Again and again

The Revised Common Lectionary does an interesting thing with texts. Sometimes the assigned readings for the day repeat the basic stories of another season of the year. Today’s ratings are an example of that. Two weeks ago, on Transfiguration Sunday, the Gospel was Mark 9:2-9, Mark’s version of the transfiguration story. Mark’s Gospel is the shortest, so in the middle year of the lectionary cycle, year B, the readings are somewhat shorter. In addition, readings from John are more liberally scattered throughout the year than in some other years of the cycle. Then today, on the Second Sunday of Lent, we return to the story of the transfiguration. Today’s Gospel is Mark 8:31-Mark 9:9. The entire transfiguration story is read again, this time with a bit of context.

One of the reasons for following the readings fo the lectionary is repetition. We learn by repetition. Those who follow the lectionary return again and again to texts that they have read before. Every three years, we cycle through the worship readings and then return to cycle through them again. My career as a preacher involved 14 trips through that three-year cycle. The texts became familiar and then they became friends and then they challenged me.

Lent is a critical season for Christians because it is our time to face hard realities, accept our mortality, and practice the process of grief. In the early yeas of Christianity, Lent was the season of preparation for membership in the church. It was a six-week journey through the texts, traditions and theology of Christianity, culminating in the story of the Resurrection on Easter and membership in the community. That celebration came only after a serious period of fasting, praying, studying and preparing. In the contemporary church, Lent retains its somber tone, but some of the more severe practices have fallen away. We might join our Roman Catholic sisters and brothers eating fish on Fridays from time to time, but we’ve largely given up fasting as a discipline. Many Christians have no sense that there are any dietary regulations in the faith, for they have been relegated to the past in most churches.

But we cannot escape the hard realities of this life. We are mortal. Not only will we experience death, but we also will be called to walk the journey of grief with the death of those we love. Grief is a part of life itself. You might not know it from listening to some of the preachers of the prosperity gospel, who speak only of the benefits of belief.

Today’s Gospel, however, reports of a particularly hard conversation between Peter and Jesus. Jesus had begun to teach his disciples about his own death. They were challenged by that kind of thinking. They had expected the Messiah to escape death. They wanted the promise of eternal life to mean that they wouldn’t have to grieve or experience pain. Here was the one they believed to be the messiah proclaiming that he himself would die. This wasn’t part of their thinking. They wanted the coming of the messiah to mean that death and pain could be avoided. Peter was upset enough about it to take Jesus aside to speak with him privately. Mark’s gospel reports that Peter “rebuked” Jesus. It leaves the exact words of the exchange to our imagination, but it isn’t difficult to picture the emotional intensity of Peter’s argument: “Jesus, tell us about your triumphal entry into Jerusalem and about the vanquishing of the Romans and about eternal life in your kingdom. We don’t want to hear about sorrow and sadness and death and destruction.”

The reading of this text as a prelude to the transfiguration reminds us that it wasn’t just Jesus’ appearance that changed. The understanding of who the messiah was and of the very nature of salvation itself was transformed in the eyes of the disciples, who began the journey of deeper faith and a way of thinking about God not in terms of an unlimited span of time, but of a whole new way of thinking about time and life and death.

Again and again we come back to the familiar readings and again and again we are invited into a deeper faith.

When I was a child, a somewhat heated discussion arose in our congregation. The materials promoting One Great Hour of Sharing, an offering received during Lent, included a filmstrip that contained pictures of malnourished children and poverty housing. One of the adults in our church thought that such pictures were not appropriate for children to see “especially right before Easter.” Others argued that shielding children from the harsh realities of the world was not appropriate and that there was more to Easter than candy eggs and new clothing. You can imagine how closely we paid attention to the film strip after having overheard part of our parents’ discussion of it. I can still picture the children with distended bellies eating rice with their bare hands. I can remember the black and white photos of tar shack houses with mud for floors and no furniture.

Again and again, we have to hear Jesus words that suffering and grief are not to be avoided, but rather to be shared. Following Jesus is not a path of avoiding suffering, but rather choosing to pick up a cross. Believing in Jesus is not a way to avoid death, but an assurance that even in death, God is with us.

In the congregation where we are worshiping here in Washington, the theme for Lent this year is “Again and again.” Today’s message will be “Again and again we listen.” We repeat the process again and again in part because it is difficult. We go back to the familiar texts. We listen over and over in part because “God has yet more truth and light to break forth from the holy word.” We are still learning. God is still speaking.

