Mental health break

I am aware that I can be cynical. It is a trait that I have also observed in others, and one that seems to get a bit worse as the person ages. I don’t want my cynicism to get worse. I think that the idealism of youth deserves the support of elders. I also know that no one age group has all of the answers to life’s most important questions. The way we have done things for most of my career may not be the best way to do things. I can say all of the right words, but sometimes, my instinctual reaction is one of cynicism.

Here is an example: Staff at Nike’s corporate headquarters in Oregon have all been given this week off from work to supper their mental health. The plan is for staff to return to in-office work after a long period of working remotely. First, however, there will be a week of extra time away from work. “Take the time to unwind, destress and spend time with your loved ones,” said a message to staff.

I want the motivation of the Nike management to be concern for their employees. My cynical side fears it is more about their bottom line. First of all, it is clear that Nike can afford the move. Sales are up. The price of Nike stock is up 20% this year. They are going to make a lot of money this year and they can afford to pay their headquarters staff for a week’s mental health break. More importantly, however, I simply cannot see how the lives of Nike’s headquarters staff are somehow more stressful and more in need of a mental health break than the people who work actually producing their shoes. In some ways it seems like their production workers need the week off more than the people who go to work at the Nike campus in Beaverton, Oregon. Sure, it might be stressful to have to go back to work in the office after being able to work from home for an extended period of time. It was also stressful for those who worked producing shoes without the option to work from home while a pandemic raged across the world, children were out of school for extended periods, and childcare was often unavailable.

Just saying . . .

I am grateful that companies are starting to pay attention to the mental health of their employees. I suspect that mental illness is as costly in terms of productivity as physical illness. I am well aware that around the world, physical health receives more funding, support, and understanding than mental health. Nike has gyms and exercise programs for their employees, and operates a sport research lab. They aren’t funding mental health research with their profits.

Maintaining mental health, furthermore, is not the same for every person. Creating a herd mentality about mental health and designating the same week for each employee works well for the convenience of managers, but is hardly the right approach for maximum benefit to employees. Not everyone needs the same pattern of time off. Nike seems to understand that when it comes to shoes one size doesn’t fit all. However, in the case of a mental health break, they are assuming that they can take care of many different individual needs with a standardized approach. It isn’t going to work.

I know it isn’t fair to single out Nike. Apple, Uber and Wells Fargo have all delayed planned return of staff to the office. Our supervisor in our new job recommends that all staff at the church take one “digital detox” day each week, when we do not look at email, exchange text messages, or otherwise engage with that side of our work. It is a good suggestion, but very counter-intuitive for me. I have spent my life doing what needs to be done when it needs to be done and the thought of not responding to the members of the church regardless of the day is a new way of looking at ministry for me. On the other hand, I have no evidence that my way is better than others’.

Self care has always been one of the responsibilities of ministers. We work unusual hours - we don’t get weekends off with our families. We often are working when we are away from the church. Learning to manage stress, care for our physical and psychological health, and make time for our families is part of being a minister. In my own personal situation, prayer has been central to my way of ministry. I make time for prayer every day, often in the early hours of the day when others sleep. I also have used this journal as another technique of maintaining a positive, if sometimes cynical, attitude.

It has been a hard year for so many people. Just reading the news is difficult. The tragic way in which the US withdrawal from Afghanistan has gone, the aftermath of the hurricane in the south, the families fleeing wildfire in the west - there are so many events that disrupt the lives of the people of our communities. And the pandemic is far from over. Fear of illness and death haunts nearly every discussion and meeting. After a career of helping church boards and committees learn to say “yes,” I am having to learn to work with committees and task forces that see their role as setting limits on the behaviors of church members. It is all well-intentioned, but it changes the entire focus of ministry. We used to urge our people to take risks for their faith. Now we are asking them to take precautions. Our business is building community and now the safety of the community requires additional isolation. It is confusing and frustrating.

So take care of yourselves, folks. I hope you can figure out ways to get the time away from work that you need. I hope you will be given time to destress. I suggest finding digital detox days. Write in your journal. Pray. If you aren’t used to praying, don’t worry, it doesn’t require special skills. I’ll promise you this much, if you do pray you will not be the only one praying.

The chaos of war

Pandemic continues

News sources are calling it a fourth wave. Hospitalizations are up. The Washington state Department of Health reported 4,267 new Covid-19 cases and 36 deaths on Friday. There are 39 counties in Washington. Every one of them has at least 100 active cases. 30 of those counties have more than 1,000. The Delta variant of the disease, which accounts for nearly all of the new cases, is more highly transmissible than the variant we were seeing a year ago. The governor of our state has resumed the mask mandate for indoor locations. The Whatcom County Superior Court has postponed jury trials. The governor has asked all people in our state to “take it outdoors” in an attempt to decrease the infection rate.

The mitigation efforts seem to be paying off. The state’s infection rate is lower than the national average. But this is a serious matter. People are dying. Hospitals are running short of resources.

After 18 months of restrictions and changes in lifestyle due to the virus, people are getting tired. Despite the fact that there is no vaccine available for children under the age of 12 and despite the increase in infection rates, schools will be opening this week across our state and enrollment rates are expected to be up significantly from 2020 levels. Parents are getting tired and burned out from the double duty of having children at home and trying to provide home education. Parents and children are eager to resume schooling and, from what I can tell from the conversations I have had with parents, there is little sympathy for the pressures that schools have experienced.

Of course the situation is very complex. Public schools funding is based on enrollment. With enrollment down across the state and across the nation during 2020, schools are experiencing decreases in state funding. Now they are facing a surge in enrollment with parents becoming burned out with home education and funding is falling short. Children seem to experience fewer serious symptoms from the disease than adults.

In the midst of all of this there is a strange, yet powerful partisan political controversy about vaccination. Despite the solid science behind the vaccines, despite the fact that the Pfizer vaccine is fully approved by the FDA, the rate of vaccination is low. About 60% of Washington citizens are fully vaccinated. While this is ahead of the national average, there are still a lot of unvaccinated people out there.

Back to school seems to have an onerous tone this year. People are afraid of what might happen. They don’t know what to expect. Will schools start and stop as happened last year? What is the effect of the “on again, off again” schooling on children? What are the risks of in person schooling?

The Covid advisory committee at our church is taking a conservative approach. In-person worship is suspended once again. Gatherings of more than 5 people are not permitted in the church building, with the single exception of 10 allowed, widely spread throughout the sanctuary and balcony, for worship leadership. Services are live-streamed from the sanctuary. The planned outdoor events for families set for the traditional in-gathering Sunday have been suspended. We are scrambling to put together ways to connect and build community online.

There is no way that I would have been able to imagine this phase of my career when I began as a pastor. I’m spending more and more time in front of the computer, talking with church members, participating in meetings and worshiping online. Even though most weeks I am one of the ten allowed in the sanctuary for worship, there will continue to be weeks when I stay home and participate online in order to make room for others to lead the time with children, and participate in different ways in worship leadership.

Compared to others, I have it easy. Susan and I are fully vaccinated. We have so far not had any days when we experienced symptoms. We are able to walk outdoors every day. Our children have been raised and are out of our home. They and our grandchildren have not been infected. Still, we are aware of the stress that this pandemic is placing on all of our family and friends and the strain it is putting on the institutional church as it continues to adjust to some of the most dramatic changes in our lifetimes. We can feel the exhaustion of leaders and parents in our congregation.

Fall programming will be spooling up at the church as it has every year since its founding. And our position as Ministers of Faith Formation is a program position. We have been hired to plan and lead programs. So far, however, we are restricted to online programs. We are putting together a catalogue of events and classes and activities and small group gatherings that will occur primarily over Zoom. Another Zoom meeting tomorrow will bring our Board up to date with our plans. We should have a fairly complete calendar put together within a week.

None of this feels normal to us. Our careers have been about being with people and serving people. We have built our ministries on face-to-face interactions with the people of the church. We struggle to feel connected with all of the online activities. We feel as if we haven’t had an opportunity to meet the children of the church. We don’t know the families and parents.

Back to school is anything but normal for the families that we serve. They are in desperate need of community and it is hard to know the right way to provide community in the face of fear and exhaustion.

Of course, ours isn’t the first generation of the church to face pressures. We aren’t the first to have experienced pandemic. The stories of our people contain accounts of attempted genocide, of defeat and exile. Parents have faced the loss of children and there have been times when it seemed like our traditions would be lost. Yet we have continued to be a people of faith in each generation. So we continue to work and proclaim our faith. In our church this is the year of extravagant welcome. May we continue to discover new ways to extend that welcome to others.

Learning to listen

Many years ago, as the congregation was greeting me after a worship service, a woman who was active in our congregation asked me if I might be interested in serving on a committee at the place where she worked. She was a nurse for an agency that provided services to persons with disabilities. In those days it was common to call part of their work “sheltered workshop,” as one of the things they did was to provide work settings for the people they served. The workshop also provided residential services, lifeskill training, and a host of other services as well as training and support for vocational work. The agency needed independent members of the community to serve on a human rights committee to review the work of the agency and make sure that the actions of the agency did not violate the rights of persons served.

I agreed to serve on the committee, thinking that it might be a one or two year commitment. I ended up serving on the committee for decades and, in the process, learning a great deal about human rights. In the early years of my service, I thought that one of my jobs was to speak for those who could not speak for themselves. Among the persons served by the agency were people who had disabilities that prevented them from learning to speak. Most of those served, of course, could speak, but some could not. A few of the persons served needed help with virtually every task of living - getting dressed, eating, bathing, health care and medication, even moving about. Sometimes the agency had to serve as a financial agent for those served, managing their income from supplemental social security, paying for services received, budgeting for household and personal items as well as helping the person have some discretion in spending on a few things such as snacks, clothing and games.

In all of these things the community needed to have people who could keep an eye on the agency and make sure that it did not take advantage of those served. There never was an intention of violating someone’s rights. The agency was, after all, started by parents who were seeking services for their children. Love was at the core of its mission. But as it grew over the years there were institutional aspects to its work. At the time I started working with the agency, it was serving over 500 persons and it continued to grow to serving over 600 at the time I retired.

Early in my work with the agency, I learned that I did not need to speak for others. In fact I learned that I could not speak for others. I could try to imagine myself in the place of a person served. I could try to understand the frustration of encountering barrier after barrier in trying to live with disability. But I could not put myself fully in the place of another person. And I could only imagine what they needed to have said.

Part of my learning came from a man who had lived with cerebral palsy all of his life. He was in his forties when I met him and he served on the human rights committee alongside me. When I first met him, I could not understand anything that he said. Another person in the agency would translate his words for me and serve as a communications bridge. I learned, however, that he was speaking English. When I listened very carefully, I discovered that I could understand what he was saying. Little by little, over the course of months and months, I learned to understand him when he spoke. I also learned to ask him to repeat when I didn’t understand. Eventually I even learned to listen and speak with him on the telephone. It was a very important lesson for me. A human rights advocate does not need to speak for others, but a human rights advocate does need to learn to listen very carefully.

Over the years, the human rights committee heard several appeals from people who felt that their rights had been violated. An agency founded by parents to care for their children - sometimes to care for children become adults even after the death the parents - such an agency can be quite paternalistic. There is a tendency to try to prevent persons served from making mistakes such as unwise spending decisions or getting involved in relationships that cause pain. Being granted freedom, however, can mean being given the freedom to make, and hopefully learn from, mistakes.

Persons with disabilities make mistakes. People who have no visible disabilities also make mistakes.

Another lesson that I learned from serving as a human rights advocate is that we all have some disability and those of us who do not have physical disability will all become physically disabled as part of the aging process. I began to think of myself, in the words of a man who used a wheelchair for mobility, as “temporarily abled.” The real question for every person is, “Will you be defined by disability or by your ability.” Some who work and live with those with disabilities have begun to use the words “differently abled” instead of disabled. In the case of the man whose words I could not understand when I first met him, our communication failure was caused as much by my listening disability as by his speech disability. An accident or illness can render any of us in need of assistance or special devices to go about our lives. We all need help at some points in our lives.

Even though I have moved and no longer serve with that particular agency, I still think of myself as a human rights advocate. I still engage in educating others about members of our community who live with disability. I still work to remove barriers to participation by those who have been labeled “disabled.” I still am learning to listen.

I am so grateful to that nurse who asked me to serve on the committee. She opened a world of meaningful relationships for me.

House hunting

Many years ago I heard of a general contractor who was involved in a real estate development. The contractor chose two lots in the new neighborhood. On the lot that was his second favorite he built his dream house. He and his family moved into the house for a year and during that year made a list of everything they would change about the house. Then, after a year, he built a second house, incorporating all of the changes they wanted. After moving into the second house he found that there were still things that he wanted to change. Even someone who is well-funded and has time and skill has trouble finding just the right home.

I have friends who have been married for more than 50 years who have always lived in a brand-new house. Their first apartment, when newly wed, was in a new building where no one had lived before them. Then they purchased their first house in a new development and were the first to live there. During their time of living in that house, they had an addition built to that house for more bedroom space as their family grew. When their children moved out of their home they went shopping for another home and once again found and purchased a home under construction in a new development.

I’m not that picky. I’ve been willing to live in a home that has a few quirks and issues. For 25 years, we happily lived in a house that had a raised living room. The room was a step up from the kitchen and a step up from the entryway. It was a real trip hazard and we learned to warn guests as they entered our home. I have no idea why the home was designed that way. I guess someone had seen a sunken living room and wanted to have the room set off from the rest of the house. It was, nonetheless, a wonderful home for our family. It was our children’s home during their high school years. We had an exchange student for a year living with us. My mother moved into our home at the end of her life. We hosted friends and family and had many wonderful memories in that home.

It is, however, a daunting challenge for us as we look for a new home. Although home prices have eased a little bit after peaking in June, the inventory is still very low. Now that we have set our budget and chosen our location, not too many houses are showing up. We have expanded our search to include a larger area and still have not found the right place for us.

