his fear of an uncertain future.

There are plenty of college graduates who ae living through the end of their academic careers in very uncertain times. Not only did many have to leave their campuses before the end of the term and figure out how to complete their courses over the Internet, the whole process of job searching has also been altered. With so many unemployed by the attempts to slow the spread of the virus, these college graduates are facing a very unsettled job market that is simply offering fewer jobs than they anticipated. It is so different from where I found myself when I was their age. I had completed interviews and accepted my first professional job during the spring before I completed my graduate education. I had a place to live lined up and a job with a salary and even funds for my move before I had to vacate my student apartment. That kind of security doesn’t exist for the majority of the class of 2020.

High school graduates who are heading to college don’t even know if their colleges will offer on campus education the fall. They may be facing a need to live at home while studying online instead of moving on campus as they planned.

Uncertainty about the future is part of what it means to be alive in these times. We all have different levels of tolerance for uncertainty and risk. Some of us worry less than others.

One of the things that we haven’t discussed with our financial planner are the assets of family and community that we have built up over our lives. Unlike some people, we know that we will be making our moves inside of the community of the church. We know that we have a ready-made group of supportive friends waiting us wherever we move. And we have strong family relationships. There are people who care deeply about us who are ready to spring into action to help if we have need. That was clearly demonstrated last fall when Susan became ill. On the day she was moved to the ICU our son, my sister and one of her sister arrived at our home. During her recovery her other sister and our daughter came to help. We had continual help for as long as we needed it. Those resources remain and they are even more valuable than stocks and bonds and savings accounts.

There are unpredictables in our live, Fortunately faith, hope and love remain regardless of the other variables.

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!

Joy in my heart

I woke up with an old camp song in my head this morning. Like many camp songs, there are a lot of variations in lyrics, and we sang a lot of different words to the song. The verse we sang first went like this:
I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart (where?)
Down in my heart!
I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart (where?)
Down in my heart to stay!

When we sang it at camp, we would then change the words to add more syllables. Keeping the same tune meant that we had to divide quarter notes into eighth notes and enunciate very carefully. We sang verses like:

“I’ve got the precious blood of the blessed redeemer down in the depths of my heart!”

and

“I’ve got to the belief that baffled the best of the buddhists way down in the depths of my heart!”

The song is fun and the challenge of cramming all of those syllables into the tune was fun. We often found ourselves giggling as we sang.

I’ve been thinking about joy, in part because I often am called to provide counsel to people who are very sad. Some are overwhelmed with grief. Others are suffering from a deep sense of failure over bad choices they have made. Others are the victims of things that are beyond their control. That is in normal times. Now, with a pandemic sweeping the globe and reports of illness in our community going up and up, I encounter fear and more than a small amount of cabin fever. I wonder how long we can get people to practice the basic behaviors that are required for public health and safety. It simply won’t work to lock down all of the people for long. And we haven’t really been locked down. I go to the church every day. I go grocery shopping once a week. We walk outdoors every day. I do, however, speak by phone with those who haven’t left their homes for a couple of months.

It seems reasonable to ask, “where is the joy in all of this?” Actually, I don’t have to look far. If I grab my cell phone, there is a picture of our four grandchildren on the lock screen. I can scroll through hundreds of family photos at the touch of my finger. Part of the home school routine for the three oldest of our grandchildren is the assignment to write two letters each week. Even with other grandparents and one great grandmother, I get my fair share of letters, which I can read over and over. They give me joy.

After a health scare in the fall, my wife and I are enjoying excellent health. Our 47th anniversary is approaching. We are incredibly fortunate to have had each other and such a loving and joyful marriage. I don’t have to look far to find sources of joy in my life.

In addition, I have the deep joy of meaningful work. I have been blessed to have a career that has been successful and work that I love. There have been struggles along the way. Not everything has worked out as I imagined, but I have served my adult life in the church without every being unemployed and I have always served congregations that were fair and supportive of their ministers. I know stories of clergy who have been abused, but I have not experienced those events in my own life.

That source of great joy, however, is also a source of a bit of fear when I am honest with myself. I’m just six weeks away from my last paycheck from this congregation and just four weeks from completing my service. For the first time in my life, I don’t know what comes next. It is rather strange, because we have talked about and planned for retirement for most of our lives. We have friends who are successfully retired and who have deeply meaningful and joyful lives. We have mentors who are retired and who have shown us meaningful paths of service. There is no rational reason for my fear.

And I know the scriptures. I know the rational words. “Perfect love casts out all fear.” “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear.” I know that things are going to work out just fine. We are not suffering the uncertainties of those who are furloughed or simply without a job at all due to the shutdown. We are not in fear of losing our home or of having groceries to put on the table. We are extremely fortunate and there are many variables in of our lives over which we have a degree of control. I can make every rational argument against the fear that I sense.

Emotions, however, are not rational. And often it is far better to express your emotions than to hide them. Just admitting that I am a bit afraid and writing out these words is helping me gain a sense of power over my fear.

We live in uncertain times. A bit of fear is very common. We also have many experiences and tools to guide us in these times.

I remember driving into Chicago many years ago. I was nervous about the traffic. I was nervous about getting lost in the city. I was fearful about making such a big move. I’m not a city person and Chicago is a big city. I was nervous about having made the right choices and I knew that it was too late to back out now. Would I be a successful student? Could I handle the work of graduate school? Would living in a tiny apartment drive me up the wall? Would my professors and the other students share my passions and interests? Looking back, I know it was a very good decision for us. I’m glad I worked through my fears and pursued my education.

Today is a good day to face my fears and work through them. After all, I’ve not only got “the joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart,” I’ve also “got to the belief that baffled the best of the buddhists way down in the depths of my heart!”

That should be enough to keep me going.

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!

Focus

Years ago I had a conversation with a cardiovascular surgeon. He was a philosophical thinker, having grown up with a father who was a seminary professor and a brother who became a psychiatrist. He said that one thing that attracted him about vascular surgery is that it demands absolute focus. You can’t be a good surgeon and be distracted. To learn what you need to learn to do that kind of surgery you have to be doing only one thing when you are studying. You can’t think about anything else.

I’m sure it was a bit of exaggeration for the sake of making a point. I know that surgeons are focused and that they learn to lay aside normal everyday thoughts, but they are still human. Their minds continue to be complex and there are certain basic human functions that cannot be fully controlled. You can practice, but you never become perfect. Still, the example has been meaningful to me as I have lived my life and thought about my chosen profession.

The mental side of ministry requires a different kind of focus. There are times when I need to be very focused. When I am helping someone who is struggling with grief, for example, I need to be fully present to their situation and not distracted. At the same time, I know that the next situation in which I find myself might require a completely different perspective. Leading worship is about serving a group of people with very diverse circumstances and expectations. Part of the task of worship leadership is getting others to focus their attention on our shared scripture and message. And ministry, at least the way it has been practiced in my narrow window of time, has meant a lot of meetings. Meetings require listening while at the same time seeking creative solutions to problems. I learned early on in my career that one of my roles in a meeting is to be a check on my own talking. When I talk too much, other leaders pull back and the effectiveness of the group is diminished.

The Danish philosopher/theologian Søren Kierkegaard once wrote, “Purity of heart is to will one thing.” I read Kierkegaard early in my educational career and this quote remains as a way of thinking about intellectual and emotional focus. It is a quality that a young child can demonstrate very effectively. I remember trying to distract our children when, for example, their mother needed a little space and the child wants the mother. You’d think I could come up with some activity or some food or something that would at least momentarily distract the child, but when a child is focused, they become capable of thinking about only one thing.

My life rarely gives me the luxury of thinking about just one thing. I try to focus when I meditate and pray and I’ve gained skills and abilities at focus. But a lifetime is too short of truly master the skills of focus.

On the other hand, the now popular concept of multi-tasking completely eludes me, too. I can’t work on my computer and talk on the phone at the same time. I’ll either enter gibberish into the computer or fail to hold up my end of the phone conversation. I know that psychologists have learned that those who do multiple tasks at once aren’t really doing many things at once, but rather making quick switches from one thing to another. An example might be a pilot flying an airplane. The pilot doesn’t look at all of the gauges and instruments at once, but rather scans quickly from one thing to the next. Some people become very adept at rapid shifts in focus so that they can change from one thing to the next to the next without disrupting their pace.

Whether you are a vascular surgeon or a computer gaming developer, all people need to make priorities. Not every task has the same amount of meaning. Not every task is as important as another. Some things can be delayed without causing problems, but deadlines exist and consequences are real. My surgeon friend acknowledged that he has colleagues who are very accomplished surgeons who are not very good parents. They neglect certain areas of their lives in order to maintain their vocational focus. I know that there were times when I allowed my job to pull me away from my family that in retrospect I wish I had made a different choice.

Part of effectiveness in any profession is the development of a balance between personal and professional life.

Lately I have been wondering if the skill of intense focus is, at least in part, the purview of the young. With age and experience come more and more memories. I am constantly comparing situations in which I find myself with previous experiences. My past informs much of what I do. I draw on lessons learned from other events when facing new challenges. But I also find all of my memories to be a distraction at times when I want to focus. As we prepare to make a move later this year, I sort through files in my office or boxes at home and I find myself being distracted from the task by something that I run across that stirs a memory. I definitely do not want to live in the past, but my memories are precious and delicious and I don’t want to run away from them either. The older I have grown the more memories I have that need constant attention.

In Kierkegaard’s terms, I no longer aspire to “purity of heart.” I’ve learned that submitting to God’s will is far more important than pursuing my own wants and desires. I’m convinced that the will of others is important to the life of the community. It isn’t all about me.