Retirement is teaching me that there is a time to step aside and allow others to take the lead. There is genuine grief in not being in the role of preacher and teacher of a congregation. I miss our people. I miss the work. OK, I don’t really miss all of the meetings, but I do miss being involved in the day to day life of the church. Lent is the season when I practiced for the seasons of grief in my own life. It is a lesson that I need to learn again and again.

Grateful for giggles

Sometimes I find myself engaged in silly conversations where miscommunication gives us the giggles. Usually there is a fair amount of misinformation or a lack of information to go with the miscommunication. Last night we found ourselves in stitches trying to discuss a silly topic. Susan and I both received wrapped packages earlier in the day. The packages contained books, chosen for our reading. We were comparing our books and the notes that came with them. I noted that Susan had kept the ribbon from her package while I had tossed the ribbon from my package out with the tissue paper wrapping. She noted that her ribbon was a cloth ribbon. I couldn’t remember for sure, but I don’t think my package was wrapped with a cloth ribbon. I said mine had a zip ribbon. I didn’t just say “zip” however. I made a sound effect like the sound made when curling ribbon with a scissor blade. That got a laugh from all of us and it took me a while to explain what I meant.

I confessed that I didn’t have the name for paper curling ribbon. Susan said that she thought that it was just called paper ribbon. That prompted us to pull out our phones to look it up on the Internet. It turns out that the ribbon isn’t fancy paper after all, but polypropylene, a synthetic fabric. On the other hand searching for “paper curling ribbon” brings up the product from dozens of vendors in an Internet search.

The silliness of the evening brought about memories of a thousand other “arguments” in which one of us has tried to convince the other of some bit of trivial information. Up until the time when we both became familiar with the use of our smartphones to explore the Internet, we always kept an unabridged dictionary near our dining table, handy for use in looking up a variety of different things. At one point we had two unabridged dictionaries, a Websters and a slightly more conservative American Heritage. The presence of a dictionary at the dining table was completely natural for me. I grew up in a household where the dictionary was always at hand. One of the treasures that I retained for most of my adult life was the dictionary stand on casters that my Uncle Ted made. It finally found a new home as we prepared for this move, but the unabridged dictionary is still in a box in our garage. I can’t quite give it up, even though I have access to the entire Oxford English Dictionary online.

Our daughter, however, was quick to point out, when she was a teenager, that other “normal” families didn’t keep a dictionary at the dining table and didn’t interrupt their dinners to look up the spelling of obscure terms or to settle a disagreement. Until she brought it up, I hadn’t thought about it much at all. Certainly I had shared many pleasant meals in the homes of friends where there was no dictionary present. I was definitely capable of carrying on pleasant mealtime conversation without looking up things in the dictionary. On the other hand, at our house, I liked to have the dictionary close at hand even if we frequently put it away on the bottom shelf of a table in the living room when we had guests for dinner.

During the times when we were hosting exchange students, we always kept Spanish-English or Japanese-English dictionaries close at hand for use in bridging language and culture.

So I admitted then, and I still confess that I am aware that our family is a bit unusual in our love of dictionaries and words. Our daughter, who is no longer a teenager, now joins right in with our discussions and conversations and often is the first to turn to her phone and the Internet to do a bit of research to back up a point in a conversation.

In my aging years I have the luxury of a son who is a librarian who will help me with research into any topic I choose. I have no idea how many of my journal entries were inspired or at least informed by conversations I’ve had with our son about topics that are obscure and probably not the stuff of everyday conversation. One of the things that I absolutely love about him is how he will explain the details of science or medicine to his children using a vocabulary that is well beyond their stage of development. Big vocabularies are valued in our family.

Having said that, I didn’t have the correct name for “Crimped Curling Ribbon” when I was trying to describe a simple package that I had unwrapped yesterday. I probably should have looked it up before I said anything. But if I had done that, we would have missed out on the laughter. And the laughter is a treasure that I don’t want to miss.

The other thing that got us to giggling last night was a trait that we all share. Our daughter announced that she was getting tired and was going to head for bed. I said I would do the same. In our family, our daughter and I are usually early to bed and early to rise while our son and his mother tend to stay up later at night and linger in bed in the morning for a few minutes longer than we do. Fifteen minutes later, I commented to our daughter, “It is a good thing that you went to bed a while ago so you can catch up on your sleep.” Of course she hadn’t gone to bed yet. We found other things to talk about for a while after I made the comment. And as for catching up on her sleep, she had a nineteen-month-old son. I frequently joke that she slept all the way through the night once when she was five years old. And she was still a fairly good excuse for my not sleeping when she was in her early twenties. I lost a lot of sleep over that girl, and it doesn’t seem to have injured me. If she loses a bit of sleep to her son, I feel like it is simple justice.