One home looked pretty good online. When we visited it, it was much smaller than it looked in the pictures. It felt closed in and the neighbors were very close on three sides. The entire house needed interior painting, which we could do, but it also needed new flooring in several rooms. In addition, the rooms were arranged in a strange manner, with the laundry room right off of the front door and one bedroom separated from the others meaning that one sleeping in that room would have to walk through the living room and the kitchen to get to a bathroom.

Another home looked promising - until we discovered that getting to the home involved going a mile past the home to a traffic circle and coming back because left turns are not allowed in that part of the road.

We’ve been considering “fixer uppers,” but so far the ones so identified are in such rough shape that it would take months of not being able to live in the house while major systems are addressed, including gutting and rebuilding a kitchen and bathroom, replacing a roof and having the building re-wired. While we have considerable home remodeling skills and a bit more time than other periods of our lives, we do need to be able to live in a home and some require a lot of work before they are ready for move in.

We thought we’d found a really neat home right next to a park and were ready to make a visit and learn more until we discovered in our research that it is in the 100-year flood plain. Flood insurance would add enough to the cost to place the home beyond our reach and we have no desire to live in a home that is at risk to flooding.

Another home has a large back yard filled with trees - a real plus for us - but beyond those trees is a very busy Interstate highway with traffic noise 24 hours a day. Another is located on a hillside and has foundation problems.

All of this doesn’t mean that we won’t find a good home for ourselves, just that the process is taking longer and being a bit more frustrating than we expected. As the end of our lease on the rental where we live approaches, we are getting a little nervous.

We know, however, that we only need to find one home. And we know that no home is perfect. We are willing to accept a compromise from our list of desirable qualities. We’re prepared to go a bit smaller than our ideal. We can put up with a few repairs.

In the Gospel of Matthew, after Jesus teaches his disciples how to pray the prayer we call “The Lord’s Prayer,” he goes on to advise those who follow him to avoid storing up treasures on earth and a few verses later he advises not to worry about things such as what to wear or what to eat. He observes that God cares for the birds and the flowers and God cares for people, too. As often as I have read those words and as often as I have preached on those words, I know in my head that now is not the time to worry. I know that with a little patience and with the help of friends and family we will find a good home. I know that I’ll have a good place to put my bed and eat my meals. Still, I keep hoping we will find a home soon.

In this, as is true in many other things in life, I’m not in control of the timing. I have a friend who keeps reminding me that she is praying that we will find just the right home. I’m thinking of asking her to pray that I will discover more patience.

Telling the story of Esther

The annual phone call

Ever since the very beginning of our career as pastors, we have had retired ministers in the congregations that we have served. They have been a great resource for our ministry. I have often been able to call on retired ministers to provide pulpit supply, consult with for continuing education, serve on congregational boards and committees, and support the ministry of the church in a wide variety of different ways. Retired ministers have served the church while we were on sabbatical, provided back-up during illness, helped deliver communion to persons who are not able to attend church, and provide many other kinds of ministries.

During that time I had become aware of a program of the Pension Boards of the United Church of Christ called the annuitant visitor program. Essentially, the Pension Boards arranges for a pastoral call to each retired minister once a year by deploying a team of volunteers who are given the names of retired pastors in their area and assigned to check in to make sure that the pension benefits and health care plan are working for those they are intended to serve. Over the years I have known many of the annuitant visitors. Most of them have themselves been retired. The training used to include a trip to a meeting hosted by the Pension Boards to learn about the boards’ programs. Most of the annuitant visitors I have known have a very positive attitude about those programs. After all, they have just been treated to a free trip at the expense of the boards and received a “sales pitch” about all the programs.

I, on the other hand, have been a bit skeptical. I am grateful for the existence of the Boards and for the official structures of the United Church of Christ which provide support to retired clergy. The pastoral ministry isn’t a calling that is associated with high income and most pastors retire with very modest support packages and little savings. We didn’t go into the ministry to become rich and most of us have learned to live within our means and have modest expectations. Still, the Pension Boards is one of the areas of the church that operates in many ways like a very big business, investing the combined retirement accounts of pastors across the nation, purchasing health insurance for active and retired clergy and selling its products to congregations. Not all of the decisions made by the Pension Boards, including the fact that they pay the highest salaries in the church, have been embraced by all of our members. There has been controversy over some of the decisions made. I have been among the skeptics. I have leveled criticism on occasion.

The day before yesterday, however, I received my first call from my annuitant visitor. It took just a bit more than a year after our retirement for the program to reach out to us. With the distancing requirements of the pandemic, the visits are not face to face, so my visit took the form of a phone call. The person on the other end of the line was herself a retired UCC clergy person and she apparently felt that a phone call with me would cover annual visits with both Susan and me. She asked a few standard questions about how we are doing, where we are living and the like. She had a few questions about how we are adjusting to the recent change in our health insurance from a medicare supplement policy to a Preferred Provider Program. The change meant we had to learn to use a new health care provider, a new pharmacy service, and a few other changes. Although making all of the changes was a nuisance, they occurred more than six months ago and we’ve gotten used to the new program. There are some advantages and some disadvantages to the change.

Still, I would rate the visit as a pleasant experience overall. It was nice to have someone give us a call to check up with us. For the most part it feels a bit as if the denomination has forgotten about us. While we have received wonderful support and appreciation from the congregations we have served, the church in its conference and national settings have not had any contact with us other than bulk mailings, which include appeals for financial support. I don’t know what I expected, but a card or note from a Conference minister or some other acknowledgement of decades of service to the church might have been nice. On the other hand, recognition isn’t the reason ministers do what we do and the ministry of the church isn’t about me and my feelings.

I’ll accept this phone call as a gesture of care and concern and support. In about a year I’ll probably get another one. If I had a problem or a concern, I do know how to contact the Pension Boards. I’ve worked my way through the maze of web sites and phone menus and other channels of communication. I live, person to person phone call is a nice touch. On the other hand, the phone call came out of the blue. I was sitting in my truck with three grandchildren in the back, pulling into our son’s driveway when the call came. I remained in the truck, talking, as the children poured out of the truck and greeted their mother. My life isn’t exactly one of sitting at home waiting for the next phone call. In a year, I’m likely to be engaged in activity when the random phone call comes. I guess if I were making the calls, I might begin with something like, “Is this a good time to talk, or is there a better time for me to call?”

If I were giving advice to a newly-ordained clergy person, and it is unlikely that one would seek me out for advice, I think I might say that developing communities of support outside of the church is essential. Don’t count on the denomination to be your pastor. Find professional friendships and systems of support outside of the Conference and national settings of the church. Unless, of course, a random phone call once a year is sufficient for you. You will get that after three or four or more decades of dedicated service.

Fortunately for me, I have children and grandchildren who are expressive in their love and support of me and the church has given me decades of serving people who have become my friends and who are not shy about expressing their appreciation and love. In my case that love and support is more treasured than the phone call.

The pinks are running

I’m still learning the seasons of the place to which we have moved. Last night we took a walk along the Skagit River and discovered that the pink salmon are running. A year ago we were so preoccupied with selling our home in Rapid City, finding a place to rent in Mount Vernon and getting our household moved from one place to the other that we didn’t notice the incredible natural phenomenon that is part of this place. But the locals say that even-numbered years aren’t the years for the pinks anyway. The largest numbers of fish swimming up the river occur only every-other year and 2021 is forecast to be a much larger run than 2020.

The river is at its lowest point since we have been paying attention, more than 12 feet below where we observed the water flowing during the winter. As we walked along, we saw dozens of people fishing from the bank and a half dozen boats with folks fishing the middle of the stream. They were catching fish, too. The limit right now on the Skagit River is four fish, pink salmon only. Any Chinook or Chum caught must be released. One person observing the fishing from the walking path said that he had seen people catch their limit in just a few minutes. According to one website, the run is estimated at 2.9 million this year, down from the recent 10-year-average of 4 million. That number, however, is up from a couple of decades ago, before the run began what is now being labeled as an historic recovery.

Pink salmon are anadromous. That means they hatch in freshwater streams and rivers and then migrate out to the saltwater environment of the ocean to feed and grow. Unlike coho, Chinook, or sockeye salmon, pink salmon do not spend much time in fresh water. The fry migrate directly to the saltwater of the river’s mouth and the open ocean as soon as they are hatched. They typically spawn at the age of 2, which means that there are two populations, the even-year population and the odd-year population. Up in Alaska, they don’t see much of a variation in the size of the run between even and odd years, but down here, there is a big difference.

Human fishers are not the only predators of the salmon as they head toward their spawning grounds. Sharks, other fish, including other types of salmon, seabirds and humpback whales feed upon the salmon. The birds are most effective at catching the fry as they head out. Adults returning to spawn are mostly caught by larger animals, including bears which line the rivers in some places waiting for the feast.

The indigenous people of the area considered the salmon to be sacred in a very similar way to the plains tribes’ reverence for buffalo. There are special rules for traditional indigenous fishers and some tribal areas are closed to fishing by non-indigenous people.

For now, the fish are back in the river and folk will be catching them until about the middle of October. It is a season of bounty and harvest.

I’m not much of a fisherman. When we were kids, we loved trout fishing in the river next to our home. We all fished and we had a good deal of success. August would be a time of regular fish fries at our home - a time when we ate quite a bit of fish as the freezer ran low on deer and antelope, which would be replenished later in the fall by Thanksgiving time. I caught my share of trout, but was never the fisherman that my father or my youngest brother have been. For this year, I’ll be leaving the salmon fishing to others as I don’t have the time or energy to learn a new skill right now. One thing that is good is that when I buy fresh salmon in the market, I know that it is really fresh and that it has come from an area where sustainable fishing practices are being followed and the population is recovering. There may not be as many salmon next year, but the following year promises to be another good one and this year will produce enough for us to get a taste.

The truth is that we don’t live by the seasons as much as once was the case for all people. The amount of groceries in the pantry doesn’t vary from season to season like it did a century and more ago. We can purchase fresh produce year-round and there is always an abundant supply of fish and meat available in our local store. I may complain about the prices, but we have enough income to keep our pantry and our bellies full. With modern storage systems, I can eat apples all year round.

Having food available all year around is not the same as having fresh food. That still is seasonal. Right now, we have an unlimited supply of tomatoes, peppers, and beans from the farm gardens. We can still pick as many berries as we want and the apples are so plentiful that we don’t come close to harvesting all of them. Ripe plums require a trip to the back yard and a bit of stretching to reach up to the tree. We’re leaving the ones at the top for the birds. And fresh produce is a real treat. There is a pile of basil on the kitchen counter, harvested yesterday and bound for pesto, but there will be enough to add to my omelette this morning along with a few tomatoes.

As we discover how to live in our new home we are learning the seasons. We are far from settled. We are looking for a home to purchase and it is likely that we will settle nearer to the Nooksack River than the Skagit. it will have its own specific qualities. And we will learn its seasons just as we learned the seasons of the hills in South Dakota. We didn’t have any seasonal fish runs there. And here, we don’t need a snowblower. There are differences.

Where does the time go?

When I was working full time, I occasionally would have a conversation with a retired person who would say something like, “I’m so busy now that I’m retired that I don’t know how I got things done when I was working.” I would sometimes respond with something like, “I have thought about retiring, but I’m not sure that I want to work that hard.” It was mostly joking, because I didn’t really understand the dynamics of being retired. I observed people who ware really enjoying life in their retirement and who were engaged in all kinds of fun and meaningful activities. But I had also observed people who seemed to do only about one thing a day. If there was a class or a meeting, it would be the only thing on their schedule. They’d linger while I had a lot of other things to do. They’d complain if they had two things to do in the same day, say a doctor’s appointment and a meeting at the church, while I had many things to do every day.

I have a different perspective now that I am retired. I have slowed down a bit from the busiest of my active working days, but I still have lots of things to do. The days go by quickly and there are lots of tasks that take me longer than I expected. I’m sure that part of my story is that I have a bit less energy than some other phases of my life. Some tasks simply take me longer than once was the case.

2021 has been a strange year for most of us, and I’m no exception. The pandemic has meant that I have had to do a lot of things in a different manner than I might have done at other phases of my life. I have had to learn new skills and take some precautions. We have been fortunate that we had the opportunity to take a big trip with our camper, something that we have been looking forward to in our retirement. Still, I am surprised at how quickly the time passes. Here it is, with only a week left in August and school will be starting the next week and we are on our first camping trip of the summer with our grandchildren. For a little while it looked like we might not get camper time with them scheduled this summer. Of course they and their parents have busy lives and we are starting a new job after having been gone for more than a month, so there are reasons why we are just getting in our camping trip. Still, I had hoped that being retired might afford more time for such adventures. We’ve had dreams of taking our grandchildren camping ever since we have been grandparents and I thought that being retired might mean taking them on some big adventures.

It happens that the year after our first grandchild was born we decided to replace our former camper. It was a slide-in truck camper that we had enjoyed a great deal, traveling all around the western states and Canadian provinces. But it was getting old and had some problems and we were looking for something just a little bit bigger. A truck camper is tight inside. If one person is cooking, the other has to be in the dinette, the bed or the bathroom. That’s all the space there is. Being brand new grandparents made us think of adventures in which we would be able to take our grandchildren. Also, I discovered that I was often pulling a trailer to haul my canoes. I reasoned that we could pull a camping trailer and that would free up the truck to haul boats. So we decided to buy a used camp trailer that is a “bunkhouse.” At one end of the camper there is a bed for a couple of adults. At the other end there are four bunks for children. Between there is a bathroom, a kitchen, a dining area and a couch. It is really very nice.

From the beginning of our ownership of this camper, we have had a lot of grand adventures. We’ve pulled it as much as 10,000 miles in a year. We’ve had it all across the United States. We’ve lived in it for more than a month at time. It has also been very useful as a guest bedroom on occasion. Earlier this month our niece and her husband and three children found the camper to be a comfortable vacation home for a few days. And we’ve had a lot of really fun times with our grandchildren. We are fortunate. But we had hoped for even more time. We keep saying, “next year . . .”

By squeezing our schedule and by choosing a destination close to home, we were able to arrange this adventure. It was fun to get three car seats into our truck and have the back seat filled with grandchildren yesterday. We didn’t have far to go, which was a good thing because our morning was filled with church and after church we took a few minutes to go to an open house. We are house hunting and have made the search for a new home a priority. Fortunately, church and the open house and our son’s home and the campground are all reasonably close to each other.

