Holidays and children

Today I will begin and end my journal with prayers. The ending prayer will be for children, as is my pattern during 40 Days of Prayer for Children. The opening prayer is a prayer of thanksgiving. One year ago yesterday, my wife was on a ventilator in the intensive care unit of our local hospital, having suffered two heart arrests in one day. I had witnessed her receiving CPR and could hardly find a way to hold her hand through all of the IVs and monitors hooked up to her. On that day, I would have quickly traded everything I had for just one more year with her. I got my year and so much more. She is is great health now, exercises every day and her heart problems have been addressed. I have been witness to a miracle.

Gracious God, thank you for your power of healing and for your answer to my prayers and the prayers of so many others who support us in those terrifying days. Thank you for the skills of doctors and the care of nurses and the learning of generations of doctors. Thank you for the love and support of family, church and community. Thank you for the love and commitment of marriage. Thank you for the strength of my life’s partner. For these and all of your blessings I am deeply grateful. May I sing your praise all of my days. Amen.

I walked into a big box hardware and lumber store a few days ago and was greeted by a huge display of Christmas lights and objects right at the front door. The display didn’t have any thing that I could recognize as a celebration of the birth of Jesus. There was a huge Santa and a sleigh and several trees with bright lights. It seemed to be a display of outdoor lights that could be put up to show the Christmas spirit. I wasn’t in the store for any kind of holiday decorations, but I was struck by the Christmas display in September.

I remember the autumn parade of holidays from my childhood: September begins with Labor Day and back to school. October ends with Halloween. November has Thanksgiving and December is the month of Christmas, follow shortly by New Year’s. At a bare minimum, the store display should be confusing to young children. It was confusing to me. Who puts up their Christmas decorations in September? And who has the space to store such giant Christmas decorations until they are used? Of course I’m particularly aware of storage space as I try to sort out what we will move and what we will give away and what we will sell before we move. Acquiring giant decorations for any holiday isn’t high on my list of priorities at the moment.

The display got me to thinking about holidays and celebrations in general. I can see a lot of changes in celebrations in the span of my lifetime.

I’m pretty sure that the pandemic will mean some changes in how people celebrate holidays this year. In the first place, there will be less travel. People are taking precautions to try to avoid the spread of the disease. And for those who are at the lower end of the economic scale, there are no jobs and hard times means less money for holidays. College students won’t be returning to classes after Thanksgiving, with a long break between semesters this year. And I’m thinking that Trick or Treat will be curtailed by pandemic fears as well.

Today is the first of October. It seems like a good time to begin teaching our children about Halloween. All Saint’s Eve is the day before All Saint’s Day, when we remember those who have gone before. For those of us in the Protestant tradition, it is a time when we acknowledge the faith of so many mentors and models who have taught us the way of faith. “We Sing a Song of the Saints of God, faithful and brave and true.” Halloween also has roots in ancient harvest festivals in the northern hemisphere. The symbol of Halloween is a pumpkin. We carve and decorate pumpkins, but we must never forget that they are food, grown in gardens to provide sustenance to our bodies. The traditions of wearing costumes and sharing treats with others have other roots in the stories of our people. They teach us the joy of surprise and the power of generosity. There is much to teach children about Halloween.

I’m not finding the big Christmas display at the big box store to be very helpful in teaching children about holidays.

God of all of the seasons of our lives, as summer turns to fall in our part of the world, our hearts turn to many prayers of thanksgiving. As we pray for the children of the world, we pray that they might be taught the spirit of thanksgiving. May they know enough about the sources of their food to participate in prayers of gratitude for the bounty of harvests. May they learn enough about those who have gone before to know the stories of the saints of our faith. May they be inspired to sing, “And I want to be one, too!”

Help us, gracious God, to place the needs of children at the center of our celebrations in this and every season. May we learn to see the world with the eyes of children and recover the wonder and awe of each new season. May we plan our celebrations in ways that invite the full participation and protect the safety of each child.

Bless the seasons of our lives. May each new season become an opportunity to show love and support and nurture to all of your children whatever their circumstances or situations. We pray for all of your children in the name of the child who was born in the manger and who invited the children to come to him and took them in his arms and blessed them. Amen.

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!

Children's books

One of the challenges of downsizing for us has been that we have invested our lives collecting books. For the past quarter of a century, both Susan and I have had offices with walls of bookshelves. In addition we have a home library with three walls of floor to ceiling bookshelves. The time has come for us to chose which books to keep and which to discard. We started by sorting our offices. Six boxes of books were donated to the church library. Three boxes went to a young theologian. Three boxes went to Good Will. The rest came home to be sorted with our other books.

We have made contact with the local chapter of the American Association of University Women, which holds an annual book sale most years to support its scholarship programs. There was no bookstall this year, however, so the storage area for books is full and when we first inquired we were told that they were taking no more donations. Then we found a member who was willing to store our books for next year’s sale. Our sorting process has been yielding three books for AAUW for each box we have packed of books to keep and move to our new home. That means that we can make a similar reduction in the number of shelve units we move as well. We think that the extra shelves can be donated to a local furniture ministry.

I have given away my collection of historic hymnals and my collection of bibles, both of which occupied significant shelf space. Of course I still have my grandfather’s bible, my mother’s and father’s bibles, my confirmation bible, and a few other copies that have special meaning to me.

Sorting children’s books was a particular challenge. Before we had children, Susan worked in a preschool and began a lifelong study of children’s literature. She collected read aloud books and young reader books. Knowing our love of books, family members made gifts of books and we have a fairly large collection of classic children’s literature, such as Bobbsey Twins. When children came into our lives, we both loved reading to them and we tried to make books a part of every gift-giving occasion. Our plan of three gifts became a bit of a mantra: “Something to play with, something to read, something to wear.” That plan has continued to our grandchildren. With our grandchildren living far away, books were often duplicated, with one at our home and one at the home of our grandchildren so we could read to them over Skype.

There are boxes of children’s books that we simply have to keep. We have a lot more reading to and with our grandchildren in our future.

Then there are the books about teaching and learning. Susan and I are both certified Christian educators. I worked on a second Masters at the University of Wyoming on Adult and Post Secondary Education with an emphasis in Curriculum Design. Our daughter studied elementary education at Western Wyoming Community College and Eastern Montana University. I sent pictures of the spines of college education text books to our daughter who is living in Japan and she opted to keep most of those text books.

We have four grandchildren. Three of them have a librarian for a father. I guess anyone who knew us might have seen that coming. We do not need to own books to have access to them. We have easy access to libraries. We have library cards from our local library and we also have library cards from the library in the town where we are moving, and where our son is the director of library services. I can sample thousands of library books on my tablet computer and check them out for six weeks at a time to read. I don’t need bookshelves filled with books in order to have things to read. Our grandchildren know that they can go to the library and come home with stacks of books.

We have joked about being able to stock all of the little free libraries in our community, though those don’t seem to have much available shelf space.

As we have been sorting, and carrying boxes of books, I have been thinking of the joy of reading and of books. The average box of books weighs about 40 pounds. We now have a dozen boxes of books for AAUW - nearly 500 pounds of books. I’ve moved every one of those boxes out of our basement, into the back of my pickup, and to a rented storage unit. They all need to be moved one more time before we release our storage place. As I pack books, I’ve laughed at the memory of many funny books, shed a few tears over some touching books, and relished a few memories of there books. Books have been so much a part of our lives, that I can’t imagine quite what life is like for children who have no one to read to them every day. I can’t imagine what it is like for refugee children who have no way to move heavy objects such as books. I can’t imagine what it is like for homeless children who have had to leave every book behind.

One of the tragedies of the coronavirus pandemic is that all across the country libraries have been closed. In the United States, libraries are not only places to obtain books, they also provide a wide variety of services to homeless people including computer access and access to clean spaces. Although libraries are finding new ways to serve our communities, many are doing so with drastically reduced budgets as a result of reduced revenues for cities.

Gracious God, our people have always been the people of a book. The stories of our people have been written and read over and over again. We are grateful for our bible and for its depth of meaning for all people. Bless those who care for books and make them available to others. Bless the children who hear the stories of our people. May we always find time to read to children. Amen.

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!

Adolescent suicide

I keep a list of potential topics for my daily journal. From the beginning of my 40 day series of prayers for children, I have had a topic on my list that I have been avoiding. It is especially difficult for me to write for a number of reasons. One of those reasons is that I have a lot of personal experience with the topic. I can cite statistics off of the top of my head. I know of dozens of cases in our community. I also know and respect families and will never tell their stories for them. Their pain is too deep to be invited by my journal. However, it is a topic that I also have committed myself not to avoid, so here goes.

Statistically the second leading cause of death among youth age 15-24 is suicide. Approximately one out of every 15 high school students reports attempting suicide each year. For each suicide death among adolescents, there may be as many as 100 to 200 suicide attempts. But those statistics don’t tell the whole story. A single youth suicide is too many. I’ve been to dozens of funerals. I’ve met families. I’ve seen the impact on the community.

The means of suicide in South Dakota are similar to the rest of the United States. Half of youth suicides are carried out with a firearm. Hanging is about 35 percent, poisoning 11 percent and the remaining 4 percent are a variety of different means. If you consider that the leading cause of death among adolescents is accidents, primarily automobile accidents, you can see that the actual rate of death by suicide might be considerably higher. In many automobile accidents, it is not possible to determine the degree of intentionality involved. Teens who engage in risky behaviors such as not wearing seatbelts, driving at high rates of speed and driving while impaired may be demonstrating suicidal thoughts or behaviors.

When a person dies, a lot of evidence is lost forever.

Researchers have interviewed teens who have attempted suicide and survived the attempt. There are many factors that influence teen suicidal behavior. Teens who have attempted often cite bullying as a factor. We don’t have enough information to be able to say that bullying causes suicide, but victims of bullying live with increased stress. Emotional victimization increases the risk of suicide. Teens are especially susceptible to bullying. As adolescents create emotional distance from their families of origin, they turn to peers for support and validation. When that support and validation are not present - and when bullying makes matters even worse - suicidal ideation and lead to action.

Depression is a mood disorder that increases the risk of suicide. Many brain disorders are undiagnosed in teens, so it is impossible to get accurate statistics about teen depression. All adolescents experience signs of depression, such as changes in sleep patterns, feelings of guilt, changes in energy levels, difficult with concentration, changes in appetite, reduced motivation and feelings of guilt. While there are effective treatments for depression, teens often don’t have access to mental health care and their symptoms do not lead to accurate diagnosis and treatment.

Other factors that increase suicidal ideation and behavior include domestic violence, and substance abuse. These conditions are underreported in teens.

Suicide frequently involves a reduced impulse control. There is strong evidence that youth suicide is the result of impulse. A suicide delayed is often a suicide prevented when teens are involved.

As is true with suicide death in general, the rate of teen suicide in South Dakota is higher than the national rate. Our teens are dying of suicide at a higher rate than the teens in neighboring states. This may be partially the result of a phenomenon called clustering. A suicide cluster is a group of suicide attempts that occur close together in time and geography. Suicide clusters appear to occur most frequently in teenagers and young adults. Researchers who study suicide sometimes speak of suicide contagion. One person’s suicidal behavior influences other persons to engage in suicidal behavior. We have witnessed clusters in our community with teens as young as 14. Although death by suicide is more common among male teens, cluster events seem to be more evenly distributed by gender.

Suicide cuts across lines of race and ethnicity and affects all segments of society, but in Rapid City and in South Dakota the rate of suicide is higher among American Indian youth than the general population.

Those are just the statistics, however. What the statistics don’t tell is the depth of pain and anguish caused by a suicide death. No parent should have to see the death of a child. All childhood deaths permanently affect the parents and siblings. Death by suicide strikes particularly deeply. On dozens of occasions I have sat with parents who have lost a child to suicide. On a few occasions it has fallen to me to give a parent that news. I have watched as grief literally disables a person and that person collapses onto the floor in uncontrollable sobbing. There is no consolation in those first moments of shock. The pain is just beginning. Those who are grieving a suicide death experience continuing pain. They find that they can think of little other than their loss. They suffer a wide number of symptoms including their own suicidal ideation.

While we have learned a lot about suicide prevention, resources are still scarce in our communities. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-TALK (8255) is a network of over 160 crisis centers providing services 24/7 with a single telephone number. There is training available for teens and for adults who work with teens for safe talk and applied suicide intervention skills training (ASIST).

God, you know the vulnerability of the teens in our community. You know the dark thoughts that inhabit their minds. Make of us sources of support and strength for those who are struggling emotionally, especially the teens of our community. Inspire us to action to increase the resources in our communities for struggling teens. We know that you never abandon your children. May we be as dedicated to their futures as you. Amen.

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!

Children and technology

We have a fourteen month-old grandson who lives in Japan with his parents. Nearly every day we FaceTime or Skype with his parents and we get to see him over their various devices, usually a cell phone or a tablet computer on their end. We were able to travel to Japan to visit him and his parents during the first weeks of his life and he and his mother came to visit us when he was three months old, so for most of his life, we have been images on a screen to him. Chances are pretty good that he doesn’t remember our face-to-face meetings. Nonetheless we do have a significant relationship with him. He responds to our greetings. He plays a form of peek-a-boo with us. He chatters at us. He shows us his toys. He waves good buy and blows kisses. Of course a lot of his responses are responding to his mother or father’s encouragement. Still, he has a relationship with the faces on the screen of the device. We’ve noticed that he wants to hold the phone when his mother is talking with us. He’ll reach towards the iPad when they are using it.

He has no memory of a world before portable computers. Screens are pervasive in his world. Every adult he knows has a phone. He sees having phones as normal and usual. He even has a toy phone of his own with a light-up screen. He already knows which phone is his mothers, which is his fathers and which is the one he is allowed to play with. He also knows that remotes control the television and stereo in his home and he knows where his daddy keeps the remotes. He also knows that he is not supposed to pay with those remotes.

His parents and grandparents have read articles about the dangers to children of excessive time in front of screens. We know that screens are extremely addictive. They can shape children’s minds in ways that we are only beginning to understand. The news from researchers isn’t all bad. There are positive effects of screen time. In our case, we certainly feel a need to use the computers to bridge the distances between our homes. The home screen on my phone is a picture of our grandson. The screen saver on my computer is a series of slides of all of our grandchildren. I use screens eery day as a way of maintaining my relationship with our grandchildren.

Learning to use screens appropriately and knowing when and how to stop using them is a critical skill for parents. How they are used by and with children will have lasting effects on their lives.

Our nine-year-old grandson has access to a tablet computer for entertainment and education. His time in front of the screen is closely monitored and limited. His parents have made good use of parental controls to limit his access to some of the dangerous sites on the Internet. His two sisters, aged 6 and 3, also have some limited access to the computer and are allowed to watch a little bit of television. They also have a home filled with children’s books and all have reading time every day. They have had Charlie and the Chocolate factory, by Roald Dahl, read to them:

“So please, o please, we beg, we pray,
“Go throw your TV set away,
“And in its place you can install
“A lovely bookshelf on the wall.”

One of the dangers of excessive screen time for children is that it comes at a cost of reduced physical activity. It has also been linked to decreased sleep in children as well as adults. On the other hand, there is solid research demonstrating that educational television can benefit children who are age two and older.

Part of the reality of screens in our lives is that they present partial information. Screens present information to our eyes and ears without engaging our other senses. We’re acutely aware of this when we visit with our grandchildren over the computer. We can’t touch them, nor they us, even when the younger ones try to touch us by touching the screen. We can’t smell them over the screen, thought we can imagine some smells, such as when the baby’s mother tells us she needs to change a diaper. We can hear the splash of water when a child is playing at a water table, but we don’t feel the sensation of wet skin over the computer. The same goes for our grandchildren. They can’t feel a grandparent’s hug on the screen. They only get part of a relationship with us through the media.

We are aware that we are extremely fortunate to have the technology that we do have and we love to watch our grandchildren on the screen. We love to read books to our grandchildren over the computer. We take great delight in the pictures that arrive by text message throughout the day to report on the activities of those grandchildren.

At the same time, we support their parents’ decision to limit screen time and to enable them to have as many experiences in the real world as possible.

The advent of the Covid pandemic has meant that a lot of children are increasing their screen time. Screens are used for distance learning and delivery of schools when face-to-face gatherings need to be restricted to prevent the spread of the virus. Children will be using screens much more in their schooling this year than ever before.