But it is good, perhaps especially so when you are tired, to go to bed with a smile on your face and a silly story to tell. Sometimes it even inspires an essay.

The chicks are in!

2021-02-26-A
On Wednesday, the Lenten study group at our church was meeting over Zoom. Our facilitator asked us to share one thing about Holy Week that we remembered as part of our introductions. I have so many Holy Week memories that it was hard for me to give a single memory as an example. Maundy Thursday services came to mind, but it was more of a category than a single memory. When it was my turn, I shared a Maundy Thursday memory. After class, I started to think of decades of Lenten Memories. It wasn’t just Holy Week, but rather the entire season that sparks memory upon memory, layer upon layer. My memories are not just of church events, but because I was raised in a family that was active in church, the memories of church blend with other memories of the season.

One of my Lenten memories is the birth of donkey colts. My father was a bit of a hobby farmer. We usually had a few animals even though our income came from providing services to farmers, not from being farmers ourselves. We raised a few donkeys back when the US Forest Service bought donkeys for trail work in the high country. Dad tried to have a new donkey colt for Palm Sunday each year. The gestation period for a Spanish burro is about a year and can vary quite a bit. Generally a Jenny produces a single colt every other year, with breeding and birthing taking place in the same general season. Palm Sunday, however, moves around the calendar, falling between March 15 and April 18. Some years we got lucky and had a young colt for Palm Sunday and some years we didn’t. On year, the colt was born on Easter. We named her Hallelujah, which quickly got shortened to Lulu.

Another Lenten memory that mixes the secular with church in my mind is the arrival of the year’s chicks. We tried to have chicks in stock at the store. Nearly every year a few were sold individually to folks around town as part of Easter baskets. A few of them would raise their chick, but most of them ended up bringing the chicks back to our store. We raised whatever chicks went unsold for the freezer, so we had chickens from the spring through the fall, but didn’t keep them over the winter. The day the chicks arrived in the spring was always an exciting day. At least once it landed on a Saturday when we didn’t have school and I got to go with my dad to the post office to pick up the chicks first thing in the morning. The chicks arrived at the post office by truck during the night and the postmaster was eager to have them picked up. There were a few other big customers on chick day, notably the Hutterite colony up north, but we received several cartons of peeping masses of chicks. We took the chicks to the shop where we had a stock tank filled with bedding material, wood shavings and a bit of hay. There were heat lamps suspended over the stock tank to keep the chicks warm. We mixed up a powdered supplement with water and filled the waterers in the stock tank. Then the chicks came out of the cartons one by one. We held their beaks in the water until they took a swallow, then released that chick in the stock tank and took the next one from the carton. Dad could do two at a time, one in each hand, but I couldn’t make their beaks go in the water unless I handled them one at a time.

Well, the chicks came in yesterday. Not cartons and cartons of chicks, just a dozen. Here, the feed store takes advance orders and tries to get the customers to pick them up the same day they arrive. Chicks still travel in the mail along with other parcels. Last year our son’s family got six laying chickens. As is not unusual, five turned out to be hens and one was a rooster. The rooster found a new home after being listed on Craigslist for a few days. The hens produce eggs for the household. This year, they added a dozen to the flock. The feed store is in the town where we live, so the chicks and our grandchildren came to our house for a few hours in preparation for the trip to the farm. We set up a heat lamp and set up our brooder in a moving box. The chicks got their beaks dipped and then were left to feed while the children played and their mom tried to catch up on a bit of work. I know that I have a “no pets” clause in my lease agreement, but no damage occurred to the house during the temporary visit and these aren’t technically pets because they will be raised to be working birds, producing eggs for the family.

Our nineteen-month-old grandson was absolutely fascinated by the chicks. He required constant supervision whenever he was in the room with the chicks. The heat lamp was too hot to touch and the chicks were too little and fragile for his tiny hands. We held a couple so he could touch their down. Like the rest of us the song of their cheeping drew him to the brooder box.

I don’t know if he will remember the day the chicks arrived. I can’t place memories from that early in my life. My earliest memory comes from when I was about a year older than he is now. Certainly his cousins will remember the arrival of chicks, but they may not remember individual years, but the year that the chicks visited grandma and grandpa on their way to the farm may be distinct form other years when they look back. I don’t know if any of them will make a connection between Lent and the arrival of the chicks.

