April 2021

Notes on the weather

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I’ve heard a lot of jokes about how much it rains in the Pacific Northwest. I’ve told a lot of those jokes. For a decade we lived in Boise, Idaho at the northern end of the great American desert, and traveled regularly to Portland, Oregon, where our conference office was located. At the time, my sister lived in Portland and I used to collect jokes about the wet weather.

“I once thought I saw a Portlander with a tan, but I realized it was rust.”

“Bicyclists in Oregon have to take precautions to avoid dying from drowning.”

“If you live in the northwest, any day in which the mist slows so that you can see across the street is a sunny day.”

“Did you hear about the guy from Seattle who invited his girlfriend to watch the sunset with him? She couldn’t understand the invitation. She’d never seen this mythical thing called a sun.”

I could go on and on, but I don’t think you want me to.

The truth, however, is that we have just had three days in a row with truly cloudless skies. Spring weather has been beautiful and we have enjoyed being outdoors, taking walks without jackets, and driving with the windows down. I commented to Susan the other day that it was interesting seeing some of our neighbors, who have lived here longer than we, being forced to mow their lawns when it isn’t raining. Being a newcomer, so far I haven’t mowed my lawn in the rain, and it still seems strange to me that my neighbors do.

Clear skies mean dramatic views of the mountains. The big mountain around here is Mount Baker, a 10,700 foot volcano. It is an active volcano, but we haven’t seen any of that activity. It has been covered in snow all of the time we’ve lived here. We haven’t yet driven up to the ski resort on the mountain, but it must have been incredible skiing there in recent days with blue skies and unlimited visibility. Since you can see Baker from the coast, I’m sure you can see the ocean from the mountain.

Many of our friends who live here speak frequently of the joy of living in a place that has access to the ocean and the mountains. I have to admit that the scenery is beautiful. I am frequently struck with a sense of gratitude that I get to live in this place and see such gorgeous views.

We were frequent visitors to the Pacific Northwest for all of the years of our active ministry. We have had family in Oregon and Washington for all of our adult lives. This has been one of the most common areas in which we vacationed when we were working. Our career, however, led us to drier places and we didn’t mind it a bit. Despite growing up with some prejudices about the Dakotas, we really enjoyed living there. Our Black Hills home gave us reasons for joy every day. It was a great place to live and work and play.

One of the things that we have been learning in the past few months is about the importance of wetlands in coastal areas. There are huge fields that were covered in water back in February. They appeared to be lakes, covered with swans and geese. When we drive by those same fields today they appear to be grasslands with no lake in sight. I know, however, that if you were to walk across those fields you’d better have you waterproof muck boots on and you might struggle to walk as it is. You wouldn’t want to drive in such a field. You’d become hopelessly stuck.

The rapid transformation of the land from season to season was a problem for early settlers to this place. Indigenous people were amazed that European settlers wanted to locate the city of Seattle in the place they chose. The boom town soon discovered that it had a tremendous water problem. Eventually they filled in a lot of the area with soil hauled form other places. There is a tour offered in downtown Seattle of the underground areas that once were at ground level before they built up the city.

There are several places that have boardwalks through wetlands so that people can visit and explore the areas. There is a lot to see, with muskrats and beaver and hundreds of birds. When we walk by Tennant Lake, we get glimpses of Eagles and Osprey fishing in the shallow waters. There are all kinds of plants that are not familiar to us. Water skimmers slide across the surface of the water. And when it is clear, the view of the mountains is spectacular. We have a lot to learn about the wetlands and the creatures that live there.

There is beauty in other places we have lived that we miss. I can close my eyes and remember the amazing sight of thunderclouds moving off to the east with rainbows stark against the black sky as the sun draws low on the horizon behind me. It is a sight we won’t see in this place. We have mountains to the east, and I realize I’ve lived most of my life on the eastern slopes of the mountains. My perspective is reversed here. But there has been great beauty in every place we’ve live and I feel most fortunate to have had a life’s journey that has taken me to such different places.

So, it doesn’t really rain here every day. We have days of sunshine and blue skies. Perhaps we appreciate those days more than we did when we lived in Boise, where clear skies are constant and rain falls only about 5 days each year. I’ve been trying to come up with a few jokes about the weather in the Dakotas, since we lived there so many years, but the weather itself seems to demand a certain sense of humor. The cold air was blowing over the hills yesterday and snow was falling in our former home. I’ll probably notice those days when it is beautiful here and snowing there for a while.

A moment of pride

For more than four decades I had a job where people praised me every week. There is a tradition in many churches of the pastor standing at the door of the church to greet worshipers after a service. In the days before Covid, people would line up, shake my hand and give me a greeting. I enjoyed the contact with the people I served, and the immediate feedback on the work that I did. Every week there would be some one and most weeks there would be many people who said a word of praise about the worship service that I had planned. It gave me confidence about the work I did. It probably also skewed my sense of self worth. I know that such a practice can make it more difficult for one to see mistakes and the need for change. I didn’t worry. There were plenty of channels for negative feedback and I got a fair share of that as well. I hope that I maintained some sense of balance throughout my career.

Then I retired. Suddenly the feedback stopped. I no longer have a line of people waiting to say, “Nice sermon, pastor.” It isn’t just the feedback I miss. I miss the people. Like many others during this pandemic, my contact with others has shifted dramatically, but I think that the process of retirement has made my shift a bit more dramatic than what has been experienced by some other people.

My life, however, still has some moments that I treasure and that remind me of how I am connected to others.

Yesterday, we met our son to go for a walk during a break from his work. He often has long days with meetings in the evening and I know that experience well. Sometimes, however, it is possible for him to walk away from his office for a little while and it has worked on several occasions for us to meet him to take a walk. We are getting to know the neighborhoods around the library and beginning to feel at home. As we walked, he stopped at the post office to drop off an envelope that needed to be mailed. We waited outside and he came out talking to another man, who lingered for a while at a safe distance. He was asking our son questions about the library - a recent remodeling project, when patrons will be allowed back in the building, the rebuilding of staff following pandemic lay offs, and more. I felt a surge of pride as I witnessed our son as a professional engaged in serving his community and receiving feedback from a library patron.

Later we returned to the library. A woman was standing outside her car in one of the library’s curbside delivery spaces. She told us that she had forgotten her cell phone and didn’t know how to let the library know she was there to pick up her books. Our son introduced himself, got her name and ran into the library and returned with her books. As he made the trip inside, we told the woman we are his parents. She told us about how important the library has been in her life. She is recently widowed after a long period of caring for a husband with dementia. She told us how the library staff were always so kind to her husband, how they helped her find the right books as his mental capacities declined. The children’s librarians helped her find books and movies that entertained him. Now, after being alone for a few months, she decided to adopt a puppy and she needed some books on training a dog. She called the library and found help getting the books she sought.

It is a really good feeling to have a stranger tell you how important the work your son does is to her and to the community. In a community where we know almost none of our neighbors, it is an ego boost to walk around town with someone who a lot of people know and respect.

One of the blessings of life is having meaningful work. I didn’t always think of that when I was engaged in the day to day struggles of balancing work and family and a need for a bit of personal space. Now that I have retired, I am well aware of how fortunate I was to have been continually employed in a job that contributed to my community and gave me real joy. Over the years I’ve had plenty of conversations with people who felt stuck in their jobs. They didn’t enjoy the work they did, but didn’t know how to make changes. They needed the income and so endured unpleasant work experiences. It was very different for me. I enjoyed the work I did and felt that my work was meaningful and the daily challenges of the job kept me engaged. Now that the time has come for me to retire, I miss my work. I’m not unhappy being retired, but retirement makes me feel especially grateful for the work I had. At this stage of my life it doesn’t feel like it would be a burden to return to work for a while and I may do so after we get settled.

Now it is particularly gratifying to see our son engaged in meaningful work. I am amazed and proud of the work that he does and moments like yesterday when I am given the opportunity to see his impact in the community are treasures.

I was young and new in my career when my father died. He never got to see much of the work that I did. I know, however, how proud he was of my education and my graduations. I remember the sparkle in his eye at my ordination. Now I understand it in ways I could not at the time. I hope that our son and daughter will one day have the joy of seeing their children find meaningful work. It is a family legacy far more valuable than the kind of wealth that is measured in dollars and cents.