O God who has created us for relationship with you, we are grateful for the technologies that enable us to connect and have relationships over long distances. Help us to discern the appropriate uses of these technologies in the lives of the children in our world. May we be wise in our choices and careful in the use of screens. Help us to continue to seek experiences for all children of real world learning and relationships that help them to grow and learn and explore all of their senses. Bless us all in this ever-changing world. Amen.

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!

Challenges of youth

In this morning’s Sunday Telegraph, Charles, Prince of Wales, has highlighted the impact of the Coronavirus pandemic on young people. He suggests that there could be a millions in need of urgent help. His article highlights what researchers have been saying for some time now. The impact of the virus on young people is far deeper and more complex than just the effects of the disease. Education gaps between richer and poorer students have widened during lockdown. Experts warn that the decrease in face-to-face contact is causing damage to developing young minds and emotions. Around the world young people have been hit harder by the unemployment that has come from the virus and the response of governments to it than those of other ages.

Prince Charles wrote, “For anyone, this is a difficult time - but it is a particularly difficult time to be young.” The article caught my eye in part because, like me, Charles is no longer a young person. At 71, he tested positive for the virus early in the pandemic. There has been a lot of information about the effects of the virus on old people. Researchers say that the risk of severe complications and death rises with the age of the victims. However, the Prince chose not to highlight the risks for people our age, but rather, to speak of the need for hope and serious support for young people during the pandemic. Using the charity he founded in the 1970’s, he has set up a Young People Relief Fund to provide some of that support.

In England, as in the United States, university students have returned to classes this fall in a variety of hybrid learning situations. Many are taking the majority of their classes online whether or not they are able to reside on campus. Although young people are skilled in the use of computers and social media, the lack of face-to-face contact with their peers and the shift in options for social interaction and communal learning has shifted the process dramatically. Without the same options for networking as were provided by in-person university learning it is much more difficult to launch a career after years of preparation.

The term “college” comes from a description of the unique living environment of higher education. A collegium is a group of people who share the tasks of day-to-day living in order to be more efficient in the pursuit of a shared goal. Instead of living independently, members of a collegium come together so that they can share domestic tasks giving more time for research and education. While online education offers the convenience of not needing to travel to attend classes, it cannot offer the shared experiences of talking about educational content outside of class as a group of people share common tasks such as meal preparation and social life.

There are great concepts and ideas that have taken generations to mature that are difficult to understand. Those ideas are better learned and shared by people who are able to live and work together.

The story of humanity, however, is the story of challenges faced by people under pressure. Previous generations of young people have come of age in the midst of unique and challenging situations. We know that youth are highly adaptable and despite the worry and confusion of the worldwide pandemic, they are resilient. Prince Charles’ article is filled with hope for the possibilities that lie ahead for his nation’s young people. Hope is one thing that we elders receive when we invest time in being with younger people.

God of all of the times of our lives, we come before you in uncertain times. We are unsettled by the fears of illness and confused by the conflicting advice of leaders as they struggle to adapt to this worldwide threat to health and well being. In the midst of this crisis, we offer our prayers for young people who are seeking to complete their educations and launch their careers. So much has changed in such a shot amount of time that make it difficult for them to navigate the challenges of coming of age.

We lift up to your eternal care the adolescents and young adults of our communities. May they see hope and possibility in the midst of challenge. May they find new ways to forge community in the face of the danger of the spread of the virus. May they have access to the tools of learning and connecting with other people. We know that their lives will be vastly different from our own. May the new challenges they face be met with grace and creativity as we all seek to discover hope for the future.

You, who have created all that is, continue to create, bringing forth new opportunities and new challenges in the midst of our everyday lives. Help us to reflect the power of creation as we seek to restore hope and health to our communities. Give us the insight to grasp new solutions as we seek to provide the support and encouragement that young people need to face their futures and launch their adult lives. Keep us mindful of those who through no fault of their own are caught in poverty and unemployment. May we be mindful of the barriers that exist for so many young people and may we join them in seeking new ways to overcome those barriers and invite them into full participation in our communities.

God of all ages and stages of this life, help us to keep our connections with people of all ages. May we together discover the faith, hope and love that are essential to human life and that endure though all of the challenges and crises of life. Our future has always been in your hands. May we live lives that are dedicated to that future and invested in bringing faith, hope and love to others through our words and our actions. We pray in your holy name, Amen.

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!

Grieving children

Children deal with grief differently than adults. I have often been serving driving families where a child will be playing quietly while we discuss funeral plans. On the surface, sometimes, it seems as if the child isn’t taking in all of the things that are occurring in the family. The child will be aware that the adults are upset and will even try to comfort a crying adult, but will then return to familiar toys and seem to withdraw from the conversation. I have worked with adults to help children understand what is going on. I have spoken with children and answered their questions. Often when a young child asks questions about what is going on they aren’t the big philosophical or theological questions, but rather practical and technical questions. They are curious about what will happen to the body of the loved one. They want to know what is behind a closed door at a funeral home or a church.

The concepts of life and death and eternity are difficult for a child to grasp. “Forever” is not something that makes sense to a young child. Often the reactions of adults instills fear in a child. I clearly remember working with a family who had lost a child refer to her dying in her sleep. “She went to sleep and didn’t wake up” was a phrase that they said to their other child to try to explain what had happened. The result was that the other child developed a deep fear of falling asleep. The child was unable to sleep in his own bed and would only reluctantly fall asleep when being held by a parent. He would wake with deep fear and need to be comforted multiple times during the night. The process of caring for him was exhausting the parents months after their loss.

While it is true that the global coronavirus death toll has been lighter among children and youth than among older persons, it is important that we all remember that children remain deeply affected by the pandemic. Even if they don’t experience symptoms as severe as adults and even if they are more likely to survive the virus, they are in families who have experienced death and loss and are immersed in grief. 200,000 Americans. Almost a million deaths worldwide. 32 million cases confirmed globally. That is a lot of sickness. It is a lot of death. It is a lot of grief. And there are a lot of children who are seeking to understand what has happened in their families.

And children are swept up in the pandemic in other ways as well. Even those who are not directly related to someone who has died and who are not a part of the wave of grief that is sweeping the world are affected. They have had their school schedules rearranged. They have sensed the fear that their parents have. They have needed to adjust to wearing face masks and taking preventive measures. They have heard from friends and teachers about the dangers of the virus. They wonder where it all started and what it will mean in terms of additional changes in their lives.

Children look to the adults in their lives to figure out how to respond to the events of their lives. Children of fearful parents often become fearful themselves.

We are nearing the mid point of our 40 days of prayer for children. We can look back at the prayers we have made since September 7 and we can look forward to Children’s Sabbath on October 18. We can count the days and understand that this particular discipline takes place in a limited amount of time. 40 days, however, is a short time when it comes to grief. It is too short of a time for the pandemic to reach its conclusion. When we have completed our formal prayer vigil, illness and death and grief will remain. When we have reached Children’s Sabbath, families will continue to be surrounded by grief.

It is important that we understand that the need for prayer will continue. The vigil is about changing our entire lives, not about a few minutes each day when we think about children. The second funeral at which I officiated and the first case in which I was called upon to make a death notification to family members, back when I was still a student, was the death of a child. The family had lived on a farm and the children had played in an area of a barn where pesticides had been stored. One of the children had been poisoned by the chemicals and died as a result. It feel to me to take the news to the mother and to officiate at a funeral where siblings were present. I had the support of my seminary teachers and community as I prepared for the funeral, but I felt totally inadequate for the tasks that were mine. That feeling has never left me. I never know the right words to say or the right things to do to comfort grieving parents and family members. The event did start me down the road of a decades-long career of seeking to serve those who grieve and seeking to find tools to support families who have experienced loss. Sorting through my books in preparation for our upcoming move I am struck by how many books about grief and loss I have read. Still, I feel that there is so much more that needs to be learned. Still I feel inadequate in the face of grieving children.

God who holds in your heart all of the grieving people of the world, we pray today for children who are swept up in grief. May their pain be eased. May their fears be calmed. May they receive your peace that passes all understanding as they are swept up in their own grief and the grief of family members. May they learn to trust in an uncertain world. May they find the love, care and nurture that they need. Bless them today and every day. Amen.

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!

Thanks for children

Yesterday was a strange day for us in several ways. Our house was listed for sale on the local MLS and Zillow at 7 am. In order to prepare for the sale, we decided to take down the pictures of our children and grandchildren that used to hang on our walls, as we have declined to post any pictures of our grandchildren on social media. That makes our home feel just a little bit less like it is “ours” as we are used to being surrounded by pictures of our children and grandchildren.

By the end of the day, our home had been shown to potential buyers seven times. That meant that for most the time between 9:45 am and 8”30 pm we were away from our home. It was a bittersweet time for us as this has been a wonderful family home for 25 years. While we are excited about the future and committed to downsizing our lives, selling our home is a really big step for us. It isn’t something with which we have a lot of experience. We are a bit nervous about the whole process.

So here is a shameless plug. If you know of someone who is looking for a home in the Black Hills of South Dakota, or if you’d just like to see the listing for our home, here is the link: https://www.zillow.com/homes/5255-Waxwing-Lane,-Rapid-City-SD_rb/117824339_zpid/

For the past three months, getting the house ready to go on the market has been one of the main focuses of my time. I’ve had a long list of projects to complete and have worked on the house full-time most days. Suddenly yesterday our job was to be away from our home and to wait. We ran a few errands. We went for a couple of walks. We visited some friends. At one point in the day, feeling a bit disoriented by all that is going on, I got out my phone, because that is the way that we look at pictures these days. I started looking at some new pictures of our grandson our daughter sent us this week. Then I looked at some pictures of our other grandchildren. Then I began scrolling through my pictures. It was fun to look at the pictures that I have on my phone. I found pictures of us with five children who are about the same ages as our grandchildren, but who live not far from us. They are friends met through the church. They are the most delightful children with fantastic parents and a great network of grandparents and friends. Then I looked at the great nephew and two great nieces we visited on our way home from our last trip to the northwest.

We are so incredibly fortunate to be surrounded by family and friends who have young children. We get to see their emerging personalities and share their sense of play. We get to read stories and be shown their toys. We get to talk with their parents who remind us of the joys and challenges of raising children. The children in our lives make our lives infinitely richer and more joyful.

In the process of making this change in our lives, we have done a little looking at potential new homes. Although our plan is to rent for a while so we can scope out the market in our new home, the Internet makes it easy to look at homes for sale in the area. One of the things upon which we have agreed is that we both are not attracted to “Senior Living” or “Adult Communities.” There are a few places that advertise “Homes for 55+.” We think that we would prefer not to live in such neighborhoods. The thought of not having children in our neighborhood just doesn’t appeal to us.

We know that there are some trials to living with children as neighbors. We used to call some of our neighborhood children “danger children,” because of slightly unregulated use of scooters, bikes, toy cars, sleds and other vehicles on the street we take up the hill to get to our driveway. We told everyone who came to visit to be careful and keep an eye out for the danger children. The children survived without injuries from their escapades as far as we know. There have been a few, though not many, nights when a teenage or young adult party has disrupted our sleep. Occasionally a car with a very loud stereo and booming bass makes its way to a neighbor’s house in the wee hours when we are used to the night sounds of crickets and coyotes. The benefits of living in a neighborhood with people of all ages, however, far outweigh the occasional inconveniences. Whenever the weather is good, we love watching our neighbor’s kids playing with the grandchildren of another neighbor across the street. And when it snows, we enjoy watching the children with their sleds enjoying the hillsides of the neighborhood.

Our prayers for children today are a celebration of our gratitude for living in a world with so many children who give so much delight to us.

Great God of every generation, how fortunate we are to live in a world with children. The children of our children and the children of our friends and neighbors bring so much joy and delight to the world! Their enthusiasm for life inspires us and gives us great pleasure. Opportunities to read stories or to join in play abound and we feel so grateful for the presence of children in the world.

Children give us such a profound blend of memory and hope for the future that we are overwhelmed with the powerful emotions that we experience when we listen to their stories and wonder at their play. Their physical energy so far exceeds our own that they literally take our breath away.

Thank you, God, for the children of the world. Keep them safe. Surround them with love. Bless them, for indeed they are blessings to all of us.

In the name of the infant who was placed in a manger at his birth, Amen.
Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!

An enormous tragedy

A week ago I was driving to town on Sheridan Lake Road and I noticed an accident investigation vehicle from the Rapid City Police Department on the sidewalk near Arrowhead Golf Course. It particularly caught my eye because there are also a couple of Pennington County Sheriff’s Department vehicles parked there as well. After years as a Sheriff’s Chaplain, I’m always looking to see of the officers are people that I know. The officers weren’t right next to their vehicles and I needed to pay attention to my driving to keep from being in the way of whatever the officers were doing. A while later, returning and going the opposite direction on the road, I was paying close attention as I approached the site where there were still several law enforcement vehicles parked. This time I recognized one of the officers and I also saw that there was damage to the tennis center building at the club. It struck me as strange that the tennis center was damaged. The hillside is steep at that place and the damage reached to the roof of the building. I kept looking at the site as I drove by. I saw the marks on the road that had been carefully made by the accident investigation team, marking the path of the vehicle. I could tell by the marks that it had been going at a pretty high rate of speed - much higher than the 40 mph limit in the area.

I have no access to any inside information about the accident. Even when I was a chaplain, I would not have asked officers to tell me more than was available to the public. Now that I have retired, I know what is posted on the newspaper web site. It was from that source that I learned that a 16-year-old girl died Tuesday who had been riding in the car that hit the tennis building. The details are sketchy, but the article had the rough outline of the events of the wee hours of September 16. The story reads like a parent’s worst nightmare.

Around 1:25 a.m. a single-vehicle crash was reported. A neighbor called police to report that a southbound car had run into a tree near the tennis center. Officers arrived and found the vehicle and the driver lying next to the driver’s side of the vehicle. He was transported to the hospital with serious injuries. The officers then found the 16-year-old girl. Life-saving measures were instituted and she was rushed to the hospital.

There was evidence that alcohol had been a factor in the accident. The driver, aged 22, was charged with vehicular battery and driving without a license and issued a personal recognizance bond which allows him to be out of the jail while he is being treated at the hospital for his injuries. He is scheduled to appear in court on October 20 for the charges.

After six days of intensive care at the hospital the 16-year-old died. The police are now investigating the case as a vehicular homicide. Under South Dakota law vehicular homicide occurs when the driver of the vehicle is impaired by drugs or alcohol.

It makes me nauseous to think of the accident. You can say that a 16-year-old girl who gets into a car with a 22-year-old man who has been drinking is up to no good. You can say that the failure to wear seat belts was a huge mistake. You can say a lot of things. None of them change the simple fact that a life is ended. It was a short life. She died too soon.

I know nothing of the rest of the story. I haven’t met any of the people who are grieving her death. I don’t know who went to visit her in the hospital. I don’t know who now needs to make funeral arrangements. There is a lot that I don’t know and that leaves a lot of room for my imagination.

What I do know is that a 22-year-old man and a 16-year-old girl made some bad decisions on the night of September 15 as the clock turned to the morning of September 16. The decisions turned out to be fatal.

Our teens and young adults are incredibly vulnerable. Every parent who has had children those ages knows that fear that grips you in the middle of the night when you don’t know where your teen is. You know that they need the freedom to make their own choices and you also know the terrible consequences of poor choices. You want to trust your child, but you also know that the stakes are high and that risks will be taken. What I also know is that there are plenty of teens and young adults in our community who don’t have strong advocates in the form of parents or relatives who advocate for the young ones and guide them through the maze of difficult decisions. Add alcohol or drugs to the mix and the quality of the decisions doesn’t improve.

I remember the conversations we had with our children when they were that age. I remember how I repeatedly said to them that they could call me any time, day or night, if they were tempted to get in the car with someone who had been drinking. I would immediately come and give them a ride with no questions asked and no punishment offered. The decision to call instead of getting into a car with a driver who had been drinking would be treated as a good decision every time. Those conversations didn’t stop me from worrying.

Into your hands, Almighty God, we command the spirit of Alexis Black Elk. We know that you have already received her as your own child and a sheep of your flock. We know that for her all pain and suffering are ended and that she has entered into your realm where all of your people are gathered into your grad love.