Although it is raining as I write this morning, it has been very dry around here and a campfire ban is in place. That means that the hot dogs were cooked on the stove in the camper and the s’mores were cooked over a gas flame instead of a campfire. Still, we had a grand adventure yesterday, with time for running and playing and exploring a new place. We had some fun snacks and played board and card games. We keep the camper stocked with toys and Susan is really good at matching toys and games to the children’s ages and interests.

I’m sure that it won’t be long before I say to someone who is not retired, “Wow, it is a good thing I’m retired! I’m so busy I don’t have time to work.” I know they won’t understand. That’s OK. There will be time for them to discover for themselves.

The Pandemic Continues

Since moving to Washington, we have lived in Skagit County. Mount Vernon, where our rental home is located is the county seat. Our son works here. However, he lives in Whatcom County, the jurisdiction north of Skagit County on the Canadian border. Five days a week he commutes from one county to the other. The church we attend and where we are now working is in Whatcom County as well, so we are making the trip from one county to the next nearly every day now. As we drive back and forth we notice the traffic. We are aware that we are not the only ones who are going back and forth. And, because Whatcom County is on the Canadian border, we see plenty of cars and trucks that are going across that border as well. The Canadian Border has been closed for all non-essential travel most of the time we have lived here, but that has changed now and US citizens are now able to go into Canada for tourism, shopping and other reasons. The highway signs say that wait times at the border crossings are short, mostly less than five minutes. That means that traffic crossing the border is light compared to a typical time before the pandemic, when border crossing times were 15 minutes and longer.

Borders, whether they be between counties or countries, follow arbitrary lines, agreed to by politicians and governing bodies, and drawn up long ago. They are meaningless to the birds that fly and wild animals that find their food. Certainly the border between Skagit and Whatcom Counties is no barrier and if it weren’t for signs on the highway we wouldn’t even notice when we go back and forth across the border.

The counties, however, are jurisdictions for the reporting of Covid-19. The New York Times has a dashboard of pandemic data and it reports by county as well as by state. The Washington State Department of Health’s COVID Data Dashboard reports by county the numbers of confirmed cases of infection, hospitalizations and deaths caused by the virus. What that dashboard shows is that hospitals across the state are experiencing record numbers of hospitalizations due to the virus. In Whatcom and Skagit counties, the pressure is on as area hospitals struggle to serve record numbers of infected and sick people. Both counties are reported as having “very high” numbers of cases.

Whatcom County saw 440 new confirmed Covid-19 cases and one death in the last week. Confirmed cases have grown dramatically in August, with 300 cases one week earlier, and 206 cases two weeks before. Skagit County has smaller numbers, as it also has smaller population, but the rate of increase is equally high. Over the course of the pandemic, 83 people have died of Covid-19 in Skagit County and 110 in Whatcom.

Reading the statistics from the Bellingham Herald website can be daunting. It seems as if we are surrounded by bad news. The pandemic, which we thought would be easing by now as more people are vaccinated, continues to rage. Although we’ve become a bit dulled to the news because of the longevity of the pandemic, it is clear that Covid remains a major factor in our area.

The church, of course, is called to proclaim the good news in the midst of a world that declares bad news. We are called to live that good news - the Gospel - regardless of the statistics and regardless of the news we read in the media. Despite the reality of death ever present, God’s power to resurrect is the core of our faith.

It is, however, a deep challenge for churches and for church leaders to live responsibly in these times. We have learned a lot about building community even when we are not able to meet face to face. Online and hybrid worship have given us ways to remain connected when safety protocols have demanded that we maintain distance.

With the rising numbers, the governor of Washington has reimposed the indoor mask mandate that has been lifted in recent weeks. Starting on Monday, wearing masks inside public buildings, which has been advised all along, will be once again mandatory. In our church, the Covid advisory committee has maintained wearing masks as the norm since early in the pandemic. That means that we have been wearing masks at work all of the time that we have been working in our new job except when we are in our office with the door closed. It is a bit of an inconvenience. My glasses fog up when I’m wearing a mask. Changing our masks frequently means more laundry that needs to be done. I’ve tried to maintain an open office door throughout all of my career, and closing it when I am working seems very strange to me.

The inconveniences in my life, however, are small, especially when I consider the amount of grief that surrounds our church community with 110 deaths from Covid in Whatcom County and 83 more in Skagit County. Those deaths represent a much bigger number of people who are living in the midst of grief from the loss of a loved one.

In the midst of all of this, our church is struggling with how best to serve not only those who are members and friends of the congregation, but also the wider community. Yesterday the Mission and Justice Board along with the Faith Formation Board, conducted a Food Pantry Drive. People donated much-needed items by bringing them to the church parking lot where masked volunteers helped unload and prepare items for distribution. The drive was very successful and truckloads of items were donated. Later we learned that the pantry distributed all of the donated items within three hours of the close of the drive. The need was obvious and immediate.

While we will be worshiping in hybrid style, with some members in the church building and others participating online, this week, we don’t know whether or not we will have in-person worship next week with the rising numbers. The Church Board will meet later this week to make decisions. Whatever is decided, we continue to be a church. We continue to be called to proclaim good news in the face of the bad news of the world. And we continue to be called to serve our community.

Critical conversations

Corey Robin is a backwoods pilot and YouTube content creator. His YouTube channel has been viewed by a lot of people with beautiful and dramatic footage of light airplanes landing and taking off from off-airport locations and flying low over dramatic vistas. His sense of humor and humility has made him a favorite of a lot of pilot friends of mine. In the past decade, the YouTube channels of back country aviators and builders like Corey and Mike Patey, Trent Palmer, Kevin Quinn, Juan Brown, and others have sparked a renewed interest in general aviation.

Having grown up in a flying family and becoming a pilot myself in my teens, I have maintained an interest in aviation and find myself watching YouTube videos about flying, especially those about flying light aircraft. Age and financial priorities will continue to prevent me from being an active pilot, but I have respect for those who pursue aviation carefully and safely.

Last night, however, I watched a very different video in which Corey Robin starred. It was an interview, conducted at the Experimental Aviation Association’s annual convention, held in July. In the interview, Corey talks frankly about the loss of his sister to suicide last year. Having spent more than 20 years as a suicide first responder, I listened very carefully to what Corey had to say.

The sudden and unexpected loss of a loved one is one of the more traumatic events a person can endure. Our Local Outreach to Survivors of Suicide (LOSS) Team was dispatched by the 911 call center whenever a suicide occurred in our county. We responded 24/7 to provide support and resources to those who had just received the devastating news of the death of a loved one by suicide. Working in that setting provided me a lot of opportunities to observe grief and to understand that suicide grief is a unique type of grief. It also afforded me substantial opportunities to talk about mental illness, suicide prevention, and the resources in our community for care for those who are suffering. Unfortunately, as is the case across this country, the resources are thin and often difficult to find. Hospital emergency rooms have great skill in dealing with injury and physical illness, but often lack the basic tools for dealing with depression and mental illness.

In the interview, Corey spoke of his own depression following the loss of his sister. One of the things about being a survivor of suicide is that having lost a loved one to suicide increases the risk of an individual dying by suicide themself. It is critical that survivors be aware of their own increased risk of suicide, of their need for support, and of how to access help when needed.

I don’t know if it is fair to blame social media, but there are many ways in which our society has given permission to mean and cruel behavior. The amount of teasing, bullying, and aggressive criticism on the Internet is astounding. Expression of gratitude, support and care are less evident. At the same time, our society has become more polarized. Disagreement is expressed by personal attack. The truth is discarded in favor of trying to make the other look bad. It seems as if there are no limits to the harshness of attacks on others.

Corey spoke directly of the danger of suicide among pilots. Because pilots carry certificates that must be renewed each year with medical examinations and check rides, they may be less likely to discuss the symptoms of mental illness. A diagnosis can result in a person not being allowed to operate an airplane - something that gives joy to pilots. The fear of losing one’s certificate results in many pilots hiding their symptoms and failing to seek help with mental illness challenges. Depression, when left untreated, can be as fatal as cancer or heart disease.

I am grateful for the interview and for Corey’s frankness and honesty in discussing mental illness with fellow pilots. I hope a lot of pilots watch the interview and use it as an opportunity to seek out trusted people with whom they can discuss it.

When we are with our grandchildren, we often talk about a buddy system. We ask the children to have an adult whose hand they can hold when crossing busy streets or navigating busy parking lots. We speak to them about watching out for each other and keeping track of where others are. We tell them of how important it is that we know where they are and what is going on in their lives. It is an expression of our love.

That same care is needed by all of the people in our lives, regardless of their ages. Everyone needs a buddy, who will keep track of them and ask them from time to time, “Are you OK?” Then without probing, and without judgment, we need to be willing to listen to those people and receive their feelings, whatever they are. We don’t need to have all of the answers. We do need to remind others that they are not alone. Everyone can help to prevent suicide. The National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 800-273-8255 is a place of free and confidential support. It can be used by persons who are thinking about suicide and also by those who are worried about a friend or loved one.

If someone you know is struggling emotionally or having a hard time, you can be the difference in getting them the help they need. However, supporting another person though a difficult time can stir up difficult emotions in the care giver. It is essential that those who provide care take care of themselves and be unafraid to reach out for support.

I have written about suicide in my journal before and I will write about it again. Preventing the trauma and tragedy of suicide is a mission in which we all can share. I am grateful to Corey Robin for speaking out and using social media to communicate important and positive information. Together we can make a difference.


The other day I was the first vehicle stopped at a light when a gorgeously restored late 1960’s Pontiac Catalina made a left turn right in front of me. I held up my hand with a “thumbs up” gesture to the driver who nodded in appreciation. I’m pretty sure that we communicated with the simple hand gesture. The thumbs up gesture, however, doesn’t have a universal meaning. For scuba divers, the thumbs up gesture indicates that a diver is heading toward the surface. I read somewhere once that in parts of Europe and the Middle East the gesture of pointing up with your thumb is considered to be offensive. The article said that this was a problem for US soldiers in the 1st Gulf War, when they interpreted gestures intended to be rude as gestures of support.

One possible origin of the gesture is ancient gladiatorial battles, in which the fate of the losing fighter was decided. There is some debate, but it is generally accepted that the gesture was used to indicate whether or not the fighter was to be put to death. Thumbs down meant the fighter would die. Thumbs up meant he would be spared. The origins of the gesture interest me if for no other reason than if this is true it would mean that the gesture has survived longer than Latin as a spoken language. Is it possible that the language of gestures is more lasting than that of speech?

Thinking about my gesture and its warm acceptance by the driver of the car got me to thinking about the now common use of emojis in text messaging. My phone offers a huge catalogue of emojis from which to select. I rarely use emojis at all, and when I do it is most likely to be a simple heart indicating love. I also like one of a person paddling a canoe and use it fairly often. Beyond those two, I’m pretty sure that the one of a thumb pointing up would be the most common in my use. There are hundreds and hundreds that I have never used and probably will not adopt in my common usage.

I still try to use complete sentences and proper punctuation in my text messages. I write out you are instead of typing UR. I don’t know exactly why, other than the simple fact that I love words and enjoy writing. It takes me a bit more concentration to send a text message. Having had issues with trigger thumbs on both hands, I can’t “type” on a phone as quickly as many others. Maybe the thumbs up emoji means, “My thumbs can’t type. I’m using the forefinger on my right hand.”

Pointing with the forefinger is a pretty common gesture, but it can have a lot of different meanings. Recently our youngest granddaughter was speaking to me about something and she was pointing and moving her finger back and forth for emphasis. It looked exactly like some adults when they are scolding a child. I’m pretty sure she has seen someone use that same gesture, most likely one of her parents or grandparents. It was amusing for me to see here use the gesture, and I had to suppress a laugh as I sought to take her seriously.

We gesture with other parts of our bodies as well as with our hands. Crossing one’s arms in front of one’s body can indicate boredom or disapproval. It is a way of saying, “no!” And there is what I call “the look.” From a very young age our daughter was able to indicate disapproval with a flash of her eyes. The interesting thing is that it seems exactly like the look I get from my sister when she disapproves. It reminds me also of a way my mother could set her eyes and communicate without a word. My wife, however, doesn’t use that look with me. She is much more likely to indicate displeasure by using words. When she is angry or upset, she’s more likely to have tears in her eyes than a harsh look. I don’t know for sure where our daughter gained that ability to communicate with a look. If she didn’t get it from her mother, I doubt that she learned it from my sister or my mother. She wasn’t around them enough to learn to imitate their behavior. It seems as if the eye gesture is innate - passed down from generation to generation genetically.

I learned that there was a nearly universal set of hand gestures that was used in trading among North American indigenous people before Europeans started to come to this continent. There were many different languages that were spoken and a wide variety of cultures, but they were able to conduct business through the use of hand gestures. I suspect that some of those gestures persist in the present. It may be that we use some of them in our nonverbal communication without being aware of their source. I know that when I am negotiating a transaction, such as a major purchase, I don’t say very much. I try to communicate as little as possible about my desire for the item being sold. I don’t want to indicate that I am willing to pay too much to obtain it. I want the seller to think that I will walk away from the deal if I don’t get some of what I want, including price concessions. And I have walked away from deals in the past. Once, when a car salesman rejected my offer, I simply stopped negotiating and later bought a vehicle from a different seller. I might have been happy with the vehicle that the first salesman offered, but when he wouldn’t negotiate, I decided I didn’t want it that much. I never regretted my action.

As we begin a new job, I am trying to once again be more conscious of gestures and nonverbal communication. It is a special challenge with the number of meetings that are taking place over Zoom and other tech media. I’m not used to really studying the screen on my computer. I also want to look natural to those who are watching my face on their screens.

The more I learn about communication, the more I discover I need to understand.