Just the right age

I suppose that farmers weren’t the primary consumer in mind when fitness trackers were developed. I’ve already written about my fitness tracker in my journal, so here is a quick update. Yesterday, worked on the farm. I set eight posts. Each post is set in 80 pounds of concrete, so for each I had to carry an 80# bag from the garage to the post hole. In addition, I constructed the fence, carrying rails and pickets from the garage to the site. I shoveled sod into the wheelbarrow and dumped it in an area where additional soil was needed. I traipsed with hammers and levels and other tools back and forth between the shop and the place where I was building fence. When the posts were set, I put away all of the tools. After finishing that project, I came home and showered. I took off the fitness tracker while I showered, so I know exactly how many minutes of exercise had been recorded. After my shower, I sat and read for an hour, did a bit of desk work and then grilled burgers and hot dogs for supper. I had supper with my wife and our son and his family. I played with the kids for a bit after supper. I washed the dishes and read a bit more. At bedtime, I took off the fitness tracker. It recorded exactly the same number of minutes of exercise after the shower as it did before. I’m pretty sure that flipping a few burgers and sitting down for a leisurely evening felt like a lot less work that building a fence. The distinction between work and working out is something that never occurred to me before I got the device.

I think that one of the best features of the watch that has a fitness tracker is that it allows me to laugh at the technology I use and my own desire to have certain technological items. Somehow the marketing of the devices captures my imagination enough that I purchase them. I don’t have the latest and greatest. My new computer is nine years old. I recently read an article about a program that was seeking donation of computers to be refurbished for seniors to use. The program accepted only computers that were newer than eight years old. So I figure that my computer is not quite as up to date as the computers that are donated by businesses and individuals because they have become so old they must be replaced. I’m very happy with the computer I have. Someday it will fail and I’ll figure out how to replace it. In the meantime, I’m happy to do my work with a less-than-state-of-the-art computer.

For what it is worth, the watch with the fitness tracker isn’t the current series. I received an email suggesting that I should upgrade to the latest release.

There is little satisfaction of ownership that comes from upgrading. I had an item. I spent a lot of money and now I have the item. The idea doesn’t appeal to me at all. I’m no luddite. I like gadgets and I have a lot of them. How else could you explain the watch with the fitness app? On the other hand, I’m well aware that I can’t keep up. Furthermore, not keeping up leaves me happy and content. It seems way less frustrating than it would be to always have to keep replacing things to have the latest and best.

Years ago I would see car ads promoting leasing instead of buying cars. The slogan they used was “New every two,” meaning that every two years one car is exchanged for another. It takes me more than two years to remember how to set the clock in the car without having to get out the instruction manual. I’d probably just leave the clock on standard time year round if I had to get “new every two.” I recently had the oil changed in our car and was struck by the service adviser who used the expression, “On old cars like yours . . .” Our car doesn’t seem old to me. A year ago I was driving a 21-year-old car with 290,000 miles on it. This ten-year-old car seems quite new and fancy to me. I prefer to think of it as our new car despite the way the service advisor sees it. After all, I can remember the days before there was such a thing as a service advisor. In those days the mechanic who worked on your car probably also pulled the parts from the bins, prepared the bill and collected the money. In those days I paid by check or cash. I didn’t have a credit or debt card.

Then again, I know that I seem incredibly old to my grandchildren. Sometimes they humor me by asking me to tell them stories about the old days, by which they mean the days when their farther was a little boy, not the days when I was a little boy. And, since I did the same to my grandpa, I know plenty of stories about when my father was a little boy. Occasionally one of those stories strikes them as amusing. I’m not sure that they know that I wasn’t around when Laura lived in the little house on the prairie.

It seems to me that there are a lot of good things about being the age that I am. I no longer feel the weight of the world on my shoulders. If a program at our church doesn’t succeed, I’ve seen other programs come and go. If my clothes are out of fashion, I don’t notice, so I don’t care. If my understanding of technology dates me, I don’t mind being dated. I still have the blessing of my health. I can dig post holes and build a straight fence line. I can load bags of concrete at a faster rate than the store employee assigned to “help” me.

Most importantly, I can laugh and myself. And, as my grandchildren will tell you, I’m a pretty silly guy and there is plenty to laugh about.

Lethal force

As I parked my car in the grocery store parking lot last night I noticed a car parked next to mine had a face mask hanging from the rear view mirror. I’m not sure why it caught my eye, but at first I thought it might be a dream catcher or some colorful feathers - common objects hanging from rear view mirrors in many cars back in South Dakota where we lived for many years. This was a colorful face mask, however, and it seemed like a convenient place to put a face mask. We carry extra face masks in our car, and I often remove my face mask as I slide into the driver’s seat. I don’t like things hanging from my rear view mirror, however, so sometimes I place mine on the dash board. More often, I slide it into the center console.

I probably wouldn’t have thought much about it except the news of the fatal shooting of a black man by a police officer in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota is being covered by nearly every major news source and part of the coverage is that the man who died called his mother as he was pulled over by police and said that he had been pulled over for having an air freshener hanging from the rear view mirror.

It is important to note that I do not know what happened in that tragic event. The investigation is not yet completed. I choose not to watch the video clips that are circulating on the Internet. I’ve witnessed enough trauma in my life to be careful about what I watch. I don’t need to see someone getting shot. I live in a place distant from those particular events and I will reserve judgement for the time being.

What I do know is that in many states there is a law prohibiting hanging items from the rear view mirror. The law is intended to prevent items from obscuring the vision of the driver. It seems like common sense than anything dangling in the windshield could present a danger. I also know that people have been hanging everything from fuzzy dice to air fresheners to dream catchers to face masks from their rear view mirrors and the practice has been going on since before I obtained my driver’s license.

I also know that police officers don’t go into the profession because they want to have the job of enforcing little rules like whether or not someone hangs an item from their rear view mirror.

Brooklyn Center Police Chief Tim Gannon told reporters in a news conference that Daunte Wright was fatally shot after an officer meant to use a Taser, but mistakenly drew her gun instead. According to news reports, the officer yelled, “Taser, Taser, Taser” - standard police procedure before firing a taser - just before the shot was fired.

I have no idea how a 26-year veteran police officer, who received recurrent training in the use of firearms and tasers, made that particular mistake. Officers have to make very rapid judgments and learn to act quickly and decisively under tension. They are also human beings who experience fear and panic and who make mistakes. And when a person carries lethal force as a tool of one’s occupation, a mistake can be fatal as is painfully and terribly evident in the story as it has been reported.

I know that a 20-year-old man is capable of making poor choices and that the fear of being pulled over and questioned by armed police officers can cause someone to react poorly to the situation. People often attempt to run away from police officers even though doing so doesn’t result in getting away and usually makes the situation worse.

I have many friends who are police officers and sheriff’s deputies. I’ve invested years of my life as a law enforcement chaplain. I know that there are some very good and honorable people who have chosen law enforcement as a career for some very good reasons. I also know that for a law enforcement officer, the choice to carry lethal force includes accepting the possibility that one will use lethal force. Having a gun on your duty belt means accepting the responsibility that you might one day kill another human being. Regardless of the circumstances of such an action, doing so is a drastic and traumatic event. There is an argument that can be made that the use of lethal force is sometimes necessary and that killing a person can be the best choice in certain circumstances. People imagine that weapons will only be used to prevent further violence and death. They think in terms of saving lives, not taking lives. A car driven at or over another person can be a lethal weapon. Fleeing the scene of an investigation can be an act of violence and cause danger to innocent people.

In the second it takes to unholster a weapon and squeeze a trigger a life was ended. A family is plunged into grief and trauma. A community is set on edge and violence spills out into the streets. An officer’s career is effectively ended. It is a high price to pay for the enforcement of minor traffic violations.

As I drove home from the grocery store I observed a vehicle failing to stop before making a right turn on a red light. The vehicle pulled out in front of my vehicle close enough that I had to brake and take evasive action to avoid a collision. I also observed a vehicle changing lanes without signaling, another with a brake light that was not functioning properly, and several vehicles traveling in excess of the 25 mile per hour speed limit on the street. I don’t know if the person driving the car with the face mask hanging from the mirror removed the mask before driving. I am not convinced that our society requires officers wearing body armor and carrying lethal force to respond to those violations of the law.

Reading the story of the end of the life of Daunte Wright breaks my heart.