Gracious God, we also commit to your unending care the life of Terrance Richard, whose decisions resulted in her death and who now has to live with the consequences of his choices for the rest of his life. May he discover ways to contribute to the community and become a part of the solution to the dangers that face teens and young adults. May the rest of his life not be squandered, but invested in bringing peace and safety to others.

Comfort the grieving. And, dear God, protect the other teens and young adults who face choices with similarly huge consequences. May they choose life in the situations they face. Amen.

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!

Exuberant youth

Yesterday afternoon we went for a walk on the trails behind Terra Sancta retreat center, which is next to St. Martin’s Monastery. The community has a couple of miles of hiking trails and we rarely encounter other walkers when we are getting our exercise on the hills behind the retreat center. The walk winds up the hill behind the chapel and we could hear the birds in the trees as we walked through the trees. As we wandered we could periodically also hear the sounds of a football practice taking place on the field next to St. Elizabeth Seton Elementary School. From a distance it appeared that the players were a bit older than the K-6th-graders of Seton School. I speculated that they might be students from St. Thomas More Middle School which is in town. It is likely that the high school football team was using the field near the Middle and High Schools and the middle school players were using the field next to the elementary school. At any rate, we could hear the coaches shouting and occasionally a player would make an especially good play and the whole group would erupt into cheering. They were shouting pretty loud and we heard a few hoarse voices. Clearly it was an exuberant group enjoying a beautiful autumn day, with temperatures nearing 80 degrees.

The walk got me to thinking about all of the middle and high school athletic programs that are usually going full steam by this time of the year. Educators have long known that most students need a balance of academic and physical education in order to achieve their personal best. Our rapidly changing world means that students experience a lot of different stressors in their lives. In order to focus on their academic work, they sometimes need physical activities to work out some of that stress. Competitive sports are one of the ways that schools seek to provide for the activities that students need.

Of course no school can provide for every need of every student. Engaged parents find that supplementing the school program with community sports, private dance programs and activities at the YMCA or youth clubs are often helpful in the overall development of their children.

With the pandemic continuing to ravage our country and our own state remaining among the highest in the nation for new infections, there is considerable concern about activities such as team sports. It is easy to imagine a single asymptomatic youth infecting an entire team while playing close contact sports such as football. However, the schools are under pressure from parents and students to return to as many activities as possible. Like the public schools, the students in the Catholic School System are dealing with a multi-tiered program of in-person learning, hybrid learning and remote learning. Students are practicing social distancing and wearing cloth face masks.

It was, however, pretty obvious to us as we looked down on the football field that there are limits to the social distancing in the team practice. We weren’t close enough to the field to see whether or not the players were wearing masks. While school officials are trying their best to take precautions and provide for the safety of students, it isn’t possible to avoid all risk in school programs.

We believe in the power of public education and during our time of living in Rapid City we have not focused as much attention on the private schools as we have on the public schools. We have known students who have attended the private schools and know of the quality education that is available form those schools. But we also know that a community has a responsibility to provide education to all of the children, not just the ones from certain families. Public education is necessary to a functioning democracy and a healthy community. Education is a huge factor in the ability of people to thrive and succeed in life. We have often prayed for our public schools, students, teachers and administrators during our annual 40 days of prayer for children.

Since we are praying for all children, it just makes sense that we join our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters in praying for the students and teachers of the Catholic School System as well.

I have a good friend who is a coach in the St. Thomas More varsity football program. I’ve had many conversations with him about the hours he dedicates to working with the students, traveling to their games and planning for the program. He often speaks of the dedicated volunteers who help to make the program run smoothly. I haven’t been in touch with that particular friend this fall and so I don’t know the specifics of how the football program is being incorporated into the school’s programs, but it was evident from our walk yesterday that the season has not been cancelled entirely.

Gracious God, we offer our prayers for all of the student athletes, their coaches and the many volunteers who provide for the physical exercise and team programs of our schools. We know that your promise of shalom is a promise of physical health as well as emotional and mental health. Growing bodies need safe places to exercise and stretch. Programs that provide for physical exercise and team building help to enhance the quality of life for students. We give you thanks for the athletic programs of our schools and all of the people who dedicate their time to those programs.

Keep our students safe. May they play without fear and enjoy the health benefits of their participation. Keep the adults who work with the children safe as well. May they find balance between risk and reasonable precaution so that guidance for students will provide for safety and good health. May all who participate in the programs of the schools enjoy your blessings in ways that enable them to share those blessings with others.

May our prayers be as genuine and as exuberant as the youth who were playing on the field yesterday. Amen.

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!

Homeless children

I suppose I could write an entire journal entry explaining why we had a box of cute baby clothes for an infant girl. Our caught is 37 years old. She was 12 when we moved into this house. You could say it was because of nostalgia. You might say that it was because we hoped to have another granddaughter some day. You could say it was because not all of her cousins wore hand-me-downs. The bottom line, however, was that the box of freshly-laundered and slightly out-of-fashion baby clothes was among the things that we need to shed as we prepare to move our household. It is pretty clear that we won’t be needing those baby clothes.

I’ve been taking a lot of things to various agencies that have thrift stores as we prepare to move. Sometimes I’ve had three or four packed boxes of merchandise in one trip. When we had planned our move, we hadn’t suspected that this summer would be the time when our church wasn’t able to have a rummage sale. The congregations we have served have always held rummage sales and this church had large rummage sales twice a year - until they didn’t. The pandemic meant that the church wouldn’t have had enough volunteers to mount a sale. It also meant that they wouldn’t have the usual number of customers for a sale. And the church had enacted policies to help prevent the spread of disease that made a sale impossible this summer. The one time they didn’t have a sale was the same time that we had planned to donate a lot of things.

All of those years of having a sale, however, combined with years of serving this community to give me a good sense of where the items could be donated so that they would go to the best use. So baby clothes needed to go to one of two shelters in our community. One in three woman in America have experienced some form of domestic violence. Often women leave dangerous home situations with children and without a safe place to go. Working Against Violence, Inc. in Rapid City provides temporary shelter to survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault. They operate a 13-bedroom shelter. The other institution in our community that is in need of clothing for infants is the Women and Children’s Home operated by the Cornerstone Rescue Mission. Families are the fastest growing segment of homelessness. Many of those families are single mothers with multiple preschool children. In no state in the United States does a full-time minimum wage job cover the cost of a one-bedroom apartment at fair market rent. The Mission provides temporary shelter and assistance to an average of 350-400 women and children annually. That adds up to a yearly average of 9,500 overnight stays to their guests.

The pandemic has resulted in a shortage of donations to the Cornerstone Rescue Mission. In addition to lower donations from the general public, the City of Rapid City reduced the mission’s budget by $70,000 in 2019. Additional cuts are likely as the city experiences decreases in income the the pandemic. We decided to take the box of baby clothes to the Mission Women and Children’s Shelter.

With the pandemic, the process of donation has been slightly altered. Rather than take the clothes to the Mission’s thrift store, we wanted to get them directly to the shelter, which also receives donations of items for which they have immediate need. At the shelter, there is a sign directing donors to place boxes next to the door and ring the bell. As soon as the donor steps away from the door a staff member comes out to pick up the donation. When I dropped off the box yesterday, the staff person gave me a big smile and a wave as she took the box into the shelter. I had visions of mothers, living in the tiny one-bedroom units of the shelter, struggling to deal with babies who go through several sets of clothes each day. One or two new outfits might make a big difference. Those moms probably wouldn’t be worried that the clothes are not the latest fashion. They are clean and nice and barely used. They might even bring a smile to a weary face.

There are so many reasons that people end up without homes, but the bottom line is that hard-working people end up without adequate housing. The myth that homeless occurs only to those who don’t want to work simply is not the truth. However the myth persists. Within the last week a local businessman testified before a state legislative committee that his business was hurt because he couldn’t hire enough workers. He complained that increased unemployment benefits made it impossible for him to find the workers he needed. He seemed to have no understanding of the fact that the pandemic has left children at home without care and forced parents to decrease their working hours. More importantly, this prominent businessman seems to have forgotten a basic principle of capitalism - supply and demand. A lack of supply increases demand and drives the price up. That businessman has a shortage of workers because he is unwilling to pay the price. When full-time work doesn’t make rent and groceries, you might not be paying the costs to compete in the market in which you are competing.

Dear God, We sing, “Jesus loves the little children.” and we know of your great compassion for the children of our community and of the world. Help us to reflect that love by the decisions we make. There are infants and children in our community who, through no fault of their own, lack simple, decent and safe housing. In addition to those who are homeless, hundreds more live in inadequate housing and lack the basic shelter all people need. Inspire us once again to go to work to provide for the needs of your children who live in poverty and experience homelessness. May we strengthen our community to provide for the needs of our neighbors. In Christ we pray, Amen.

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!

Youth in detention

When a child is arrested and charged with a crime, it is always a complex situation. Like any other citizen, juveniles have the right to judicial process. They have a right to be represented in court by an attorney and to have their case properly investigated. While the judicial process is being worked out, they have a right to a safe and secure place to live. They need to be protected from being harmed. They need to have an opportunity to continue their education. They need to have contact with family members. They need access to health care. Many need counseling. Most of the time, youth who have been arrested and charged with a crime have already had complex lives. Many are victims of abuse or neglect. They have made poor choices in part because they have been surrounded by adults who have made poor choices.

In the late 18th century and through much of the 19th century, children who were convicted of crimes were housed in jails and penitentiaries. Children of all ages and genders were confined with hardened adult criminals. People who suffered from mental illness were also confined in large and overcrowded penal institutions. Juveniles were often confined for behaviors that we’re not criminal simply because there were no other options. Children and youth ended up in jails and penitentiaries because of poverty.

During the 19th century, reformers began to oppose the practice of housing children with adults in prisons. The House of Refuge was opened in New York City in 1825. Illinois established a separate juvenile court in 1899 that required the separation of juveniles from adults when incarcerated. Legislative action barred the detention of children under the age of 12 in jails, a practice that eventually became widespread across the nation.

Reform, training and industrial schools were established across the nation in an attempt to provide for the needs of children and youth. They were generally quite large congregate living institutions with regimented activities and programs.

By the middle of the 20th century, public concern grew about the effectiveness of the juvenile justice system. In the 1960’s the Supreme Court made a series of decisions that formalized juvenile courts and provided more due process to youth charged with crimes. Formal hearings were required in situations where youth were transferred to adult court systems. In the late 1980s many states passed harsh laws in response to the public perception that juvenile crime was on the rise and that courts were too lenient. Several states passed punitive laws that included mandatory sentences and automatic adult court transfer for certain crimes.

For a variety of reasons, since the 1990s youth crime rates have plummeted across the nation. The punitive juvenile justice practices of the 1980s and 1990s have been proven to be ineffective. Systematic reforms in the juvenile justice system has reduced institutional confinement. 19th century style reform schools have been closed. Community-based interventions have been instituted that have proven to be far more effective.

The system isn’t perfect. Police are still faced with issues of what to do with youth who are charged with crime. Preventing crime and helping troubled youth to avoid poor decisions has proven to be far more effective than punishment after the crime has occurred.

For a few years, I served as chaplain to the staff of Western South Dakota Juvenile Services Center, a detention facility for youth aged 12 to 21 who need to be placed in a safe facility after being charged with a crime. Youth who must be detained as the result of criminal conviction are also detained at the center. The center provides a wide range of services to youth. Case managers learn the stories and backgrounds of individual youth and help to design individual educational plans. Teachers work to help youth keep up with schooling and work towards high school graduation or earning their GED. Opportunities for physical exercise and recreation are designed to allow youth to gain social skills through supervised play.

The facility was designed to house many more juveniles. However, continuing reforms are resulting in decreasing numbers of youth who need the specific services of the detention center. As soon as possible, detained youth are transferred to other programs. Adjacent to the center is a center for homeless and runaway youth. Short term services provide for youth to make the transition back into family and community-based living situations.

Because the facility is small, the youth served become known by the staff as individuals. They are treated with dignity and respect. They are offered opportunities to learn and grow despite their controlled situation. It is, however, a serious and secure facility. It has locked doors and security systems to make sure that youth remain within the facility and are protected from each other. Violent outbursts are met with sift and direct responses. Youth who need to be separated from others are placed in secure cells.

As chaplain, I learned of the care and dedication of the staff who serve the youth in the facility. I also learned what a challenging job it is to serve in the facility. We all want safety and security in our homes. While the courts work to provide effective responses to crime, institutions are needed to provide for the safety and security of youth who have committed crimes. The adults who work in these institutions develop a specific set of skills for protecting the youth who live in the facility. It is a tough job and the people who do those jobs are dedicated professionals.

Gracious God, we know that you care for all of the children and youth of this world and that your love extends to those youth who have made poor choices and who have committed crimes that have caused harm to others. You do not abandon those who are incarcerated. We also know, that you have given us the task of reaching out to those in jail. In the Gospel of Matthew read of the judgment of nations. Those judged will ask, “When was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” The answer comes, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

Help us, dear God, to reach out to those members of your family who are in need. May we never forget the youth who are detained. Amen.

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!

Yard sale

We had an impromptu rummage sale yesterday. We hadn’t planned on having a rummage sale. We have plenty of items that we need to shed, but we’ve mostly been getting rid of things by taking them to the Rescue Mission and Goodwill and trying to find things that friends want or need. However, our subdivision has periodic yard sales, where the homeowners association puts up signs and any homeowner can put things out in their driveway. A couple of days before the advertised sale, we started thinking of things that we could put out. Mostly we were thinking of things that we would give away for free, but then we thought of a few other things and before long we had quite a few things for the sale. We got up early and put out a couple of tables and assembled other items in groups on the driveway. We put prices on a few things and arranged an area of free items. Customers showed up early. Our first customers were an hour before the advertised start of the sale. By the official opening time of the sale, our inventory was significantly reduced. We didn’t care. We wanted to get rid of items. We laughed that the early customers were interested in storage items, such as plastic bins and shelves. I guess people who shop rummage sales early acquire a lot of things that need to be stored.

On one end of a table we placed some toys. There were a few things that our children had played with and a few items we acquired for visits from grandchildren. We’ve never been good at getting rid of things, so there was a hobby horse and a couple of stuffed animals and some puzzles and games, a couple of squirt guns and a few other assorted items. We put up a sign that said, “Toys: 50 cents if you are an adult; free if you are a child.” It was fun to watch the parents with their children. Most set a limit for their child. “You can choose one thing.” It really brought back memories for us of the days when our children were little.

Our children grew up with church rummage sales. When they were young, we’d give them each a dollar to spend at the rummage sale. Our son would carefully examine all of the items, add up prices in his head and finally make his decisions. Our daughter would go from item to item and select a lot of things, the prices would always add up to more than she had to spend. Then she’d take them up to the checkout and see what she could get for her dollar. We had to plead with the checkout clerks not to cut her any special deals. “Please,” we’d say, “We’re trying to teach her about money, don’t let her exceed her budget.” After those years of watching our own children and how they behave at sales, I’m drawn to observing children at sales each time I attend one. One girl started out looking at a stuffed animal, then saw a circus train, then a puzzle. She finally settled on a different stuffed animal. One boy rushed up, grabbed a squirt gun and then had to explain to his father that it was OK. “That man told me I could have it for free!” he exclaimed, pointing at me.

The fun of watching the children stirred my nostalgia even more. One of the things my father did in his life was to sell farm machinery. He was a John Deere dealer for 25 years. Alongside the big machines and the hard negotiations, the store carried a line of toy tractors. Our father put considerable energy into selling toys to children. He would take trade-ins and he would negotiate price. He saw it as a way of building a future customer base. He also enjoyed making deals with the children of his customers. My great uncle, who was our parts man, would repair and paint used toys in his spare time. We always had a big bin of used toys for the annual toys for tots drive was held.

Children develop their own patterns for shopping and making purchase decisions, but they also imitate their parents and other significant adults in their lives. It is a way for them to learn about the world of adult choices and actions. Usually they don’t have much money. Their decisions carry limited risk. There ar opportunities for them to learn from their experiences. Used toys might look appealing on the table, but have limited value for extended play. There are no chances to return items from a rummage sale. Once the purchase is made, the sale is final. Through the process, children learn about value and about making decisions.