Grateful for the children

I often say that I don’t watch television, but that is only partially true. I do watch short videos on the computer, mostly from YouTube. I’m especially prone to watching those videos when I have a little time that is not filled by other activities. At the end of the day, I’ll sometimes unwind by watching a few videos instead of reading, which is not the way I used to be. I don’t have any particular reason for not watching television except that network television bores me, or at least I often feel like I’m wasting my time when watching television. I understand that making video is a type of storytelling, and I appreciate storytelling. I guess that for most of my adult life, I’ve always found other things that I enjoy more than watching television.

Still, I do watch videos. One type of video that I enjoy is that of a particularly talented musician. I’m drawn to videos of child prodigies. There are many videos of especially young children playing incredibly difficult piano pieces with ease. Somehow watching that kind of video led to watching videos of flash mobs. I like ones where a full orchestra emerges from a crowd and performs an orchestral piece.

One of the things that amuses me in those videos is the reactions of children to the music. The videographers often focus on young children who are waving their arms and dancing to the music. There is something powerful about a child who becomes totally lost in the music, dancing with their entire being.

In a recent interview with Krista Tippett, Kevin Kling, author of “The Dog Says How,” spoke of his childhood connection with his grandparents: “And I think we were in the same light. I mean, I was in the dawn, and they were in the twilight, but we were in the same light. And because of that, they’re heading to the creator, and I’m coming from the creator. And it seemed, because of that, we spoke a very similar language.”

I’m not sure that I fully accept the duality that he sets up between this world and the next, but there is some sense that as we grow into our senior years, we recover a bit of the joy and appreciation of that which is beyond. At any rate, I feel like I understand the perspective of children a bit better than I have at some points in my life.

Perhaps it isn’t understanding as much as it is appreciation. I feel grateful to be allowed to witness the unbridled joy and enthusiasm of children. When we were parents of young children, I was concerned about how other people, especially those older than I, might react to our children. I worked to teach them manners. We talked about “inside” and “outside” voices. When our daughter learned to manipulate the adults in our church to get a treat before the coffee hour, I interrupted the process. When she tried to get more from the rummage sale than her money should have purchased, I set limits. Now, as a grandfather, I don’t worry about that kind of thing. When my granddaughter dresses herself in a costume that includes her favorite socks and a pink tutu and a hat along with a bunch of other layers, I just appreciate her spirit and her creativity. Had our daughter dressed herself the same way, I might have tried to tell her that costumes are great for dress up and Halloween, but not for a trip to the library. I remember when she was young limiting her choices when it came to clothing. Her summer clothes weren’t in her closet in the winter. I’d say, “Do you want to wear this, or this,” giving her only two choices and distracting her from the wide number of outfits available. These days, I find as much joy in the choices our grandchildren make as they do in making them.

I think there really is something about the oldest and youngest members of the family sharing the same light while the middle generation has a different perspective. Then again, I suppose it is possible that I’m just a bit less responsible than I used to be.

This Sunday Susan and I are responsible for the “Moments with Children” in the worship service at our church. We’ll be taking responsibility for those moments several times in the next few months as we are introduced to the congregation as the ministers of faith formation. Our position is an interim. We’ll only be doing this for 18 to 24 months while the congregation forms a vision of new directions for their faith formation ministries and church staffing. When we were active in our careers, I didn’t give too much time to children’s sermons or moments with children. Often Susan took responsibility for that part of worship. When it was my turn, I’d come up with an idea and execute it almost off the top of my head. At least I didn’t invest the kind of time in that part of worship that I would in a pastoral prayer or sermon. But I’ve been excited about getting to lead the moments with children all week long. It is only Thursday, and I’ve been practicing. I keep refining the presentation. When I think about it, I have a big smile on my face. I’m really looking forward to those 5 minutes or so as I address the children knowing that the entire congregation is paying attention.

It doesn’t hurt that this week’s service at our church is focused on music and the role of music in our lives of faith. It doesn’t hurt that Psalm 100 invites all people to “Make a joyful noise.” Like little children, I’m pretty good at making noise. And the opportunity to do so in the context of a worship service that is sometimes too quiet and too serious seems like a great opportunity.

I don’t know how the adults in the congregation will react, but I know my target audience. I’m pretty sure the children will have fun with it. And if they do, I will enjoy it as well.


After dinner and a walk last evening, we sat down to a dish of blackberry cobbler. The sweet treat, topped with ice cream, was delightful. I had picked a couple of quarts of berries on Sunday afternoon during a visit to our son’s farm. But I could easily pick a couple of quarts every day right now. Himalayan blackberries are considered an invasive species in this part of Washington. Farmers and landscapers are constantly seeking ways to trim back the rapidly growing plants.

There is, however, a kind of wonderful abundance to the plants that strikes me. We walk every day and each path that we walk has place after place where one could stop and pick blackberries. We see people picking them every day. Some just pick a handful for a snack. Others have buckets or other containers and are picking them to take home. They are easy to freeze and can be used to make a wide variety of different recipes.

The thing is that there are enough blackberries for everyone. It doesn’t matter if you are homeless or live in the fanciest house in town - you can get free blackberries by just taking a walk on any of the city’s paths. It doesn’t matter if you are a bird or a human - there are enough blackberries for all. The blackberries don’t know and don’t care what language you speak or what color your skin is. They just produce berry after berry. Even areas that have been heavily picked show fresh berries every day. The ripe berries nearly fall off in your hand at a touch. The only problem is that the plants produce spiny canes, similar to rose bushes. The canes grab at your clothing and you have to be careful to avoid being poked.

The plants spread both by seed and by the canes. Wherever the canes touch the ground, they soon take root and the plant spreads. If the city didn’t use machines to cut back the bushes, they would take over the paths so completely that it would be impossible to walk. Folks like our son, who have bushes in their yards, have to set limits and carefully cut out the extra canes.

This is a productive time of year for fruit around here. We have a food dryer that is kept busy drying apples. There is no way that our son and his family can keep up with their apple trees, even though our ten-year-old grandson gets a kick out of tossing them and hitting them with a baseball bat. The spat and explosion of a ripe apple has a particular satisfaction and if someone will take time to pitch, he’ll hit apples for a long time. Some of the apples and bits get fed to the chickens. They’ve put up lots of applesauce. Both their family and ours are drying apples. There’s been an apple pie. There are still lots and lots of apples.

Although the season for blueberries is over, gathering a pint or so is still really easy by just walking along our son’s driveway. And the raspberries are as abundant as the blackberries.

Free food in quantities enough for everyone to share is an amazing thing.

It hasn’t solved the homelessness problem in our city. It hasn’t emptied the shelters. It hasn’t ended the food deserts in neighborhoods where there are no stores that sell food.

Still, it is fun to live in a place where there is free food for everyone.

That abundance is a natural part of creation. Food for all is one of the essential parts of the planet where we live. The stories of our people tell of food for every creature as a design feature of creation. Food is a gift from God. We remind ourselves of that truth with our thanksgiving prayers at meals.

Blackberries, however, are free to people who don’t pray. They are available to those who practice every faith that exists and to those who have no faith at all. Atheists are allotted the same quantity as priests and practitioners of religion.

I’m not much like a blackberry bush, but one thing we have in common is that I’m a transplant from some other place. To the indigenous tribes of the Pacific Northwest, it might seem if all of the rest of us are a bit like blackberries - we are everywhere. We compete for houses and space to live. Folks who weren’t born in this place continue to move into this area and fill up the roads until traffic slows to a crawl and fill up the stores until it is difficult to shop in peace and fill up the parks and open spaces with our constant presence. Non-natives are part of the makeup of this place. We’ve moved in and I’m sure it sometimes feels like we are taking over and squeezing out those who were here before we came.

Unlike the blackberries, however, I’m retired - well, sort of retired. I’m not producing much to share. In fact I’m consuming more than I produce these days, living off of savings set aside for retirement. Maybe that is why it feels so good to me to be back at work. I’ve only been at this new job for a week, but it makes me really happy to have a job and to be doing things with my time that have a tangible benefit for others.

Life has been good to me. I’ve enjoyed meaningful and abundant work. Not every day of working has been fun and games, but there has been substantial enjoyment in the work that I have been given. I’ve been allowed to work alongside wonderful and generous people and to learn from wise and experienced congregations. I’ve been loved and nurtured by churches wherever life has taken me. I’ve been blessed with family and health. I’ve witnessed enough trauma, suffering and grief to recognize how truly fortunate I am.

Fortunately for me, I still have some energy to reach out and help others. And, I have the example of the blackberry bush to inspire me to keep giving.

Happy Birthday sis

I think there might have been a time, say 40 years ago, when my sister would have been a bit upset if I commented on her age in my journal, though I wasn’t publishing my journal in those days. I certainly wasn’t shy when teasing her about her age. She is nearly two years older than I. From her birthday in August until my brother’s birthday in early January the five youngest children in our family are spaced at 2-year intervals. When we were 2, 4, 6, 8, and 10, I was the 8. The 2, 4, and 6 were our younger brothers and my sister was the 10. There were two older sisters as well, but that it a longer story. Being the closest to the youngest sister in age gave me a wonderful life-long relationship with her. We have always been close, though there have been plenty of times when the physical distance between our homes has meant that we have gone long times between visits. In recent years, however, we have found ways to visit each other multiple times each year. We were at her home a couple of times in July and she’ll be at our home a couple of times this fall.

Having siblings is one of the blessings of this life, and I feel very fortunate to have a sister who has been by my side as a true supporter for all of my life. I tease her a lot and we joke around when we are together, but we know that we will be there for each other whenever help is needed. She has demonstrated this over and over again through the years.

At any rate, today is her birthday and it is one of those decade birthdays - the ones when your age ends with a zero. Somehow, however, seventy doesn’t seem like as big of a deal as 30, 40, 50 or 60. Age, after all, is only a number. Had she been born in China, Korea, or any one of the other countries that counts age by the Lunar New Year, she would have been 71 since the new year’s celebration. In our culture, however, the actual day of a person’s birth is the day of special birthday recognition and today is that day.

Over the course of her lifetime, there have been several natural disasters that occurred on her birthday. On the day she turned eight we were wakened in the middle of the night by an earthquake. It turned out that we were nearly 60 miles from the epicenter, but it was a big one. The 7.5 Yellowstone Park earthquake, near Hebgen Lake, caused the whole side of a mountain to slide into the river, forming Quake Lake. An entire campground was buried in the slide. Roads were rendered impassible. A decade later, on her 18th birthday, Hurricane Camille hit the Gulf Coast, killing 256 and causing $1.42 billion in damage. On her 48th birthday, the Izmit earthquake in Turkey killed over 17,000 people.

In general, the decade years, when her age ends in a zero, have tended to be a bit more peaceful with fewer natural disasters. Though the death toll continues to mount in the recent Haiti earthquake, the actual day of the temblor was Saturday and not today. It wouldn’t be fair to connect that one with her birthday.

And, as I learned early in life, it isn’t practical to play too many jokes on her on her birthday because it gives her nearly two years to plan her revenge. Whatever age she achieves, I will be the next “kid” in our family to reach that number.

The fact that she is now a septuagenarian doesn’t have much impact on my life except that I will get to use that rather fun word a lot more than I used to. I’ve got about a dozen years before I leave that word behind and after that, I’ll still have brothers for whom the category will apply for a while.

Perhaps most interesting is the simple fact that we’ve become the seniors in our family and in our communities. We’re the little old people, though we haven’t adjusted to thinking about ourselves that way. Although she is contemplating a move, like us, to be nearer to her children, an event made more appealing with the anticipated arrival of a new granddaughter next year, for now she lives in the town where we grew up. She walks the same streets we walked a children, visits some of the same stores, sees the same scenes. I suspect that as she does, like me, she can remember the days when we were children and rode our bikes up and down the street. She can remember when we were the ones squealing with delight as the swimming pool opened on summer days. She can remember sitting in the shade of the cottonwood trees and spitting watermelon seeds on summer evenings.

Time passes and when we look back, it seems like it has passed so very quickly. Seven decades of living have given her a world of experiences. She has graduated from college and graduate school and pursued several different vocational directions. She has seen her children become adults and experienced the death of her parents. She has watched as the elders of the community have taken their places in the cemetery and now has become an elder herself.

So happy birthday, my septuagenarian sister! I hope your day is one of worthy celebration and of contemplation of new adventures to pursue. I hope it is a day of good memories and that the losses and traumas that have shaped you don’t dominate your thoughts today. There are a lot of wonderful memories, fun memories and plenty of funny memories, too.

I promise to be gentle with the teasing this year, though I probably can’t resist bringing up earthquakes and hurricanes. I know that I’m right behind you and a couple of years doesn’t seem like much time at all from the perspective of my age. The older we have become, the closer in age it feels like we are.

Extravagant Welcome

For a long time we in the United Church of Christ have described our church as one of “Extravagant Welcome.” I’m not sure when and where the phrase was coined, but it was part of a movement to practice the faith of Jesus as discovered in the Bible. Along the journey of faith, a phrase arose that is used in our worship and has become an important part of our identity: “No matter who you are, or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.” Many of our congregations use this phrase in worship every week and attempt to live it out in their welcoming of all who come.

This kind of welcome is not restricted to our denomination. There are other churches with congregations who are welcoming. However, understanding this kind of welcome as an essential practice of faith is a healthy discipline for our church.

This weekend, through workshops on Saturday and worship on Sunday, our congregation launched what is being called “The Year of Extravagant Welcome.” In the worship service, however, one of the dedicated leaders who has poured a lot of energy into this cause misspoke and referred to the celebration as “The Year of Exuberant Welcome.” Earlier, as part of the planning, I had misunderstood the title attached to the programs and referred to it as “The Year of Evangelical Welcome.”

That got us going. Susan and I often pass notes to each other during worship. I think we started doing so before we became pastors, as a way to have a bit of conversation without disrupting worship for others. After we started leading congregations, the notes gave us a way to communicate essential information without disrupting the flow of worship. Often the notes had information that would be helpful in other parts of the service. A pastoral concern that should be mentioned in prayer was passed on during the prelude. A special celebration was noted so that it could be mentioned in the announcements. So yesterday, sitting as participants in worship without special leadership responsibilities, we started thinking of adjectives that started with the letter E that might describe the welcome our congregation wants to teach and engage in this year of focus in the discipline of hospitality.