But they will remember that tiny birds need constant care. They will remember that life has cycles with a season for the chicks to arrive and a season for grown chickens to produce eggs for the table.

And the chicks sparked plenty of memories for grandpa, who this year can just watch and occasionally help feed the chickens with the real work of caring for the tiny birds falling to the younger generations. The brooder was moved to the farm and my house was quiet by the time I headed for bed to dream and remember.

Sacred places

2021-02-25-A
In 2006, with a grant from the Lily Foundation, we were able to take a sabbatical that focused on sacred spaces. Like many Lily Clergy Renewal grants, our adventure included a significant amount of travel. We explored some of the Canadian west, from the Rockies to the coast, reading stories of the indigenous people and visiting beautiful places. We traveled with friends around Australia, visiting Uluru and other sites in the center of the continent as well as spending time on the island of Tasmania. We listened to the stories of special places that had been recognized by people as sacred for thousands of years.

In preparation for that sabbatical, I made a few pilgrimages to sacred places that were close to our home in the Black Hills of South Dakota. The hills have been known as sacred to a dozen or more tribes for as long as we have recorded history of the place. It is easy to see why people saw the places as sacred. Bear Butte, also known as Paha Mato, stands a bit away from the main hills. A climb to its top winds around the butte, past tobacco ties in the brush and above sweat lodges constructed on the slopes. For Lakota people it is a place of vision where young people went to discover their vocation. It continues to be a place for clarifying prayer. From the top of the butte there is a spectacular view of the hills to the south and the plains to the north. On a clear day you can see three states.

At Mato Tipi, also known as Devil’s Tower, visitors are respectfully requested to refrain from climbing. The rock monolith is traditionally experienced by walking around it. You can see from miles away how it became an important meeting place for semi-nomadic people who followed the buffalo. It was easy to describe, even to someone who had not previously seen it. It is a unique feature in a big land.

Climbing to the top of Black Elk Peak affords a way of sensing the geography and geology of the Black Hills. It helps one to understand why so many generations of people saw the hills not as a place to own or stay permanently, but as a place to go to renew the spirit and get a sense of one’s place in the world.

I feel incredibly fortunate to have been able to live in the hills for a quarter of a century, to have had deer and turkeys for neighbors and the wind in the pine trees to lull me to sleep at night. I was blessed to be able to walk on paths that wandered through the trees and to climb to vistas where I could see for miles.

Just up the street from the church where we worked for those years is a narrow path that leads up the side of a ridge called Skyline. The view from the top of the ridge allows a look at the western and eastern sides of Rapid City from above. We became familiar with walking on the trails in a wilderness park that was developed to preserve some of the land from development. Memories of walking there and having access to that beautiful place to restore my perspective in the midst of a job that was at times stressful will remain with me for all of my life.

2021-02-25-B
I was thinking of some of the high places in the hills, and some of the walks that lead to places of vista yesterday as we were taking a walk around Little Mountain. Little Mountain is a hill in Mount Vernon that is preserved as a wilderness park for hiking and biking. There is a road that goes to the top and miles of trails that wind around the hill. It reminds me of Skyline in Rapid City, but there are some significant differences. The trees are taller. There are ferns and dense undergrowth. At the top of Little Mountain, on a clear day, you can see snow-capped mountains to the north and east rising ten thousand feet above the city. And, when you look to the east you can see the ocean, dotted with islands, themselves with striking hills and mountains.

I enjoy making photographs, but I have never been able to create photographs that fully capture the places I have visited. The beauty of the places exceeds the images that I am able to record. Still, I enjoy looking at the pictures we have taken and I came away from our walk yesterday with more pictures to enjoy.

There is something in the human spirit that is renewed by the beauty of the world. A stunning sunrise or sunset can give fresh energy to a time of day when one feels drowsy. The climb to a vista can help one rediscover a place in the world and the calling for one’s life. Our eyes allow us to perceive a particular part of the spectrum of light and color that we behold as beauty. Sight and sound and smell combine as a single sensation instead of distinct experiences. A sip of water tastes glorious when partaken in a place of beauty. The touch of a hand becomes a sacrament. We don’t have the language to describe the sensations and so we call the place holy.

One of the benefits of having lived for many decades is the knowledge that there is great beauty in many places. Comparison fails. It is not that one place is more or less beautiful than another, but rather that when we approach the world with open eyes and open arms it rushes at us with beauty in different ways in different places. Seeing the mountains and the ocean from a single vantage point is a refreshing experience, but no more or less beautiful than kneeling next to the first pasque flower emerging from the prairie or watching the buffalo cross the badlands.