Then again, I might be justifying the scramble that is my brain at this age and stage of my life.

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

Working from home

For the first five years of our married life, we were both full-time students. We shared the same typewriter and often the same books and learned to work in small apartments with a small desk. For students the distinction between home and work is different from those who have other jobs. Because reading is such a big part of the life of a student, most students find themselves reading at home, in the classroom, in the library, and in lots of other locations.

Our first call to full-time pastoral ministry was from two congregations in North Dakota. The congregations had worked together for years before they called us and the system worked very well. The larger congregation owned a lovely home next door to their church building and offered it as a parsonage. They paid the costs of maintaining the house and the utilities on the house. The cash salary, health insurance and retirement were split between the two churches. In those days they were able to offer a fair starting salary for a full-time minister. Neither church building had an office. The church office was located in the parsonage, which had a back door entrance from which a visitor could go directly into the office. When we moved there, we had no children, and almost no furniture, so the arrangement worked well for us. Much of our work didn’t have anything to do with an office - we visited church members in their homes, workplaces and hospitals. The congregations were small. We wee able to visit nearly every member every year. Those in nursing homes were visited at least once a month, often more often. Those in hospital were visited every day if they were hospitalized in town. If they were hospitalized out of town, they would be 150 miles or more away and were visited less often.

For the first 17 years of our career, we job shared. We had a single full-time job between us. Part-time work in the church is difficult to measure, and we never tracked hours, but we did pursue other things outside of our church employment. I was a radio DJ, a school bus driver, and a free-lance writer on the side. Susan also did professional writing for other employers than the congregations we served. When children came into our lives, we tried to share homemaking and child-rearing equally, though there were times when the time distribution wasn’t equal.

For all of our lives, we have had some type of study or library in each home we have occupied. Working from home is something we have always done. So the onset of a pandemic and the restrictions imposed to slow the spread of illness haven’t resulted in any radical lifestyle changes for us. News and social media are full of stories of the pressures of working from home, the difficulty of balancing family and work and other issues, which seem to us to be not really big issues. We struggled with time management and balance between family and work. In a sense our children were always inserted into our work life. For example, an infant or a toddler is a wonderful person to take with you to visit in nursing homes. Our children were also campers when we counseled at church camp. We have always attended church as a family even if we rarely sat together.

In a strange twist, I am actually spending more time at the office at the church during these days than I did before the pandemic altered our work schedules. With two administrative colleagues who are working from home, there is no one else to answer the phones and deal with certain work tasks. Even though walk-in traffic to the church is much less, there are still church members who stop by the church to perform tasks, pick up items and sometimes just to talk. We have interactions with church members in the church nearly every day. I also made some decisions in regards to how to maintain communications and manage social media that made certain tasks easier to do at the office than they are at home. The discipline of daily prayer has been something I’ve done from home for most of my life, but now I am practicing that discipline from the church office so that the backgrounds for my live casts are familiar places in the church.

One of the treasures of the work we do that can also be a challenge is that there are few distinctions between work and home. A certain portion of every job is thinking and you can’t always put a location on where you will be thinking. There are some jobs that you can leave behind. When I drove school bus, I didn’t spend much time thinking about driving when I wasn’t in the bus. Bus trips were all scheduled, so I didn’t have to be “on call” except for occasions where I would cover for another driver who became ill. The ministry is a different kind of job. While there are challenges in finding balance and learning to make sure that there is adequate time and space for family life, there are great advantages to this type of job. The first is that I have always had flexibility in my schedule. I can choose when to do many of the tasks of my job. That meant that I was available to attend school programs and functions during the day. I could leave the office to volunteer in a child’s classroom. If I had a really late night sitting with someone in the hospital, I might be able to sneak in a nap the next day. We were able to have family meals together. Importantly, our children were a part of our work life. They know what we do for a living and how our work supports our family.

I hope and pray that those who were forced to suddenly adapt to working from home will begin to discover some of the advantages and treasures of the practice. There are real challenges and new skills that need learning, but there are also very real pleasures to working from home. May those who are new to working from home discover those pleasures in the weeks to come.

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

Memories

One of the things that the coronavirus distancing has done is that it has seduced me into spending more time on Facebook. I used to generally think that Facebook was a bit of a time waster. I originally signed up for Facebook because we had a nephew who was traveling in Central America and I really wanted to see his pictures. Facebook was the way to keep up with his travels. At first i didn’t do anything about having Facebook friends, preferring to have face to face friends instead. Little by little, though I got friend requests from people I know and care about. I started accepting friend requests from people I know. Then I got friend requests from members of the church and I didn’t want to turn them down. Then you get a kind of friend of friend request. I don’t accept friend requests from people that I haven’t met in some other context than Facebook at this time, but the list of friends I have on the media is impressive. I don’t belong to many Facebook groups, but I did join one group that is about my home town.

Some of the posts on our hometown Facebook page are a bit funny for me, because I haven’t lived there for nearly 50 years. There are a lot of things that have happened there since I moved away. I read some of the “remember when” posts and I don’t remember, but I can remember what happened 20 year before the post. Some of the “old timers” moved to town after I moved away. There are, of course, a number of people still living there whom I recognize and with whom I’ve shared a bit of history. I have a sister who still lives in our home town, so I keep up with the news of some of the people. She keeps up with reunions and gatherings much better than I, so she runs into old friends and gives me the news.

I don’t know if it would be any different if I had continued to live in our home town for all of my life, because memory is a very strange thing. Different people have different memories. I have a brother who is about 2 1/2 years younger than I. We grew up in the same house at nearly the same time. We had a lot of joint experiences in the first 15 years of his life before I moved out to go to college. You’d think we’d have a lot of shared memories. But he remembers different things than I do. He’ll start to tell a story, and I have no clue what he is talking about. And when we do have a shared memory, it isn’t the same for both of us. He’ll describe some event from our childhood and I won’t believe my ears. I sometimes jokingly say that either we didn’t grow up in the same house or he’s the biggest liar I ever met.

Psychologists tell us that our memories aren’t particularly accurate. Furthermore, research has shown that the stories we tell the most often are the ones that stray the farthest from the actual events. Something that we haven’t thought about for years will come to us in a form that is closer to the original event that something we’ve told about over and over for years.

I have very pleasant memories of my growing up years, of the places I have lived over the course of my lifetime, of the friends I have made, of the churches I have belonged to, and of the jobs I have held. I am often telling stories about what happened to me in other places and at other stages of my life. Having read about how memories that are often told stories, I now am wondering how accurate my memories are. I think it is highly unlikely that I had a miserable childhood, that my parents were unkind to me, that my siblings were cruel, that I suffered abuse from employers or any number of very negative possibilities for a life. I suspect that what I may not be remembering accurately are details. If I think of a specific trip I took with a youth group in a church that I served before coming to Rapid City, am I remembering which youth went on that trip, which vehicles we took, where we stopped and what the event was like? I guess I’d have to check with one of the youth or another adult chaperone to see if my memories are accurate.

Those details aren’t important, but I do have some questions about my past. I have a colleague who was a youth on a trip I chaperoned to a National Youth Event in the early 1980’s. I drove the bus for the delegation from North Dakota. I’ve wondered if that trip had any impact on her decision to become a minister. If so, I might have played a small part in her choice. I’m sure the right thing would be to talk to her about it and ask her. I wouldn’t have to tell the stories of my memories before I inquired of her about her memories. Then again, what if she doesn’t even remember that I was on the trip. I was, after all, only the bus driver - not the kind of person you need to remember to tell the stories of the trip.

And now we find ourselves in a set of circumstances where we are creating lots of memories that are independent from the memories of others. How will we remember these times in the story of our church? I am sure I will remember the graciousness and generosity of the congregation. I will remember that they continued to employ all of the church staff even when some were not able to come into work. I will remember that people continued to contribute to the church and support our ministries. That doesn’t mean that I will remember this time as an easy time or a time of community closeness. Still there has been a certain amount of solidarity despite our physical distances. I guess only time will tell what we remember.

I do hope, however, that my memories will be accurate. Because I have been privileged to work with some wonderful people. I’m not going to worry about Facebook too much. I’ll rely on the cards and letters that people have been writing. You should see them. They are wonderful.

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!

Effects of isolation

I’ve been trying to pay attention to my emotions as we go through this period of physical isolation and separation that is a part of our attempts to slow the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. I haven’t experienced depression, which I know is common among some of those who are isolated. To be honest, I am not really isolated. I go to work every day. It is just that the building where I work is empty. we see a few people, from a safe distance. I shop for groceries once a week, early in the morning to avoid crowds. And I am in constant contact with people through social media, video conferencing and other technologies. I find that I do have some days when I am less efficient with my work. I am frequently more tired than I think I should be. And I think that I am doing a bit more complaining than usual. When I go back through my journal entries, they are a bit more whiny than usual. And I am always interested in how other people are doing, so I ask quite a bit. Some folks are ready to give me the details. Not only am I talking on the phone more than usual, individual phone calls are lasting longer than was the case before the pandemic forced us to stay away from others.

Looking at the Internet for articles about psychological health during pandemic isolation, I came across an article about a medical researcher who is conducting focused research on the topic. Dr. Pradeep Tomar is a medial doctor from India who is five months into a year-long research project on the psychological effects of isolation. He is conducting his work in Antartica, based at India’s Bharati base. Antartica is one of the most remote locations in the world, roughly 3,000 miles from the tip of South America, the nearest mainland. Researchers are the only humans who live in Antartica and aside from a short number who arrive in November and leave in March, spending only the summer there, most people are there on one-year assignments. Some Antarctic bases have airports, but India’s base has only access by boat during the summer.