We didn’t set up much of a learning exercise with our little yard sale. We didn’t have that many items to sell and the stream of customers was mostly adults. But there might have been a moment of joy for a few of the children who stopped by the sale. It gave us a way to extend our joy of ownership of a few of the items. By the time the sale was ended, we were feeling pretty good about our decision to put out some things for sale. It is the first time in 25 years of living in this house that we had participated in the neighborhood sale - the last sale before our house goes on the market.

Gracious God, we give you thanks and praise for the children of our neighborhood and those who came with their families into our neighborhood for yesterday’s sale. Their presence gives us joy. Watching them make choices helps us remember other children in our lives and how much we have learned by watching them learn. Bless the children, God. Help them to learn from their mistakes as well as their good choices. Give them adults in their lives who are good mentors and models for behavior and decision-making. Help us to discover how we might be blessings in their lives, just as they are blessings in ours. Amen.

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!

Children in smoky places

We have a niece and nephews who live in Portland, Oregon. They were feeling a slight bit of relief yesterday the air quality index rating dropped to unhealthy. When the air quality is unhealthy, “children, active adults, and people with respiratory disease, such as asthma, should avoid prolonged outdoor exertion; everyone else should limit prolonged outdoor exertion.” The reason they felt relief is that they had suffered days of Hazardous air quality when “Everyone should avoid all physical activity outdoors.”

The smoke from wildfires has been bad all across the west. Our air quality here in Rapid City has been hovering between “moderate” and “unhealthy for sensitive groups” for days. We have been advised to close windows and avoid dirty outdoor air.

One of the things that you will notice about the air quality scale is that at every level of air pollution, children are especially vulnerable. Except for the two cleanest air ratings at the top of the scale, children are specifically named as people who should limit activities when air pollution is present. Children are more likely to get upper respiratory infections, middle ear infections and even pneumonia. Exposure to smoke can put children at risk of developing asthma, even if they’ve near had any breathing problems before.

The Covid Pandemic has added a layer of complexity to those fleeing wildfires and smoky conditions across the west. Public spaces with air conditioning such as libraries and theaters are largely closed. The Alameda, California, Free Library opened the world’s first clean air center in late August and libraries around the San Francisco Bay area have followed with additional openings for clean air spaces. In addition to the clean air, the air conditioning systems offer a cooling center for those who do not have access to air conditioning.

California and Oregon already had high levels of homelessness before the fires forced additional people from their homes. It is estimated that nearly 500,000 people - or 10 percent for the state’s population - have been forced from their homes due to the threat of wildfire. Many have lost their homes and have no place to go even after the immediate danger of fire has passed. Among those left homeless are a lot of children.

The combination of poor air quality and a lack of places to shelter is already causing many children to experience respiratory distress. Hospitals and clinics, which were already overwhelmed with pandemic-related illnesses now are now being overwhelmed with victims of poor air quality.

I have spent most of my life in rural areas where the air quality is generally very good. But there have been occasions when I have been exposed to smoky air. My eyes begin to water, my nose get clogged, I find myself sneezing and, when the air is especially dirty, coughing. It isn’t pleasant. However, I have never experienced the panic of a full-blown asthma attack. I don’t know the feeling of simply not being able to breathe. It must be terrifying, and even worse if you are a child and don’t understand what is happening to you.

Great God of all times and places, we remember that when your people were enslaved in Egypt you heard their cry and provided a leader to take them out of the land of slavery and into a new life in a new place. Certainly you hear the cries of your children once again as they suffer from the smoke and pollution of unhealthy air. As they seek shelter, they know that the only true respite from the fires will come from the weather. As the seasons change and rain and snow come to the fire-ravaged areas, the fires will diminish. We know, however, that the process could take a month or more. In the meantime, your people are suffering. Every breath brings new pollutants into their bodies and they long for clean air to breathe.

You know, gracious God, how often your people have prayed for rain. You have heard those cries and you have allowed the processes of weather to follow the laws of nature and the rains have come, sometimes in a timely fashion and other times delayed beyond human endurance.

Hear now your children’s cries, especially those young ones who do not have the means to choose where they live or when they can find a place to call home. Be with those who have been driven from their homes. May they find safe shelter. May those who have safe places be inspired to share those places with others. May we be moved to take meaningful actions to respond to the needs of our brothers and sisters and to invest in actions which will help mitigate the effects of future fires.

We give you thanks that the forests of our hills are not currently experiencing the intensity of fires that rage in other places. We know that we, too, are vulnerable to rapidly spreading fire events. The stories we see playing out across the west could be our story as well. For the protection we have experienced we are grateful. Help us to release our urge to complain about the smoke in our skies and the restrictions that we are experiencing. We know that there are others who are suffering far more than we. Forgive us when our selfishness prevents us from seeing the suffering of others.

May we never take for granted the blessing of the breaths we take. We know that the ancient generations of our people understood the connection between breathing and the moving of the Holy Spirit throughout the community and throughout our bodies. Even modern words such as “inspire” remind us that to breathe is to literally take the spirit into our bodies. “Expire” reminds us that without the spirit we cannot live. Breathe your spirit upon those who are suffering from wildfire smoke. May your gentle winds carry the pollution away from their skies. May precipitation extinguish fires and cleanse the air they breath.

In your spirit we pray, Amen.

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 prayer for teens

The seasons are changing. During the summer, we got into the habit of taking our walk after eating our supper. With the long days, we had plenty of time to walk a couple of miles. But the days are getting shorter and now if we want to walk after supper and be back home by dark, we need to eat our supper quite a bit earlier. We’ve started walking before supper. Back during the winter, we were walking before or after lunch.

Yesterday we took our late afternoon walk in the city parks. We parked our car at Storybook Island and walked up to the end of Mary Hall Park and back. It is a walk that we enjoy and have taken once or twice a week for quite a while. Yesterday, we could tell that school was back in session as we walked. One of our high school bands was practicing in the Post 320 ball park. We could see the flag team and hear the drum line as we walked by. Groups of teens were running cross country. We passed clusters of eight to ten youth running together, talking as they ran. Everyone was keeping their distance from us, but they weren’t worrying about keeping distance from each other and we didn’t see any masks, though we weren’t close enough to the band to tell whether or not they were wearing masks.

For a while, walking in the park on a warm autumn day, it felt like life was returning to normal. We could see lots of high school students engaged in their normal after school activities. Life, however, is far from normal for these teens. Some of them spent the summer being much more isolated from their peers than normal. They missed out on their proms and graduation ceremonies last year. Those who had computers and access to the Internet learned to manage distance learning last spring. Many continue to take some or all of their classes online. They are attending school on an adjusted schedule with open campuses that encourage students to go elsewhere when they are not attending class. Some of the students need to take extra precautions because they live with a family member who is especially vulnerable to the pandemic.

High school students are always part of my prayers. It is a particularly vulnerable life stage. They are in a position to make choices that will affect the rest of their lives and the lives of others around them. Teens are learning to drive, exploring sexuality, expanding spirituality and distancing themselves from their families of origin. Peers become very important to them and they are especially vulnerable to peer pressure. They are in a position to make life and death decisions. Add the ready availability of alcohol and drugs to the mix and it can be volatile.

Suicides are on the rise among teens, contributing to giving this generation a lower life expectancy than was the case 20 years ago. Suicides among teens are up 56% in the past 20 years, a shocking increase.

Teen and young adult years are dangerous times for our youth. They are making life and death decisions without much experience with death. When I have been involved with a funeral for a teen, I am used to having many other teens attending the funeral for whom this is their first experience with a funeral. The experience of grief is new to them. They haven’t yet learned how to behave in such a situation.

There are plenty of reasons to pray for adolescents.

As we walked in the park yesterday, it was easy to witness the biological growth and development of the teens in our community. They are big, most are taller than I. They are strong, running several miles with less fatigue that I experience in a walk. Their size and strength make them capable of doing many adult tasks. But they have a fairly undefined status in our society. They aren’t old enough to purchase or drink alcohol. They aren’t old enough to vote. Society does not consider them to be adults yet. On the other hand, they are given increased opportunities for making decisions. Most of the teens we saw yesterday had made the choice about which after school activities in which to participate. Like adults, teens can’t be two places at once. The teens at the band practice weren’t running cross country and vice versa. While they are making more decisions, they are also experiencing more pressures. They hear their parents and teachers talking about getting into the “right” college, about test scores and community service to strengthen their admission essays, and about choosing a career.

They balance all of this with their search for their own unique identity. Who am I as distinct from my family? How am I different from my peers? What am I supposed to do with my life? What relationships are most important? It is a life stage filled with questions and the answers are not easy to find.

God of every stage of life, we pray today for the teens in our community. You know the pressures they feel. You also are the God of freedom, acting in our lives and stories to promote human freedom. Look at the teens of our community with your ever-loving care. Guide and protect them as they navigate the precarious journey of their teen years. Remind them of the love and support that their community offers. Bless them with courage to make tough choices and grace to make mistakes without undue risk.

We know that teens need their peers, but we also know that peer pressure can be intense and the risks that groups of teens take are significant. May our teens find the freedom to learn from their peers, but may they also find adults who care and who can become role models as our teens move through this stage of their lives.

Be with each teen in our community. May they feel your presence and know your love as they journey through the perils of adolescence.

Amen.

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!


Care for tiny ones

Throughout my career as a pastor, I met a few new babies in the hospital. When my timing was just right, I could stop by to visit a new baby and the parents before they headed home with their lives forever changed by the miracle of birth. In the small town where we lived serving our first congregations as ordained pastors the common practice was for the new mother and infant to stay in the hospital one or two nightspot rest after the birth. The hospital served a nice dinner for the parents on the eve of discharge. Because it was a small town, news traveled quickly and often I had the opportunity to stop by and visit the new family. Sometimes I got to hold that brand new baby. Throughout my career, hospital stays for a birth without complications shortened. Before long most of the time mother and baby were home before news of the birth reached me. Because the practice of infant baptism is common in the congregations I served, I got to meet a lot of the new babies early in their lives, however, and I was trusted to hold a lot of them during the sacrament.

Occasionally, I would be summoned to the hospital when there were complications with a birth. Sometimes there was concern that the tiny one might not survive. Sometimes the parents wanted to have the infant baptized right away. Believing that the sacraments do not belong to me as a pastor, but rather are signs of God’s grace, I made it a practice to never refuse a baptism. When asked, I performed the ritual. Sometimes the stories had very happy endings and we were able to plan a public prayer service to celebrate the birth in church at a later date.

Early in my career I served as a North Dakota Emergency Care Technician and volunteer driver for our community’s ambulance. Once we were summoned to transport an infant in respiratory distress to a higher level of care in a hospital 150 miles from our town. When we backed the ambulance into the bay at the hospital, everyone was waiting. The doctor climbed into the ambulance with the tiny one. They had quite a bit of equipment on board as well. I had imagined that we would be driving fast, with lights and siren going all of the way. We were capable of making the trip in a couple of hours. However, there were several times when we were asked to stop completely so that the doctor, nurse and EMT could provide care. It was a rather long trip and everyone was very tired when we finally got to the city hospital. The infant, however, survived the trip and received the care necessary.

I had been a pastor for about a decade and had participated in the baptism of dozens of infants when I was summoned to St. Luke’s Hospital in Boise, Idaho. St. Lukes had a Pediatric Critical Care Unit and was able to provide advanced care for infants who had a wide range of health challenges and problems. The particular case to which I was summoned was a tiny baby, born much earlier than full term with a mother who was herself not very old. The family had not participated in our congregation, but had asked for a Congregational minister and I was the first one the hospital staff could reach. I met the family in a waiting room not far from the Intensive Care Unit. We visited briefly. They had been told that the next 24 hours were critical and that after that it might be weeks of hospitalization before the baby could be taken home. I was briefed by a nurse as I scrubbed up to be gowned to enter the PICU. The nurse asked about the vial of water that I had with me. I assured her that I would be able to use any water and that I needed just a few drops. She suggested that she would supply the water for the baptism. We baptized the tiny one with the nurse and I standing next to the isolette and the grandmother behind me. The mother was not present. My strongest memory of the event was of how tiny the baby was and how complex the various monitors, iv lines, and other equipment was. I was allowed to touch the forehead of the infant without a glove on my right hand for the baptism, but our time was limited and we soon were back in the waiting room.

Some weeks later the family brought the infant to my office for me to meet properly. They also brought a small slip of paper with a footprint of the baby and the date of birth. That footprint was so tiny, even smaller than the foot of the weeks-old baby they brought to meet me. We marveled at the growth that had already taken place.

For the rest of my professional career and long after I had lots track of that family, that paper was under the transparent blotter on my desk. I would look at the tiny footprint, smaller than my thumbprint, and marvel at the miracle of birth and the incredible power of scientific medicine to provide the nurture and support that that baby had required.

Towards the end of my career I became friends with a Doctor who is a neonatologist who provides care in our hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit. One evening he was making a presentation at our church and he recognized a family whose child had been in the icu for a period of time after he was born. The child was now a lively elementary school student with thriving health. I was heartened by the warm exchange between doctor and patient and the entire family. They definitely had a bond forged in crisis. They were aware of the miracle they had witnessed.

Gracious God, we give you our thanks for the dedicated people who work to provide care for the youngest and most vulnerable members of our community. And we thank you for the decades of care and learning that have provided the knowledge and experience to provide that care. Bless all of the doctors and nurses who work in Pediatric and Neonatal Intensive Care Units. Thank you for their vocation and calling. Thank you for their dedication and care. Thank you for your presence in their workplace every day.

Bless the children. Bless the families. Bless the caregivers. We pray in awe of your power and creativity. Amen.

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!

Generation Alpha

Back in 1988, our family had a reunion of my aunts, uncles, cousins and their families. The occasion was the 100th anniversary of the birth of our grandmother. It was an opportunity to celebrate our family and to remember our past. Although our grandparents were not living at the time, their legacy was evident in the next two and three generations. Our children were seven and four at the time and were part of the youngest generation at the assembly. We were thinking of that occasion recently because my sister and I are in the early stages of planning a family reunion for the summer of 2021 on the occasion of the centennial of our mother’s birth. In there intervening years, we have become the elders of the family. The centennial of our father’s birth will be this December, so 2020 and 2021 are in some ways significant years because our lives were shaped by events of 1920 and 1921.

Back in the 1960’s and 1970’s, Dr. Morris Massey was a professor of sociology at the University of Colorado at Boulder and became quit famous for his theories about how humans and their values are shaped by the events of their lives. He observed how awareness of major historical events such as the Great Depression and World Wars helped to understand the values that people had. He described three major periods of value development.

The Imprint Period. Up to the age of seven, people are like sponges, absorbing the things around them and accepting the things that come from parents and community as true. The blind belief of this life stage can lead to trauma when the values are inconsistent or betrayal occurs. During these years, humans develop their sense of right and wrong, good and bad and these values are deeply imprinted.
The Modeling Period. Between the ages of eight and thirteen, we humans tend to copy other people. Often we copy our parents, but we also copy others. Rather than blind acceptance, there is a trying on of different lifestyles and values to see how they fit. Religion can make a big impression in this stage. Teachers have a big impact on students who are these ages.
The Socialization Period. Between the ages of 13 and 21, people are mostly influenced by their peers. Developing as individual and rejecting some of the values of earlier stages, people are shaped by media and sources outside of their family and community.

Massey’s theories have become somewhat dated, but his books and video programs, “What You Are is Where You Were When” still resonate with certain audiences. His 2006 DVD, “What You Are Is Where You Were When . . . Again!” still is selling on Amazon. His work has been foundational for later generational theorists such as William Strauss and Neil Howe, whose 1991 book, “Generations” traced 18 generations of American history and made generalizations about those generations. It was from that book that our parents’ generation became known as the “Greatest Generation,” and we became known as “Boomers.” Subsequent generational theorists have described Millennials, Generation X, Generation Z and Generation Alpha.

I’m not overly convinced that generational theory is quite as accurate or as predictive as some theorists, but my understanding of the world has been shaped by the work of these scholars. As such, thinking about significant anniversaries also gets me to thinking about those who will be born in the next couple of years. Just as Gen Z members don’t remember life before the 9-11attacks on the World Trade Towers and Pentagon, those who are born in the next year will not remember a time before the Covid Pandemic or the crisis of global climate change. The first generation to be born entirely in the 21st Century is expected tor each two billion by 2025. Theirs is the first generation in the history of humanity when the number of people older than 65 exceeds the number of chidden under the age of 4. The largest numbers of this generation are being born in Africa and Asia, while Europe and North America lead the world in members of the aging population.