A Walk in the Park

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Just south of Ferndale, Washington is a public park called Hovander Homestead Park. Whatcom County purchased the park from the Hovander family and opened the park in the early 1970’s. It includes about 350 acres with a huge barn and a big house. There are gardens, an orchard, and a few animals are kept, including ducks, geese, rabbits and goats. There are two observation towers on the property which give great views of Mount Baker and the northern cascades when the weather is clear. Part of the property lies alongside the Nooksack River and it extends to the southwest corner of Tennant Lake. There are several miles of walking trails and we occasionally stop at the park to walk when we are on our way home from visiting our son and his family at their farm in Ferndale.

When we first started visiting the park, waterfowl season was open here in Washington and the part of the trail system that marsh and peat bog near the lake was closed to walking for the safety of visitors. There were plenty of other places to walk, so we continued to visit. On Saturday when we stopped to visit we decided to explore the now open trail that leads to the lake. It was a delightful treat.

There is a large loop of boardwalk that extends across marsh, swamp, slew and wetlands to the shore of the shallow peat bog lake filled with water lilies. The water is relatively high this spring and there are several places where the water is nearly as high as the boardwalk so it feels like we were walking right on the surface of the standing water. We had a clear spring day and there were no mosquitoes around when we took our walk.

It was a reminder of just how different this part of the world is from the other places where we have lived.

I don’t know much about the Hovander family story except that they were immigrants from Sweden who purchased an existing farm with a couple of log cabins in the 1890’s. In the early 1900’s they built the large house and barn on the property. The wood for the house was soaked in linseed oil for two years before it was used. The barn was originally painted with a mixture of oil and red clay. These treatments of the fir and cedar harvested from nearby forests resulted in preserving the wood and the integrity of the structures that appear to be in very good shape.

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As we walked the trail, taking delight in discovering the newness to us of the area and the differences from the other places we have lived, I thought a bit about the family whose name remains with the park. They left behind familiar country in Sweden to come to a very different place than they had known. They didn’t hav the advantage of developed trails and constructed boardwalks. If they wanted to explore this corner of the property they would have had to wade through heavy muck. I suspect they saw the Tennant Lake corner of the property as largely useless for their farming, though it may partially dry out enough to permit some grazing in the late fall. Even the rise and fall of the levels of water in the river are strange to us. The river is low at present. The snow in the high country has not yet started to melt. But the river was very high in the middle of the winter when creeks and rivers in other parts of the country are running low. It will take us years to learn about the seasons in this place.

I wonder what challenges the Hovander family encountered as they learned to live in their new place. One of the interpretive signs says that Hokan Hovander was originally a brick layer. He must have had to learn new construction techniques to build with the materials available in the Pacific Northwest. There are no bricks in the house. There are no fireplaces. The house was one of the first homes in the area designed with a central heating system. Every room of the house has multiple doors that can be opened and closed to direct heat throughout the house. It was seen to be a very innovative design for its time. Clearly members of the family adapted and learned new ways of living in their adopted home.

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Our move from South Dakota didn’t require the hardships of those who came more than a century earlier. We were able to move directly into a modern home with heating and plumbing and all of the convinces to which we were used. We didn’t have to learn new skills to grow our food. Shopping for groceries here is pretty much the same as it was where we lived before. We’ve had to find our way around a new town and make some new relationships, seeking new doctors and other service providers, but it is unlikely that we will be faced with the challenge of building a new home from scratch in order to have a place to live. Our gardening will be pretty tame compared with what was required of the folks who pioneered in this place.

All of us, including the Hovander family, are newcomers compared to the indigenous people who lived along the coast and in the foothill forests of this region. They understood the rise and fall of the water and knew where to build structures and where to fish and gather food. Much of that indigenous knowledge was ignored by settlers who might have benefitted from native teachings. We hope we are being a bit more wise, talking to locals and exploring the area a bit before choosing a house in which to settle. Nonetheless, I’m sure we’ll make all kinds of newcomer mistakes, some of which may amuse those who have lived here a long time.

In the meantime, we are taking great delight in exploring the area and finding new places to walk and explore.

Using words with care

I am fortunate to have fairly good hearing, but I am aware that it is not as good as it once was. Yesterday we had a few minutes to wait in the car while my son ran an errand. I was playing a word game with my granddaughter who was sitting in the row behind me as we waited. She has discovered “knock knock” jokes, but doesn’t quite understand how humor works. But she knows that her grandfather loves word games and she can raise laughter and a good feeling by trying to make knock knock jokes. Because I was sitting in front of her, I didn’t always turn around to look at her when she spoke. I discovered that there were several times when I didn’t fully understand what she said. For example, she said “Barbie” referring to a doll and I heard “Bobbie,” the name of a boy. Our granddaughter has no problem correcting me when she knows I have misunderstood, so I had reason to listen very carefully. But I simply didn’t hear every nuance of what she was saying. I had to ask her to repeat several times during the few minutes we played the game.

So far my hearing has not prompted me to investigate hearing aids. I have had a simple hearing test administered by my doctor at my annual check-up, but have not gone in for a full test by an audiologist. When my hearing loss becomes more severe, I assume there will come a time for me to be tested. I suspect that my closest family members will be the ones to notice and urge me to seek a remedy for my lack of hearing.

The reality is that most of us will experience a degree of disability due to a lack of hearing at some point in our lives. Everyone I know who has lived to be older than 100 years has had significant loss of hearing. I can recall many conversations with elders in which I strained to make myself heard and I have a pretty loud voice and am trained in projection and speaking slowly and clearly. I invested a lot of energy in speaking clearly and being understood in four decades of being a preacher. I had to learn quite a bit about microphones and sound systems so that those who came to church could hear and understand what I was saying.

All of that, however, is not the same thing as being completely deaf. There is a rich culture in the community of people who are profoundly deaf. Many who are born deaf learn a sign language such as American Sign Language. And like other languages, ASL carries with it a distinct culture, humor and capacity to express what it means to be human. Most of us who experience the partial deafness that comes with aging don’t know much about how it is to be unable to hear. You can tell in part by the language we don’t use: sign language. You can tell in part by the language we do use: spoken language.

Of course there are many people who are fluent in multiple languages. You don’t have to be deaf to learn sign language and there are plenty of deaf persons who are fluent in the language we speak. Some can read lips very well. Others read written words. Many persons who are deaf are excellent writers and editors. They know what we say and how we use words. They also recognize it when we use language in ways that is inaccurate and sometimes hurtful. When it comes to deafness, news headlines are particularly bad in the way they use deafness in negative ways. I don’t know how many times I’ve read headlines that speak of people “turning a deaf ear” to problems. It might be the weather forecast, or an appeal to a legislative body, or almost any other topic. Using language that way clearly uses the disability of deafness to refer to willful ignorance. Deaf people are not more ignorant than those of us who can hear. And they are definitely more intelligent than those who chose to be willfully ignorant.

We simply need to be more careful with how we use words. It isn’t just deafness. I am struck at how frequently I read or hear language that might be hurtful to people who have disabilities or suffer from mental illness. American slang is filled with such references. A poor choice is referred to as “dumb” or “lame.” An annoying habit might be called “OCD.” A creative person is called “crazy” or “psycho.” Too often phrases like that are used in ways that can be hurtful to those who have disabilities or are the victims of certain illnesses.

It can be hurtful when people excuse their ableist language by labeling the attempt to get them to use more inclusive language as “political correctness.” Of course there is a political aspect to our use of langue and language is used to obtain and maintain power over others in the political arena, but it isn’t just a matter of being politically correct when someone asks another to refrain from using language that is harmful. Words and how we use them can hurt others.

About 15% of the population has some significant disability. And those of us who don’t have a disability are able only temporarily. An accident can render on disabled in a few seconds. Age can cause disability that comes on more slowly. Remembering the centurions I have known, every one of them used a wheelchair for mobility at some point in their lives. All of them had loss of hearing and loss of vision that was significant enough to make them be seen as disabled. Learning to use language that is not hurtful of those with disabilities is important if for no other reason that every one of us will one day experience disability.

Spending more time with those who live with disabilities is teaching me to be more careful with the language I use. It may also be helping me prepare for my own future.