So, even before the pandemic, it was a good place to study how people live in isolation. Everyone in Antartica works from home. The weather outside, even in the height of summer, is brutal. Many dwellings are made from shipping containers. There is little contact with people from other research stations.

Although there have been no diagnosed cases of coronavirus on Antartica, research stations are taking precautions. People traveling to Antartica are quarantined for 14 days before departure and an additional 14 days after arrival. Were anyone to demonstrate Covid-19 symptoms, thy would need to be immediately isolated. The options for medical treatment in the remote location are extremely limited. As a precaution, visits between different world research teams, situated on different bases, have been banned since February. That means that Dr. Tomar’s research is limited to the 22 other people on his base.

In addition to the social isolation, Antartica is entering into winter, when days are very short. There will be times when the sun doesn’t rise at all in the depths of winter. The lack of natural light can be a contributing factor to depression for some people. Although researchers are screened for any sings of seasonal affective disorder before being deployed to Antarctic bases, it is a tough job where there are many dangers to health. In addition to the psychological risks, the inhospitable environment poses a constant threat. Just going outside is risking death from falling into a crevasse or exposure to wind and cold.

Now those who are engaged in research on the continent have the added stress of worrying about family and friends back home. They have access to the Internet and regular contact with family by video conferencing, but as we are all learning, those media are not the same as being face to face. It is difficult to read the faces of loved ones when they appear on a computer screen. Seeing them is better than no contact, but there are limits. You can’t hug a monitor, or if you did, it isn’t like hugging a person.

Dr. Tomar is scheduled to remain at the Antarctic base until November, so he has six more months to conduct his studies. After he returns, it will be some time before he will have edited and prepared his data for publication. And when it does appear, depending on the journal in which it is published, it may be months before it is available in English. By the time his findings are available, I may well have moved on in terms of my interest. Things are changing so rapidly that I can’t predict what I will be interested in reading a couple of years from now. And studies conducted in the Antarctic might have little bearing on the kind of isolation that is being experienced by people who are in self-isolation or mandated isolation because of there virus. As fascinating as is the doctor’s work, it probably isn’t relevant.

I guess we are all conducting a bit of psychological research by living our lives the way we are learning to live them. We’ve learned to carry our masks and wear them in some contexts, but I’ve noticed that there are plenty of times when I have my mask removed. I don’t wear it constantly every moment that I am outside of my home. In my travels around town, I’ve observed that people seem to be more conscious about physical distancing in some settings than they are in others. Other than cough shields for checkers, not much has changed at the hardware store.

The people who seem to have the most struggles and with whom I’m spending a lot of time over the phone are those who seem to be most isolated. We have church members who are not going outside of their homes at all. They have groceries delivered and order other items from the internet and remain in their homes at all times. It must be both lonely and occasionally boring. Even with plenty of books to read and hobbies to pursue it must be a real challenge.

We keep checking in with each other. Maintaining physical health and avoiding the virus is only part of the struggle. We also need to maintain psychological health and keep depression at bay. You can isolate yourself form other people. You can keep your house sanitized and clean. But you can’t avoid your own feelings. Stay healthy. practice distancing. wash your hands. And, dear friends, take care of your spirit as well. Play, laugh, reach out to others in ways that are safe.

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!

Rethinking original sin

Memo to self: “You are not indispensable. The world can go on without you.” I know, it sounds silly when I write it down. There is something about the combination of the coronavirus pandemic and my coming retirement from the job I currently hold that has gotten my thinking all messed up. Regular readers of this journal know that for years I have journaled about paddling in the spring. After winter, I’m usually eager to get on the water and paddle, even if it is just a quick trip around a very familiar lake. None of my boats have been wet this spring at all. I’ve had my attention and my head focused on what needs to be done at the office. There is nothing that is preventing me from being more attentive to self care except my own emotional state.

When I was a student, I was somewhat quick to dismiss the concept of original sin. Without going into too much detail, there has long been a Christian theological idea of original sin. Ever since the rebellion of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, all people have been born with the need of forgiveness, because the sins of previous generations are handed down to the next generation. Augustine may be one of the earliest theologians to think of the idea as doctrine. He posited that all humans are born with a built-in urge to do bad things and to disobey God.

The doctrine gained credence simply because there are a lot of things that humans do that are terrible. A great deal of the world’s pain and suffering relates to actions taken by human beings. The doctrine gives an easy explanation for phenomena such as slavery and war. There is evil in the world because humans make poor choices.

As a student, I would argue against the idea that humans are born with sin, but rather that sin is the result of choices humans make later in their lives. It seemed to me that it is a kind of false way of accepting responsibility for one’s behavior. “I sinned because everyone sins.” It is almost like claiming that there is no choice in the matter.

Now that I am much older, I have been rethinking my earlier positions on the matter. The reality is that I have to struggle constantly with myself nearly constantly to achieve balance. Intellectually I understand the concept of Sabbath. I know why the commandment to “remember the Sabbath and keep it holy” exists. The biblical commandment contains a reminder that there is a powerful hubris in assuming that one is greater than God, or even greater than other human beings. “Sure others need to take a day off, but I don’t.” As I write the sentence it seems arrogant. And yet, it is easy for me to fall into exactly that kind of thinking. There is something inside of me that is vain.

As I think of the transition of leadership for the congregation I serve, I keep coming up with tasks and chores that I do and thinking of them as things that only I can do. It is false and delusional thinking. Although I am a unique human being with unique gifts, I’m not the only one who can asses the needs of this congregation and respond with creativity and hard work. I’m not the only one who can preach a sermon, or administer a program, or solve a computer problem, or manage a budget. The truth is that I haven’t been doing any of those chores by myself all along. The church is a group of talented, creative and hard working people who have pitched in and served on boards and committees and donated their time and work and resources for generations before I came on the scene. For a brief period of time, I was given stewardship of a portion of the life of this congregation. The church is far bigger than any single generation. It is far more than my time as pastor.

I know how to write all of the correct words. I know in my mind how to think about the balance of work and recreation. I know that there are chores that I have to release and trust others to accomplish. I know all of this stuff. Emotionally, however, I still slip into a different way of behaving. The fact of physical distancing and remote working may be contributing to my behaviors. I don’t spend as much time working with others in the office and therefore I don’t have them to ask me about my pace of working. I don’t have the usual everyday conversations with colleagues where they would ask me if I’ve been paddling or what I did on my day off. Certainly another factor is my awareness that my time as pastor of this congregation is short. I will not accomplish everything that I set out to do. Some jobs will be left undone despite my best intentions.

Whatever the reasons, the time has come for repentance. I need to change directions. I need to figure out how to take a day off from work. That commandment about the Sabbath applies to me. And as I do, it is worth re-thinking the concept of original sin. Perhaps there are some things in my nature that make me more vulnerable to particular ways of fleeing the freedom that God intends for all humans.

It is often the case that I dismiss the arguments of those who have gone before in part because I don’t understand them. Because I don’t think like Augustine, I read his words and dismiss some of them because he belongs to an ancient time. A lot has happened in the past 1600 years. Still, the church has been shaped by the thinking and writing of Augustine and others. Their ideas have contributed to how we think and believe. They have endured the test of time and are worthy of my attention and consideration.

I’m beginning to understand original sin in a whole new way.

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

Ramblings in the Disruption

I started mowing the lawn Sunday evening, but our lawn is about a half acre and so I didn’t get it finished. I finished the job yesterday. It was sleeting as I got done and shortly afterward it was snowing. Snow on May 11 was a surprise to the financial advisor from our church’s pension boards with whom we met via phone conference. He lives in Florida. He can remember going to New Jersey once and it got down to 20 degrees and he had no jacket. It was really cold. We assured him it wasn’t quite that cold here. We also recalled the true spring blizzard that forced us to cancel worship services on May 10, 2015. Mother’s day was on May 10 again this year, but I didn’t have to shovel 12 inches of heavy spring snow to get out of my driveway.

I’ve always lived where it snows. I can remember seeing snowflakes on the ground every month of the year except August, and I know that it has snowed in the high country near the town where I grew up in August. I just didn’t happen to be up there when it happened. We could see the white on the top of the Crazy Mountains from home, though.

The wide variety and rapid changes in the weather are part of the joy of living in the hills. The saying around here is, “If you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes.” It is foggy this morning and there is a skim of snow on our deck, but the birds are singing and the grass is green and we know that spring is upon us despite a week with some colder temperatures. In a normal year, the cold would be a strain for the people staying in their RVs, but the tourists haven’t really descended on the hills in their usual numbers this year. We don’t know what kind of a tourist season to expect, but we do know that numbers will be lower because people are staying at home to help prevent the spread of the virus.

However many weeks we are into the disruption of our normal with physical distancing and the suspension of in person meetings and worship services, my life is not really settling into a routine. I manage the church’s digital meeting schedule and have to set up the meetings. Most of the time that goes without a problem, but occasionally I realize that although a meeting has been scheduled, it hasn’t been set up on the digital platform. Setting up a meeting involves sending emails to the involved people and it is simply another step in the process. These steps would normally be handled by office staff, but with them working remotely it is less work to simply set up a meeting than it is to have someone else do it. I know that people are eager to help and some of them are underemployed and looking for things to do, but the process of delegating is a bigger challenge with the new work scheme. I’m sure we will learn additional skills and become more efficient as time passes.