The babies born in the next few years will face many challenges to their health. Allergies, autism, asthma, and autoimmune disorders are far more prevalent among the young of this century than previous generations. Communicable diseases will continue to dominate the health of this generation. Obesity is replacing malnutrition as a defining characteristic of their generation. They also face health problems that were not significant issues for previous generations such as problems arising from screen time including an increase in nearsightedness.

Sociologists and demographers predict that problems will continue to grow along with increasing world populations. Their predictions aside, it is evident that the generation of children being born in these years will inherit a host of problems from previous generations.

It seems appropriate, then, during this 40 days of prayer for children, that we offer special prayers to those being born this year and in the year to come. Their lives will likely span a century of incredible change and frequent major upheavals.

We know, Gracious God, that you hold the future in your hands. You, who are not constrained by our human notions of time, understand all times, even those that we are not able to imagine. So we ask you, dear God, to hold those infants being born these days in your loving care. We understand that they will shape the future as previous generations have shaped the past. The story of humans on this planet will be affected by their values, choices and actions. May they grow in the grace to forgive our generation of the mistakes of our lives and discover the creativity to face the problems we are unable to solve.

We see the future of humanity in the faces of the tiny ones who are just being born. With grace their lives will extend far beyond the span of our own. May they know your blessings and guidance as they grow into adulthood and become the leaders of a future that lies beyond what we will ever know.

Bless the children, God. Amen.

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!

Cinnamon Hill

Cinnamon Hill Preschool started serving preschool children and their families in 1978 - the same year that I was ordained and began my ministry. That was 42 years ago and the school has always met at 1st Congregational United Church of Christ in Rapid City, South Dakota. For the last 25 years of my career, I worked in a building that housed a preschool. My office was at the opposite end of the hallway from the school. My practice was to arrive at work a couple of hours before the children arrived. I liked to do my desk work when the building was quiet and empty and spend much of the day outside of my office, visiting people, teaching classes, attending meetings, and managing the church’s many activities and programs. Nearly every day I walked down the hallway multiple times and frequently peeked into the classrooms and met the children in the hallway as they lined up to get drinks from the water cooler.

Some of the children and parents of Cinnamon Hill Preschool were active members of our congregation, but many were not. I got to know them in a different context than the families who participated in other church programs. It was amazing to me, however, how often I would meet someone in the community who would say, “You look familiar, where might I have met you?” I’d tell them where I worked. “What church is that?” they would ask. “The one on Clark Street up from West Boulevard,” I would answer. “Big White Cross. Cinnamon Hill Preschool.” “Oh!” they would exclaim. “I went to Cinnamon Hill!” or “My child went to Cinnamon Hill.” Over the years, I learned that there were a lot of people in the community who knew our church because it was home to the preschool. It makes sense . The school’s programs touched nearly 100 children each year. There were different programs in different years, but all of the years I worked there, there were at least two classrooms of children who met 3 days a week and two classrooms of children who met 2 days a week.

Preschool children had been one of the focuses of our Seminary education. Our seminary operated a lab school for 3- and 4-year-old children. Both Susan and I took the seminary’s class in early childhood education and worked in the preschool. Susan worked as the assistant to the school’s director in addition to her studies. I served as an informal photographer at the school and provided pictures for the book that was published during those years, “The Young Child as Person: The Development of a Healthy Conscience.” That book and the background work that went into it was an important part of our education. the preschool years are very important in the development of a child.

When provided with a nurturing environment, children begin to internalize control of their own behavior. They learn that what they do affects others. Naturally striving to be in relationship, children learn moral behavior by understanding how their behaviors affect others. The preschool taught seminary students the art of active listening and working with children so that they could develop and internalize their moral lives.

Working with people all of my career, I often encountered adults who had failed to internalize their moral behavior. They responded only to external rules of behavior. There are adults who seem to lack a basic sense of right and wrong and are restrained only by laws and external authority. they take advantage whenever they get the opportunity and justify their behavior in ways that I do not understand. I believe that their lack of moral character stems, in part, from the failure to learn basic conscience during their preschool years. Children who become five or six years old without learning that their behavior can hurt or help another person often grow up into adults who do not care for the feelings of others and do not understand the consequences of their behaviors.

I’m always disappointed when I meet someone who can’t be trusted and who lives a selfish life without understanding their relationships with others. I am convinced that preschool children need to have opportunities for structured relationships with their peers and that they need adults in their lives who are consistent and careful in relationship to the children.

I remain convinced that being home to a preschool is central to the wider ministries of the church. Even though the preschool was an independent corporation and not an official ministry of the congregation, providing the physical space and being the host of the preschool helped to form the identity of the congregation and provided a lasting positive impact on the quality of life in the city. Along the way, the preschool provided a wonderful atmosphere in which to work. I had daily encounters with children and their parents. I watched as they grew and developed. I had conversations with young adults as they grew into their roles as parents. I met grandparents and other family members. I witnessed school programs and listened to the children sing their songs. I count myself among the most fortunate of people in part because I was given constant safe access to witness the growth of children.

God, when you came to us in the life of Jesus, you welcomed the little children. How grateful we are for that example. As our congregation continues to welcome children into its building, we give you thanks for the trust of children and parents, the care of teachers and administrators, the years of research and learning that make the preschool possible.

Bless the children of Cinnamon Hill. May they develop healthy consciences and learn how to be contributing members of their communities as they grow into adulthood. May they gain skills as children that guide their behavior as parents when they grow up.

Bless the parents and grandparents who love the children of the preschool. May their love reflect your great love for all people.

In these uncertain times may children continue to find meaningful ways to learn and grow together in health and safety.

We pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.

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!

September 14

For decades I have selfishly signed up for September 14 as my day to pray for children as soon as the signup sheets appeared in our church. I have, of course prayed for children on the other days of the vigil, but I’ve made a public show of claiming September 14 as my day. It is the birthday of our daughter and although she is an adult with a wonderfully lively 14-month-old son, she will always be our child.

I’ve shared her story in my journal and other places over the years and don’t want to be repetitious, but here is part of what makes this day so special for me. I didn’t meet our daughter on Wednesday, September 14, the day of her birth. I didn’t even know she had been born. I wasn’t even in the state where she was born, even though it was my home state. I was in Berkeley, California with my wife and our 2 1/2 year-old-son. We were coming to the end of an extended study leave and preparing for a drive across 5 states home. We had a cassette tape of the soundtrack to the musical “A Chorus Line” that was a favorite of our son and we played the overture to that play over and over on that trip of nearly 1,500 miles. Our little car wasn’t equipped with air conditioning, but our spirits were high.

Meanwhile, in Grand Forks, in the northeast corner of North Dakota a child was giving birth to a child. Through a set of circumstances and a series of decisions that we will never fully know the young mother released her infant for adoption. In North Dakota at that time that meant that the records of the birth would be sealed by the court when the adoption was finalized because the birth mother was a minor. Adoption laws have since changed, but that was the way it was in those days.

I met the baby four weeks later. On October 11, we received a call from The Village Family Service Center. Although we knew we were nearing the top of the waiting list for a special needs adoption, we hadn’t expected them to call asking us to consider adopting an infant. There wasn’t much hesitation on our part. We agreed. “Also,” the social worker said, “Could you pick her up before noon tomorrow? It has been four weeks since she was born.” Although we lived in North Dakota, we were at the opposite corner of the state. Grand Forks was 425 miles away. We were intrepid travelers. We’d just made a 1,500 mile trip with our son in his car seat. We made a few calls, changed a few plans, borrowed a few baby clothes, and got on the road.

There are no words to describe our meeting. No matter how many times I have tried to tell the story, I have always failed to capture the intensity of feeling that we experienced. The best way that I have found is to simply say that I absolutely believe in love at first sight. When the social worker handed me that bundle of pink dress with a tiny girl inside, I knew that our lives had changed forever.

That night, after having completed the arrangements with the agency, stopped to pick up some formula, diapers and other necessary baby supplies, and driven 275 miles towards home, we stopped at a motel to rest. I was too excited to sleep. I kept getting out of bed and going over to the infant in the crib just to make sure that she was OK. That night, the night between October 12 and 13, I prayed for her health, for her happiness, for her protection. I promised God and myself that I would always protect her.

Always protect is easier said than done. She grew into her own person. She learned to make her own decisions. And there were times when she was sad and lonely and wondering about her life. There were times when I wasn’t in the same place where she was. She has turned out to be an adventurer. She has lived with her husband in England and in Missouri and now they live in Japan. It has taught me a lot about the transcendent power of God’s love. Not only do I believe in love at first sight, I know that you can be absolutely, completely in love with someone who isn’t even on the same continent as you.

Ever since 1983, September 14 has been a day of celebration for me. God’s gifts come in many different ways, but one of the most incredible gifts of my life came in the form of a tiny baby and the grace with which she was given to our family.

God of Grace and Glory, how precious is your gift of a baby! How wondrously made is each infant! How incredible it is that we all come into this world vulnerable and in need of care! How fortunate that we are given the opportunity to care for others! We are overwhelmed with joy that you have called us to be parents.

Thank you also for the systems that allow for the care of children whose parents are not able to provide that care. Hospitals and agencies and foster parents and support systems have been put into place to provide the love and nurture that children need. We come to you with thanks and praise for the times when these systems work, when the placements are just right, when families are made whole through adoption. We give thanks for the legislators and lawyers and judges who have invested careful thought and created systems that allow adoption to occur and provide for children.

Today we pray for all of your children. May they know the security of a loving home. May they receive the food and protection that they need. Keep them safe from he many dangers of this world. Grant them your peace.

In the name of the baby in the manger we pray for babies everywhere. Amen.

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!

Risk and responsibility

Talking with friends last night, the subject drifted to the things that we did when we were kids that probably wouldn’t be allowed for kids today. We used to take inner tubes to the river and spend the day floating downstream. We made tree forts high in trees with questionable structural supports. We jumped on the trampoline without any safety net. And we rode or bicycles everywhere, including as far as 10 miles from town on the highway and down two-mile hill and never thought of wearing a helmet. We made go carts out of whatever things we could find and raced them down fish hatchery hill. My dad did make a safety intervention on one of our go carts. He took a look at the product of a couple of days of scrounging parts around the shop and home and deemed that it was capable of speeds we’d never before reached. I remember being proud at his announcement that it might just go faster than we could control. He took time to weld up a roll cage of pipes and loaned us a crash helmet from the airport. It turned out to be a good thing, too. The cart was really, really fast and I did go off the road and into the ditch at a good clip. I did roll it over and over and destroy it in the crash. And I did walk away with only a skinned hand and a small amount of road rash.

It was a lot less road rash than my brother had when he rode a bicycle as fast as he could go down airport hill and made the turn onto the boulder road, which usually was paved, but which was being repaired at the time. His turn was too wide and he hit the gravel pile in the center of the road and went airborne into the ditch on the other side of the road. The crash bent the wheel on his bike and it took him quite a while to get up, but when he did, he triumphantly declared that he had pegged the speedometer on the bike, which went to 45 mph.

We spent our summers largely unrestrained, using the entire town and the river as a place to explore and play. We learned about stinging nettles and poison oak by personal experience. We crossed the river at high water by climbing the structure underneath the highway bridge. We got chased by the neighbor’s bull and tore our jeans climbing the barb wire fence in a hurry. We were happy and we survived.

There are some wonderful things that are a part of our grandchildren’s lives that make them more safe than we were. I’m all in favor of properly designed and tested car seats for kids. I’m a huge fan of bicycle helmets and I always wear mine and insist on my grandchildren wearing theirs when we ride. It makes me happy to see kids wearing helmets for skiing and life vests whenever they are near the water. I always wear my life vest when I’m in my canoe or kayak and I insist on the same for our grandchildren on every ride. We’ve invested in good life vests that fit properly. I believe in having properly working smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors in every home. There are some improvements in safety that definitely save lives and prevent injuries.

On the other hand, I also believe that children need room to grow and have to be given responsibility to take reasonable risks. Our nine-year-old grandson will learn responsibility by being allowed the freedom to run and play in the neighbor’s hay field without direct supervision. His three-year-old sister isn’t ready for that much responsibility, yet.

There are some wonderful lessons and structured programs for children, but there are also children who are over scheduled and never given free time to just explore the world and even to make a few mistakes and poor choices. It may be a blessing of the pandemic that the summer of 2020 had fewer organized activities for children. Children’s sports programs and summer camps were cancelled. Some of the music lessons and organized team sports were suspended. Children spent more time at home and, hopefully, more time doing unstructured activities where they were allowed to learn from their mistakes. In the process, perhaps they began to learn a bit of responsibility for their actions and choices. They may even have taken a few reasonable risks.

I don’t want to go back to the past. I’m excited about the future that calls this generation of children. They will go places and do things that we never dreamed possible. But I also hope that they have the opportunity to pick an apple and eat it straight from the tree, to float down a river and look at the clouds dancing in the sky, to ride their bikes fast and feel the wind in their hair. May we find a balance of safety that protects them, but doesn’t remove every possible risk. May they have the opportunity to hit their thumbs with a hammer and scrape their knees in a fall. I certainly don’t want them to experience serious or permanent injury, but I also want them to have the freedom to explore the world.

Gracious God, we ask for safety for the children of this world. Protect them from the dangers that might cause permanent injury. Save them from illnesses that ravage and choices that cause pain. We know, however, that you are the God of freedom. You led our people out of slavery into the land of freedom, even though they abused that freedom and followed idols and lies. You give us the freedom to make choices that are not always the best ones. So we also pray for freedom for our children. The hardest part of loving is letting go, but you have shown us the way of even the hard tings in life. Help us to grant the freedom to grow to our children and grandchildren.

Bless the children. May they have the experiences that enable them to grow into adulthood and assume responsibility for their choices and actions.

IN Jesus we pray, Amen.

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!

Prayer for refugee children

Our world is experiencing the highest levels of displacement on record. Nearly 71 million people around the world have been forced from home by conflict and persecution. The world’s attention has been focused on just one camp, Moria on the Greek island of Lesbos where thousands of migrants and refugees have been left without shelter after a fire in the camp. The camp was originally designed to house 3,000 migrants, but was crowded with almost 13,000 people, living in squalor and desperate to leave the island. So far there has been nowhere for them to go. Since the fire families have been sleeping in fields and on roads. The refugees come from 70 different countries.

The problems of refugees have been enormous in Greece and Italy and have divided the European Union with the less wealthy southern countries absorbing more refugees and accusing wealthier northern countries of failing to do more, while a number of central and eastern nations are openly resistant to the idea of taking in a quota of migrants.

While countries around the world struggle with issues of what to do with this unprecedented flood of refugees one statistic stands out: half of the world’s refugees are under the age of 18. The flood of refugees is a flood of children. I read the story of one report by Reuters news agency about Congolese migrant Natzy Malala, who had a newborn infant and an eight-year-old girl. “There is no food, no milk for the baby,” she cried as she waited for bottled water to be distributed in a parking lot outside a supermarket.

Politicians and world leaders continue to argue and pontificate about refugees and what to do about the flood of refugees. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is a UN agency mandated to aid and to protect refugees, forcibly displaced communities, and stateless people. The agency is supposed to assist in voluntary repatriation, local integration or resettlement to a third country. White tents with blue lettering of UNHCR have become symbols of camps around the world where people are forced to live with minimal resources because they have nowhere else to go. Such is the plight of tens of millions of children.

Migration has been part of the story of humans as long as there have been humans on the planet. The Bible is filled with stories of our people in motion. Abraham and Sarah leave the land of their forebears and travel throughout the region in search of a promised land. Their children and grandchildren live the lives of nomads. Eventually the people of Israel become enslaved in Egypt. When Moses leads them from slavery they once again become refugees, wandering in the wilderness for four decades. Generations of our people were born during the years of wandering. The story of Israel is one of being homeless more than the short periods of time when our people had a permanent home. People worshiped God in tents for more years than they had temples in Jerusalem. When the people settled and had built a temple, they were conquered and led off into exile.