Dreams

The other night I had a nightmare. I can’t remember very many details from the dream and I don’t have a narrative story that I can tell of the dream. In the dream I was walking away from the house where we now leave and there was a sense that I had to leave. I don’t know where I was going. I didn’t get very far away in the dream. What I can remember is that I woke feeling upset. I got out of bed and read for a while to calm myself. I can’t remember a time before that dream that I had such a dream. I did experience nightmares as a child on occasion. Most children do and there is some evidence that dreams that are emotionally upsetting are more common during childhood than adulthood. It has been theorized that nightmares are part of the way that people practice for emotionally tense situations and that we learn from our dreams how to deal with the realities of our lives.

I guess I had a type of nightmare in the period of time after my wife experienced cardiac arrest in the hospital. While she was still in the Intensive Care Unit I woke with a start and experienced a small panic attack when there was a code blue in the hospital ICU. This code did not involve my wife, but it caused my heart rate and breathing to elevate noticeably. Afterward, I woke with a start a few more times to find similar results. Some months later, I woke suddenly thinking I was having a panic attack, but checked my heart rate and breathing and they were not elevated. I decided that I am capable of dreaming of a panic attack when I am not having a panic attack. The thought amused me. The experience ceased and hasn’t happened since.

A week or so ago the BBC published an article that said that reports of nightmares by adults have increased dramatically during the year of pandemic. One theory is that nightmares increase as stress increases. People are under a great deal of stress with unemployment, isolation, increased responsibilities and other things that affect them during the pandemic. Another theory is that nightmares are related to depression and there is significant evidence that depression has become more prevalent during the pandemic.

Whether or not we remember them, dreams are important to memory. Dreams are part of a process by which our brains sort out events and emotions and organize them for future retrieval. People who are severely sleep deprived begin to have problems with memory, especially short-term memory. Their brains become unable to retrieve memories because the memories are jumbled and they haven’t had enough time for their brains to organize them. As I write, I realize that I am speaking in analogy. The complex electro-chemical reactions of your brain aren’t exactly the same as filing cabinets that need to be organized. It is more accurate to think that the brain rehearses the firing of synapses that are required to retrieve a memory. In addition to memories of names, events, and ideas we also have memories of emotions. Our ability to remember emotions plays a big part in our being able to handle stressful situations. We can recognize anger and know that we’ve felt that before. We can learn techniques to express our anger in ways that are less destructive. We learn to recognize love. We learn to be less fearful in the depths of grief. We use memory to help us face the challenges of everyday life. To the extent that dreams help us sort our memories, they are important.

An added complexity to understanding dreams is that most of us do not consciously remember many of our dreams. Dream researchers know that people can learn to remember dreams. A discipline of recording dreams upon waking will increase the ability to remember dreams. We had a college professor who kept a complete dream journal for decades. He was able to accurately remember ten or more dreams from each night. I have never disciplined myself to remembering dreams. Occasionally, when I remember a dream, I will report it to Susan and we may discuss it. Most of the time the meanings of my dreams are very easy to discern. I would dream of not being prepared at the start of a worship service, for example. It was a fairly constant struggle for me to be prepared not only to lead worship, but to gracefully deal with interruptions in my planning. The dreams seemed to me to be a simple reflection of my life with some details exaggerated.

My recent nightmare must have some meaning in my life, but it isn’t immediately obvious. The dream occurred the night after we received our second doses of Covid vaccine. Unlike some of our friends, we did not have unpleasant reactions to the injections. We didn’t experience any negative symptoms or feel ill in any way. And I haven’t experienced vaccination in a negative way. We went out of our way to seek vaccination as soon as possible when we became eligible. I don’t think that I have been stressed by receiving the vaccine. It has been a cause for celebration.

And if the dream was about dealing with the emotions of leaving home, you’d think that I might have experienced it when we moved away from our home of 25 years in South Dakota rather than months later when we are settled and comfortable in a new home. Since the dream was specific about me leaving this particular house it might be an expression of some anxiety about this house, but it is a rental and we have no intention of settling in this particular house long term.

So I don’t understand my dream. Perhaps it was simply a gift so that I can have more compassion and understanding for those who are experiencing great increases in stress and having more nightmares as a result.

The human brain is full of mystery and we understand so little of how it works. I’m unlikely to begin analyzing my dreams at this stage of my life, but from time to time they entertain me and give me something to think about. And as long as nightmares are rare, I’ll pay more attention when I do remember one. And I’ll continue to wish sweet dreams for others.

Shaped by language

I belong to a book study group that meets over Zoom. We just finished our discussion of the book, “Entering the Passion of Jesus” by Amy-Jill Levine. Because our format is Zoom, we have the opportunity next week to have the author join our group. Without the cost of travel, we were able to arrange a time for a conversation with the author, which demonstrates one of the advantages of this format for a book group. As we met this week, we spent some time planning our conversation with the author. We wanted to discuss our questions and the format of our meeting before the actual meeting so that we could make the best use of our time. Since the topic of the book is the last week of Jesus’ life, one of the questions that arose in the group had to do with the influence of Biblical languages on the text. We read the Bible in English, but the Gospels originally circulated in Greek. Then, in Roman times, the Bible was translated into Latin. For more than a thousand years the primary way that people could access the Bible was in Latin translation. Jesus, however, lived in a multi-lingual society. He would have been familiar with Hebrew, the language of the scriptures we sometimes refer to as the Old Testament. The gospels report that he quoted Isaiah and other Biblical prophets in his sermons and teaching. He was crucified under Roman law and his trial was likely conducted in Latin. Aramaic, the language that originated in the same region of ancient Syria from which Abraham and Sarah came, was one of the most prominent languages of the Ancient Near East. It is likely that Jesus spoke Aramaic.

Whether or not we know ancient languages, they influence the way we think about the world. Our group was trying to format a single question that might address the role of language in the stories we have been studying.

Since that meeting, I have been thinking about how we are influenced by ancient languages and culture. When I was a seminarian studying Biblical Hebrew, I struggled with the differences in tense between Hebrew and English. We tend to think and speak of time in three primary tenses: past, present and future. Biblical Hebrew, however, focuses primarily on two tenses: that which has finished and that which is ongoing. When translating from Hebrew to English one makes judgments about which words best express the meaning of the original language. When you add to those translation problems the simple fact that languages evolve and our language is much different from the way people spoke English hundreds of years ago, there is a challenge to know exactly what the words of the Bible mean.

Jesus spoke of love. Greek, however, has multiple words that are all translated as love. Eros refers to sexual passion. Philia is deep friendship. Agape is love for everyone. Those three words are commonly understood at least in part because preachers have addressed them when interpreting scriptures. Ancient Greek, however, didn’t stop with three words. Ludus is playful love. Pragma is longstanding love. Philautia is love of self. Storge is family love. Mania is obsessive love. So when we encounter the word “love” in translation, there are multiple possibilities of its meaning.

We are shaped by these ancient Greek concepts even when we are not aware of them. A person who knows nothing of the Greek language can understand that love is a complex emotion. We know that affection and love can take place in many different relationships and be expressed in many different ways.

When it comes to time, it is even more complex. The structure of our language is such that there are different words for time. Once again, Greek has multiple words that are translated in to the single word, “time” in English. Chronos refers to the type of time that can be measured with a clock. Chronological time is an important concept in the understanding of modern physics. Ancient Greek, however, also uses the word kairos to refer to time. In a sense kairos refers to a moment that stands outside of the flow of time. In Luke’s narrative of the birth of Jesus, for example, it says that while Mary and Joseph were in Bethlehem “the time came for her to be delivered.” The word is kairos. Its purpose in the story is not to record the exact moment and time of day in which the birth took place, but rather the incredible powerful moment of birth that transcends time. For those of use privileged to witness birth it is a moment that is different from all other moments.

We know that time spent holding a newborn infant has a different quality than time spent filling out tax returns. We know that time sitting with a person who is dying passes in a different way than time reading a novel. We know that time seems to pass more quickly when we are playing with a child than when we are waiting for an appointment with a doctor. We know that not all time has the same quality. Our experience teaches us concepts that go beyond the power of our language to express.

As I thought about the complexity of our questions about ancient languages and their translation to modern languages I was struck by the ways in which the digital meeting format is shaping our understanding of time and space. Next week when our book group meets, most of us will be in Washington where we are currently operating on Pacific Daylight time. Our author will be in Central Daylight time. Our meeting begins at 6:30 pm for us, but 8:30 pm for our author. Yet we will experience ourselves as meeting at the same time. With any luck the chronos will work so that we begin together and the kairos will allow us to connect to share a common experience while living in different time zones.