One of the challenges of our situation is that we have a vision of things returning to normal, whatever that might be. We don’t intend to remain on lockdown forever. We don’t plan to simply make the transition from being an in-person congregation to being a media church. We long for the days when there will be a vaccine and the spread of the virus can be controlled by less draconian measures. At the same time the health and safety of our people is very important to us. We don’t want to put people at risk. So we balance the restrictions and we long for a return. The thing is, however, we don’t know what a return will look like. We know that some of our people have become more accustomed to the digital meeting format. Some may even be reluctant to return to in-person meetings. If we can accomplish the work of the church without them having to leave their home or office, why take the extra time for the face-to-face meeting? If we have the technology, why not use it all the time? There are a lot of questions about how we will do business after it is safe to get together. I suspect that some things, like live-streaming our worship, will continue after we return to in-person worship. We may even use digital meeting platforms for some of the church’s meetings long after it is safe to return to meeting in person.

The world is constantly changing and certain events seem to speed up the pace of that change. I have a meeting this week to go over all of the church’s technologies and digital operations so that we can plan for a smooth transition when I am no longer serving as pastor of this congregation. Just this list of usernames and passwords is fairly intimidating. Operational instructions for cameras and batteries and projectors and sound systems and recording platforms and tablet computers and the building heat controls and security systems and a wifi network and remote monitoring and so much more all have to be passed on. None of these things were a part of the last transition in leadership in our church. When I became pastor of this congregation, there was no computer on the pastor’s desk. The only computer in the church was operated by a secretary. Now we have a network and a firewall and shared hard drives and much more.

Along with all of this technology comes the need to confess that we are imperfect at its use. I made a couple of mistakes with livestreams on Sunday that created problems for others. It seems that we need a new form of confession and absolution for a new type of human failure. I apologized over social media for the mistakes, but it is not the same thing as sharing a communal prayer of confession with a reconciliation of the community.

It is a steep learning curve and we don’t have it mastered, but we are working hard and learning every 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!

Ikigai

I am not a linguist. I only speak one language. I have studied Latin, French, Hebrew and Greek, but fluency in another language eludes me. At my current age, I suspect that I lack some of the mental fluidity that is required to master another language. All the same, I am fascinated by languages. Culture and language are so intertwined that just understanding a single word or concept can open a world of understanding. So even though I cannot master languages, I really enjoy exploring concepts. A few years ago, whenever I would encounter a Lakota speaker, I would ask about the term Takini. We think of it as place name because there is a school with that name and it once was the name Lakota people gave to the small cluster of homes that is named Bridger on state maps. Realizing that the concept defies direct translation into English helps to own a new perspective on Lakota language, history and culture.

Having hosted exchange students from Japan and having a daughter who lives in Japan has given rise to an interest in Japanese language and culture. We have been fortunate to make two trips to Japan and I know that just traveling there will not force me to learn the language. In Japan you can almost always find someone who is fluent in English. Signs usually feature English as well as Japanese and other languages. But from time to time I have picked up books written in English that present Japanese words and concepts as keys to understanding Japanese culture and as bits of philosophy.

One of the words that has shown up in several books about Japan is ikigai. Formed by combining “ik”, which means “life”, and “gai”, which means “worthwhile”, the concept describes what gives meaning to life. Similar to the french concept “raison d’être”, it seems to not be completely the same concept. For the French, at least, raison d’être is likely to be attached to a deep passion, a love of a person or a hobby or an art. For the Japanese, ikigai often evokes a deep loyalty to an employer. It isn’t a love of work, per se, though love of work is part of the concept. Often it is used as a deep loyalty to a company or even the products a company produces. But even a love and loyalty to a company isn’t quit what the Japanese mean by ikigai. The concept can be applied to family as well. If you live for your family, it is ikigai.

The term is ancient, at least as old as the 14th Century when Japan’s society was even more hierarchical than it is now. Each person in ancient Japan had an assigned role in society. There was strong cultural pressure to accept one’s role. Learning to live and work without complaint was critical to the organization of society. One didn’t expect upward mobility. One fulfilled the expectations of one’s assigned role. The modern concept if ikigai, however, probably comes in part from a 1912 novel, Kokoro, by Natsume Soseki. Kokoro means “he heart of things” and the book is the story of the coming of age of a student with the support of a mentor who is old and wise. As Japan emerged from isolation into the world stage the entire culture was learning a new way of living. As Japan emerged from World War II, the novel once again became popular as the culture shifted from one of rigid social roles to a more individual focus on survival that soon became a pursuit of affluence. In this context ikigai became a description of the energy that is required to pursue lofty goals. You get up in the morning and go to work because work is the way that you achieve the rewards you seek. Japanese society became noted for people who were willing to work long days with little vacation of breaks. At the same time, life expectancy in Japan increased dramatically. People began to associate work with long life. The concept of retirement didn’t really catch on in Japan. You’ll find octogenarians selling tickets and cleaning in a train station, driving a cab and clerking in a store.

One expression of ikigai that you see when traveling in Japan comes unexpectedly in the presentation of food. Whether it is a simple bento box purchased in a train station or an elaborate meal served in a restaurant, it is obvious that a lot of hard work is put into presentation of food. Food must not only be well-prepared and taste good, it must be beautifully presented. Elaborately carved vegetables, carefully arranged plates, and decorative touches are a part of Japanese food. Those who prepare the food invest time and patience and skill and craftsmanship in its preparation.

Of course it isn’t just food. If you pick up a lacquered rice bowl in a shop, you will see the high degree of hand work that is invested in a simple item that in our country would be mass produced by machines. The basic bowl will have been mass produced, but someone picked up each bowl and painted it with care and precision. It is more than just work to accomplish a task. It is learning to love the work for the sake of the work.

I am not sure that I fully understand the concept of ikigai, but it has been a life-giving concept for me in the small amount that I do understand it. I have loved the work I do for all of my adult life. I get up in the morning with eagerness for the tasks of the day. I get tired and I feel overwhelmed and there are times when I long for a day off, but I have always been blessed with work that is deeply meaningful to me. My work gives meaning to my life. I shudder when I come into contact with pastors who haven’t invested the time in becoming educated and preparing for the profession. I can be very critical of colleagues who don’t seem to be willing to put in the hours and serve the people of the church. Perhaps that is a bit of the concept of ikigai.

Even though I cannot seem to master other languages, I have a deep appreciation for the depth of culture contained in a single word. For me, at this stage of my life, just thinking about individual words is worth my time and energy.

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!

Mother's Day 2020

Writers all over the world have waxed eloquently about their mothers and another mother’s day tribute probably won’t add much to the body of understanding about what makes Mother’s Day so meaningful to some people and less so to others. We always did a little something on Mother’s Day when I was growing up, mostly homemade cards and perhaps a few gifts. I once bought a cheap fishing pole for my mother because Mother’s Day and the opening of fishing season coincided that year. Mom wasn’t into fishing, but she had seemingly unlimited patience when it came to untangling fishing reels. Her patience with the task has always been a model for me. When our children presented me with some complicated mess that needed to be sorted out, I tried to remember my mother’s patience with fishing line. It helped a lot.

Motherhood didn’t come easily for our mom. After our parents married, mom didn’t get pregnant right away. Years passed. All of her sisters had children. She and my father became foster parents. The thought of saying good bye to the children was too painful for our mother and they adopted the first two children who were placed in their care. Then she did become pregnant. She gave birth to three. I’m the middle one of those. Then they adopted two more. If you are counting, that’s seven children that she and my father raised.

She also outlived two of her children, a pain that is nearly impossible to imagine, and she faced that pain with courage that continues to inspire me.

I suppose that my choice when I got married was influenced by having had such a wonderful mother. Whether it was by luck or wisdom will never be known, but I succeeded in marrying a woman who is a wonderful mother. She balanced work and being a parent in such a way that our children never doubted that they were loved and that their care was the highest priority of our family. Susan’s years of working in a preschool gave her the understanding and skill to guide our children through their early years. Her deep love enabled her to continue to be there for each stage of our children’s growing, including being a mother to two wonderful adult children.

I can go on and on with my tributes to mothers. Our son has married well and the joy of knowing that our grandchildren are being raised by a wonderful mother is an amazing gift. The recent restrictions that have come in attempt to slow the spread of the coronavirus have put a great deal of additional work on families with children. With no school, parents have had to refine their skills and ways of thinking of their lives by becoming teachers. Our daughter-in-law has risen to that task with incredible creativity and skill. It has been amazing to watch her develop schedules, seek out educational resources, pursue distance relationships with teachers, all while juggling career and home.

Mother’s Day 2020, however, will always be in my memory as a very special day because it is the first Mother’s Day for our daughter as a mother. She lives in Japan, so it was Mother’s Day for her yesterday and we were able to connect over the computer and offer our greetings and celebrations. From the time she was a little girl, I saw qualities in our daughter that led me to believe that she would one day be an excellent mother. She showed such care and gentleness to pets and to her dolls and to other children. She was fascinated by young children. She named her dolls after real babies she met. When she became old enough, she was a superb babysitter, focusing her attention on the needs of the little ones and not distracted by her own concerns. When she married I expected that they would have children early in their marriage. But, as has been the case with other family members, parenthood didn’t come easily for our daughter and son-in-law. There were lots of medical test and procedures and it took years, but 10 months ago she gave birth to a son. The first few hours were very frightening. The baby was delivered by emergency c-section and was rushed to another hospital to the NICU while mother was being treated in the hospital where the surgery was performed. After a few days, however, mother and baby were reunited and their bond is wonderful to watch. We had the good fortune of being able to visit them in Japan within the first month. Rachel and our grandson were able to visit us here in South Dakota last October, so we have had some essential face time. The computer and video conferencing have enabled us to witness the growth of our grandson on a regular basis and we get to watch our daughter being a mother. It has been every bit as amazing and wonderful as I expected it would be. She is a natural mother and her husband is a superb father.