Ours is the story of refugees. And there have always been children among the refugees. There also has always been a mandate for people of faith to practice hospitality and to open hearts and minds and homes and lives to those who have need. Even a cup of water is a gift not only to those in need, but also to God. And so we pray.

We pray to you, O God, as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. We study the stories of our ancient leaders and we remember how they made their homes in tents and traveled as people without their own land. We read the stories of our people’s many generations who lived with the promise of land, but without the reality of a place to call a permanent home. We know that our people came to faith in you before they came into a land of their own.

Be with the refugees who have no place to call home. Our world counts the refugees in tens of millions. And their children suffer from a lack of shelter, a lack of food, a lack of schools, a lack of places to play. May they not also be left without hope.

We read in the Bible that faith, hope and love abide, yet we fear for the refugee children of our world when their faith is dashed by storms and fires and human cruelty. Their hope is dimmed by the blaming and self promotion of politicians who use them as pawns in a cruel game of blame. Families are torn asunder. Children are left without guidance and nurture. Too many know nothing of love.

Yet, we know that you love all of the children of the world. We know that you call us to respond by sharing with families who have no shelter, food and safety. We know that the desperation of so many invites our response. All too often, however, we are paralyzed by the sheer size of the problem. We feel helpless in the face of the huge numbers. We seem insignificant in the scope of geo politics.

No problem, however, is too big for you, Gracious God. You walked in the desert with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. You called Moses to lead our people out of the land of slavery and into a life of freedom. You didn’t forget your people when they wandered without a home. You didn’t abandon them even when they forgot your presence and turned to worship idols and lies.

Bring comfort to refugee children, O God. Do not allow the leaders of this world to ignore them. Keep their stories in the news. May this humanitarian crisis inspire a new form of generosity and a new wave of hope for those whose needs are so great.

We place our trust in you. We place the children of the world in your ever-loving care. We pray without ceasing for the children of the world.

Amen.

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

Praying for grieving parents

As our 40 days of prayer for children continues, I am thinking of two mothers who are friends of ours.

28 years ago in the heat of July a baby was born to a young mother. Later she reported to her friends that a nurse told her to cherish every moment. Even the bad ones. The nurse said that someday she would miss those moments. Their life together had a few hard moments. Things didn’t always work out. Sometimes the timing was off. But her baby grew and she grew and time passed. She hurried home from work to have time with her little boy. The years passed and he became an adult. And then one night she found herself in the hospital holding his hand and listening to the rhythm of a ventilator helping him breathe. The doctor said, “I’m sorry. We did everything we could.” She struggled with how she could say good bye to her baby. But that night wasn’t the time to say good bye. They received the gift of more time. Cancer and treatments followed with no breaks for birthdays or holidays. The road was bumpy with lots of ups and downs. Almost a year after that night in the hospital, she posted a single sentence on Facebook: “After a year of battle, Tony passed away last night.” The youth group that continues to support each other 30 years after their high school days was quick to respond with notes of condolence and love. Other friends chipped in with notes as well. The love and the support are deeply appreciated, but they do not quell the depth of grief that floods over his mother.

It isn’t the way the world is supposed to work. Mothers are not supposed to outlive their babies.

It isn’t the first time death has visited the members of that youth group. Her cousin, who was a member of the youth group passed away a few years ago. Another member of the group who became a mother lost one of her twins who was born with multiple health issues and died in infancy. They are strong supporters of each other, but the pain and the grief and sadness and darkness are real. The road ahead is long and tough.

Thinking of her, I could not help but think of another friend of mine, one who is the age of her son. This young friend lived a nightmare that many parents have only visited in their dreams. She went to check on her 2 year old and discovered he was not breathing. Trained in CPR, she immediately administered first aid, followed by an ambulance ride and a harrowing night in the hospital. The next day there was a transfer by air ambulance to a higher level of care in a distant town. She, too, had to hear the doctors say, “We’ve done everything that we could.” They continued life support until arrangements could be made for organ and tissue donations and the life of her son ended way, way too soon. Her husband held her as she sobbed. And now there is never a day when she doesn’t think of her baby. She looks through the pictures - and there are a lot of happy pictures. She listens to the friends and relatives who say that her memories will be her friends, and the pain will not go away. The darkness threatens to overwhelm her every day. She goes to work and she comes home and she thinks of what might have been.

People say things like “God needed another angel,” and it makes her angry at God. People say things like “You’ll get over this,” and she doesn’t want to get “over” her precious little one. People say “You’re looking good,” and she doesn’t feel good at all.

Today I am praying for children who have become adults who have lost children.

It is a powerful reality of the Christian faith that we understand God to know exactly what it is like to have a child die. The cross toward which we turn is a constant reminder of the crucifixion of Jesus whose life was ended by those in power. God knows the tears of a grieving parent. God knows the pain of the constant thoughts of what might have been. God knows the dark days that cloud vision and hide hope.

Our father, whenever we begin our prayers with those words, we are reminded that you know the realities of being a parent. You also know the pain of watching your son die. So we do not need to tell you the stories of our friends who are walking in grief over the death of a child. You are with them in every aspect of their experiences. You weep with them as they wonder about the meaning of having loved so deeply for all too short of a time.

Remind grieving parents that this is not the end. Remind them of the simple truth that love never dies.

As their memories become their friends and companions in ways that they never though would be possible, help them to feel the pulse of life in the midst of grief. As their grief demands more time and energy than they knew could be demanded, give them your strength. Give them your consolation. Give them your peace.

We know that you embrace their children in your everlasting care. We know that you treasure them a deeply as their parents. We know that you grant them peace in a way that is not possible in this life. And we give you our gratitude for accepting their lives as complete and acceptable and welcoming them into your realm where they are united with all of your faithful people of every generation. Remind us once again that love knows no limits of time or space.

You, who hold every child in your tender loving care, embrace all of the parents who have experienced the death of a child.

And, gracious God, give us the vision and strength and presence to reflect a bit of your love as we reach out to comfort our grieving friends.

Amen.

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!

Children displaced by fire

The town where I grew up was protected by a volunteer fire department. There was a large stone garage in the center of town with a bell tower. The bell was no longer used. It had been replaced by a siren that was installed before I was born. The siren was blasted every day at except Sunday at noon to make sure that it was kept in continual working order. As an aside, in our first parish after graduating from seminary, the noon whistle also blew on Sundays. Our congregation met at 11 am except during the summers. It was a signal that it was time to end worship that could not be ignored. When it was used as a fire whistle, it would ring three times in a row to call out the volunteers. Volunteers left work or whatever they were doing and rushed to the fire station to staff the trucks and fight the fire.

One day we heard the fire whistle while we were in school. Instead of the usual three times, it rang five times. We’d heard that special extra ring before when there had been especially large fires reported. A while later it rang a second time to call for additional firefighters. We had never heard it ring a third time, which was supposed to be the sign that every able-bodied man should report for duty. I think it rang five or more times. At some point we saw the principal consulting with our teacher at the front of the classroom. Shortly afterward the school bell rang and we were told that there was a large fire heading towards town. We were to go directly home. We were not to stop and play or visit with our friends. Everyone was to go directly home. The busses were already in front of the school and those who rode busses were to get right on their bus and listen to what the driver said.

We lived a block from the school and as I went out the door of the school, I could see huge clouds of smoke barreling from the top of airport hill. It was terrifying in part because on top of that hill was the airport and my father was the head of the airport. All of his airplanes were parked there. When we got home, our mother said that they had taken the big tilt-bed truck with the crawler tractor and several other new tractors with tillage equipment from the shop to cut fire breaks to protect the hangers and airplanes. Our father was helping fight the fire, but he was being careful and safe. We were told that we had to stay inside the house just in case we needed to evacuate. We never did. The fire was stopped at the top of the hill. The buildings and airplanes at the airport escaped damage. There was a little damage to some of the tractors and a couple of firefighters suffered minor burns. One had been taken by ambulance to Billings for treatment.

A few days later we flew over the area that had burned. It looked really big to me. We could see where the fire had started, near a road and how it has spread out to fill most of the area between two rivers. It was burning straight towards the place where those two rivers converged and probably would have been halted by the rivers, but our town and our home was in that area left unburned where the two rivers come together.

Later, I learned to fight stubble field fires. We carried barrels of water with gunny sacks in them on the farm trucks. When smoke was spotted, we rushed to the spot and fanned out in rows to attack the flames with wet gunny sacks. The wheat stubble was usually ignited by a carless farmer, who parked a truck with a hot muffler in the stubble left behind when the combines cut the wheat. I learned to put a wet bandanna over my mouth and nose to make it easier to breathe in the smoke and to never face directly into the wind, but rather fight the sides of the fire. I never worked a fire that had grown to more than a couple of acres.

Today I am praying for the children of the devastating fires that a are ravaging the American West. More across burned in a single day in Washington yesterday than the total acreage of wildfires in that state in 2019. Over 2 million acres have burned in California. Entire towns have been overrun by fire and destroyed. Smoke from the fires have turned the skies orange over much of the western third of the country. Children have been forced to evacuate their homes at a moment’s notice. Life in the shelters is hectic with people wearing masks because of fear of the virus while trying to get news on what has burned and what has escaped. Wildland firefighters are in short supply and structure firefighters often don’t make it to the buildings ignited by embers from the fires.

Great God, you know the devastating scope of the wildfires that had charred millions of acres and overrun everything in their paths. You know how our people have feared out of control fires for generations. We have heard of hell described as a place of never-ending fire. In these days of so many out-of-control fires burning across a large area of our country, we ask you to be with the children who are displaced by the fires. Calm their fears. Reassure them that they are loved. Comfort them in their grief over lost toys, lost homes, lost schools, lost pets and lost ways of life. Strengthen their parents and caregivers for the tasks of relocating, rebuilding and returning to family stability.

Be with those who are crying out of fear. Be with those whose parents are also on the edge of tears because of fear and grief. Give them your peace that passes all understanding.

And, gracious God, inspire us to do what we can to contribute to their recovery. Amen.

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!

Children of addiction

We decided to walk in downtown Rapid City yesterday. We had some items we were donating to the Hope Center so were right there. West Boulevard and East Boulevard are a mile apart, so you can park anywhere on St. Joseph or Main Street and walk a loop for a 2-mile walk, our usual these days. With cooler temperatures and a bit of snow combined with having passed Labor Day, we figured that the streets wouldn’t be filled with tourists taking pictures of themselves with the statues of presidents and we were right about that. We walk with masks, but only pull them up when meeting others as we walk.

Most of the people who were out on the streets during the time that we walked were employees of downtown shops standing outside and smoking. In the cool air, we could see the smoke rising from a distance as we approached walking briskly. Somehow it reminded me of how attitudes towards smoking have changed over my lifetime. When I was growing up smoking was much more common. The dangers of smoking were less known and big tobacco companies were working hard to suppress information about the connections between smoking and cancer, heart disease and a host of other health problems. Neither of my parents smoked, but the break room at my father’s shop was filled with smoke at each coffee break and during the lunch hour. The trucks and pickups had full ash trays and it was common for use to be in the homes of smokers when we played with our friends. There were a lot of professionals who smoked. We knew doctors and lawyers and teachers who were smokers. For some reason the ministers in our church preferred pipes. We had a college professor who was a master of using the process of filling and preparing a pipe to smoke as a prop for his lectures. He’d light a match and hold it to his pipe and we’d watch to see if the match would burn down to his fingers while he lectured. I don’t remember him ever actually lighting the pipe during a lecture, but he definitely smoked it as he walked around the campus. Although I have never been a smoker, I’ve inhaled my share of second hand smoke.

Times have changed. The information about the dangers of smoking have been clearly illustrated. But tobacco is highly addictive and it isn’t easy to quite the habit. Children of those who are so addicted face dangers. Smoking during pregnancy increases the risk of health problems for developing babies, including preterm birth, low birth weight, and birth defects of the mouth and lip. Smoking during and after pregnancy also increases the risk of sudden infant death syndrome. Smoking during pregnancy resulted in more than 1,000 infant deaths each year. Secondhand smoke causes numerous health problems in infants and children, including more frequent and severe asthma attacks, respiratory infections, and ear infections.

Smoking, of course, isn’t the only addiction that has negative health impacts on the health of infants and children. There is no known safe amount or time to drink alcohol during pregnancy. Alcohol crossed the blood-brain barrier and both directly and indirectly affects the developing child. A wide spectrum of disorders result from alcohol consumption during pregnancy. Combined with tobacco use the dangers to the child are even more serious.

There are plenty of other drugs that people consume that cause harm to children. The stories of children of addiction are all to common.

Of course there are children born with disabilities that have not been caused by conscious decisions of their parents. The lifestyles of parents are only some of the factors that have effects on children. And children with disabilities have much to contribute to our communities. All children with disabilities deserve our love and care and the supports and services that they require to live full and meaningful lives. Their contributions should be recognized. Their value should be honored.

All are diminished whenever a child suffers, regardless of the cause of that suffering. Systems of care and nurture are needed. Children need advocates and protectors as they grow and develop. Cycles of addiction can be interrupted and those born to parents with addictions can grow to have meaningful lives.

Today, we pray for all of the children who suffer because of decisions that their parents have made. They are innocent victims of poor choices.

Dear God, we know and love the song that declares, “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world.” We know that your love for the children of this world is never-ending and that you care for each one. And when we think of the children of this world and your great love for them, we know that your heart must be constantly breaking for the suffering of innocents. How it must grieve you to witness parents who make poor choices and ingest toxins that harm children. Children growing up breathing smoke must bring tears to your eyes.

When we pray that you would bless and protect the children, we know that there are children whose lives are at risk and who suffer through no fault of their own. We pray that you would open the hearts and minds of parents so that fewer children would suffer. Help us to become teachers of the truth about the effects of addiction. Strengthen us that we might work to provide treatment of addictions so that the suffering of children can be prevented. Inspire us to change systems of health care in ways that provide support to children and parents and treatment for their symptoms.

We offer our prayers for children who are born with birth defects and who live with disabilities. May their lives be treasured and their abilities recognized. May we learn to recognize them as vital members of our communities regardless of the causes of their differences.

We know that you are with all who suffer. We thank you for your presence. May our prayers inspire action in your holy name. Amen.

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

First day of school

Today is back to school day in our community. Well, sort of. At any rate it is different from any other first day of school in memory.

For starters, it is snowing. Significant amounts of snow have already fallen in the hills and travel will be difficult in the early morning hours. However, even though this is an early snowstorm for the hills, we have sen snow before. We know how to check with local media to find out of school start times will be delayed. The real confusion for students is, of course, the school’s plan for a return to classes after the sudden closing of schools due to the threat of Covid-19 last spring.

It is already understood that students will be learning through a variety of different means. Schools are offering both in-person and online options for students. Rapid City Area Schools will have three levels of operation, depending on community spread. Level one will see schools open with precautions in place, level 2 will see schools open with increased precautions, and level 3 will see schools closed with off campus learning for students.

Any school that experiences live 3 spread will close for a 14-day quarantine, then return to Level 2. That means that students will report to their schools, but there may be interruptions in their schedules.

Even at level 1 precautions include altered schedules.

We were visiting with a high school student and her parents over the weekend. Her schedule will be to attend school on Wednesdays and Thursdays and learn from home other days. Except this week, with no school on Monday she attends classes at the school on Thursday and Friday. Class registration was all done online. Even after they carefully explained the schedule, we remained a bit confused.

There will be plenty of confused students and parents all week long.

The “normal” school week will be Monday through Thursday for all students with Friday being an E-learning day. There are plans for distance learning for students who will not be attending on campus classes. The distance learning model is different depending on the age of the child. Elementary, Middle and High Schools all have different options for learning and for participation in activities such as Band and Orchestra.

Masks are required in all classrooms and on all school buses. However there will be occasional breaks from the use of masks when 6 feet distancing can be maintained. Families are expected to make health screenings and temperature checks at home. However, if a student displays signs of illness while at school, school nurses will be asked to check temperatures and students with fevers will be isolated until a parent, guardian or emergency contact can pick up the student.

The school district is attempting to provide computers for home use for students who do not already have access to a computer for E-learning. Not every student in the district has access to reliable Internet connections and there are many resources that are available in printed form. However, the distance learning plan requires a computer to register. Online registration is required for distance learning.