Our worship bulletin from yesterday has quite a list, penned in both of our handwriting styles: Extravagant, Exuberant, Evangelical, Extra Special, Expressive, Excessive (?), Extraordinary, Expedient, Experiential, Excellent, Extensive, Exciting. We probably could have gone on longer, but the flow of the worship service engaged us in other thoughts. Perhaps the year of extravagant welcome has begun by offering a time of engaging welcome.

While our thoughts and conversations were a bit of playfulness yesterday, it is a gift that other church leaders offered to us as we begin our time as interim ministers of faith formation. One of our questions is “How many different ways can we inspire members to step out of their comfort ones and engage the kind of extravagant welcome that Jesus practiced with those he met?” Another is, “What are the events, activities, programs and practices that can be taught and learned as we grow in faith together?”

Another line of thinking that was started by the opening events of our church’s year of extravagant welcome began with a few conversations about the traditional church coffee hour. Right now our congregation isn’t offering a coffee hour after worship due to careful guidance by our Covid Advisory Committee on safe practices during the pandemic. The committee is being very cautious as it guides congregational practice while the pandemic continues to spread. So the usual greeting of worshipers and after-worship activities have been moved out into the parking lot and are being pursued without refreshments. For some of us, this feels strange. We are used to meeting and greeting others in the informal setting of a church fellowship hall, with a beverage in hand. The interesting thing is that there have been a lot of people who have found this break from the pattern to be refreshing. Several people have told us of feeling awkward during the coffee hour. One said, “It brings out my inner middle schooler. I never know where to sit or which conversation might be awkward for me.” Another said, “It seems like everyone else has someone they are seeking out to sit with and talk to. I often feel out of place in the coffee hour unless I have a specific task. I don’t mind serving or cleaning up, but if I don’t have a specific job, I usually just skip it and go home.”

I’ve heard it said that church coffee hours are difficult and challenging for visitors. While we describe ourselves as a church of extravagant welcome, I’m pretty sure that there are a lot of people who don’t get a specific invitation when it comes to the coffee hour.

I don’t know the solution, but I do think the conversation has opened up an opportunity for fresh thinking about some of the deeply ingrained traditions of our church practice. For now the beautiful weather of summer invites us to linger in the parking lot and pursue conversations with fellow worshipers in that relatively safe space. Since we are new to the church and just learning names, we have no idea who is a visitor and who is a long-time member. This is an advantage right now because we can greet each person by offering our names and learning theirs.

It will be an interesting journey to be intentional about a year of extravagant welcome. I hope it is also exuberant, evangelical, extra special, expressive, and even excessive at times. I hope it will be extraordinary, expedient, experiential, excellent, extensive and exciting. I also know that it will be experimental. We’ll try a few things that work well and others that will need to be reexamined and reinvented. Just having the conversation and thinking about the words is opening us to new possibilities and new ways of practicing our faith.

It is starting out as a year worth remembering.

Challenging texts

Practicing hospitality

I wonder how many times I have heard a faithful church member talk about the need for new members as way of insuring the future of the institutional church. “If we don’t get new members,” they say, “we’ll shrink until there is no one to do the work of the church.” “New members are essential to our future.” While I don’t disagree with their sentiment, it somehow falls short of understanding how much radical hospitality is a practice of our faith.

Long before Jesus, our people were taught hospitality as a basic tenet of their relationship with God. Welcoming the widows, orphans and immigrants was something that was necessary because our people had known the experience of widows, orphans and immigrants. “Remember that you were once strangers in a foreign land,” our scriptures remind us. When we forgot our basic calling as people of God, prophets reminded us of what we were to do. Isaiah was especially strident in his reminders to the faithful of the need to practice hospitality and of the threat that the failure to observe that practice was to the entire community. From the words of the prophets we learned that we cannot be faithful to God when we think only of ourselves.

By the time of Jesus, however, there were many who had forgotten these basic practices of our faith. Instead they had begun to think of faith in terms of rigid rules that could be judged by others. What has been taught as deep hospitality became a kind of code for taking care of our own. Jesus observed that even the priests and Levites failed to show hospitality to strangers and foreigners in our midst.

In contrast to that rigid path, Jesus was constantly amazing his disciples with his ability to recognize and learn the stories of those around him. When they discovered him talking with a woman at a Samaritan well, they didn’t understand why he gave her the time of day much less learned her entire life story. When a man possessed by an evil spirit was disruptive, they tried to quiet him. Jesus, however, offered him healing and got to know who he really was. When Zacchaeus climbed a tree to get a look over the crowd, Jesus not only shared a meal with him and got to know him, he inspired him to immerse himself in the work of the community. When the disciples tried to keep the crush of the crowd from Jesus, sending people bringing children for blessing away, Jesus said, “Let the little children come and do not hinder them.” When a woman, plagued by an illness for decades, touched the hem of his robe, Jesus noticed her and got to know her story when everyone around him was content to ignore her.

Over and over again, our Gospels are filled with stories of Jesus reaching out to people who had been marginalized by the community. He saw, and then he got to know, people who had previously not even been seen as full members of the community.

Being a disciple of Christ involves practicing that same kind of radical hospitality. It is an essential practice of God’s faithful people. We cannot live out the tenets of our religion without practicing hospitality.

Sadly, many who are not active in congregations do not see the church that way at all. They think that a church is an exclusive place where people take care of their own and shun those who do not share their theological viewpoint. They have been wounded by tight-knit communities that refuse to accept those who are in some way different from their idea of what a member of a church should be. There are a lot of people who are not involved in churches who think of the church as a place of exclusion and rejection and they think that way because they themselves have experienced that exclusion and rejection.

Once again our people find ourselves in need of a prophet who will remind us of the basic elements of our faith. The poetic words of Micah remind us that we already know what is expected of us:

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the LORD require of you
but to do justice, and love kindness,
and walk humbly with your God.

To do justice, to love kindness, and to practice humility are all things that we have already been taught by our scriptures, by our experiences, and by millennia of faithful people seeking relationship with God. This isn’t some new understanding of our faith, but rather something that we have been taught for generations. It is at the core of our faith.

When we attempt to pass on the faith of our ancestors and fail to pass on the practice of hospitality as a basic tenet of faith, we fail to fully tell the story of who we are and where we have come from. Christians have been known to make all kinds of noise about their view of one of the ancient creation stories and how they believe it stands in contrast with the discoveries of science and use their views as a way of separating themselves from others, while at the same time forgetting to heed the commands of Deuteronomy to welcome the stranger. There have been many instances of church members raising a ruckus over the public posting of the Ten Commandments while failing to practice the Beatitudes. And this despite the fact that one of the commandments is a ban on making graven images of the ways of God.

It is not difficult for our critics to point out the ways in which we fail to practice our faith.

Teaching our faith, then, requires us to return to that kind of radical hospitality that Jesus practiced. We need to see and get to know the very people who are often unseen in our midst. We need to welcome those who are on the margins of our community. We need to experience hospitality as a faith practice - not because of the needs of the institution, but because of our own call to live lives of faith.

Having a schedule

My new job came with a copy of the United Church of Christ Desk Calendar and Plan Book. Throughout all of my career, our denomination has published an 18-month desk calendar each summer. My new copy spans July, 2021 through December 2022. Being a church calendar, the largest blocks in each monthly calendar are the Sundays, which feature the lectionary readings for the week, a worship theme suggestion, and special observances of the church. I’m used to having a copy of the calendar on my desk. Some years, I scribble a lot of notes on the calendar. Other years, the calendar is left mostly the way it was printed, with just a few notes written.

For most of my career, I have not used the calendar as an appointment book. It has never worked well for me to have a large document as my appointment book. Because it is too large to put into my pocket, it often is not with me at the moment when I need to make an appointment or plan my schedule. For many years, I used pocket calendars to keep track of meetings and appointments. When digital personal assistants became available, I switched to a Palm Pilot and later to a cell phone that had calendar and scheduling functions. For several years, I have had software and hardware to synchronize my calendars on my phone with my computer and tablet. I use my phone as the primary device to check my schedule. It works well for me. In years past, I requested that the denomination make the desk calendar and plan book available in a digital format, but these days it doesn’t seem necessary. There are third party suppliers that make lectionary programs that can be inserted into digital calendars and the few events and occasions that are specific to the United Church of Christ, such as all church special offerings, can easily be added.

When we retired, I deleted a whole lot of recurring appointments from my digital calendar. I no longer had monthly Church Board Meetings or regular meetings with the Department of Stewardship and Budget and other groups within the church. I deleted my weekly meetings with colleagues. I discovered that I had entire days, and sometimes nearly a week without anything scheduled. The occasional visit to the doctor or dentist might be the only appointment on my calendar for an entire day.

Returning to regular work in the church, however, my calendar is starting to fill up once again. I am responsible for monthly meetings with the Faith Formation Board, weekly staff meetings, regular check-ins with the lead pastor, and other things. I find that I need to return to some of the organizational techniques that I observed during my regular working life. Furthermore, I find that I enjoy having a few more items on my calendar and a few more obligations to meet.

It seems to me that much of life is about maintaining a balance. When I was working, often the balance was experienced as the dynamic between work, family and leisure. There were plenty of times when I felt that I was short of leisure. So much of my time was structured in order to meet work and family obligations that there was less time for me to relax. However, I knew that skipping leisure made me less efficient and less productive in work and often less able to be truly present to my family. Readjusting the balance usually helped. Making sure that I had time to get to the lake with a canoe paid off in more focused time at work and more ability to be truly present with my family.

Finding the right balance will be part of adjusting to this new job. In the first place, I am not working full-time. I do not need to be in the office six days each week. The half-time job will afford plenty of time for family and leisure. On the other hand, I think that the structure of working will also lend a valuable quality to my leisure time. Although I don’t think I ever fully adjusted to retirement, with the work of moving and sorting possessions and the process of learning to live in a new place, I found that I wasn’t very good at using my leisure time when I had it in such abundance. Since I could literally go paddling every day of the week, I found that I actually went paddling less often. Waiting for spontaneity to take over sometimes meant that days went by when I wasn’t doing much at all.

I’m no expert at productivity. I only know the experiences that I have and the observances I have made. Retirement left me just a bit out of balance. With no work that I was doing to produce income for our family, I tended not to plan my days. I just got up and went through the day without much structure. I know that I don’t need the hyper-organization that was required of my busiest working days when we had children at home and more tasks for each day than could be accomplished. I’m happy to have a slower pace. But I am also happy with a bit of obligation for my time. It feels good to think about discovering a new balance with a new job. We’ve settled on a couple of days when we will have regular office hours and, of course, our Sundays will involve being physically present at church after a year of online worship. There are other days when meetings, activities and events will take us to the church as well.

Then there is the reality that we will be moving again within a couple of months. We hope to find a home to buy and to be packing up and moving once again soon. That will keep us busy and there will be a balancing act between work and home life.

Right now it feels good to tuck the desk calendar into my backpack and carry it back and forth between the church and home. I’m checking my phone calendar every day once again. I’m sure I’ll get into the swing of things soon.


Yesterday was a day of setting up various items at work. We have new email addresses and had to configure our computers for Microsoft Teams. We had to learn about locks and security systems and learn codes for various devices. We took an in-depth tour of the building and found out where all of the storage closets are located. We set up a few more meetings and we met with other members of the staff team. There are a few things which are specific to this particular congregation, but for the most part things were pretty familiar. Of course, it will take us a few weeks to ease into this job and there are many more new things to learn, but it feels good to have gotten this much done in our first couple of days.

I was thinking about work and the process of learning to work a bit later in the day. After we finished up at the church office we stopped by our son and daughter-in-law’s farm to help care for the children so that their mother could do a bit of work. Our ten-year-old grandson had a big job that he was tackling. A short bit of background is in order. Somehow a pair of boots was lost. He had responsibility for them and no one in the family has a clue as to their location. A search has been made, but so far, no boots. The decision was made that he needs to earn the money for their replacement. There are plenty of jobs on the farm and the children are used to tackling jobs to earn extra money. The big job that was offered to our grandson was cleaning out one of the chicken coops. He already does some care for chickens, checking food and water for the hens and pullets, so cleaning out a coop that will receive the meat birds as they become pullets seemed like a good job. Mostly the job is shoveling used bedding into a cart and transporting it to an area where some new plants will be going in. The biggest cart on the farm is pulled by the lawn mower, so he had the extra bonus of being allowed to drive the mower a bit in the process.

I worked alongside him for a little while to make sure that he understood the task and I facilitated the moving of the mower and cart. I did the backing of the cart, as he doesn’t have much experience driving and the barn has close quarters.

It was interesting to me to watch him learning about a big job. At first there was plenty of enthusiasm. The first cart load was filled in a reasonable amount of time. He was being efficient and working hard. He was allowed to wear his headphones and listen to a podcast while he worked. After we dumped the first load he took a short break, which was reasonable. The second load took a bit longer. At this point about half of the material that needed to be removed was loaded. He said he was thirsty, so I suggested that he take a bit longer break and get a drink of water.

We had to leave before he got back to the job. I’m confident that he got the third cart load filled before dinner time. I suspect that the final clean-up and placing of the new bedding in the coop might wait until Saturday when his father will be home to assist.

The job was familiar to me because I had responsibility for cleaning chicken coops when I was a boy. I didn’t like the job. It was something that had to be done in order to have a freezer full of meat for the year, but there were other jobs I preferred. We had a different system when I was a boy. There were chores that each of us children had that were just a part of being in the family. Work around the house was not compensated in money. When we were old enough for jobs that paid, most of us did work at our father’s business before working for other employers. We learned that a good work ethic is important and that sticking with a job until it is completed is valued by employers.

I’ve always felt that learning to work was something that has been valuable all of my life. I worked at many different kinds of jobs before I finished school. A few, such as tipping garbage cans into the back of the collection truck, were even a bit less desirable than cleaning chicken coops. A few, such as repairing furniture for a church where I was the janitor, taught me new skills. One, staging carts of freshly baked bread for loading into trucks, resulted in a summer of smashed fingers and purple fingernails. Assembling farm machinery allowed me to earn a pretty good set of mechanic’s tools, quite a bit of skill, and some money in my pocket. I drove a wide variety of trucks and tractors and other machinery and learned to operate machines safely.