We chose a path in life that has not led to wealth, though we have enjoyed much privilege and have always had meaningful work and supportive employees. But when it comes to love, we have enjoyed great privilege. We were raised by wonderful, loving mothers. I am married to a great mother. We are blessed with grandchildren whose mothers are incredible.

I know that not all families are so blessed. I have worked with families where mothers have died at young ages and left the parenting to their partners. I have witnessed mothers who didn’t have the basic abilities of attachment and nurture that their children desperately needed. I have known stories of children who’s mothers simply weren’t able to provide what was needed. There are plenty of stories of abuse and neglect and addiction and every manner of illness that can sever the relationships that are so essential to the growth of children.

But I have been especially blessed. And today I give thanks for that blessing. Happy Mother’s Day to all of the mothers in my life.

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

The taste of an orange

When I was growing up we had a family tradition of a big navel orange in our Christmas stocking. It was always the first thing that had been put into the stocking, so it ended up down in the toe, bulging and round. It was as much a part of Christmas in our house as hard candies and peanuts and presents under the tree. My father often told the story of a Christmas when his parents went to town to meet the train that was filled with items for Christmas and a big blizzard delayed their return to the farm until the day after Christmas. Christmas was delayed for them, but when it came, the parents had a bag of oranges that had traveled all the way from Florida. When he told the story you could almost taste the sweet fruit and what a big treat it was to have oranges in the middle of the winter in North Dakota.

We had a large family, so fairness was part of the planning for Christmas. Our stockings contained the orange, a can of pop (which was a very rare treat in our house), a small box of sugared cereal, hard candies and shelled peanuts. That box of sugared cereal was a doubly rare treat for us. In the first place we didn’t eat cold cereal in the winter at our house. We ate hot wheat cereal or oatmeal. I got oatmeal nearly every day because I had a bit of a food allergy when I was young. Cold cereal was reserved for summer, when I got Cheerios. The only other time we got those little boxes of sugared cereals was at family camp in the summer.

I was thinking about those oranges the other day because the world has changed. We don’t have to wait for a special Christmas train to come with the oranges. Our grocery store has oranges year round. In recent years you can almost always buy small “cutie” or “smarty” oranges that are very sweet, easy to peal and seedless. I often take them as treats when I go to shift briefings at the juvenile services center. It seems that nearly everyone loves them and they make a more healthy snack than the donuts, cookies and bars that show up in those places on a fairly regular basis. There are usually a few left over after I meet with the crew. As a result we almost always have a few oranges around our house.

Lately Susan and I have been taking nearly the same lunch to work each day: a sandwich or a wrap and a small orange. Eaten at the end of the meal, the sweet orange is like dessert - a bit of energy boost to return to the afternoon’s work.

We have learned to take having fresh fruit all year around for granted. We expect to see fresh fruit each time we go to the grocery store. When you think of it, however, having fresh fruit means that the fruit we eat has to come from a long way away. I remember how my dad’s eyes used to light up when he told of oranges that came all the way from Florida on the train from his childhood. Our oranges come a lot farther - usually in the back of a truck. More likely in several different trucks.

Every so often something happens that gives us an opportunity to take a look at the food we eat and all of the people who participate in the process of getting it to us. The spread of the coronavirus in meat packing plants, most notably the Smithfield plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, has made us pay attention to the conditions for workers in those plants. Many of the working class families that are dependent upon jobs in the industry are recent immigrants, who despite working long days live in relative poverty. Their harsh working conditions combine with a lack of social supports to make it very difficult for them to live with any degree of security and safety.

When we were talking about that yesterday, we recalled Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel, The Jungle. We all had read it. It seems to be a classic of American literature. But when the book was first published, Sinclair was considered to be a muckraker. His book led to the passage of the Meat Inspection Act and improvements in food safety in our country. He meant it to raise awareness of the plight of immigrants who come to this country in search of freedom and often find themselves trapped in oppressive work and living circumstances. Sinclair famously said, “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.”

The thing that amazes me is how little things have changed and how relevant a book that is more than a century old is to politics and work in our country today. The business of transforming live animals into food in a grocery store is ugly and dangerous work and, for the most part, w don’t want to think about it. We want to pick up neatly wrapped packages of ready-to-cook meat, inspected and clean, and take it home to our refrigerators until we cook and consume it. We don’t want to think about what happens in the slaughter houses and packing plants. We don’t want to think about the people who work in those places because it is the only work they can find to support their families.

I’m sure that there are stories behind the oranges that I eat as well as those behind the meat that we consume. Those oranges were likely picked by human hands and placed into boxes. They were likely sorted by others and separated from the ones that were transformed into juice. They were bagged and loaded into trucks and real people with real families drove those trucks long distances in relatively short time to make sure that the oranges were delivered fresh to the store, where others put them onto the display.

The food we eat connects us with the lives of other people - often people we never meet and seldom bring to consciousness. Today, I am thinking of all of those people with gratitude. The sweet taste in my mouth is the gift of many others, some of whom live with a bitter taste in theirs.

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!

Location and writing

One of the things about writing an essay every day is that I get to observe changes in the way that I write. Different things provide inspiration on different days. Sometimes I go in streaks, writing about similar subjects for several days. Sometimes I get bored with the direction of my writing and head off in a new direction. Fairly early in the process of writing an essay each day, I decided that I needed to stop writing about our cat and what it was doing. I had written too much on the subject, I decided, and my essays were becoming too similar, so I instituted a new rule for myself: no more cat essays. That rule seems particularly strange to me now, because the years passed and the cat got old and died and now we do not have a cat living in our house to inspire essays. Lately, I have been trying to think of ways to avoid writing too much about coronavirus because there is so much on that topic to read already. It is everywhere we turn. Furthermore I posses no particular expertise or insight on the subject and worry that I might not be adding much new information to the conversation.

I began writing my daily journal, even before I started publishing the essays on the Internet, when we took a sabbatical. I was inspired by the process of traveling. Each day I was waking up in a new place, seeing new sights, experiencing new foods, having new sensations. I wanted to record some of my reactions and memories of the experience to savor the travel and to be able to remember. Of course that assumed that I would go back and read the essays I wrote, something I keep intending to do, but which I have not done and when you write a new essay every day pretty soon there are a lot of essays to read. The topics of my daily essay now, however, don’t have much to do with travel. I haven’t been traveling very much. Outside of a few ventures into the hills, I haven’t gone anywhere for about nine months and our travels in the previous year were family-based, so the destinations where places we had previously visited.

For the most part I write at the same library table in the same room of my house where most of my journal entries have been made. I is a very comfortable place for me. I like the surroundings and the computer grants me a way of checking in on the rest of the world as I ponder the subject of the next day’s writing.

With the restrictions on gathering people that are in place to try to slow the spread of the virus, I have added another discipline of writing to my routine. For the past seven weeks, I have been live-streaming daily prayer from the church. Daily prayer has long been a part of my routine, but I decided that it was a way of sharing our spiritual lives in the time of separation, so instituted the practice just before we began live-streaming worship. At first it was a way to learn how to use the equipment needed for the process. I was testing the camera and microphones so that we would be ready for worship. The practice became a discipline. I decided that writing out the prayer portion of the livestream was an important part of the process, so that I would be less likely to misspeak during public prayer. I write a lot of prayers for public worship, so it just made sense to write a new prayer for each day. Then I worried about the videos becoming boring. I have no experience with television and video and decided that there was little motion or visual excitement in a prayer. So I started changing the background every day. Each prayer was from a different place in the church. After a month or so, I had to get creative to come up with new places from which to livestream. Now it has become a challenge to have a new place each day. I keep a list of possible places so that I don’t have to come up with the place as I am writing the prayer. I have a list that has all of the places for prayers for next week already designated.

Strangely, I am not running out of places to pray. Furthermore, I am finding that the places are inspiring the prayers. Even though I am not taking a trip, praying with a different background each day is inspiring and informing the prayers that i write. In a way it is like when I started using moving from one place to another as inspiration for my journal.

The church is a large building, but it is still finite space. I will eventually run out of backgrounds without repeating. I do, however, have a lot of places to go before that happens. Furthermore, the people who view the livestream have put in requests and suggestions for backgrounds, which is fun. I have worked in the church for almost 25 years now and it is a very familiar place to me. Each room of the church is filled with experiences and memories. There are stories to tell about the different hangings on the wall and the different decorations in the rooms. Pieces of furniture have their own tales. I am not having trouble thinking of brief meditations for daily prayer.

One of the gifts of this phase of our life together is that it is helping me to see what has been there all along. Things that I have taken for granted now become inspiration for memory and storytelling. I don’t need distant or exotic locations to inspire creative thinking and contemplation. Everything I need for inspiration is already in the place where I find myself. There is an important life lesson in the process.

In the meantime, I’m learning about myself and about the process of writing. Each new day is a gift with treasures to be discovered.

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

My time is not my own

My time is not my own. There is nothing startling about this and there certainly is nothing unique about this. Every parent has experienced the reality of another person’s schedule taking precedence over one’s own. Everyone who has ever had a job of any kind has experienced that there are things that you have to do that you don’t particularly want to do and there are times when you have to lay aside your own dreams and desires for the simple process of getting a job done. Every person who has ever ridden on an airline or gone to a doctor or dentist or stopped by the post office to buy stamps knows the feeling of having to wait for an undetermined amount of time because someone else’s schedule is, at the moment, more pressing, or at least more powerful than your own.