Fortunately for us there are prayers that do not require words and praise that doesn’t require loud noises. For we are surrounded by the beauty of sacred places.

Milk and butter

In the late 1950’s our father expanded his business. His primary business was aviation. Both of my parents were pilots and our father ran the airport in our small town. He did whatever it took to earn money with airplanes, including selling them, maintaining them, flying charter, flying agricultural applications, running an air ambulance service, flying fire patrol, flight instruction, flying game counts, and providing aviation services to the National Forest Service and the National Parks. The operation was fairly small, but he usually had a couple of other pilots and a mechanic working for him. The expansion took him in a more land-based direction. He bought a local farm supply store that included a John Deere farm implement franchise and the local Purina Chows warehouse/dealership. Among the products handled in the Farm Supply Store were tools and general hardware as well as Delaval Cream Separators.

My first jobs in the Farm Supply store included sweeping the feed warehouse and some elementary assembly of items for display in the shop. The business was based on service and it was common for our father to go to the store after hours or on Sundays to provide necessary parts or service to get a farmer back into the field. One day he took me along on a late afternoon visit to a local dairy where they had a Delaval milking system. There was some problem with the milkers and the farmer was forced to hand milk his cows. For the next couple of days while we waited for the parts to be express shipped, we went to that farm morning and evening and helped with the milking. My uncle had a single dairy cow and milked by hand, but I had never before had the chore of milking. My father was patient as he taught me, but the whole farm was under pressure with the milkers down and everyone had to chip in. I was small and inexperienced with getting the cows moved from place to place, so I was assigned to washing and milking.

A couple of decades later, when I was a young pastor, a young man near my age who married into our church graduated with a BS in agriculture from college and set about getting started in farming and ranching. With limited funds, but strong backing from his farm family, he began a dairy operation. I became friends with him and watched as he worked hard, seven days a week, to launch his business. Times were tough and the farm crisis of the 1980’s left him without the ability to continue his dairy business. He had to seek off-farm income and has ended up with a very successful career in agricultural property management and real estate. His story was part of a bigger national picture that ended up with much of the dairy industry being controlled by very few big corporations. In about 30 years our country had gone from family farms and local small dairies to big corporations and very few locally owned and controlled creameries. These days it is hard to follow the path that milk takes from farm to the grocery store and in most cases it involves a lot of trucking including interstate transportation. Most of the milk we drink comes from large production dairy farms with thousands of head of cattle.

That history is part of what made it possible for our son to become the owner of a small farm. The farm where his family now lives once was the center of a 50-head herd of dairy cattle run by a single family. They put up a huge barn and invested in the equipment to milk their cattle. They put up their own hay and hauled their own manure. And, like other similarly-sized dairy operations, they didn’t survive the agricultural economics of the 1980’s. At first land was sold to keep the operation solvent. They no longer had the acreage to produce all of their own hay and had to purchase hay. Then decades of hard work began to take their toll. The family no longer had a younger generation willing to endure the hardships of raising dairy cattle. The cattle and the home place, along with the dairy barn were sold. For the last three decades the home place and the ten acres that surround it have been basically a hobby farm for families whose primary income comes from off-farm sources.

I was thinking of the changes in the dairy industry in my lifetime as I have been reading online about Canada’s recent butter crisis.The Covid pandemic has produced a large spike in demand for butter in Canada. Sales of butter were up 12% last year and remain strong this year. Along with the increased demand has been an increase in price and, to the horror of Canadian foodies and cooks, a change in the consistency of the butter sold in grocery stores. It no longer softens as much at room temperature. It is harder to spread. Similar reports have been made about butter in the United States.

The main change is that as demand has been increasing, dairy farmers are using more supplemental feeds to boost production. Among the substances fed to dairy cows is feed enriched with palm oil. It is likely that palm oil is a factor in the change in the consistency of production butter. Think about it. Palm oil isn’t exactly a product of Canada. Had it been Canola, I would have understood. Palm oil comes from the tropics.

The world is more complex than it was when a family raised hay on their land, fed the hay to cows, milked the cows, and took the milk to a local creamery for processing. It is far more complex than it was when the cream was separated and the butter churned by hand. The milk and other diary products we consume involve international trade and shipping networks.

I’d encourage my son to get a dairy cow but then I remember how hard it was to milk by hand for just a few days. I’m guessing that we’ll be purchasing our butter from the grocery store for the foreseeable future. Even if the butter is harder to spread, the work load is much more manageable.