It is, it seems to me, just another example of how living through this pandemic is shaping our lives and culture. I suspect our language also will be shaped by our experiences. Already the word “zoom” means more than moving quickly. It has become a word to express a particular kind of digital meeting space. We are shaped by the words we use and sometimes we are shaped by words we don’t use.

Now that I'm vaccinated

Yesterday we received our second doses of Pfizer vaccine. Our vaccination cards report that we have been fully vaccinated. It wasn’t a very dramatic event. We didn’t leap up and hug the nurse who gave us the vaccine. We waited 15 minutes as instructed and then got in our car and came home. It was raining, which is typical for our new home in the Northwest. According to the information we have, it can take up to three weeks before our immune systems have ramped up in such a way to make us unlikely to contact Covid. After that, we will continue to wear our masks, observe social distancing and be careful about hand washing and personal hygiene as we have been. For a casual observer, little has changed.

Theoretically it should make travel easier, but we traveled quite a bit during the pandemic. As more and more people are fully vaccinated it should allow for the opening of some gatherings. I participated in a Zoom meeting last night during which we had conversations about options for faith formation for adults after we are allowed in-person gatherings. The majority of the participants in the group favored continuing Zoom meetings after the church goes back to face-to-face worship. There were some who say they prefer the distance format for education and for worship. Going to church has been the center of my life for so long that I strongly prefer face to face worship. Susan reports that I have more patience for Zoom meetings than she, but I don’t feel like I have much patience for such. I’ll work to use the technology to the best of my ability, but my priority will continue to be relationships based in in person meetings. I don’t expect being vaccinated to change very much.

The return to normal, however, won’t be a return in my opinion. Instead we’ll go forward, changed by the experiences of the pandemic. More than a year of covid isolation has resulted in a year remarkably free of flu and colds. We’ve been very healthy. We did receive our flu vaccinations as we do every year, but I can’t help but think that wearing face masks and being careful about contact with others has decreased our exposure to harmful viruses in general. I’m willing to be more diligent if that keeps me from spreading sickness to others.

I suspect that public schools will not be able to return to “normal.” With the large numbers of children who have received much less schooling in the past year and the huge variations in how much educational support families have been able to provide, children will be at many different levels of understanding and ability when they return to the classroom. It has always been true that dividing children by chronological age has meant that teachers deal with a range of abilities and experiences, but I suspect that the entire concept of graded education might be seriously challenged by the wide range within a single age group. One seven-year-old might be doing math on a fifth-grade level and another struggling with basic math facts. Another seven-year-old might need some of the basic kindergarten experience. They might all need the social interaction with other seven-year-olds, but benefit from learning experiences with students of different ages in a way that is closer to a one room schoolhouse than a modern graded elementary school.

Churches will never go back to the way it was before. We’ve been drug, kicking and screaming in some cases, into the world of social media in a way that we won’t go back. Live streamed worship has become the norm and it will continue to be important for those who are shut in or isolated by health problems. Churches will continue to live stream in order to serve members who are not able to come to the church. Members will continue to connect over distances that previously were unthinkable. Congregations will find ways to remain connected to those who are in different counties, states and countries than the church building. I suspect that many congregations will adapt by changing the types of buildings they use and how they use space. Congregations that don’t adapt to the new realities will fade, losing members and financial support. Creative congregations will find new ways to use their buildings to expand their ministry and outreach into the community.

We won’t go back to the way we were before the pandemic.

I hope we will go forward with some new insights.

Having our vaccinations has taught me that while personal health is important, it is insufficient to think only of ourselves. We need to think and act with others in mind. It isn’t enough to avoid the virus myself. I must also behave in ways that help others to avoid infection. Understanding that people can spread the virus without experiencing symptoms gives a new way of understanding our responsibility for one another. I’ve got zip lock bags with clean masks in our car, our truck, on my dresser and in my pocket. I don’t expect I’ll stop carrying them. I’m more attentive to the way I wash my hands and the process of wiping down surfaces. I think we’ll continue that care. We do it because keeping others safe and healthy is important. We need our mail carrier and store clerks to be healthy. We need our first responders and dentists to be healthy. We need our teachers and office workers to be safe from infection. We all have a role in caring for one another.

As a more introverted person, and I know that will surprise some who know me, I am not big for crowds in the first place. I’m much happier at a family dinner than as a member of huge audience. I won’t miss mass gatherings, because I didn’t enjoy them that much before. But we will need to learn to be more careful going forward.

The year and more of the pandemic has offered lessons in life. I pray we have been open to learning them.

Diversions of a retired pastor

From the beginning of writing my journal, I have worried that my thoughts might be repetitious. I don’t want my journal to be boring to regular readers. I decided that I would make political commentary a rare subject because there are plenty of political blogs and as a pastor, I didn’t want to alienate people who had different political opinions than mine. Living in South Dakota, there were plenty of people who had different political opinions and I counted them as my friends. I was proud of the simple fact that our congregation had rich diversity of opinion and was a meeting place for those who disagreed. I worked hard to keep opinions from dividing people and the conversation civil. I often would say, “I don’t mind telling you what I think, but I don’t want to tell you what to think.” I also knew that there would be people who might think that I was speaking on behalf of the church. A pastor is seen as a spokesperson for the church even when she or he feels that the speech is private. Since publishing my journal is an act of going public, I didn’t want people to think that I had authority to speak for the entire church. We congregationalists are fiercely independent and don’t like to have others speak for us.

I set up a few runs for myself in the early days of my writing. At one point, I decided that I had posted enough pictures and told enough stories of our cats and decided to stop writing about them. That rule became moot when our cats passed away and for a time we had no cats. Here in our rental home, we have a no pets clause in our lease agreement. However, our son has a barn at his farm and what is a barn without some barn cats? These days there are three cats who live in the shop where I work a couple of days each week. They are “rescue” cats and were quite wild when we got them. It has taken me a while to get to the point where they do anything except hide when I come into the shop. There are lots of good hiding places in the shop. But they now know that I’m the person who leaves fresh food for them and who puts treats and toys out and who cleans their litter box. I installed a cat door in the shop so that they could venture out around the farm and explore the rest of the barn, where there is no shortage of mice to hunt. So far, I see no evidence that they have used the cat door, even though I put treats right next to it. I’ll prop it open one night and see what they discover.

So, I might relent and include a cat story from time to time.

Also, there are times when I want to follow-up on things I have previously written. For those of you who don’t live in South Dakota, I should report that snow came yesterday. Friends sent a picture of 5” of snow on their deck. They live near where the fires were raging and are now under control. It turns out that the fires were a scare, but the losses were fairly light. The snow is just what is needed right now.

I’m still finding my fitness watch to be amusing. Yesterday, I replaced three valves in some of the farm plumbing and set seven fence posts in concrete. I was building fence as I went along with rails and pickets and carrying lots of materials, including 80 pound bags of concrete. After a day’s work, and a leisurely supper we went for a walk along the river. It was a pleasant evening for a stroll. My watch decided that the walk along the river was more than twice as much exercise as building fence. Go figure!

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Our grandson has expressed interest in flying remote control airplanes. We purchased a basic beginner airplane for him at Christmas and he has enjoyed flying it. We expanded his fleet a bit with another plane at his birthday and I have worked with him building a couple more. Along the way I discovered that the basic airplanes, minus the electronics and motors, can be constructed very inexpensively out of cheap foam board purchased at the dollar store. I can build a pretty neat model for a couple of dollars. The process was fun and I was learning, so I made a couple model bush planes. Since I didn’t invest in a fancy transmitter and I didn’t install electronics in my model planes, they were fun to build and interesting to look at, but didn’t have much play value. I switched to making gliders that can be thrown. I’ve build several that we can use to play catch in the back yard and one that is way too big to fly in our back yard.

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Then we had a conversation about aerodynamics that involved taking about the biplanes and triplanes that were used in World War I. Those planes produced so much drag that even with their tremendous lift, they simply couldn’t go very fast. So I build a model of a Fokker DR1 triplane and a Sopwith SE5 to illustrate the conversation. For fun I painted them. They don’t fly as they have no motors and the weight and balance are off, but they were fun to make.

Now I have a whole bunch of foam airplanes in the garage without much purpose. They were fun to make and I don’t have much money in them - probably less than $20 in the whole batch. I have no idea what to do with them. I guess I’ll see if I can meet a kid whose parents don’t mind if he or she brings home a bunch of foam airplanes. Maybe I could give them away one at a time. They seem to collect in the garage faster than canoes.