Our experiences teach us that there are ways to lessen those pressures. Children grow up and mature. They can be taught patience. Businesses hire receptionists to handle telephone calls and respond to walk in clients so that an executive can get other work done. Even doctors and dentists can learn to design practices that are not based on people having to wait. Still, there are occasions when one’s time is simply not one’s own. Schedules have to be adjusted and adapted to the needs and wants of others. There are times when waiting can be a blessing.

I have worked, over the years, to hone my skills and meditation and prayer so that I can take advantage of the times when I need to wait for others. Rather than get upset and watch my stress levels go through the top of the chart, if I see a period of waiting as a break from a busy schedule and understand that a few moments of meditation and prayer have a great value in my life, I can turn what otherwise might be a very negative experience into a productive and positive time.

The partial shut-down has tested my patience in this regard, however. A simple phone call can turn into an hour-long counseling session if the person on the other end of the line is bored or depressed or upset by having to experience quarantine. I never know for sure what to expect when I make or return a phone call these days. And, with other church staff persons working from home and practicing self-isolation, I don’t have a receptionist to take the calls that come into the church. I don’t have support staff who understand my schedule. Congregational members who are used to having a cheerful answer each time they call, become upset when there is no one to answer the phone. They have no way of knowing that I am talking on the other line, or cleaning a bathroom, or emptying the trash. They assume that if they call and there is no immediate answer that I’m staying home. I know this because I can monitor my home voice mail with my cell phone. Within minutes after someone calls the church and does not leave a message, I’ll get a message on my home phone something like, “I tried to call you at the church, but you weren’t there, so I called your home . . .” Those who have never worked in a church will be surprised at how often that happens.

We have worked in the same church for 25 years and we have always tried to take Monday as a day off, but the assumption during the coronavirus pandemic is that days off no longer count. I know that I’ve encouraged this a bit as I am now coming to the church to broadcast daily prayers each day, but it seems like it has more to do with the fact that for those who are sheltering at home, the days all run together. The distinction between days is hard to maintain.

I am aware that this whole journal entry is a bit of whining, and I don’t mean to complain. I have a good job. I have a paycheck each month. I am not somehow the victim of an injustice. Yesterday, I spent some time on the phone with someone who had been laid off and who is trying to get his application for unemployment completed. We are all in this together, and the changes in my work and life are not somehow worse than, or even as bad as, the challenges that others are enduring. The letter to the Corinthians says, “Now you are the body of Christ, and individually members of it.” One of our teachers used to say, “You can’t be the body of Christ all by yourself.” I have the honor and privilege of a particular role in the church, but this isn’t just about me. The tensions and stresses of he ministry are not aimed at me personally, and I need to learn not to take a comment or a phone message personally.

Part of the answer to my complaint that my time is not my own is, “Of course not. Why did you expect that it would be.” Part of the answer is to remember that the Church isn’t about me in the first place. I can take a day off and the church won’t fall apart. I can let a phone call go to voicemail and the Gospel will still be passed to the next generation.

And there is enough time for me to take a little bit of time for myself. I can leave a few tasks undone.

Since my time is not my own, and since all that we have belongs to God, I need to teach myself to be a better steward of the time that comes from God. I need to remember the commandment about taking a sabbath. Free people follow God’s commandments and free people learn to take time off for rest and recreation.

This journal entry may not be of use to anyone else, but it is a lesson that I seem to need to learn over and over again.

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!

Learning from colleagues

I do a couple of check-ins with other pastors each week. One is the gathering of pastors of the United Church of Christ in the Black Hills. This meeting usually has more retired clergy than those actively serving congregations, and most of the retired clergy belong to my congregation so it is a mixed occasion for me. On the one hand it is a gathering of colleagues who discuss professional issues. On the other hand it is a gathering of members of my congregation, whom I have been called to serve. It isn’t exactly a place where I can let down my hair about what it means to serve as pastor of a congregation. It is also a place where congregational members raise issues of concern about my congregation in addition to a place where I can consult with colleagues.

The second clergy gathering is an ecumenical gathering where I am the only person from our denomination. This group of friends has drawn close over the years, but we still maintain our professional responsibilities. We speak in general terms about the issues of our congregations, but are careful about keeping confidences and not telling stories that are not ours to tell.

The first group has, in the past, focused on book study, choosing a new book after each one is discussed. The second group focuses on study of the lectionary texts for the coming week.

Both groups have gone to video conferencing instead of face-to-face meetings given the need to limit contact during the pandemic. Meetings tend to be a bit shorter when we are on the computer, but they also tend to be a bit less focused. In the past couple of weeks they have been little more than just going around the group and checking in to see how each person is doing, if there are any special needs and the like.

Most of the time I don’t compare the two groups. They have different functions and different agendas and I simply participate in both groups. But since we’ve gone to video conferencing, I do find myself making comparisons more often. The group with a majority of retired clergy has several members who are shut in their homes and, frankly, are getting bored. They want to talk a lot and seem to me to be significantly underemployed. In the other group we are all working much harder than we were before the pandemic. In addition to the regular business of the church, we have added social media management, livestream worship, and creative fund raising and management. We still have members who are in need of care. We still have people who get sick and go to the hospital. We are doing more ministry over FaceTime and the computer and have less face-to-face contact with our congregations, but there is a lot of work that needs to get done. And we are woking with less support staff. I don’t have an assistant to answer the phone any more. That doesn’t stop callers from asking for one of them. I agree to take messages for them, but the messages are mostly things that I need to do. I’m the one who enters all the data and lays out the worship bulletins in the computer each week. I’m the one who posts the thank you notices in the church newsletter.

I’ve spoken with other professionals who are continuing to work during the pandemic and finding that they are experiencing the same thing. It is typical for them to say that their work load has gone up by 50% during the time of physical isolation. This big increase in work load is something that is unique to this crisis in my experience. The result is that it is almost impossible to communicate what we are going through with our retired colleagues. I try to be polite and to listen carefully, but I end up feeling more and more distanced from those people. I don’t have time to explain to them what I’m going through. I need to keep working just to survive.

The problem is that I am on the cusp of retirement. Within a few months, when we have gotten moved to our new home, I will be in that category for all of my colleagues - another retired minister. And I’m moving to a place where there are already a lot of retired clergy. I don’t want to be out of touch. I don’t want to be a person who can’t understand what my colleagues experiences are. One of my biggest fears of retirement has to do with the fact that unlike other phases of my ministry, I don’t see mentors and models who I want to imitate.

It makes me wonder about those who are retired. I never intended to retire. I wanted to keep working, but there are dynamics that are larger than me and I need to make choices that are in the best interest of the congregation I serve. I always thought that when I reached this phase of my career there would be a small congregation or an interim position or a chaplaincy or some other professional engagement where I could keep my hand in the business. I have good health and I am capable of working. And I really don’t know what is going to happen. I may find just the right call for my age and stage in life. It now seems possible to me that similar dynamics may have engulfed the retired clergy in my circle. Their lives might not have all worked out according to a plan. They might find themselves in circumstances that they never imagined would be their story. I hope I am developing a bit of compassion for them as I go through this stage of my life.

For now, however, I don’t think I can imagine what it would be like to look forward to more meetings. I’m just trying to survive all of the meetings I have.

It is clear that I still 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!

Philosophy and mower repair

I bought a new lawn mower in 1995. It is a simple self-propelled walk-behind mower with a mulching kit. Outside of oil changes and a few new spark plugs, it has been relatively maintenance free. I’ve lost a couple of bolts from the handle which have quick release nuts so that the handle can be easily folded and I have replace the rear driver wheels twice. I’ve done all of the maintenance on the machine myself so far. Our lawn is nearly a half acre, so the mower gets a workout each week. Last week I was in the midst of mowing the lawn when one of the rear wheels fell off. When I inspected it, I found that the axle bolt, a specialized bolt with a large shaft at one end to fit into the bearing and a smaller threaded portion, had broken. The most likely cause for the breakdown was that the bold had become loose and I hadn’t noticed and the extra stress and leverage caused it to break.

Needless to say, I didn’t finish mowing the lawn that night.

A broken bolt stuck in a threaded hole is the topic of a whole chapter in Robert Pirsig’s novel, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.” I don’t think I quite follow the practices described in the book, but then again, the book is a novel, not a religion textbook, even if it has a philosophical bent. For my lawn mower, the first step was to remove the bolt cover on the wheel and inspect the damage. Fortunately the plastic drive gear was not damaged, so all that needed to be replaced was the bolt. The bolt was a special item that I would have to obtain from the dealer, so I was done mowing for the evening.

I went into the garage to get a center punch, a drill and bit, and an easy out to remove the piece of the bolt that was still in the mower. As is sometimes the case with hardened steel, the bolt was a bit difficult to drill and I was using a hand drill, so the hole wasn’t quite straight. Then, instead of going back into the garage for a handle for the easy out, I put a crescent wrench on it. The wrench was much too big, but I was getting tired and wanted to get the job done. If you’ve ever done this job, you can imagine what happened next. I broke off the easy out in the bolt. Now I had a real mess and I retired for the night.

On Friday, I went to the store and got a new bolt to replace the broken one. With the extra hard steel of the broken easy out in the bolt, I tried to remove it with a chisel and a free other tools, but ended up drilling it out with a larger bit. The end result was that the threads were messed up. I tried cutting new threads with a tap, but my drilling had enlarged the hole and I didn’t have enough threads in the top of the hole to hold the bolt.