It is a confusing time for all who are involved.

Every year we have special prayers on the first day of school for all of the students, teachers, parents and school personnel. This year it seems like the prayers are especially important. Of course our prayers are not only for those who are in our community. Around the globe, students in the northern hemisphere are returning to classes in the midst of a worldwide pandemic. There is substantial fear about the safety of students. Education is a communal enterprise. Children gather together and even with strictly enforced rules, there is substantial risk of the spread of illness within schools. Social contact is essential to learning for students, however. Peers are important to the development of children. We all need others in order to learn. This school year may require more than just 40 days of prayer for children. The 5th chapter of 1 Thessalonians comes to mind: “Pray without ceasing.”

Gracious God, we pray for students and teachers who are going back to school. Guide and guard them. We worry about their health and safety. We wonder how physical distance can be maintained. We worry about modified classrooms. We fear that the circumstances of school during the pandemic will not allow for optimal opportunities for teaching and learning.

We pray for the safety of students and teachers, but also for janitors and cafeteria workers. We pray for the safety of families as children go to and from school each day. We pray for energy and rest for all so that the process of teaching and learning can continue. We pray for spiritual growth and faith formation for people of all ages and stages of life.

You, God, are sovereign over all things. You are present in all circumstances. May we be aware of your presence in the process of virtual, distance and e-learning. May all students have access to the resources they need to learn regardless of the places of their learning. May parents discover new ways of balancing work and childcare. May teachers discover the formats and resources they need to teach using technology. May we all discover new paths of patience for the work that lies ahead in our community.

In these uncertain times, we acknowledge that we are in your hands. May you hold students and teachers especially close.

We pray in your holy name. Amen.

As is often the case, the words of my prayers seem inadequate for the immensity of our circumstances. Fortunately our faith teaches us that we do not need to have the “right” words in order to pray. God knows our every need. God is already present in the processes of teaching and learning.

Thank you, God, for hearing our prayers. May they be joined to the prayers of parents and students and teachers and school workers. May we all open our eyes to see your blessings even in times of struggle and strife and unsettled lives. May all discover those blessings. Amen.

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 prayer for hungry children

The summer we were married I worked for Interstate Brands, a large commercial baker. Our bakery produced semi load after semi load of bread as well as hot dog and hamburger buns. I’ve now forgotten, but I used to know how many loaves of bread was on a tray and how many steel racks stacked to over my head with trays of bread filled a 48’ semi trailer. The bakery produced bread at a faster pace than the trucks could be loaded, so loading continued through the night when the bread line was shut down and the bakery turned to producing donuts and snack cakes. I worked the day shift and placed trays on racks then moved the racks into position in the huge warehouse awaiting the crews who loaded the trucks. Each rack had a specific destination and was placed in the warehouse accordingly. At the end of each day, there were a few racks of overrun. The bakery produced more bread than was on order for that night’s deliveries. Those racks went straight into the next door “day old” store, where the bread and buns were actually more fresh than you could buy in a retail store the next day. When it came to hamburger and hotdog buns, however, the over run was much greater than bread. Racks and racks of buns were headed for a huge commercial freezer where they were being stockpiled for two big holidays: July 4 and Labor Day. The factory had to produce ahead to meet the demand for those days.

Labor Day is our traditional end of summer holiday, filled with picnics and outings and fun at the lake. It is also our day to honor those whose work supports and sustains our lives. It is a day off for those who have been working so hard to provide the goods and services we need.

Despite the pandemic, some Labor Day celebrations are going on as usual. I know this because I wasn’t thinking about Labor Day when I decided to stop by the grocery store on Friday. Usually I only go to the store once a week, but we needed milk and a couple of other items, so I dashed into the store to pick up a few items. The trip was far from quick. The store was filled with customers filling their carts with buns and burgers and bratwurst. They were picking up sweet corn and watermelons from huge bins. They were lining up, with a slight not to physical distancing, waiting for the checkers. There were plenty of weekend camping trips and plenty of family barbecues planned for the long weekend.

On the other hand, there will be plenty of people for whom the weekend is work as usual. Retail stores are, for the most part, open even though it is a holiday for white collar and government workers. Front line workers are needed regardless of the holiday. There will be plenty of people working today.

Today, however, I am thinking of those who are unemployed. The pandemic has resulted in a lot of people being laid off from jobs. On Thursday the unemployment report showed just shy of 1.2 million people filed first-time claims for jobless benefits last week. They join an estimated 30 million other Americans who are claiming benefits. These staggering statistics don’t reveal the actual number of families who are in crisis because of a lack of jobs. Many of those families are home to children. Unemployment can often begin a cycle that resulted in homelessness and food insecurity.

The National Center on Family Homelessness reports that a staggering 2.5 million children are homeless in our country. That is one in every 30 children and a historic high. One in 30 children has no bed to call their own. They may have a few toys that can be crammed in a backpack, or they may have none.

Not all of them are children of jobless parents. Minimum wage does not provide enough income to make rent and groceries in many communities in our country. About 14 million children in the US are not getting enough to eat.

These numbers are increasing and have been made worse by the Covid-19 pandemic. Schools have found that feeding children is essential to their mission. Hungry children cannot learn properly. The pandemic, however, means that millions of children are not going to classrooms. There is no delivery of meals over the Internet for distance learners.

On this Labor Day, I pray for the children who are hungry in a world where others have excess.

Great and gracious God, we know that you are with those who suffer. We know that you know of the children where children are not eating enough because the family just cannot afford enough food. We know that you weep with the children who go to bed hungry night after night. Our prayer does not need to remind you of the suffering that is the result of the inability to share.

You, God, are everywhere. The Psalmist declares that there is no place where we can go that you are not present. There are no secrets with you. You know that hunger is more prevalent in the homes of Black and Hispanic children in our country. You know that racial injustice has resulted in food insecurity. You know our guilt when we consume more than we need and when we fail to share with others.

Today we pray that you would give your blessing to those who work to feed hungry children. May they find strength for their work and resources for the need. We pray that you would give your blessing to parents who struggle at two and three jobs and themselves go without enough food so that their children can eat. May their sacrifice be honored in your eyes. We pray that you would give your blessing to the children who are innocent victims of a broken system. May they be seen and heard in the hearts and minds of each of us.

Give us compassion and understanding. Open our eyes to the suffering of others. Renew our call to correct the injustices of our communities.

Bless the children. Today and always.

Amen.

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!

Beginning a vigil

The life of a pastor has many prayer vigils. There are the vigils that occur when we sit with someone who is nearing the end of their life. There are vigils when we sit with those who are grieving. There are the vigils that result from serious illnesses and extended times of recovery. One of the “when we always” vigils of our lives as pastors occurs every autumn, when we set aside 40 Days of Prayer for Children. The date of the vigil is established by Children’s Sabbath, which is the third weekend of each October. This year, that falls on October 16 - 18. The observance is different days in different religious bodies. It begins on Friday evening for Jewish participants. In our Christian churches it will be observed on Sunday, October 18. The 40-day prayer vigil begins 40 days prior to Children’s Sabbath. In the congregations we have served it was common to extend the vigil by a couple of days so that we could launch on a Sunday, so today marks the beginning of the vigil.

In this season of Covid, with the changes in our lives brought about by retirement, Sundays have been a bit awkward for us. We worship online with a congregation in Washington, and some weeks I connect with a small spiritual practice group in Rapid City, but it simply doesn’t feel like the face-to-face in-person worship that has marked our lives.

Last week, I re-read my journal from our 2001 mission trip to share with our sister church in Costa Rica. Every day’s entry ended with a prayer. I wrote prayers for the participants in the trip, for the people of our Costa Rica congregation, for our congregation at home, and much more. The discipline of writing a prayer each day helped me, now 19 years later, to reconnect with the sense of calling and vocation we felt on that trip.

Then, when our congregation had to make a sudden shift from in-person to online worship and ministry last spring, I began the discipline of writing a prayer each day. I posted the daily prayers on FaceBook and the impromptu prayer vigil marked the end of my time as pastor of the congregation we served for 25 years.

So this year, in preparation for Children’s Sabbath, I am going to write a prayer for children each day, starting today, through October 18. It will be my own personal 42 days of prayer.

Today I am thinking of the children of Japan as I prepare for prayer. A little over a year ago we were in Japan to greet our newest grandchild, who was born in Misawa in the northern part of the country. Upon his birth he had been rushed to nearby Hachinohe, where there is a neonatal intensive care unit. A few days later he was able to come home with his parents to begin his life. In 2021 his family will be returning to the United States to live. At less than 2 years old, he won’t remember much about his beginnings in Japan, but his parents and grandparents will tell him many stories and show him pictures of his early days.

Our visits to Japan gave us many opportunities to observe children. We saw school groups traveling together and touring various attractions that we visited. There were school children on nearly every train that we rode as we traveled around the country. We even saw children riding Strider bikes, toys manufactured in Rapid City, South Dakota as we strolled through a park near Tokyo.

Today, however, I am especially thinking of the children who live in the southern part of Japan. Typhoon Haishen is expected to move past Kyushu today with heavy rain, storm surges and winds of more than 100 mph. It comes just days after Typhoon Maysak, one of the strongest to hit the region in years. Factories, schools and businesses are closed across western Japan. More than 200,000 people have been ordered to evacuate. Shelters have been established in schools and community shelters, but some people have decided to shelter in hotels rather than the official shelters out of fear of coronavirus spreading in the crowded shelters.

Children are remarkably resilient and can adapt to changes, even sudden changes when they have their basic needs met. I have memories of Japanese children calmly and confidently negotiating busy train stations and displaying urban skills that our children didn’t develop until they were adults.

Gracious God, we are all your children. With great joy we remember the stories of Jesus welcoming the little children and we take delight in the children who have come into our lives. We know that you watch over all of the children of the earth and call us to protect and care for these precious ones. Today we pray for the children of Japan, thinking specially of those whose lives have been disrupted by storm evacuations. May they find shelter from the storms, and may they find protection from the pandemic that threatens the health of so many around the globe. In the midst of disruption, may they find comfort and care from parents and loved ones. May they find sleep without fear when they need it. Protect the children of Japan, gracious God.

And, dear God, we also ask you to give us a heightened awareness of children everywhere as we begin our prayer vigil this year. May our eyes be opened to their circumstances, may our hearts be opened to their needs, may our lives be dedicated to their nurture and care. We are grateful for the little ones who bring love and joy into our lives and renew our hope each day. May we learn to greet our days with the enthusiasm and joy of a child.

Thank you, gracious God, for the children of our world. Thank you for the many ways that they inspire us and call us to remember our vocation to love and care for all the children of the world.

We pray in your holy name, Amen.

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!

Truth, solidarity, hope

Walter Brueggemann is one of the most profound and influential teachers of the Bible of our generation. His research and writing have deeply influenced my ministry as he calls pastors to live a deeply Biblical faith. I have had the opportunity to hear him speak on a few occasions and have been deeply moved. More importantly, my entire ministry has been shaped by his prolific writing. In addition to Biblical scholarship, he has published prayers and sermons and continues to publish well into his senior years. Those who are familiar with Brueggemann will notice his influence on today’s journal entry. While I do not apologize for having my thinking shaped by this incredible teacher, I do want to acknowledge his influence.

In the face of a global pandemic with tremendous impact on the lives and economies of so many individuals and countries, and in the face of a call for racial justice in a country with such a long history of oppression and inequality, we are witnessing many different responses. Our public life is in turmoil. Tempers flare. Violence erupts. Fear overwhelms.

Here is what doesn’t work: denial. Here in South Dakota, we are witnessing the failure of denial. When we lagged behind the country in coronavirus infection rates our Governor and other leaders denied that it was a threat. “Go back to business as usual.” “You don’t need to wear a face mask.” “We can continue to host large gatherings.” Now that our state leads the nation and the world in the rate of new infections, denial continues. The governors of both North and South Dakota have both publicly declared that the spike in infections is the result of students going back to school, ignoring the simple fact that students are going back to school in all 50 states. This pandemic is real. The threat is significant. Careless behavior will result in increased infection, suffering and death. Denying that this is a crisis doesn’t change the reality.

It is true of the protests that have erupted into violence in many cities across our nation as well. Denying that injustice persists doesn’t work. Pretending that a person’s race or ethnic background doesn’t influence their opportunity doesn’t bring equality. Yelling and screaming doesn’t bring peace. Thinking that the issue affects only urban African-Americans while Native Americans in our city and state experience increased rates of poverty, unemployment and incarceration compared to whites doesn’t bring justice.

Denial doesn’t work.

Here is what does work: the truth. Social media isn’t in general, a good way to learn the truth, but there is solid information about what viruses are and how they spread. A virus that spreads primarily through airborne droplets entering the nose and mouth can be slowed by wearing face masks. Personal hygiene, especially frequent hand washing and not touching one’s face with one’s hands, can slow the spread of the virus. Physical distance slows the spread as well. Our nation has a wealth of scientific experts and people who understand the spread of infections. Scientists have learned a great deal from the rapid spread of other viruses such as SARS, H1N1, and other viruses. We have learned a great deal from smallpox, yellow fever, cholera, polio, diphtheria and other major outbreaks of disease. Other nations have managed the threat of this pandemic far better than our own. We can learn from others if we pay attention and apply the knowledge and information that is available.

The tragic history of slavery and racial injustice in the United States has much to teach us about how to live with our neighbors in this generation. The truth about the systematic use of law enforcement to protect the privilege and property of some while denying basic necessities to others can illuminate the injustices of our society.

The truth works.

Here is what doesn’t work: disregard. It seems that we have leaders in our government that don’t understand the weight of grief that accompanies the death of 188,000 people in our country. Here in South Dakota the families of 170 people are plunged into deep grief over the loss of their loved ones. Many of those who are grieving have been denied the usual social rituals of funerals and the gathering of family and friends. Such overwhelming grief affects every aspect of life for those who have experienced loss. They are further harmed by leaders who seem to not care about their loss.

Disregard hurts.

Here is what works: solidarity. When we stand with those who are grieving, we participate in healing. Grief that is shared is easier to bear. When we acknowledge that grief is a part of our community and reach out, people are better able to heal. In this time of a rapidly spreading virus, we need to find new ways to express compassion and understanding. Phone calls, video chats, and just “checking in” can be a lifeline to those who are in grief. Over and over in my life I have heard from those who have been touched by grief that it isn’t what I said that made a difference to them, it was my presence.

The families of the victims of racial violence and unrest deserve our compassion and solidarity. More angry rhetoric does not heal, but standing with the victims and their families does.

We need leaders who will go to the victims and acknowledge their pain.

Solidarity heals.

Here is what doesn’t work: despair. Saying that the present is as good as it gets, that things can’t get better invites an epidemic of mental illness. Imagining a future that is a repeat of the injustices of the past or a continuation of the inequalities of the present crushes the spirit. Saying that the deaths are inevitable and we have to accept the losses, speaking of them as if they are not significant makes people wonder if things will ever get better.

Bringing weapons to peaceful protest is giving in to the evil that has given rise to injustice. Crushing those who protest may temporarily hide the problems but it solves nothing.

Here is what works: hope. Imagining a brighter future and then going to work to bring it about. Learning to listen to God and follow the path of service brings renewed hope. We are not condemned to return to the past, nor are we trapped in the present. The future belongs to God who always calls us to hope.

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

Coronasomnia?

I’ve never been very good at sleeping. Well, I guess that isn’t quite true. I think that my sleep patterns as a child were fairly normal. When I went off to college, I think I got plenty of sleep, I just allowed myself to get out of sync with my colleagues. The pattern worked very good for me as a student. I got a job as the “opener” for the library, arriving in time to open the doors at 6 am. I went to bed much earlier than other students, much to the annoyance of my roommates, I’m sure. As a result, I got used to being awake when others were sleeping. That pattern of being the first to go to bed and the first to rise in the morning was not so evident during my graduate school years, but for the first 5 years of our marriage, my wife and I were both full-time students and we only owned one typewriter and we didn’t have conflict over who could use the typewriter. We wanted to use it at different times of the day.

In the early years of my career as a pastor, I supplemented my income from the church with a variety of jobs including working as a radio DJ. The radio job worked well with my schedule. I opened the daytime only station, turned on the transmitter, and began the broadcast day each morning at 6 am. I’d go to coffee with the station manager at 9:30 am and be in the church office around 10 am. There was rarely any business for the pastor before 10 am and if there was an emergency, Susan could cover for me. Later, when children entered our lives, I drove a school bus, another job that gets one up and going early in the morning.