Metaphors for life

I am no physicist, but I have a friend who is a professor of physics. That is to say that I know a few of the terms of physics and some of their meanings, but possess no particular expertise. One of the physics terms that I learned years ago is doppler effect. I learned it in reference to sound. If you listen to the sound of a train whistle, you perceive a sudden change in pitch as the train passes. The same phenomenon is easily observed with an emergency vehicle that has its siren going. Explaining the effect might not be difficult for a physicist, but it is a challenge for me. As I understand it, when the source of the sound waves reaching your ear is coming towards you, each crest of the wave takes slightly less time to travel to the ear than the previous one. As the source gets closer the sound waves become closer to each other and the pitch increases. Once the source passes and begins to recede, the distance between wave crests decreases and the pitch decreases.

This effect plays out not only in sound, but with any type of waves. The effect doesn’t result in a shift in pitch with light waves, but rather a shift in color. Understanding this shift in color allows astronomers to detect and measure the size of distant planets.

In his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Angle of Repose, Wallace Stegner briefly explores the doppler effect as a metaphor for history. The central character in the book is Lyman Ward, a retired professor of history. As he writes the story of his grandmother, he reflects on his own. In doing so he notes a sudden shift in perspective between himself and his son. His son has his attention focused on the future and is anticipating things to come while he is looking back, trying to understand the past. He likens the difference of perspective to the doppler effect, speculating that there must be a point in a person’s life when one makes the transition from looking forward to looking back.

Reading the novel has gotten me to speculating about using the doppler effect to explain some of the shifts in focus and understanding that are a part of my retirement. The effect, however, is only a metaphor and all metaphors fail at some point to truly describe reality. I am not even sure that it is a good metaphor. After all, I haven’t suddenly shifted my life focus from the future to the past. I spend a lot of my time thinking about the future with eager anticipation. Some future events are relatively close, such as a planned trip to visit our daughter and her family later this year. Others are more distant, such as the graduations and marriages of our grandchildren and perhaps even the birth of great-grandchildren. I do look forward to a great deal of things. I’m looking forward to receiving our second Covid vaccination tomorrow. It should bring a sense of relief and perhaps a sense of increased freedom even though we will continue to observe precautions to help prevent the spread of disease.

I do, however, think of the past and try to figure out how my heritage and my own life story have shaped my perception of the world. When I discuss theology, I nearly always bring the history of Christianity into the discussion. Along with generations of faithful people, I think a great deal about the long history of faith and the origins of our faith.

Another way in which the doppler effect fails as a metaphor for my current life situation is that I am not experiencing the shifts of retirement as sudden. There was a specific date of retirement for me. I had a last day in the pulpit of the church I was serving. In the next week I turned in my keys and credit cards and I stopped going to the office. Since that time, I have continued to work, but I have not been working at a job for pay. The paychecks stopped coming. We started to draw on our savings to meet our expenses. We applied for Social Security. I can sleep in as late as I want most days. I rarely use an alarm clock any more. Although I can name specific changes that have come on a particular day, other parts of retirement have come slowly. I am only now, more than a half a year later, beginning to think of myself as retired. And there are many things about this shift in my life that I don’t yet understand. It isn’t so much that the pitch suddenly changed as that it is slowly changing. The music of my life is in a new key perhaps, but it remains a tune worthy of dancing.

In Stegner’s novel, it becomes clear why the title “Angle of Repose” is chosen over “Doppler Effect.” Angle of repose is another term from physics. The angle of repose is the steepest angle of the side of a pile of granular material. You can observe it by sweeping sand or gravel into a pile. You can get the center of the pile higher than the sides, but you can only make your pile so high. Adding more to the top spreads out the pile rather than making it taller. The angle of the sides of the pile relative to the floor is the angle of repose.

The angle of repose is a metaphor for our memories. We can only bring so much of our memory to the surface at any given time. In order to focus on any past event, we have to “bury” other memories at deeper depths and there is a limit to how many memories we can have exposed to the surface at any time.

I think I might be a bit better at metaphors than physics, but only marginally so. It appears that I’ll need more time and more reflection to come up with a way to describe the shift in perspective that is occurring in my life.

Perhaps I should go for a paddle and reflect on the way my boat displaces water as I pass, creating a wake that is behind the boat. Or I could take out my rowboat and reflect on the process of sitting with my back to the direction I’m traveling as I look at where I have been. Now there is another metaphor.

Easter Monday

What do pastors do on Easter Monday? They take a nap.

Except, I probably don’t need a nap. My Holy Week wasn’t any more stressful than many other weeks. It wasn’t more busy. I’ve been getting plenty of sleep. And, I can take a nap whenever I want. Yesterday afternoon, after our Easter dinner, our son lay down on our couch while the children were playing around him and nodded off. He didn’t get to sleep very long, if at all. Soon there was another adventure going on. Children wanted to show him their projects. His parents wanted to talk. But for a few moments, no one was demanding his attention or his time. His mother pulled a blanket over him. Later, as they were preparing to head for their house he commented, “It is so nice to have a day when I don’t have to be in charge, when I can just go along with what someone else has planned.”

I could remember the feeling. There have been quite a few days in my life, when I longed for a few moments to take a nap and I took advantage of every opportunity I saw. There have been times when I was tired of being in charge, having to plan activities, and paying attention to make sure everyone else was finding our time to be meaningful.

It is very different being a retired pastor. But I can remember. And I appreciate how the pastors of the church in which we are participating need a little break from time to time to simply catch their breath and get some rest and renewal. I think pastors should take naps on Easter Monday.

Then, again, I can take a nap whenever I want and I often do, but I don’t take as many as when I was working full time and thinking constantly about the next problem to be solved. I still have problems to solve. We haven’t found a home to purchase yet. The inventory is low and the timing isn’t quite right for us to purchase a home. We’re living in a rental, and our monthly payments are simply gone. We aren’t gaining any equity. I worry a bit about money. I’ve always had a paycheck coming every month. Now that we are living on our pension, we have income, but less than when we were working. We are very fortunate and have sufficient resources, but I do worry a bit more than some other phases of my life. In two days we’ll receive our second dose of the covid vaccine, and perhaps we can worry a bit less, but there are plenty of young people who have not yet been vaccinated and the pandemic is far from over.

Still, I relax more. I can sleep in mornings when I want. I have time for hobbies and the pursuit of my interests. And I remember times when I felt more tired in my day to day living.

When they were visiting, my daughter said something about being wakened every night by her infant son. I said, “If you are any indication, I think you’ll get to sleep all the way through the night sometime when he is 26 or 27 years old.” I was teasing, of course, but you never stop worrying about your children and they can give you some pretty good worries when they are in their young adulthood years. What I didn’t quite anticipate is that the worries continue with our grandchildren. Are we saving enough for their college years? Does a particular habit or phase indicate some problem brewing? Will they remain healthy with all of the threats to health in our modern world? In the pandemic we wonder if they are getting enough interaction with other children. Separation from their peers at young ages is something neither we nor their parents ever had to face.

I’ve read that creativity is highest when there is a proper balance of structured and unstructured time. It takes a bit a leisure to free the mind for its best creative work. My own experience is that sometimes creativity is born from a bit of pressure. When I was working long days and had meetings every evening and was feeling tired most of the time, a brief moment, such as a paddle on the lake or even a long shower would help me sort things out and come up with creative solutions to problems. My Easter Monday naps were productive in part because I had worked so long and so non-stop all the way through Holy Week.

I doubt that I need more free time to be creative in this phase of my life. Perhaps I need a little more structure. I’m new at this retirement business and still learning. I feel like I’m being pretty creative when I put in a day of work digging fence post holes or mowing the lawn. I enjoy the feeling of being a bit muscle sore and tired after a good day’s work in part because I don’t have that experience every day.

I admit that Easter has brought me less a sense of a fresh start and a new year than was the case when I was working. I had trouble getting Holy Week to feel like Holy Week. A couple of times I was temporarily mixed up about what day of the week it was. It is a little strange for a pastor to have free time during Holy Week.

A year from now we will have developed some new routines. We will have solved some of the problems that occupy our attention right now. Hopefully pandemic restrictions on social interactions will be lifted and we will be worshipping face to face in a church building. I’ll learn how to be retired. I might even find just the right part time job. I have a substantial “to do” list and their is a stack of paper on my desk that needs to be sorted, filed and dealt with. I won’t be getting bored.