Saturday was a very busy day for me and I didn’t have time to work on the mower, but I did have time to go to the auto parts store and obtain a heli-coil for new threads. The system is really ingenious. You tap the hole with a bigger tap and then use a special tool to screw in a coil of stainless steel threads that stick out enough to make threads of the original size. The problem is that you can’t just buy one coil. They sell them by the dozen. And each size of coil has its own special tool for inserting, based on the size of the coil. I needed 8mm course thread metric threads, so I had to buy an installation kit, which also included the tap for the project. At that point I was about $40 into my $100 lawn mower.

I didn’t have time to work on the project on Sunday, but the grass didn’t take a vacation from growing while I was getting my lawn mower fixed.

Finally, yesterday morning, I carefully applied lubrication to the tap, cut the new threads in the mower housing, inserted the heli-coil, and reinstalled the wheel. Victory! After four days of having my mower broken down, I was able to finish mowing my lawn. Of course by that time, the section that I had previously mowed had grown so instead of having a patch in the middle of the back yard that was longer than the rest, when I finished mowing there was a patch of the same size in the same place that was shorter than the rest. I’ll let that go until later this week when I’ll have to mow the whole lawn.

I have a few mechanical skills, having grown up around a shop with good tools and mechanics who knew how to use them. And I’ve collected a fair amount of tools over the course of my life. But I don’t make my living working with mechanical repairs, so many repairs which are simple for a professional shop, like fixing my mower, take me two or three times as long as they would take a competent mechanic. I have to force myself to be patient and to do the job the right way, even if it takes me longer. Had I slowed down with the broken bolt, I suspect that I could have turned it out of the hole without messing up the threads in the first place, saving both time and money.

There is actually quite a bit of philosophy involved in basic mechanical repairs. Pirsig got that right. Thinking carefully and taking your time is a necessary skill for making repairs. It seems to be a lesson that doesn’t always stick with me. I think I can get it fixed and I plunge right in and make mistakes. Like most of the rest of my life, I learn a lot by admitting my mistakes and then cleaning up whatever mess is left behind.

At any rate it appears that the lawn mower is good for one more season, which is a good thing because I need it to earn back the money I just invested in it.

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

Change

In 1970, three of us loaded our clothes and other possessions into a car and drove 80 miles to our college. My things were unloaded quickly and didn’t take up much space in the room that I was sharing with a complete stranger. I figured out where to go on campus for my orientation meetings, how to get my meals at the cafeteria in the student union building, and managed to make it to my first classes on time. I knew that things were changing, but I didn’t know how much. I knew that if things didn’t work out, I would be able to go back to my family’s home, and for the next two summers I did exactly that - went home, worked for my father, saved my money and headed back to school in the fall.

Things, however, had changed. Home wasn’t ever quite the same. My brothers had spread out a bit. I didn’t have my own closet or dresser any more. I found out that there were things that I had left behind that I would never retrieve as my personal possessions. And there were huge attractions to my college life that made me want to go back each fall.

After three years of college, I didn’t go home one summer. I moved out of the dorm room into a tiny apartment, got married, and went to work at a huge production bakery. The job meant that I spent eight hours indoors every day. I moved huge racks of bread and loaded trucks all day long. I built up muscles that were previously unexercised. And I went home to and apartment and a wife. Things had changed. We never went back to the way they were before.

Since that time there have been many other life experiences that brought about big changes in my life. As a couple we went off to graduate school in Chicago. At the time I did not imagine that I would never again live full time in Montana, my home state, but that is the way my life has turned out. We became parents, which every parent will tell you, changes your life forever. We moved twice with our children from North Dakota to Idaho and from Idaho to South Dakota.

The seasons of change in our lives were always times of hard work and excitement, tinged with a little bit of fear. I remember when we were candidates for the job in Idaho, looking from the pulpit up to the window of the cry room in that building and seeing our two-year-old looking down at me and thinking, “her life and future depend on the decisions we make today.”

Sometimes change is the product of conscious decisions. Sometimes it comes as an unintended consequence. Years ago I wanted a canoe, but didn’t have the money to buy one. So I decided to build one. I didn’t realize how much fun the process of building would be and that it would become a hobby. Now, having built canoes and kayaks and even a row boat I think of myself as a boat builder - an identity that I never imagined would be mine.

I am coming to a new awareness in this particular season of our lives that change is occurring. It is no longer a matter of going back to normal after the coronavirus pandemic passes. I realize that some things have changed whether or not we like it, whether nor not we chose those changes.

There are little changes. I’ve gotten over feeling silly when I wear a face mask. I won’t hesitate to put one on if I have the sniffles or am feeling that I might be coughing when around others. I don’t think I will think it strange to see people wearing masks in public. I’m spending a lot more time using computers for short meetings and having a lot fewer long meetings. I doubt that we will go back to the same types of meetings in the future and I think that we won’t hesitate to add two or three people to a video conference to check a couple of things as we plan for the church. I think pastors will become proficient in social media and use it daily in our work. I don’t think our congregation will stop having livestream worship services when we go back to face to face worship. There will always be a camera and some of our people will be watching remotely. We have already made that change.

There are also big changes. I suspect that college education will never go back to the way it was. There will be students who return to residential education. There will be dormitories and cafeterias and classrooms. But online education is here to stay and remote study will be part of the college experience. Students will take classes from multiple institutions in the course of an educational career. Professors will learn the skills of teaching students who are not in the same place. There will be more independent study and fewer large classes. Some of the changes that have come about through the emptying of campuses are permanent. Colleges will not go back to the way things have been.

Like all seasons of change, we can’t see clearly what all of the changes will be and we can’t imagine how we will adjust, but we are being changed. Some people are learning to cook and won’t go back to eating as many meals in restaurants when this has calmed down. We are all learning to wash our hands properly and are forming new habits of hygiene. I’m surprised at how easy it is for me to greet someone without a handshake these days. But I don’t know all of the changes that are being made.

I do know that things will be different. We will not go back to the way things were before this pandemic. We may even come to the point where we express some nostalgia for the way things were before. And our nostalgia will be a sign that things have changed forever.

So we go forward, as always, into a future that we cannot fully imagine. Whether we like it or not the world is changing.

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!

Metaphors

When we can’t find the right words to adequately express a situation or experience, we usually turn to metaphors. Having lived my life interpreting faith to others, I’ve used a lot of metaphors in my life. David James Duncan, author of The River Why wrote that we often don’t know what we are talking about, but when we talk about love we really don’t know what we are talking about. Of course that doesn’t prevent us from trying to talk about love. We say God is love. And I know that is a simile, not a metaphor. But then when we try to describe love, we turn to a host of different metaphors. Love is like a rainbow. Love is like a mountain. Love is like the ocean. We have a thousand metaphors that we use. In that same book, Duncan says, “Love is like poison oak.” It is an itch you can’t scratch and you can’t explain it to someone who has never had it. I’ve use the full Duncan quote in wedding meditations from time to time. It always brings a smile to the faces of the congregation and it touches us something deep within us because we struggle to find words when we talk about love.

Because I deal in metaphors all the time, I am constantly evaluating the metaphors we use. Saint Patrick is said to have used a shamrock as a metaphor for the trinity. I’ve used the air in a balloon as a metaphor for the Holy Spirit. I’ve spent considerable amounts of time, over a lot of years, thinking about metaphors and how they are used and what might be a better metaphor for a particular idea or concept.

It is fairly natural, then, to use war as a metaphor for a pandemic. It is natural, in part, because people have done it a lot. Our present has used the war metaphor repeatedly in all kinds of media. Some of the frontline doctors have used the metaphor to describe the casualty rate and the chaos and confusion that is present in some hospital settings in the places where the spread has been intense. I’ve heard the war metaphor used to encourage people to shelter at home and not go out.

When war is used as a metaphor for a pandemic, it is important to remember that in history pandemics have often occurred in conjunction with war. The Spanish flu pandemic definitely was spread by soldiers who had participated in war. There was a direct relationship between the spread of the virus in the United States and soldiers returning from the front lines in Europe. A pandemic is a worldwide event and so this pandemic invites war metaphors. For my generation comparisons to the war in Vietnam come to mind. In that war there were a little more than 58,000 US deaths with another 1600 missing in action. In the United States there have now been 67,067 deaths from COVID-19, so the comparison is fairly easy.

Leaders use the war analogy to reinforce a couple of important points. One is that a concentrated effort is required to confront the situation. Just like a war, resources and distribution are critical in pursuing the response to the pandemic. Like a war there are casualties. And like a war, the pandemic demands dramatic governmental action that is outside of the usual. Specifically, huge amounts of governmental spending are focused on the pandemic, just as is the case when the nation is at war.

To those elements, I would add that wars have permanent effects on the combatants. Life is changed forever for those who are swept up in a war. Also, wars are not completely winnable. Even though leaders speak of winning wars, the reality is that the cost of defeating an enemy is so high that it is often difficult to determine which side won and which side lost.

All metaphors, however, have their limitations. I am having trouble with the metaphors we are currently using for this pandemic. In a war attempts are made to distinguish between military and civilian. We speak of civilian deaths as “collateral damage.” In a pandemic all of the victims are innocent. And everyone is a combatant. The slowing of the death rate and flattening of the curve is dependent upon all of the people taking precautions and observing certain disciplines. Furthermore the grief is as intense when the victim is a resident in a nursing home as it is when the victim is a nurse working in emergency rooms. Every casualty is a tragedy.