Retirement has had a funny and unexpected effect on my sleep patterns. I go to bed at a regular time each night and I get up at nearly the same time in the morning. Instead of rising at 4:30 am, as was my custom during my working years, I allow my self to seep to 6 or 7 each morning. I try to have a regular bed time, but I don’t wake to an alarm any more. However, I find myself wide awake in the wee hours of the morning. Most days lately, I have been getting up and writing my journal entry within a couple of hours of midnight. I’m getting enough sleep and if, on occasion I need a bit more, I allow myself to take a nap.

However, I’ve been reading lately about the impact on mental health of the Coronavirus pandemic. The majority of Americans (59%) say that Coronavirus is having a serious impact on their day-to-day lives. More than one third of all Americans report serious mental health symptoms. As I read more, I have discovered that there are a lot of people who are experiencing sleep issues during the pandemic. There is a name for this observable phenomena: Coronasomnia. According to sleep researchers, there is an epidemic inside of the pandemic. Stress causes sleep deprivation and insomnia which makes you more stressed. Then the news and life’s uncertainties add to that stress. Worse yet, lack of sleep affects the immune system. Studies show that people who don’t get quality sleep or enough sleep are more likely to get sick. Lack of sleep can also have a negative effect on recovery if a person does get sick.

Since my retirement and the pandemic correspond, It is hard to say what is caused by retirement and what is the result of coping with Coronavirus. Furthermore, I don’t think that i am sleep deprived. I’m getting enough sleep, I just arrange my awake and sleep times differently then other people. I’ve been doing that for most of my adult life.

I don’t mind being awake when others are sleeping. When I was serving on-call and responding to emergencies in our community, I kind of enjoyed the feeling of being up and out when the majority of the community was sleeping. There is a saying for that: “Traffic is light in the middle of the night.”

I know all of the tips that health care providers give for those of us who wake during the night. Stick to a schedule, establish a routine, avoid naps, exercise daily, sleep in a cool room. Consider blackout curtains, white noise machines or ear plugs. I try to observe most of those things, and I can skip my nap whenever I have other things in my life. I don’t take a nap if we are driving on a trip, if I have appointments, or other activities planned. Napping doesn’t get in the way of living a full life. Still, allowing myself to take a nap seems to be part of my retirement routine and I enjoy it.

I’m good about daily exercise. When she was in the hospital, a cardiologist told my wife that 30 minutes of exercise 5 days a week is recommended. We walk more than 30 minutes every day. It is a rare day when I don’t walk at least 5 miles and many days I walk over 8 miles.

So I don’t think that I am experiencing Coronasomnia. Compared to others, we haven’t been overly stressed during the pandemic, although I do admit I’ve been watching the statistics. Sough Dakota has become the state with the highest per capita surge in the nation, surpassing North Dakota and Iowa this week. The state is bracing for a surge in hospitalizations and deaths following the surge in new cases. And our state still lags behind many others in the rate of testing, so the actual numbers may be greater than reported. There is plenty to cause worry.

Still, we are practicing isolation, wearing our masks, washing our hands, and avoiding public gatherings. We’re keeping our distance and so far have remained healthy. I just seem to like breaking up my sleep and not taking it all at once. So far it works for me.

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

Paying the piper

I sometimes tease my wife that she has saved our family thousands of dollars because she doesn’t need a psychiatrist to interpret her dreams. Their meanings are so obvious that an amateur can tell what they mean. Frequently, when she reports a dream, I can recognize elements from our lives that are a part of the dreams. One of the strongest examples of this was that not long after our son had gone away to college, she had several dreams in which there was a missing baby and a frantic search for the child. In a sense, we had “lost” a baby. That infant we had loved since his birth had grown into an adult. As an adult he continues to be fascinating and beloved, but he no longer is the baby we once knew.

Of course, we are among the most fortunate of parents. There are real live stories of children who go missing. You hear their stories on the news. We used to see their faces on milk cartons. Parents everywhere fear the loss of their babies in part because babies are, on occasion, stolen.

Perhaps the most famous story of a stolen child is The Pied Piper of Hamelin. The ancient tale is retold in several famous places including a Goethe verse, Der Rattenfänger; a Grimm Brothers’ legend, The Children of Hamelin; and one of Robert Browning’s best-known poems, The Pied Piper of Hamelin. Each writer adds his own twists to the story, but the basic tale is the same: the Piper was hired by Hamlin to rid the town of a plague of rats. The rat-catcher has a magic flute which hypnotizes the rats and they follow him out of the city gates and the city is freed from the rats.

The music worked to lure more than rats, however. When the town refused to pay the Piper, he transfixed boys and girls with the music of his flute and led them out of the town where they vanished.

Old legends often have their origin in some actual historical event. In the town of Hamelin, Germany, there is an etched inscription on the window of a private home that says: “A.D. 1284 - on the 26th of June - the day of St John and St Paul - 130 children - born in Hamelin - were led out of town by a piper wearing multicolored clothes. After passing the Calvary near Koppenberg they disappeared forever.” It is possible that the inscription is just part of the town’s tourist industry, which is now based on the ancient tale. The town pays an actor to dress up as the piper and lead tours of the city. Restaurants feature foods shaped like rats, and tourist shops sell t-shirts and refrigerator magnets depicting the piper leading the children. It is big business for the town.

The specific date and the naming of specific places along with a specific number of children, however, are indications that there might be an actual event, deep in the town’s history, when children or youth were led to leave the town.

Whether or not there once was a piper whose music was used to inspire the exodus of young people, the story goes deep into the human story to uncover a nearly universal fear. No only do we fear the loss of childhood, we fear our own death as well. In a way every human being’s story ends at a point where we simply vanish. Legends, stories, dreams - they all reveal a fear that we share.

Fear of mortality has been heightened by the current pandemic. We may not be suffering a plague of rats, but the world is undeniably in the shadow of a deadly disease. With a grim fascination we read the stories in the news of the spread of the disease and its affects. The statistics about the number of people who have died continue to hold a fascination. We all have experienced changes in our routines and lives because of the illness. The masks we see in public have become more than simple devices to slow the spread of the disease. They have become political statements and signs of the worries of our communities. The very real economic impacts of the pandemic are affecting the lives of millions. We don’t yet know how or when this will come to its conclusion.

So we worry. I read one report that says that nearly 25% of the adults in the United States are currently suffering symptoms of depression. In addition to the crisis of the physical illness, we are in the grips of a devastating wave of psychological illness that has reached crisis proportions. Our communities do not have the resources to provide professional mental health care to such large numbers of people.

The depression is a direct result of the worry that occupies our minds and spirits. The cycle of fear and worry leads to a sense of powerlessness in the face of global events.

Perhaps it isn’t the best time to return to the stories of ancient fears such as the legend of the Pied Piper. On the other hand, it is worth noting that key to the story is the town’s refusal to pay the piper.

Scientists tell us that the global pandemic has a direct relationship to the overpopulation of our planet and the stretching of the boundaries of human habitation of spaces that were the habitat of other species. In the face of sudden changes to the environment virus mutate quickly and the conditions are right they multiply at alarming rates, introducing the world to a new disease. Because we have not paid the price of care of the environment, the costs are extracted in the form of deadly diseases.

Enduring tales have the function of not only encouraging us to learn them, but also for us to learn from them. They are told to teach lessons. The piper must be paid in one form or another. The question that remains is whether we will simply reenact the old story or change our tune to create a new legend for future generations.

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!

Challenging times

I grew up with parents whose childhoods had been shaped by the Great Depression and whose young adult stories included World War II. My great uncle, who lived in our town and was included in all family events, had faced those events in his midlife. Needless to say the philosophy of Marie Kondo wasn’t the organizing principle of their lives. It was closer to “Don’t get rid of anything. You never know what you will need down the road.” I’ve written before that among the items left behind in his home when my great uncle passed away was a shoe box, labeled in black grease pencil, “pieces of string too short to save.” The contents of the box were as labeled.

I remember lots of stories about the challenges of the Depression and of the conditions that followed during the war. I heard about how my grandparents’ farm was saved by a lack of mechanical equipment and a corresponding lack of debt. I heard about my maternal grandfather accepting chickens and even eggs sometimes as payment for legal services and how he tried to help families prevent foreclosure during the hard times. I heard about rationing and how my parents wee married in the home of my great Uncle because no other family members were able to travel during the war. Although my mother lived a little more than a decade into the 21st century, she clearly was a person of the 20th century in many ways.

Interestingly, the stories were never told in ways that made me feel sorry for my parents or other family members. They were always told with a sense of triumph. “Sure times were hard. Sure there were challenges. But we overcame them. We learned to make do and to be happy with what we had.” I would imagine myself if I had lived in those times as being able to survive and even thrive in the challenging times. I speculated about what decisions I would have made, about how hard I would be willing to work for a small wage, about how I could use my survival skills to make things when I had no ability to purchase them in the store.

Our childhood was filled with making things. We built go carts without motors to race down hills. We built tree forts. We scavenged leftover lumber from construction sites and learned to pull and straighten nails for reuse. My uncle taught me to cut a can on the seam and flatten it out and then to make straight bends to fashion a box. The steel from another can was used to make a lid. I learned to use a clench to set nails in place of rivets. These were passed on as family values. “We don’t waste things. We know how to reuse the things that others toss in the garbage.” For what it is worth, even our garbage cans were containers that had previously served another purpose. Among the stories was how my great uncle had not only gotten the garbage can in his garage but also that it had contained enough grease to service his car for years when it was discarded by an auto dealer.

As a result I grew up thinking that challenges were a normal part of life and not a source of worry or fear.

Of course it was all theoretical. I grew up with great privilege. We baby boomers escaped the actual pressures of depression and war. The war of our young adulthood, Vietnam, was vastly different in its effect on the nation.

It would be fair, however, to say that we now are living in challenging times. It isn’t the Great Depression, and our century is different from the last one. But the global pandemic has now invected 26 million and resulted in 861,000 deaths. 189,000 of the fatalities have been in our country. It is estimated that 18 million US citizens are unemployed. The ending of sort term bail out support with the end of August means that millions are facing eviction. Some have predicted that homelessness will reach the levels of the Great Depression. Schools are struggling with how to provide safety for students as a new school year begins. Hospitals are struggling to provide care with the virus spreading among their medical staff.

Challenges are everywhere that we turn. Many churches are not meeting for face to face worship. Organizations have cancelled meetings and events. Donations to nonprofits have plummeted.

And we have chosen to retire - become jobless ourselves - right in the midst of all of it. Although we are not experiencing financial hardship, the shift has been complicated by the pandemic. We haven’t been able to say our good byes in the ways that we had hoped. We are struggling to make the right decisions about what to keep and what to donate and otherwise shed as we downsize our lifestyle. Have we kept too much or too little? It is hard to know.

I hadn’t thought much about the emotional or psychological challenges of the Depression. When I imagined myself facing those challenges, I never thought of a weakened spirit. I imagined I would be strong and cheerful. I didn’t realize how easy it is to fall into pessimism when faced with constant challenges from every direction. I now understand how quickly challenges can lead to pessimism and pessimism can lead to bitterness. There is plenty of loss and grief that accompany the seasons of challenge.

I grew up hearing about how people helped one another during the Great Depression. I know stories about selfless sharing and sacrificial giving. And I know that part of how my relatives moved beyond pessimism and bitterness as they faced the challenges of their lives was to learn to take pleasure in small things. There is great goodness that remains in the world, even in times of challenge. We are still surrounded by the beauty of nature and the love of family and friends. Generosity of spirit continues to show itself in many ways.

Friends, we are all in this together. We will get through these challenges on the kindnesses and commitments of family, friends and colleagues. We can honor the history that we have inherited by keeping alive our capacity for joy and thanksgiving even in challenging times.

We would do well to remember the stories of our people who have faced challenging times before.

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!

Fiction's lessons

I was a year younger than my classmates when I began college. I was worried that I would not be able to keep up academically. The coping skill that I employed was to become a very focused reader. I gave up reading fiction entirely until, as a college junior, I took a literature class. It wasn’t even technically a literature class. Christian Faith and Contemporary Literature was listed as a Christian Thought class and taught by a religion professor. It did, however, get me to read a few novels. For the most part, however, I eschewed fiction during my college and graduate school years.

Fiction and storytelling, however, are important parts of our culture and have much to teach us about the nature of life. Looking back I realize that I allowed myself to get a bit out of balance in my reading choices for many years. One example of this is that I didn’t encounter science fiction at all during my ten and young adult years. At the time of life when many people enjoy reading science fiction and allow the stories to expand their imaginations, I was focused on nonfiction. There have been many articles, including one by Jimena Canales published in the New Yorker 5 years ago, that report how Albert Einstein enhanced his creative thinking through the enjoyment of science fiction, notably “The Stars and World History” by Felix Eberty.

I didn’t read anything written by Ray Bradbury until I was in my 50’s. I still haven’t read “The Martian Chronicles.” That book has inspired some pretty serious scientists. In fact there is a copy of the book on Mars these days. The digital copy along with other works by other science fiction legends was alone into space by NASA’s Phoenix spacecraft, which touched down on the Martian arctic plains in 2007. If space tourism expands to the point where a trip to Mars is possible in my lifetime, I promise to read the book before departing on the trip.

However, I will recommend a different novel by Ray Bradbury to my friends. This seems especially relevant in the light of renewed distress over the politics of our time. In the past week I’ve had several conversations with friends who seem to be near depression over the actions of our President who seems to be stirring up and encouraging the violence in the streets of our country. In a similar manner to his defense of nazis who marched in the streets of Charlottesville resulting in death, he has clearly taken sides in the protests that have become increasingly violent. There is widespread fear among many that in a way far more extreme than his embrace of Russian influence in the 2016 election he is willing to cheat in any way possible and to compromise the national security in order to avoid defeat in the fall election. Shutting down security briefings and crippling the nation’s security system are unprecedented actions, but somehow not unexpected with this administration.

Whether or not you agree with my political opinions I think that you can agree that we live in perilous times and that the pandemic is only one of the threats that our nation faces.

Politics aside, I think that the 1962 Ray Bradbury novel, “Something Wicked This Way Comes” might be an interesting read for people today. The story follows two friends, both young teenagers, when a carnival pulls into their small midwestern town in the middle of the night. Among the rides in the carnival is a carousel that has the power of time travel, going forward or backward, making people age or become younger. The carnival lures people with the sound of the calliope and the smell of cotton candy, but there is clearly something evil about its presence in the community. Mr. Dark, operator of the carnival, keeps promising the boys a ride on the carousel and eventually begins to spread out into the city streets in search of the boys.

The story has a lot more twists and turns and the sense of evil becomes evident from the start of the book when a lightning rod salesman tells the boys that a storm is coming their way.

Perhaps I am ruining the story by giving away a bit of the ending, but the book is so famous that it is easy to obtain plot summaries. In the end, the father of one of the boys, janitor at the town library, discovers the power of laughter to stem the waves of evil. Mr. Dark is conquered by affection because he cannot survive in close contact with someone who is happy. The life off one of the teens is saved by singing and dancing and laughing.

It is as I have said repeatedly. Love wins.

Whether it is inspired by reading a work of fiction or by studying the history of religion, the principle of love’s power over evil is critical to the times in which we are living. It is something we need to remember. It is something I need to remember. When we take to the streets to protest the misuse of power and the presence of racism in our society is is critical to remember that this is not a fight that can be pursued in the way of other fights. It is not a battle that can be won with a show of force. It is no place for angry words or weapons.

Evil is defeated by singing and dancing and laughing. If we lose our sense of humor, we run the risk of becoming Mr. Dark.

There is a lot about which to laugh when to stop to think about it. Although a two-year-old is a lot funnier than a 74-year-old who acts like a two-year-old, there is something ridiculous and laughable about the immature ways in which decisions are being made. Bullying is no fun when you are the victim of the bully, but laughing at bullies is a powerful way to stand up to them.

Whether or not you read Bradbury’s novel, I hope that you will find ways to sing and dance and laugh even in the midst of hard times and dark days. It is the key to our survival as a people.

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