Still, out of habit or just for the pleasant memory, I might just take a nap today.

Easter 2021

During my years as a pastor, I got used to being awake when others were asleep. Sometimes I needed to pay a special visit to the hospital. Sometimes there was a call in the night that demanded an immediate response. I never got fully used to having to get up, get dressed, and go someplace in the middle of the night, but I never resented it, either. I accepted it as part of my calling. There are some parts of being up in the middle of the night that are interesting. It is kind of fun to drive on nearly-empty streets. On the other hand, I remember plenty of times when I wondered what all of the rest of the people who were out and about in the wee hours were doing. There aren’t that many jobs that require movement in the middle of the night.

The town in which I grew up had only one cafe that was open all night long. It was on the highway that ran through town and it specialized in feeding truckers passing through. Moving freight in the middle of the night is a long-standing tradition and the steady stream of trucks that had to slow to go through town meant that a few would stop. My father flew airplanes in the early morning hours when the air was cooler and therefore more dense. It was part of safely operating light airplanes in the mountains in the days before the high powered airplanes that are now used for that job. A 4 or 4:30 am breakfast at the cafe was common for him and I got to go with him on several occasions. I never tired of the feeling of going to the cafe in the dark for “two eggs over easy with toast and orange juice. Sometimes I got a short stack of pancakes as big as the plate.

Easter sunrise became one of my favorite times of the year. Most years the whole family got up in the early hours. We’d pack a thermos of hot chocolate. Some years there were fresh cinnamon rolls, baked the night before. The service was held at the top of the hill where the airport was located, so it was a familiar site for us. There would be a bonfire to warm ourselves. I don’t remember much from the actual services, but more of the mood and the fun of gathering with people and seeing people we weren’t used to seeing so early in the morning.

I was selected to be the preacher for the sunrise service a year ago. It was supposed to be my last sunrise service after 25 years of living and ministering in Rapid City. As it turned out, the sunrise service was cancelled, making the previous year’s service my last. I was in the city, but the pandemic meant that there was no public gathering in Main Street Square for the event.

In a little while I will watch the sunrise service from our church here in the Pacific Northwest, but sitting in front of my computer in my pajamas won’t be the same as getting up, getting dressed, and going out in the dark to wait for the sunrise.

There hasn’t been much getting up, getting dressed, and going out in the dark in my retirement. I could go to a nearby lake and watch the sunrise from a canoe on he surface of the lake, one of my favorite ways of greeting a new day, but I’ve become a bit lazy about that as well. Part of the dynamic is that we’ve changed time zones and even though I’ve had plenty of time to adjust, I have sort of shifted my day by more than an hour, rising later and sleeping later. I often get up, as I am now, write my journal and then go back to bed for a few hours and allow the rising sun to wake me while still in my bed. In addition to not taking call in the middle of the night, one of the other benefits of retirement is that I rarely wake to an alarm clock these days.

But today is Easter. It is the day of greeting the resurrection and remembering that death is not the final word on the meaning of human existence.

I can’t tell if it feels so different because of the pandemic or if it feels so different because I have retired. It seems possible that it will take me a few years to figure out the shape of this new phase of my life. I think that possibly I will remember Easter week, 2021 in terms of the pandemic, just as I remember Easter 2020 in terms of the pandemic. We get the second dose of the vaccine on Wednesday of this week and there is a sense of new and renewed life with the increase in freedom and the decrease of fear. Within just a few weeks vaccination will be open to all adults in our area and supplies of vaccine are predictable enough for administering agencies to make appointments. We may be seeing the beginning of the end of restrictions. Still cases are surging in some places and just across the border in Canada some restrictions are being increased as a surge in new cases is causing caution. “Just across the border” really means something where we now live. Yesterday we were watching our grandchildren play in an outdoor park. Sitting on the bench, I could see homes and other buildings on the other side of the border. It is that close.

Part of Easter is learning to embrace newness. At Easter we celebrate that God is doing new things in our world. Creation is not just some past event, but a continual process. New life springs forth in unexpected ways. We are surprised by the joy. The bouquet of daffodils, cut from the abundant plants along our son’s driveway, freshen our dining table. Despite the changes, despite the pandemic, despite retirement, Easter has come. Christ is risen. Christ is risen indeed! It is a day of celebration. Alleluia!

Holy Saturday

"Now there was a good and righteous man named Joseph, who, though a member of the council, had not agreed to their plan and action. He came from the Jewish town of Arimathea, and he was waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God. This man went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Then he took it down, wrapped it in a linen cloth, and laid it in a rock-hewn tomb where no one had ever been laid. It was the day of Preparation, and the sabbath was beginning. The women who had come with him from Galilee followed, and they saw the tomb and how his body was laid.Then they returned, and prepared spices and ointments.On the sabbath they rested according to the commandment." —Luke 23:50-56

Holy Saturday is that day of rest - the in-between day - the day without a schedule - the day of waiting. It is the day that allows us to sit with our grief.

Years of responding to the scenes of suicide has taught me a great deal about grief. When I first started working as a suicide first-responder, I thought a lot about what I would say when I was with those who were grief-stricken and overwhelmed at the news of the sudden and traumatic loss of one they have loved. They might be the first to have discovered the body. They might have seen death up close and personal. They might be in shock. They might be on the verge of collapse. The tools that I had for doing my work were words. While the investigators gathered evidence and the officers secured the scene and made sure that any weapons were safe, my job was to be with the survivors and witnesses and grief-stricken family and friends. I wondered what words I would use.

What I learned is that often words are simply not necessary. There are times when presence is more important than words. “I’m here so you won’t be alone.” Sometimes the grieving person would say, “I don’t know what I am supposed to do.” I would say, “You don’t have to do anything right now. I’ll stay until we are sure that you have a safe place to be and someone to be with you. This is not the time to be alone.” Sometimes the grieving person would say, “I don’t know what to say.” I might respond, “You don’t have to say anything, and you don’t have to remember anything that I say, either.”

In the depths of grief, sometimes presence is what is needed the most.

The Gospels don’t report the details of where the disciples went following the death of Jesus. We know from later stories that some of them planned to travel from Jerusalem. It was on the seven-mile walk from Jerusalem to Emmaus where two of the disciples met the resurrected Jesus. We don’t know where they had been before the day of their walk. We do, however, have a sense that they stayed together. There are references to “our group.” We also know that the 12 named disciples weren’t the only ones. There were women with them, too. The women were the ones who prepared the spices and who would be given the duties of dealing with the body. It was, however, the sabbath - a day of rest.

First, they did nothing except wait.

Grief is like that and perhaps even more like that in this time of pandemic. I have spoken over the phone with grieving family members who want to plan a funeral and who would normally have the funeral within a week of the death, but who begin to think in terms of a later memorial service - later when gatherings can be resumed. Even the process of planning a funeral can be stretched out and the days between can be long days. For those who go ahead with a funeral, but do so with a very small gathering and an online-broadcast of the service there are many details, but those details have to be handled by others and it takes time.

First, all they can do is wait.

As I often told those in the unexpected crush of suicide grief, “This is not a time to be alone.” I worked with friends and family members to figure out who would be with those overwhelmed by grief so that they were not alone. I don’t know how many times I’ve said, “What we need from you is to take care of each other.”

As I look back on my life I can remember those who sat with me in times of grief. There presence has made a huge difference in my life. I don’t remember what they said. I don’t remember what we talked about. I remember that they came.

Holy Saturday is a day for us to practice. It comes every year. It is not a day of doing, but rather a day of being. We come together with each other just to be together. We wait. No big dinners, yet. No big parties, yet. Those are in our future. This year, especially, it is a time of waiting. We long to be with our friends. We long to embrace those we love. We long for the dinners together and the joy shared. But it is not time for those things yet. A few more folks need to be vaccinated. A bit more time is required to make sure that everyone is safe. The pandemic is not yet over. So we wear our face masks and we stay where we are. And we wait.

Like the disciples on Holy Saturday, we wait. Today is a good day to reach out to those who are alone to make sure that they are OK. Perhaps a phone call or two would be in order. Today is a good day to make sure that no one is alone. Today is a day to take care of one another.

We wait.