Wars have established rituals for grief and loss. For years I served as a bugler, playing taps for military funerals. I know the rituals of honoring those who have died and addressing the grief of those who are left behind. This pandemic, however, has called into question our rituals. Before coronavirus we gathered in large groups to express our grief and to offer support to family members. We had a funeral and then we had a lunch. Those activities are temporarily suspended. Now we don’t gather. A livestream of the service is sent out over the internet. Grief is expressed from a distance. We are left wondering how we will express our grief and our support to those who are grieving. Two memorial services that are currently “on hold” in our congregation are for musicians who gave years and years of faithful dedication to our church choir. Our way of grieving in the past would be to have our choir sing. Now that is not an option. So we are pushing back the dates of the memorial services because we want to have a proper memorial with a choir and we hope that one day we will be able to do so without being irresponsible and risking further spread of the virus.

While we continue to need to use metaphors, we also are reminded that none of our metaphors are quite right. In this season of our lives we continue to look for new metaphors, knowing none will be perfect.This pandemic seems more like a flood than a war from my point of view, which explains yesterday’s journal post and the ideas that continue to circulate in my mind.

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!

Thinking of Noah

Chapters 6 through 9 of the book of Genesis are devoted to telling the story of Noah and the making, loading and sailing of the ark. Like many of the treasured stories of our tradition it has certain kinds of specificity and yet lacks other details that might help make the story more easily understood. The dimensions of the ark are given, but not the shape of the bow or stern. Presumably the boat was designed to drift with the current and was not powered by sails. There is no mention of masts or rudder or other systems to guide the direction of the boat. The lack of specific details has not deterred artists from drawing their representations of the boat. There have been several attempts at building replicas. In Kentucky, about halfway between Cincinnati and Lexington, there is a theme park built around a huge replica of the ark. I’ve never visited it, but have been fascinated by the web site and other information put out by the promoters of the park. What fascinates me is the certainty of the promoters that they have got it right - that their depiction is exactly the way the original ark was constructed. Of course theirs wasn’t made by a single individual as the Bible reports.As the largest timber frame structure in the world, the Ark Encounter has individual beams and timbers that were lifted into place by cranes - far to heavy for an individual working alone or a father working with the assistance of his sons to raise. And the one in the Bible never had flood insurance, a detail about the park we learned when flood waters damaged the exhibits of the park. Noah didn’t have electric lighting, either. And at the present the Ark Encounter is closed due to public health efforts to contain COVID-19.

There are lots of problems with the type of biblical literalism that seems to be incapable of imagining that the words of the bible are only part of a much larger relationship between God and people. the Bible points the way to the relationship, but it is not in and of itself the entire story of God and the people of God. The story, of course, is about much more than how animals survived a flood. I am a bit uncertain about the huge amount of money and effort that has been invested in the theme park. I’m not convinced that it does anything to promote faith in God, participation in communal religion, or providing love and care to those who are in need. That aside, however, the Biblical story invites deeper reflection, especially in this time of worldwide pandemic.

For the ancients, the story of the flood is a way of thinking and talking about a kind of apocalypse. Of course the destruction of the world is not quite complete. There are survivors. That is true of almost every apocalyptic tale that you can find in either ancient or modern literature. The stories are not really stories about the destruction of the world, but rather about the near destruction. They are almost always told as survivor stories. Noah and his family are survivors. The animals are survivors. From their lives the world is repopulated after the flood.

The novel coronavirus is not the end of the world. There are survivors and there will continue to be survivors. Our economy is shrinking and undergoing stress, but this is not the collapse of modern economies.

Once you have decided that there will be survivors, the idea of the ark becomes a fascinating concept. Rather than think specifically of a boat per-se, simply think of a container - a vessel. If much of the way things were is to be destroyed, what are the things you want to put into your vessel so they can survive? It is a variation on the concept of what treasures you would grab if you were going through your house for the last time before a fire swept over and consumed it? What are the essentials of your past that you want to pass on to the future?

Last night, in Black Hawk, there was an emergency meeting. Sink holes are developing in a neighborhood that was built over an old mine. Some homes have already been ordered to be abandoned. More will need to be evacuated soon. I have a friend who owns one of the affected homes. In the next few days she may be forced to move. Every move is a process of paring down, deciding what to keep and what to leave behind. Our home isn’t near a sinkhole, but we are planning to sell it in the next year or so. And our offices need to be cleaned out and made ready for new occupants in a couple of months, so we are thinking of what items to take with us and what items to leave behind.

What are the essentials that you want to put into your ark to preserve for the future? It is a question worthy of deep thought.

The Biblical story focuses on the rich diversity of animal life on the planet. It speaks of a pair of each type of animal. There is an assumption that the plants and other foods for the animals will somehow survive and regenerate after the flood. It assumes that having a lot of different kinds of animals is important to the life and health of humans as they reemerge from the brink of destruction. Family, too, is important in the Biblical story. Noah’s sons and their wives are important characters in the story who are named and deemed to be essential to the salvation of human life.

The Bible is less than precise with the details of what happens after the flood as well. Noah plants a vineyard and then apparently makes wine and gets drunk. According to the bible he lived a long time after the ark came to rest on solid ground, but there are very few details of his life.

We are challenged to think of our lives after this pandemic. We have to decide what to keep and what to leave behind. It is a challenge and an opportunity. Perhaps the story of Noah and his experiences is an invitation for us to think of what is most important to 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!

Not a televangelist

For the entire span of my career plus the time I spent as a student pastor an in intern, I have had to grit my teeth and smile each time some faithful member of one of the churches I serve tells me how wonderful they find this or that televangelist to be. I’ve heard about the gigantic choirs from people who wouldn’t think of volunteering to sing in the choir. I’ve heard about the magnificent cathedrals from people whose donations to the church each year are lower than my monthly amount. Actually, I don’t know how much anyone else gives to the church, so that last one is pure speculation. Maybe I’m wrong about how much they donate. I’ve heard about how powerful were the sermons that people hard on television from folks who don’t understand how much can be done with video editing.

I have always tried to smile and to listen carefully to what the person likes about the particular television preacher whose show they watch and about whom they feel compelled to report to a pastor who has served small to mid-sized congregations with limited budgets. I’ve never served a congregation that had a sound booth and an operator, something that is common in congregations. I’ve also heard my share of complaints about the sound system as if somehow I was responsible for people not being able to hear. I’ve tried to do what I can to respond to the concerns I hear. I’ve tried to serve all of the people, even those who are convinced that somewhere there is a preacher who is far better than I.

And I have made hospital calls and nursing home calls and performed weddings and funerals - things that televangelists don’t do, except in the case of very famous people whose funerals are broadcast over the television.

I have never wanted to be a televangelist. I love the work I do and I love the people I serve, even when at times they try my patience a little bit. I have had a very good life and a very good career and i have been treated well by the congregations I serve. I’ve met some real saints of the church and been inspired by their leadership and dedication. I’ve worked alongside some of the finest people one could ever hope to meet.

And now, suddenly, for the last three and half months of my career, I’m a livestream preacher whose congregation, for the most part, watches me over their computer. And I’ve spoken to enough people over the phone in the time I’ve been doing the livestream services to know which members of the congregation should consider getting new speakers for their computers or at least a headset so that they can hear. I’ve heard both the complaints and compliments, so I know that not everyone is having the same experience with the services. And I still don’t have a sound engineer and I don’t have any formal education in broadcast technologies and I am trying to put out the best possible product of which I am capable, but I do have my limitations, only part of which is expressed in budget.

I have no complaints, however, about the budget of the church I serve. The members of the congregation are generous. The people who help form the budget proposals are responsible and faithful. The congregation that votes on the budget is astute and prudent. The budgets we vote are followed carefully and have served us very well. I have never wanted to serve the richest congregation or the biggest church or the congregation with the most exclusive address. I am very happy with the congregation I have been called to serve.

No, I don’t want to be a televangelist.

I don’t want to attack them. I don’t want to criticize them. I don’t want to have them go away. I just don’t want to be one. I want to be a pastor who serves people. And although I never expected things to be the way they are, I’m up for the challenge of figuring out new ways to serve people in the unselling times in which I find myself. I’m game to learn how to conduct a livestream. I’m willing to study the problems with sound and ask questions and learn what I can do to make it better. I’ve watched more than a few videos on video lighting and sound production and how to make things better. I know that there are congregations who have 128 channel mixers with separate audio board operators for the house sound and the livestream sound. I know that there are congregations that livestream with up to six or eight cameras, each with its own operator. I don’t want to imitate them. I don’t want to compete with them.

I’m well aware that our people watch hours and hours of video that is professionally shot and mixed. We are not running a television channel. We are trying to be a community of faithful people, serving in difficult times.

So don’t expect our video production to be state of the art. Don’t expect our audio to be so inspiring that it exceeds any experience you could have in person. I don’t want to fill up the surround sounds of the home theaters of our members with an experience that exceeds a theatre. I want to be faithful to God. I want to serve without fear. I want to offer healing and hope to those who have been pushed to the margins of society. I want to be a partner with the people who are serving in the missions and feeding the hungry children and preaching hope in the most impoverished corners of the world.

I’m perfectly comfortable with amateur video and audio, even if it is the end point of my preaching career. I’ll take the criticism and I’ll smile and I’ll even smile through the comparison with the people who spend more on each broadcast than our congregation spends in a year. And I’ll freely admit that I’m not very good at this televangelism business. I’ll leave that to others. I never wanted to be a televangelist in the first 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!