Our grandson will have different opportunities. Growing up on a farm will provide him with lots of chances to learn about work. I’m proud of his willingness to tackle tough jobs and his initiative at getting to work. He is just learning about the world of work and I don’t want him to lose his childhood and the opportunities for play. Still, having meaningful work is an important part of a joyful life, and I want him to discover work he enjoys and have a positive attitude towards work. Both of his parents are really good workers, so he has good examples in his life.

And if, as I suspect will be the case, he ends up thinking that cleaning chicken coops isn’t the most desirable of jobs, we will have that in common. One day he will have stories to tell of the jobs he has done, just like I do. I’m thinking they’ll be good stories.

Division and unity

Over the span of a lifetime in the church I have seen the devastating effects of splits within congregations. An emotional issue can divide a congregation. The results are almost always bad for institutional health. I’ve know pastors who encouraged conflict to come to the surface and sometimes the results were that the pastor and the congregation ended up going separate ways. Often the congregation lost a lot of valuable members in the process and ended up weaker and less able to do its work. During my years, I worked hard to avoid splitting congregations. When conflict arose, and it did, I worked at keeping the disagreeing parties engaged in the work of the church. I sought to find common ground in the midst of disagreement. I reminded members that what brings us together is far more important than what divides us. I worked especially hard at keeping people with whom I disagreed engaged in the congregation. I wasn’t always successful. There were, over the years, members who left the church because of decisions I made or my leadership style or other reasons. But there were also major disagreements in which we retained all of the affected parties.

Despite those efforts, however, the final months of my employment in South Dakota found me serving a congregation that was split in an entirely new way. When the pandemic hit we had members who had been regular worshipers who isolated at home. Suddenly they did not come to church any more. With less than a week’s notice we began live-streaming worship. I also live-streamed daily prayer. I learned about microphones and cameras and high speed Internet and a host of other technical things that I had largely ignored prior to the pandemic.

At the same time, I sought to keep the church doors open. Keeping with the advice of experts and of the church board, we encouraged people to stay at home and to participate online. However, even though we didn’t advertise or promote it, we allowed those who physically came to the church to enter the building. We developed a routine of sanitizing surfaces. We blocked off pews to keep people socially isolated. we encouraged the wearing of masks. And we continued to worship.

Suddenly, I had two congregations: one of people worshiping from a distance, another of the few who kept coming to the church. I addressed both at once when leading worship, but, as Marshall McLuhan wrote, “the media is the message.” Watching a livestream is not the same as being physically present in the church. Furthermore, there was a “third” congregation of which I was increasingly aware. Early on in the pandemic we used a team of volunteers to make contact with every member of the congregation. Most of those contacts were by telephone, a few by email and other media. We discovered that there were people isolated at home who did not have access to high speed internet in order to view the livestreams. We started a weekly newsletter aimed at those individuals. I wrote out the daily prayers and they were mailed to those without access to the Internet. We partnered with an Evangelical Lutheran Congregation in our community that broadcast worship over the radio to provide worship for our members who had access to the radio.

Now, more than a year later, I am working in a new congregation and at our first meeting with the Faith Formation Board last night it became evident that the congregation’s hybrid worship and meeting style, with some members coming in person and others participating over the internet, presents real challenges. Having lived our careers in the church, it was not surprise that the August meeting of the Board was focused on a “Welcome Home” Sunday. We often called the event “Rally Sunday” in previous congregations. A Sunday in early September is chosen as the kickoff of fall programming. Special events and activities are planned to invite people to participate. This congregation is no different. It is a tradition. The date has been set. However, the dynamics of a dangerous uptick in infection rates with variants of the virus and the fact that there is not yet a vaccine for children, means that our congregation includes children who cannot attend in person. Even though we are planning an outdoors event where people will be distanced and gathered in family groups - being physically close only to those in their “bubble,” we know that there are families who will choose not to participate. There will be part of the event that we don’t have the technology to livestream. Although we will make a video and work on ways to engage those who watch at home, the experiences of coming to the event in the church yard and participating from home will be very different.

Businesses are already seeing divisions within the workforce. While some employees are able to work from home at least part of the time, there are many job functions that require physical presence. The entire service sector is based on physical presence. Many manufacturing jobs require being present in the place where special equipment is located. This has created a wide division between classes of workers, exaggerating the old white/blue collar divisions between working people.

For generations, church leaders have used various versions of a quote, often erroneously attributed to Augustine: “in essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, and in all things charity,” or “unity in necessary things, liberty in doubtful things, charity in all things.” It is a kind of “get out of debate” free card for theological differences. And I have sought to seek and promote unity throughout my career. A single quote, however, is insufficient to bridge the divisions within the institutional church caused by the pandemic. While we continue to believe that the divine transcends all division, we are called to continue to work for unity within the church. That doesn’t mean that we all have the same experience or that we are all the same. It does, however, demand that we invest the best of our creative thought and practice in discovering new ways to build community while continuing to respect difference, and practice safety for all.

As was true throughout my other years of working, this new job will be a challenge. I won’t be bored. There is much work to be done.

A new job

When I was in my early twenties, I had a teacher who was a little more than 50 years older than I. I admired this teacher and looked at his books and other publications as signs of a life that was well-lived. In many ways I aspired to be like this teacher. In some ways we were alike. We both were early risers and enjoyed the predawn and sunrise hours. We both were intensely interested in other people and found the church to be a great place to explore life’s meaning. There are a lot of phrases from his writing that have stuck with me for the nearly 50 years that have passed since those days. About seeking justice he wrote, “I have but one life to live, and the timing is fast and short.” As I approach the age he was when he wrote those words, I think I understand them better than I did at the time.

When he was 74, there was institutional pressure for him to retire. Theological seminaries were undergoing a transition in their approach to Christian Education and there was a desire to move away from some of the old and traditional professors to younger teachers with different academic pursuits. I know nothing of his financial situation, except that he had been a minister and a teacher for all of his career and had no independent wealth. He lived modestly, but he had never been in a position to acquire financial assets. Still, I assumed that he had some kind of pension and that retirement would be his next career choice.

I was surprised, and delighted, when I learned that he decided to move on to another theological seminary. He and his wife moved across the United States, from Chicago to the San Francisco Bay area and he continued to teach seminary students. We continued to remain in contact for the rest of his life.

I have thought of him a lot during the last year. He was such a strong mentor that I have approached my retirement with a sense of “what next?” As I have missed the people of the congregation we served, I also have missed the work.

Knowing that my time on this earth is limited, that we are all mortal, I want to live the time that I have with as much energy and joy as possible. I know that one’s value is not measured only in productivity and in counting how much work one accomplishes. I know that joy comes from learning to appreciate with gratitude the life one is given. And I also know that work begets work. The harder you work, the more work you will discover.

There was a time in my life when I tried to solve nearly every problem by working harder. If there was conflict in the church, I put in more hours. If our children were facing struggles at home, I slept less in order to be present more. I discovered that I am capable of pushing myself to the point where I am less productive and that simply putting in more hours is not the key to getting more done.

In all of that, today is a kind of a milestone for me. I’m starting a new job. Together with Susan, which is the way I’ve faced all of my professional career, I will begin as Interim Minister of Faith Formation at 1st Congregational Church of Bellingham, Washington. It is a single full-time job that we will share, each working half time. It is an interim position. We will serve for 18 to 24 months as the congregation evaluates its staffing needs and engages in the search for new staff. The work is something that I love deeply. Working in the teaching ministries of the church, helping children and adults explore faith development, has always been an aspect of my career. As we join a team of ministers with excellent pastoral care and worship leadership members, we will be focusing our attention on how faith is caught and how to engage people in sharing their faith in meaningful ways. The church already has successful programs in place. We follow an excellent minister who did very good work. Part of our job will be to continue to administer those programs. But we also will be working with the congregation to allow new programs to emerge and to ask the big questions of how the church wants to proceed with its educational ministries.

Like other new callings of our career, the work begins with meetings. We’ve got three scheduled for this week already. And there are the usual steps of getting our paperwork in order, receiving keys to the building, learning where our office is located, and the like. There are a lot of people to meet and some new things to learn about how this particular congregation engages in its ministries. There are other team members to observe and learn how we can contribute without spreading ourselves into the work and ministry of others.

I have been happy during our year off from work. There has been other work - sorting our possessions, moving our household, and helping at our son’s farm. We have traveled and explored this new place where we are living.

However, I am also very happy about returning to work. This particular job will have less stress than previous ministries in which we have been engaged. I worked part-time as a student, but for most of my life I have worked full-time. Learning the limits of a half-time job and enjoying the other activities that such work enables will be part of the process. I am already dreaming about the things we will be doing. Within a month we will be facilitating a welcome back to fall programming after summer breaks. There will be volunteers to recruit and events to plan. Children’s moments in worship will be a new challenge with part of the congregation and some of the children in the room with us and others at home participating through social media. I’ll have to learn a bit about the software used for hybrid meetings with some people face-to-face and others online.

Today, I’m reveling in the sense of starting a new adventure and the feeling of being called to serve once again. And I’m grateful to have had a teacher and mentor who showed me what wonderful possibilities lie ahead. “I have but one life to live, and the timing is fast and short.” May I live it in service to others.

With family

When our son in law asked me for permission to propose to our daughter, it was no surprise to me. I already knew that they planned to marry. I also knew that he wanted to make a formal request of me. I had time to think about how I would respond. So the first thing I said to him was, “You can have my permission, but I’m not the one who can make that decision. You have to get her permission to marry. It is her decision.” The second thing I said to him was, “You have to realize that she comes with a family. It is not just her that you get when you marry. It is all of us.”

My words to him probably weren’t sage advice or even that memorable to him, but they have been important to me over the years. One of the ways I know of their truth is the ways in which I continue to have married an entire family system when my wife and I married. One of the gifts of our life together has been that I have been included in her family.

I joke that of all of my in-laws’ children, I am their favorite. It is a joke because they were very, very careful not to show favoritism in any way. On the other hand, I was well-treated by my mother- and father-in-law. My father died when I was in my twenties, so I had my father-in-law as a mentor and guide for more years than I had my father. He was a natural teacher and he gave me the gift of many hours of his time. He worked with me on all kinds of projects. He was always up for a home repair or improvement. He was a careful listener and a wise mentor.

My mother-in-law was loving and protective of not only her daughters, but of me as well. She loved to find just the right present for a birthday or Christmas. She would make all of my favorite foods when we visited.

Together they were devoted and loving grandparents who taught me a lot about how to be a grandpa.

It didn’t stop with them.

Yesterday we had 17 people for dinner at our house and that was just our family and the family of one of Susan’s sisters. Her other sister wanted so much to be with us for this gathering, but her husband is struggling with a case of shingles and she needed to care for him. 17 people in three generations from 2 years old to 70. It was a bit crowded, a bit loud, and a lot of fun. Pies were baked. A huge dinner was prepared. Stories were told. Games were played. A couple of practical jokes were thrown in as well.

As I write, there are four guests in our house, five in our camper, and another sleeping at our son and daughter-in-law’s house.

“She comes with a family.” When we married, I couldn’t have imagined all of these people from the quiet family with three daughters whose eldest had become the love of my life. Even years later when we would get together with her sister and there would be five children, I couldn’t have imagined what it would be like to have those five and all of their spouses and children. The joke in those days was that we were capable of getting all five children crying at the same time, but it took a lot of effort. Yesterday we had six grandchildren and there was very little crying. The sounds were joyful and fun, even when only one could sit in the favorite chair at a time and pie and ice cream were served one at a time. Someone had to go first and everyone else had to wait a bit.

“She comes with a family,” has been a real blessing in my life. Her family continues to grow and change. I’ve been in this family since the days when there were two generations over than us. Her paternal grandmother lived to be 100 and to meet our children. Now we are the old folks and younger generations are assuming responsibility.

So we have found ourselves at a new place in our lives. As we figure out what retirement means and how we will manage this phase of our lives, we are shopping for a house. On the one hand, our needs are modest and we don’t want to purchase something that is too expensive or too much work to maintain. On the other hand, one of our biggest desires is to have room for guests and we aren’t looking for “a quiet community of seniors” as one advertisement put it. We are looking for a place that welcomes babies and children and parents and grandparents all together. And, as we proved again yesterday, we’re not all that good a being quiet.

We are, however, good at having a good time and being happy.

In just over a month, we’ve been together with both my side of the family and her side of the family, but we did it in two gatherings. I’m not sure I can quite imagine the chaos if we were to try to get all of our siblings together in one place. I do know that our nieces and nephews would have fun if they all got together and there are some really charming grandchildren in the mix as well.

Our family has a huge geographical spread. Married into our clan are members who came with family in Korea and Zambia and other countries. It would be impossible to really get all of the relatives together in one place at the same time. Despite the distances, however, we figure out how to get together and how to be family.

Not only do we want to have a home with room for guests, we want to save enough money so that we can travel to be with other family members.

For those who will fall in love with these children and grandchildren in years to come, just remember - they come with a family.

Sturgis 2021

When we lived in South Dakota, we tended to think of the annual motorcycle rally in Sturgis as a bit of the culture of the place where we lived. I’ve never been much for crowds. I don’t attend many live concerts. I don’t own a motorcycle. But the people who do attend the rally are interesting people and we got used to the annual influx of visitors. Each year we’d read the statistics of how many people came to our part of the country for a few days or a week of entertainment and riding motorcycles. I’d strike up conversations with guests at gasoline stations, but we often would avoid going out to eat during the rally because there were so many people that it was easier to do that kind of thing when the town wasn’t quite so busy. People who have never lived in a place where the tourists outnumber the locals don’t quite understand. The motorcycle rally more than doubled the population of the entire region. There were a few years when we were out of town during the rally. We didn’t feel like we were missing out on much.