Good Friday, 2021

One of the deep treasures of Christianity is the simple fact that we have four gospels. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John present the life of Christ from four different perspectives. Although what might seem to be disagreements and differences appear and sometimes confuse believers, the overall picture of Jesus’ life, ministry and meaning is far richer because we have multiple points of view. The importance of having multiple points of view became even more important to me after years of working with survivors of suicide. When there is a sudden and traumatic loss in a family, different people have different versions of what happened. Investigators and police officers are familiar with the differences in the stories of witnesses of trauma. One person will be certain that things unfolded in a particular fashion. Another will tell a different story. Eye witness accounts of traffic accidents, for example, are rarely accurate about details such as the color of the traffic light when the accident occurred. Having multiple perspectives helps to understand the big picture more accurately.

Good Friday reminds us of the differences in perspectives of the storytellers as we try to piece together the story of Jesus’ crucifixion. Serious students of scripture can discover nuances of difference in the way the gospel writers tell the story. There is no single, coherent, comprehensive set of “facts” about the crucifixion. What we have, instead, are the deeply held convictions of people of faith who bring their own experiences to the telling of the story.

One of the ways faithful Christians have remembered the event is through drama. Passion plays have told the story of Christ as interpreted by playwrights and actors. They are often based on the gospel stories, but take bits and pieces of those stories and string them together with material that is not taken directly from the bible. I spent many years of my life and ministry in the context of passion plays that were seen as sources of information about the events of Good Friday.

The Black Hills Passion Play traces its roots to 1932, when Josef Meier of Luenen Germany brought a small company of actors to the United States on tour with a passion play. The play was performed in German and designed for German theaters, churches and German-speaking communities. There were plenty of German-speaking people in South Dakota in those days of the Great Depression and the play found eager audiences. In May of 1939, Meier began a summer season with a different version of the passion play, translated into English at a natural amphitheater in Spearfish, South Dakota. The play attracts large audiences and over the next 70 years, it was performed every summer. Eventually the set became constructed of permanent buildings, a farm was developed to care for the animals year round, and the amphitheater was expanded to seat 6,000 people.

We used to say that Meier crucified Christ three times a week all summer long. Eventually they took the theatrical company to Florida in the winter, where the performances continued. For people who lived in and near the Black Hills, the performance of the passion play often was better known than the gospel accounts. People who didn’t read or study the bible thought they knew the story because of the play.

The wonderful thing about the play is that it brought the message of Christianity, or at least part of the message, to people who might not have otherwise know it. The challenge is that people believed that the play was an accurate depiction of the actual events of the crucifixion. There were significant differences but the play became a source of authority on religious matters. At times this was a challenge for me as a pastor as I sought to teach and preach the gospels from the Bible.

While the Black Hills Passion Play was still running, a different and perhaps even more widely viewed passion play was developed by Mel Gibson. His 2004 movie depicting the crucifixion in bloody detail had a big impact on the lives of many people. Once again I found myself needing to help people sort out the differences between the events as reported in the Gospels from the interpretations of the dramatic presentation.

None of us can tell the story with accuracy in every detail because we don’t have access to the original events. Even if we had been eyewitnesses, we would have each had our own perspective. I became freshly aware of the impact of perspective when I wrote a new liturgy for Good Friday in 2011. The previous year had been a challenging one for me. My brother had died the April before. My mother died in January of that year. My father-in-law died on Ash Wednesday that year. In the midst of those losses and the processing of that grief, our family was also celebrating the birth of our first grandchild and our daughter was planning her wedding. I poured my heart into the writing of the liturgy, which included readings of scripture and prayers. The prayers reflected my own grief as well as my experience as a pastor walking through grief with the people I served. Now, a decade later, I read those prayers and recognize my own perspective has shifted. The prayers are still meaningful and I would continue to use them if I were an active pastor, but I can see the difference that a decade makes in the experience of grief. I haven’t forgotten the loved ones who died, but the memories are a bit more gentle these days. I can read the prayers without crying now.

So once again we have come to Good Friday. It is a day of remembering grief. It is a day of being reminded that grief is a constant companion in this journey of life. None of us has the complete picture. All of our stories and plays and interpretations are colored by our experience. To deepen our faith requires all four gospels. It also requires gathering together with other faithful people to share our experiences and perspectives. The gift of many different perspectives is one of the treasures of our faith.

We do not face Good Friday alone.

Maundy Thursday, 2021

If you read the stories of our people in our scriptures, you will discover that we have always been a minority people. From the time that Abraham and Sarah left the land of their forebears, we wandered around the world finding ourselves small in number in comparison to the other people we met. That’s how we ended up as slaves in Egypt. We went there essentially as one family, fleeing famine, seeking a better life and ended up being labor pool for the ambitions of the Egyptians. We escaped that slavery with the help of God and ended up wandering for decades in the wilderness following the promise of our own land. It was doing those desert years that we discovered and refined the commandments about how to live as a free people. And during those years we learned to define ourselves as the people who had been brought out of slavery. When we entered the promised land, we lived among people who were more numerous than we. Even during the glory days of the united monarchy under the great kings David and Solomon, we had enemies who were more numerous and politically stronger than we. When we were carried off into exile in Babylon, we were surrounded by so many people whose stories were different than ours. The dominant religion and the dominant way of seeing the world was so present that we began the process of collecting the stories of our people and forming scriptures.

Thousands of years of defining ourselves by saying how we are different from others made it a habit for us to think of ourselves as different. We are not like those others. Other people might think that this world began in a violent conflict between conflicting deities, but we are not like them. We follow the one true God, who created the heavens and the earth. Other people might lie and steal and cheat, but we are not like them. We understand the commandments that guide the lives of free people. While our community has many stories of those from the outside who have come to be cherished members of our community and heroes of our stories, we have never fully assimilated into the dominant culture. We’ve kept our faith, and our stories alive for generation after generation of living among other people.

In the days of Jesus, this sense of being different from others had become a part of our language. We used terms like “Gentile” and “Greek” to describe those members of our society who came from a different background and who had a different language and who held different ideas from ours. It may not seem like it to contemporary readers of the Gospels, but Jesus stirred more than a small amount of controversy by reaching beyond the normal lines of our community to minister with those we think of as outsiders. Beyond that, he also told parables that encouraged us to consider those “others” as humans just like ourselves. For some, this notion that God’s love extended to folks who were not like us was a real challenge. Some even sought to silence the voices of Jesus and his followers in the public sphere.

It was at that time, when Jesus was nearing the end of his earthly life and ministry of teaching and healing, that he gathered with his disciples in an upper room for a meal. Ever since that time, sharing a meal has become a sacrament for our people. We tell the story of that supper over and over again in liturgy and song and ceremony. It was at that meal that he gave his disciples - and all of us who follow them - a new commandment. “This is my commandment, that you love one another.”

For those of us who grew up singing “They’ll know we are Christians by our love,” this hardly seems like a new or radical idea. However, to the first generation of followers of Jesus, this was a very different concept. Defining ourselves by love rather than our differences from others was a challenge to their thinking. We knew the words of the prophets about how we should treat immigrants, strangers and sojourners in our land with care and respect, but to think that we might be defined by love instead of our unique history changed our perspective on everything.

We had to learn to think of God as the God of all of the people of the earth, not just “our” God. We had to learn to think of salvation as a gift offered to everyone, not just to the people who thought like us, acted like us, and spoke like us. We had to define ourselves not as the people who received ten commandments from Moses who received them directly from God, but as the people of a new commandment.

Every year we gather for worship and special ceremony to remind ourselves of that new commandment. We’ve been doing it for millennia now. We call the day commandment Thursday, Mandate Thursday, Maundy Thursday. On this night we are called to enact the most radical hospitality of which we are capable. On this night we throw open the doors of the church and proclaim that everyone is welcome - that the commandment to love isn’t just a private possession, but a way of embracing every one. Just as Jesus showed love to a Samaritan woman at a well and told the story that expanded our notion of who our neighbors are, we are called to show love to everyone - not just the people with whom we agree.

It has been a challenge for the entire history of the Christian Church. We’ve stubbornly hung onto the notion that “we” get saved and “they” get punished. Despite Jesus’ teaching about how we are all both sheep and goats, we somehow cling to a notion of “us” and “them.” It is a good thing that the traditions of our people established this particular reminder to be repeated over and over again. Every year we repeat the mandate: This is my commandment, that you love one another.”

And maybe, just maybe, the commandment is starting to sink in. Maybe, just maybe, we are beginning to learn how to live by that commandment.