There was a time in my life when I had a brief flirtation with motorcycles. In high school, I had a friend who really liked motorcycles. He saved up his money and bought a Honda 350, which was quite a bike for our small town. We had a used Honda 90 trail bike that got traded for some piece of equipment at the shop and I was allowed to ride it around a bit. It wasn’t much, but my friend’s big bike impressed me. Sometimes he would let me ride it around town. I felt like I was really something. Then I noticed that he was dropping by more often and offering me the opportunity to ride the bike more often. It took me a while to realize that what was going on was that he was interested in my sister and they’d get me to take a ride on the bike so that they could have time when I wasn’t hanging around.

That was a long time ago. I’ve barely been on a bike since, but he remained very interested in motorcycles. Our lives took different paths and his story is not mine to tell. He’s had some hard times and some good times and we’ve sort of kept up with each other over the years.

One year, early in our time of living in South Dakota, he came by the church during the rally. We hadn’t seen each other for quite a while, so I eagerly accepted his invitation to go get a cup of coffee and talk. I hopped on the back of his bike and we went down to the civic center where there was a reception area for Harley Owners. As we pulled into the parking lot and he found a place to park his motorcycle, I thought to myself that we must make a strange pair. He was dressed in his leathers. I was wearing a white shirt and a tie, having come from work. I briefly thought that folks might notice that I wasn’t exactly dressed for the rally as we walked into the Civic Center. However, no one noticed at all. There was every kind of person you could imagine in that busy place and a guy with a tie might have been a vendor or some other person. No one paid any attention to us at all.

Like I said, his story isn’t mine to tell, so I won’t put in many details, but here is what the newspaper said:

“In Jackson County, a 58-year-old female died Friday in a motorcycle crash west of Kadoka.

“The name of the person involved is also not being released pending notification of family members.

“Preliminary crash information indicates that a 2012 Harley Davidson FLSTC motorcycle was westbound when the motorcycle went into the median and struck a road sign. The driver, who was not wearing a helmet, was pronounced dead at the scene.” (Rapid City Journal)

I know the country around Kadoka. I’ve been there in all of the seasons of the year. It is right on the edge of the badlands, without many trees at all. The wind can really howl there and you can see for miles if you are on top of a bit of a hill. Most of the time it is pretty empty country and even when the Interstate is full of vehicles, the land around is open.

I wasn’t there. I don’t know what happened, but I can imagine. He was riding a different motorcycle. He’s owned a couple of Harley Davidson motorcycles for decades. He’s made the trip from his home in Missouri to the Rally a lot of times. He knows his way around South Dakota. He served in the Air Force at Ellsworth. He graduated from USD. I wonder if he saw her bike drift off of the road in his mirror. Whatever he saw, he would have been there within a very short time. He’s seen plenty of accidents. He is a physician. He’s rendered first aid a thousand times. The newspaper says she was pronounced dead at the scene. He might have been the first one to know.

My friend wasn’t successful in marriage. He grew up in a household with its share of troubles. He married and divorces multiple times in the half century since we went to high school. It isn’t my story to tell. But in my imagination I can picture him, in the median between the two lanes of Interstate 90 west of Kadoka on a dry and smoky August day, his motorcycle parked alongside the road, his wife dead on the ground. The image haunts me. It breaks my heart. I wish I could have been there just so he wouldn’t have been alone.

Of course he wasn’t really alone. There would have been others who stopped. Law enforcement and other first responders would have been called.

The crowds of the rally aren’t just masses of people. They are individuals with thoughts, feelings and intentions all their own. They are folks like you and me. They are the people we love. And they experience joys and pain that run the entire spectrum of human emotion.

Be careful out there. We count you when you leave and we count you when you return, praying to get the same number.

Feeding the crowd

It seems a bit silly from the perspective of so many years and so many different experiences, but back when we were seniors in college and we were trying to select the right place to go to seminary, I was nervous about moving away from Montana. The mountains and big sky of Montana were all that I knew. My whole life up to that point had been one of living within a small area. I went to college only 80 miles from where I grew up. We had traveled. I had visited some pretty far-away places like Washington, DC, and San Francisco and Seattle, but I had always come home to Montana. However, there were no ATS-certified theological seminaries in Montana. The prospect of a minimum of three years of living far away was a bit daunting for me. In order to deal with my fears of being away from Montana, we agreed that when we went away to school, we would come back to Montana for the summer. And so, we applied for and were accepted as the managers of our beloved church camp. Around the time of our second wedding anniversary, we found ourselves in charge of providing for weekly camps for adults and youth. It helped that I had grown up going to camp every summer of my life including the year I was born. It also helped that Susan had been the assistant cook at camp before we were married.

We learned to get the estimate of how many people would be in camp, make the menu plans for a week, do the shopping - the nearest grocery store was 42 miles away. That was for perishable items such as fruit, vegetables, meat and dairy. Staples were purchased from stores in a bigger city 120 miles away. We learned how to make do when we were missing a desired ingredient. We learned that if you feed people really well for their first meal of the week, they probably wouldn’t complain about the food for the rest of the week.

For the rest of our married life, we haven’t been intimidated by feeding groups of people. Seventeen for dinner last night - no problem. Serving dinner at the farm - no problem. A crock pot, a cooler, and a basket of supplies and we had a taco bar set up. A big watermelon was served with a bit of ceremony to entertain the children. Susan got good at estimating how much food people eat while at camp. For tacos with all of the fixings, 1/4 pound of meat per person will feed a crowd. I learned about fancy watermelon cutting during our summers at camp.

Breakfasts are a snap. Make sure there is plenty of coffee and that it is available when the first person shows up. Choose one kind of juice and serve it to everyone. Pick a main course from this list: eggs, pancakes, french toast. Offer hot cereal or cold, but you don’t have to have both at the same breakfast. Choose bacon or sausage. Either of us can put out pancakes and sausage for 100 people without much help.

Our skills at feeding people have paid off over the course of our careers. We weren’t intimidated by meals with Vacation Bible School. We knew how to feed kids and send them home happy. The basic principles of kitchen cleanliness and food safety are easily applied to big and small kitchens.

For what it is worth, our summers working at camp also taught us to be unafraid of mountains of dishes and stacks of pots and pans. It also taught us to be creative with the use of leftovers.

We have plenty of relatives who are excellent cooks and a few who have experience cooking for groups of people, so we don’t have to be in charge of every meal when we are together with our families. This weekend, however, we’re playing host to the family gathering, so it makes sense for us to organize the rough menu plan and invite others to help with specific parts of the cooking. Serving food is a great way to connect with the people we love. Knowing where and how to buy a great big watermelon with seeds and how to score it and make it look like you broke it in half over your head is a bonus when creating memories for children.

The interesting part of our story is that when we went away to seminary, we came back to Montana and managed the church camp for the first two summers. After that, we didn’t return. I had learned a very important life lesson. As beautiful and as wonderful as Montana is - and it is really wonderful - there are other beautiful places in the world and there are other people in the world who are worth getting to know. I went from someone who was afraid of driving across the plains to someone who lived in rural North Dakota for seven years and loved every one of them. We made lifelong friends during our time in Chicago and in every place we have lived since.

I’m sure it has been true for some time, but after more than a year of semi-isolation during the pandemic, I am aware of the simple fact that we are the elders in any gathering. The generations of our grandparents and parents have passed and we’ve become the old folks. There are younger folks in the kitchen and they are getting good at feeding the crowd. There are others to chip in when the pots and pans need to be scrubbed.

Still, it is nice to have the experience of a lifetime of church dinners and church camps and family gatherings. We aren’t intimidated by the thought of feeding a crowd. We look forward to the times when groups of people gather and enjoy one another’s company.

Besides, I still love the reaction when I hoist a watermelon over my head and open up two halves cut fancy like flowers. Even if I have to put my shirt in the laundry because it is sticky with watermelon juice. It isn’t the only one. All of the kids needed new shirts, too. Mountains of laundry don’t phase us much, either.

The right shoes for the occasion

I’m not one who puts a lot of thought or effort into the purchase of clothes. I tend to wear the things that are comfortable and I don’t feel a need to stand out by my choice of clothing. For most of my career, being a minister made it easy for me to choose clothing. I wore dress slacks, a white shirt and a tie to work nearly every day. I didn’t have to think about what to wear. Over the years, however, styles changed and I tried to keep up a bit. When colored shirts became the norm, I had to choose a tie that went with the color of my shirt. I tended to keep the number of colors down, wearing a lot of blue shirts, but I owned a yellow dress shirt and a black dress shirt. Clothing was becoming more casual for ministers, and I stopped wearing a tie for everyday work. I still wore ties for Sundays and more and more, I chose bow ties for Sunday and eventually got rid of the other ties. It simplified my choices.

When I retired, I stopped wearing ties for the most part. It fit the style common among ministers. The pastors of our church don’t wear ties even on Sundays. If I wee to wear a suit and tie, I would definitely stand out.

These days I wear cargo pants and a long-sleeved shirt most days. I’ve got a white shirt I often wear on Sundays and I still occasionally go with a dress shirt and slacks but that is it.

For much of my life I wore cowboy boots. I grew up in a place where boots were the most common footwear and I’m a short guy, so a boot with a bit of a heel makes me a bit taller and ads a bit of confidence. As I aged, however, I also put on a few pounds and I discovered that my feet were really tired at the end of the day. I got some sturdy walking shoes and noticed that when I wore them, my feet weren’t as tired. Eventually, I pretty much stopped wearing boots. I still have a nice pair of black boots for a real dress-up occasion, but they’ve been in the closet full-time since I retired.

Last year, however, I stepped out of my usual pattern when it comes to shoes. We were staying in our camper while it was parked in our son and daughter-in-law’s yard. I was going back and forth between the camper and their house, where I removed my shoes. Tying my shoes for each trip back and forth got to be a bit of a hassle and I discovered that I was wearing out shoelaces because I was going back and forth without tying my shoes. In addition to the wear and tear, untied shoelaces represent a trip hazard, and I don’t need to take that kind of risks. So, when I noticed an advertisement for a sale on Crocs brand clogs, I decided to try out a pair. They are very popular and I’ve seen people wearing them in many different settings. I also heard that they are comfortable. They have a strap that can be worn behind the heel to keep the shoes on, or it can be flipped up over the bridge of the foot so that the shoes are slide on and off.

When I got to the store where the sale was occurring, however, the only pair they had in my size were bright rainbow colors as if they had been tie died. I had been hoping for plain black, which they had, but not in my size. I thought about it for a while and bought the brightly colored pair. After all, I had no intention of wearing them in public. They were just for going back and forth between the camper and the house. When we moved the camper into storage for the winter, the crocs went with the camper and I didn’t think of them again until spring, when we got out the camper. On our recent trip, the crocs worked for going back and forth between the camper and our daughter and son-in-law’s house when we were parked in their back yard.

The shoes are waterproof and I discovered that they work great for wearing with my swimming suit going to and from the pool. I get a few comments on my choice of colors, but I don’t mind.

Last night we went swimming in our son’s pool. In addition to his three children, the three children of a niece were also swimming. We had a grand time. When it was time to get out of the pool, we headed for the house. At supper we were all barefoot inside. After supper I looked out into the mudroom and saw not only my pair of brightly colored crocs, but three additional pairs all children-sized. The other bright shoes belonged to our niece’s children. The sight struck me enough that I took a picture. At least in that particular crowd, I fit right in. Even my brightly colored shoes didn’t make me stand out.

Those great nieces and great nephew are my kind of people, I guess.

It was a real treat to be part of the family yesterday. There will be more family members coming today, but when our family gathers, we’ve become the elders. When we are all together, the majority will be the generation of our children and grandchildren. There’ll just be a few of us oldsters. It is also an honor to be included in the gathering of the younger generation. I really enjoy watching the children. Six children is a hand full at meal and bed times and it is nice that we don’t have primary responsibility for all of them, but it is fun to watch them together. Our granddaughters medially paired up with their second-cousins. The girls are close enough in age that there were two pairs.

But when it comes to footwear, our grandchildren have muck boots and our great nieces and nephew have clogs. It turns out that I have both kinds of footwear. Unlike their parents, I fit right in with the kids.

Pandemic gatherings

In the summer we prefer to walk in the evening, after supper. For the most part we have always lived in places where it cools off overnight. Here the temperature can drop ten or fifteen degrees below the daytime high by 7pm. Most evenings it is very comfortable for a vigorous walk by that time. We aren’t the only ones. As we walk, we see lots of others who are out enjoying the walkways and the cooling of the evening. Last night we walked on an urban trail that passes near to our house. Heading east from our place the trail leads past a middle school and goes on to a large park. Before last night, we hadn’t walked that portion of the trail for more than a month as we have been traveling and since our return we have walked on different trails. We noticed quite a few changes. The blackberries are ripe. You can pick and eat as many as you’d like as you walk along. Picking berries, however, slows the pace of our walking and since we are out for the exercise, other than an occasional berry for a quick snack, we don’t pick berries. We do notice, however, how the greenery alongside the trail is lush and thick despite weather that is much drier than normal.

It is common here for people to not water their lawns. When dry spells come they allow the grass to go dormant for a while until the rain returns. The parks and school yards, however, are irrigated and the grass is green.

When we last walked the trail, in late June, the baseball fields at the park were filled with players of different ages, enjoying the open space and the joy of the game. Last night all of the ball fields were silent and empty. In contrast, the soccer and football fields at the middle school, which have been empty since we began walking on the trails, were filled with people. There was at least one organized soccer practice and one football scrimmage going on as we walked past. Then, after we reached the end of the trail and turned around, we were struck by the empty fields once again. The practices had gotten over and everyone had headed for home. It wasn’t late, but there were no children lingering kicking a ball around.

Maybe everyone headed home to watch the Olympics.

Maybe people are still nervous about the pandemic. While there is a great urge to get out and to resume some kind of normalcy, there is also a hesitancy. Participating in an organized practice, with all of the protocols in place is acceptable, but once it is over, there is a return to the isolation that has marked the pandemic. I really don’t know what is going on. It seems, however, a bit sad to see so many beautiful sports fields empty and unused on a warm summer evening.

We wonder how much things have changed in ways that are permanent. Some of the changes that have occurred during the pandemic are such that whatever comes next won’t be a return to what was before.

The timing of our retirement and other factors have meant that we have done quite a bit of traveling during the pandemic. We moved ourselves, which meant several trips between South Dakota and Washington last summer and fall. Then, this spring, fully vaccinated and eager to see our daughter and her family, we made a giant road trip from Washington to South Carolina and back. Along the way we paused for a family gathering in Montana and to renew friendships in South Dakota. Having a camper, we didn’t stay ini motels on our trip, but we did eat in restaurants a few times and there were trips to grocery stores and other occasions where we were indoors with strangers. It isn’t that we fear becoming infected ourselves. That risk is greatly reduced by the vaccinations and chances are quite good that even if we are infected the vaccine will mean that we won’t experience severe symptoms. What we fear is unknowingly transmitting the virus to other people.

This evening a niece and her family will arrive at our son’s home. Her three children and our son’s three will play together. Our families have been healthy and the adults are vaccinated, but all of the children are too young to receive the vaccine. After careful consideration, we have determined that the risk is acceptable and that it is important for children to get to know cousins. After more than a year of isolation, we are eager to be together. Tomorrow, more of our family will gather. Over the weekend we have several meals planned for 17. Such gatherings used to be the norm in our family. We like to get together. In the past, such meals often included friends and even larger numbers. It doesn’t feel like we are taking unacceptable risks. We have been careful to follow the advice about distances. We will be gathering at the farm, where there is plenty of outdoor space and most of our meals will be eaten outdoors around picnic tables.

It isn’t possible, however, to gather without any risk. Being aware of the risk and managing it to the best of our ability seems to us to make the risk acceptable.

As families struggle with decisions and try to make wise choices, the challenges for institutions is different. We have a meeting at our church next week during which we will discuss how we will proceed with educational events for children as the pandemic lingers. We know the value of community and we know how important it is for people to share faith. But we also want to do what we are able to keep people safe from infection. The times will continue to be challenging for churches and schools as we head into the fall. We know that contact will increase, but we want to be responsible in our choices.

For now, we are paying attention as we walk around our community. Hopefully we can learn from the experiences of the past year and a half and continue to make choices that will bring forth futures for our community.

Still wearing my mask

Enjoying the fruit

Our son and daughter-in-law moved to western Washington after he finished his graduate school work at the University of North Carolina. They first moved to Olympia and then, a little more than four years ago, moved north of Seattle. During their years in this part of the country, we made a lot of visits, often traveling by car or pickup. When we drove, we planned to take fruit home with us. Living in South Dakota, all of our fruit except a few berries was imported. Being able to go to a farm market and purchase fresh fruit was always a treat for us. If our trip was early in the summer, we’d bring home cherries. If it was mid summer, apricots, plums and peaches were in order. In late summer the first new crop apples become available. Washington fruit became a part of our travel adventures.

So, when we returned to what is now our home state last week, it was natural for us to stop at a familiar fruit stand and pick up a box of apricots and a couple of boxes of peaches. We’ve had the jot of fresh peaches and apricots to eat. One case of peaches has been put into the freezer. And we're stocked up for other family members who arrive later this week. As a bonus, our next door neighbor has a plum tree that hangs over the backyard fence and has offered us all of the plums that we can harvest from our side of the fence. And the first apples from the trees in our son’s orchard are ready to eat. They plan to process applesauce this week.

It is a luxury that we really appreciate. Fresh fruit on our cereal in the morning. Fresh fruit with our lunch. Fresh fruit for snacks.

There is another fruit that really gets our attention around here: blackberries. There are two types of blackberry plants that grow in this region. Trailing blackberries are native to the area. They tend to grow close to the ground and produce smaller berries. The other type are called Himalayan blackberry. The Himalayan blackberries were introduced from Europe and Asia for fruit production and they really like the climate and soils of the region. They are shrubs of the rose family that produce thorny canes and can grow a dozen feet high. The canes can grow as long as 40 feet and they grow quickly. When the top of a cane rests on the ground it roots. The result is a highly invasive plant that will take over if not controlled.

Yesterday I was catching up on some yard work. Our rental home and yard was left unattended while we were traveling. Our son would have mowed the lawn, but it barely rained at all during our absence and the grass went dormant. There was, nonetheless, a bit of work that needed to be done. The backyard rose bushes had put out long canes that needed to be pruned and there were weeds to pull in the beds. I got after the chores in the cool morning and things went quickly. Then, as I was crawling on my hands and knees, I saw the long canes of Himalayan blackberries growing under the Japanese Maple. One cane had wrapped around the plant. Another was trailing around the base of an evergreen tree.

With my pruning sheers in hand, I went after the berry canes. I cut them as close to the ground as possible. It is most effective to cut them and then dig out the roots, but the actual roots are deep in the midst of other plants and I was unable to get them removed. The part of the plant that was above the ground, however, I pulled out. The long canes have very sharp thorns and are hard to handle. They also stick to everything, including my clothing. In order to get them out of the garden bed, I had to cut them into smaller pieces so that I could handle them without getting my gloved hands full of holes from the thorns.

In spite of the fact that I am trying to control the plants and be a good steward of the lawn and garden beds of our rental house, I have to admit that these blackberries are indeed prolific and prodigious plants. We see them creeping out onto the walking trails as we take our evening stroll. We see them forming hedges over fences and tangling with other crops. We see them winding around trees. They seem to be almost everywhere around here. I read that they are the most productive invasive weed in the area. It doesn’t surprise me.

Furthermore, I like the berries that they produce. There is something fun about a plant that produces berries that can be freely picked in parks and from alongside urban paths. You have to be careful of the thorns, but the reward is a bowl or bucket of really tasty berries.

I grew up in chokecherry country. The edible native plants in that part of the country require the addition of a lot of sugar before they can be considered sweet. We made chokecherry jelly and chokecherry syrup, but it took a lot of sugar - probably not the best for our overall health.

Living where there is so much fruit that is so easily accessible is a real treat and a real change in our lifestyle. We knew that about this region, but actually living here we are discovering that fruit is indeed more abundant and more easily accessible than we had imagined.

There will be many more new things to learn about our adopted home. We are prepared for the thorns as well as the sweet fruit. Still there will be surprises. At least some of those surprises will be pleasant and sweet like the discovery of new fruit trees close to our home. The bounty of the natural world is a blessing worthy of our gratitude.

We are indeed blessed.


It is one of the stories that we have told for thousands of years. Jesus, on the night before he was arrested, sat at table with his disciples. While they were eating, he took bread, blessed it and broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, “This is my body, given for you, whenever you eat it, remember me.” In a similar manner, after they had eaten, he took a cup, filled it, blessed it and gave it to them with the words, “This is my blood, shed for you. Remember me when you drink it.”

For our people, however, it is much more than just a story of something that occurred long ago and far away. For us, it is a sacrament that we have shared in our churches as a celebration of community and a sign of our connections to one another. It is something that bridges great distances of time and space and joins us together with other believers throughout the entire span of the church.

In some congregations, the sacrament is shared at every gathering. Many Christians celebrate it every week. In other congregations, the celebration is a bit less frequent. As a pastor, it was a practice that I shared in formal worship and in simple home ceremonies. I have a simple kit that allows me to take communion to those who are not able to come to the church to share in the formal ceremonies. The prayer of consecration and the words of institution are part of my memory and can be said without the need of opening the book of worship.

Even after all of those years of officiating the sacrament, or perhaps because of all of the years of officiating, the celebration of Holy Communion is an important part of my life and my practice. The tradition in the congregation we now belong to is very similar to that of the congregation we served for the previous 25 years. We celebrate communion on the first Sunday of each month. We also celebrate it on significant other occasions. We celebrated as we worshiped in our church here yesterday and the celebration made me think of the people in Rapid City and the times we shared the sacrament in that place.

The Covid-19 pandemic caused people to rethink the sacrament. In the early days of the rapidly-spreading disease there was a bit of doubt about how the illness was spreading. People were afraid of contact. We sanitized surfaces on a regular basis. We washed our hands over and over. Some folks wore gloves to avoid contact. Those who prepared food were masked and gloved to prevent contamination. The simple practice of placing pieces of bread on a plate and filling tiny communion cups was brought into question. How can we continue our practice without risking exposure to illness?

For months, we celebrated communion in our home, using the food and beverage at hand while we worshiped over social media. The celebration held its meaning, but it wasn’t the same as being together with other believers. Now that we are sharing in hybrid worship, with some of us present in the sanctuary and others worshiping online, we received individual portions of bread and juice in compostable containers as we filed from the sanctuary.

Long ago a controversy arose in the church over the practice of communion. The worry was that the sacrament might be contaminated by an officiant who was somehow unworthy of celebrating. Perhaps that person was not qualified, or had betrayed the community in some way. Perhaps that person had committed a serious sin. Perhaps, through ignorance or improper training, the officiant didn’t use the right words or didn’t observe the sacrament in the manner that had been handed down throughout the centuries. There were all kinds of ways to imagine that the sacrament could somehow be performed in a manner that was less than perfect. After extensive debate and heated argument the church decided that the meaning of the sacrament was beyond the actions or words of the one officiating at the table. The faith of the community was stronger than any individual priest or minister. Furthermore, one does not “earn” a place at the table, but we are all invited, as flawed and imperfect human beings, through the Grace of God.

We don’t have to be doing everything right for the depth and meaning of the sacrament to be present. We bless. We eat. We drink. We remember. It is at once simple and incredibly complex.

Yesterday in our church, after the blessing and the prayers, we lingered in the sanctuary to listen to the postlude. It is a custom we have observed in other congregations and a congregational practice in our Rapid City church. We all sit and listen to the postlude, then we get up. This is not the practice of most of the members in our church here in Washington, but we are comfortable just sitting and listening as others depart the room. That meant that we were among the last to receive the bread and cup, which were given as members exited the sanctuary. It also meant that the traditional prayer of thanksgiving after the meal was not part of the formal liturgy. Individual members were trusted to offer our own prayers after receiving the bread and cup.

I notice things like that after a lifetime of sharing the sacrament. It might not be the same for other worshipers. But noticing it does not detract from the experience. Receiving communion is an emotional experience for me. I feel connected to friends and colleagues around the world who also celebrate. I feel connected to fellow Christians in other congregations who are also celebrating. I feel connected with those whose lives on this earth have now ended and who are a part of the communion of saints. We are a community that is bigger than any one celebration, bigger than the present moment. Our communion is an acknowledgement of that community. With simple words, simple elements and simple actions we touch one another in Christ and are renewed. Thanks be to God.

Becoming real

I was looking at pictures with our granddaughter yesterday and she was choosing images to appear on my computer as desktop pictures. I choose a set of images and let them display randomly as desktop wallpaper. Sometimes the children like to just look at the slideshow. When I am choosing the pictures, I choose images that make me happy. They are mostly pictures of family, but there are some images of places we have visited, such as a festival in Japan, and images of scenery in places where I have experienced joy. There are a few pictures taken while paddling and a few pictures of birds and animals that I enjoy. I was interested that our granddaughter chose a number of pictures of the teddy bear that we keep in our camper. Edward Bear came with the camper when we purchased it and we’ve kept the bear in the camper ever since. We allow the children to play with it and I write a blog when we travel for our grandchildren to follow our trip. I take pictures of the bear in the places we visit and post them with a little description of where we are. The blog is part of my website called The Adventures of Edward Bear.

Somehow the bear has become a part of our family and in addition to pictures of our grandchildren, our grandchildren like images of the bear. As I look through the pictures of the grandchildren I notice that quite of few of my favorites also have the bear. It has become a beloved toy. It made me think of the children’s story by Margery Williams, The Velveteen Rabbit (or How Toys Become Real).

“You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has ben loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in your joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

I guess in a way Edward Bear has become real enough to be a part of our family. Now when I see an image with the bear on my desktop, it makes me smile and it makes me remember the experience of choosing pictures with our granddaughter.

The world looks different from the perspective of a child and spending time with children can give a wonderful perspective to those of us who are growing old. I remember, years ago, when I was talking with a young church camper about the end of the summer and mentioned that it would be our last summer at church camp as we were assuming new responsibilities in our last year of seminary. The camper said, “But you’ve always been at camp.” The truth is that I had only been manager of the camp for two years. It just happened that those two years corresponded with the two years that that particular camper had attended, so I was a part of all of the memories of camp for that individual.

At my age, two years doesn’t feel like forever. It doesn’t even feel like a long time.

I shouldn’t be surprised, then, that this place where I am living still doesn’t quite feel like home to me. I have my familiar objects around me. I am sitting at the same library table where I’ve written my journal for many years. But the view out of my window is of a place that is new to me. The weather in this place is different. The plants and animals are different. I don’t see deer very often in this place. The deer made daily appearances in the place we lived for 25 years. It is a wonderful home and we are very lucky to live here, but it isn’t quite the same. Part of that is that I know we will be moving. We are actively searching for a home to purchase and this house we are renting is leased only for two more months. We’ll probably negotiate an extension of the lease, but we know we will be moving once again.

Our grandchildren, however, think of it as our home. They can remember that we used to live far away in South Dakota, but the present reality for them is that they come over to grandma and grandpa’s house to visit. Yesterday the three of them played at our house for a few hours while their parents were working. It seemed familiar and good to them. They know where the toys are kept and they know how to get out games. They know when to expect a meal or a snack and how to ask for what they need. When the time comes for us to move, they’ll probably adjust to the change more quickly than I.

It is much the same with our church. Last week we worshiped in South Dakota in the church where we had been pastors. It felt comfortable and natural to us. The choir sounded wonderful to our ears. The faces were familiar. The memories were strong. So many important events had occurred in that place - funerals and baptisms and weddings and confirmations and vacation church schools and so much more. Today we will attend worship in our new church. The building is not yet familiar to us. We have been worshiping over the Internet for a year, but face to face worship in the church building has just resumed. The church is still very aware of the danger of spreading disease and is being cautious. We will be wearing masks and practicing social distancing. There won’t be any hugs yet. And we won’t linger for conversations the way we did when we lived in South Dakota. In time this new church will become our church home. We will learn to love the people of this congregation, but like the story of the velveteen rabbit, it doesn’t happen all at once.

Like much in our lives these days, a little patience is in order.

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