December 2021

New Year's Eve again

2021-12-30viewwalking

Please note: This is the final entry for the web page, "Journal 2021." Tomorrow's entry will be on a new page in my site, "Journal 2022." If you have bookmarked this page to check my journal regularly, you may want to set a new bookmark on the new page. As has been the case for several years, there is an icon at the upper right hand corner of every page in my web site that, when clicked, gives a menu of the site. Also, please be advised that the journal archives are undergoing a major reorganization, there may be entire sections of the archives that are not available at certain times. If you are looking for a specific entry, you can contact me and I'll help you find it. Thanks for the gift of your time to read my journal. May the New Year bring you many blessings.

A year ago, I promised myself that during 2021, I would go through my web site, make it more streamlined, and do something about the size of the files. Because I write an essay every day, the amount of text and pictures on my web site is fairly large and there are other ways to organize the site, especially the journal archives. Quite frankly, there probably isn’t a very good reason to have all of my journal entries available all of the time. Very few, if any, users of my site are interested in looking up journal entries from years ago. However, it takes time to do that organization and I find myself interested in other activities and put off the task. I have been doing quite a bit of background work, preparing journal archives in a different format and should be able to start transforming the archives within a short amount of time, but New Year’s Eve has come and tomorrow I need to start a new entry for “Journal 2022.”

I suppose that it has always been the case with me that I imagine I can accomplish more than I actually do, but 2021 held a lot of surprises and many things didn’t go according to plans.

So here we are, on New Year’s Eve, looking back at a year with all kinds of ups and downs and feeling like somehow this year has been momentous. It has been in many ways for us. At the start of this year, we were anticipating the development of a vaccine that would slow or even stop the worldwide Covid-19 pandemic. Susan and I were living in a rental home with nine months left on our lease, feeling that it would give us plenty of time to find a home to buy and get moved. Retirement in the middle of 2020 hadn’t gone the way we expected, but we had pulled off the move from South Dakota to Washington and we knew that there were still a lot more changes ahead.

At that time, we couldn’t imagine that by the end of the year we would have received two doses of vaccine plus a booster shot, that the issue of vaccination would become political, that there would arise a significant number of people who were opposed to vaccination for a wide variety of different reasons. We were thinking that our new address might be in the town of Ferndale, but we hadn’t thought of looking for a home close to the beach. We were anticipating the return of our daughter and her family from five years of living in Japan, but we didn’t know where they would be living in the United States. We hadn’t thought that they would make their home on the opposite side of the country, that we’d undertake a 6.000 road trip with our camper to visit for our grandson’s birthday, or that we would return from that trip and go back to work.

On New Year’s Day, 2021, we were worshipping remotely with our new congregation in Bellingham. We had only worshiped in person with that congregation one time, and didn’t even know the way to drive to the church without using a map or GPS.

And now, here we are, on the cusp of a new year, firmly into the third decade of the 21st century. I’m publishing my web site from our new home in Birch Bay, within walking distance of the Salish Sea and just a few minute’s drive from the Canadian border. We are serving as the Interim Ministers of Faith Formation at 1st Congregational Church of Bellingham. We not only know the way to the church, but we have an office in that building and are working there half time. And there is a lot of work remaining on the web site.

I am learning to cut myself a bit of slack and to relax a bit when it comes to tasks that are undone. My experience of the life of a minister is that there is always much more that can be done. I never had the sensation of having finished all of my work in 42 years of serving as a local church pastor. There always was another call, another job, a bit of filing, a bit more study, and a lot more work that I could do if I had more time.

New Year’s Eve is a good time to reflect on the passage of time and consider the accomplishments of the year past. It is also a time to look forward to a new year, to renew our hope, and get to work on the things that are most important. And, for me at least, it is a time to admit my limitations. I am only one person and the timing is fairly short. I can’t do everything. I can’t save the whole world. I have just one life to live and the time is precious.

One of the things about being human is that we are aware of the passage of time, of our own aging bodies, and of our mortality. And, as we grow older, we have the sensation that time is passing more quickly. For a two year old a year is half a lifetime. A year is a much smaller fraction of my life these days and I am aware that I have more years behind me than ahead of me in this life.

Still, the new year brings renewed hope for me. I am starting this new year with a new book next to my chair. “The Book of Hope,” a collaboration between Jane Goodall and Doug Abrams, seems to be just the right place. The subtitle of the book is “A Survival Guide for Trying Times.” Indeed we are living in trying times, but there are many amazing people in this world who inspire us and give us reason for hope. Certainly Jane Goodall is a woman of hope who gives others reasons to hope and practical invitations to turn their hope into meaningful action.

So, ready or not, here we go with a new year, filled with new possibilities and, I am sure, with surprises unforeseen.

Singing faith

When I think of my own journey of faith formation, the companion book to the Bible has to be the hymnal. I grew up with singing about faith. There was always a hymnal on the piano at our home, and there were other hymnals in the bench or on the bookcase above the piano. We belonged to the Congregational Church, but our mother grew up Methodist. There was no Methodist Church in our town, the product of an old parity agreement between Presbyterian, Congregational and Methodist Churches in Montana. Our church was the default church for Presbyterians and Methodists in our town. For my parents, one of whom grew up Methodist and the other Presbyterian, the situation was just right. But we always had a Methodist hymnal in our home. I still have that hymnal in my library even though I gave away my collection of hymnals when we moved from South Dakota.

There are all kinds of hymns that are so ingrained into my memory that I cannot separate my faith from those songs. This is especially true at Christmas. I think of Christmas in the words of Carols: Away in a Manger, Silent Night, The First Noel, We Three Kings, While Shepherds Watched their Flocks, Joy to the World, Angels We Have Heard on High. The list goes on and on.

Our family has sung Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee at so many special events, including the memorial services for both of our parents. The words of that hymn are part of how I think of what it means to be Christian: “Ever singing, march we onward, victors in the midst of strife. Joyful music leads us sunward in the triumph song of life.”

We sang table graces including the doxology, which can be sung to the tune of Hernando’s Hideaway. We had our own version of the Johnny Appleseed Song that included the line, “for sun and rain and the family,” instead of appleseed. Amazing Grace wasn’t one of our mother’s favorite hymns, but the hymn is common meter, something that is true of a great number of 1960’s television sitcoms. We’d sing the hymn to “Gilligan’s Island,” or “The Brady Bunch,” or “Green Acres,” and laugh ourselves silly.

We had our own versions of sacred hymns with altered words to make jokes: “Amazing grace, O what great fun to play a joke on Grace!” We even learned that our mother had her own version of “I Was Sinking:” I was sinking, deep in sin, Whee!” The whole family, from youngest to oldest would sing.

When the organ peeled potatoes,
Lard was rendered by the choir.
As the sexton rang the dish rag,
Someone set the church on fire.
“Holy Smokes!” the parson shouted.
In the crowd he lost his hair.
Now his head resembles heaven.
‘cause there is no parting there.

When I have faced trials in my life, I have meditated on memorized scriptures, but I have more often sung hymns to myself. I sang hymns to our children as lullabies, a practice that I remember our mother doing.

In a strange twist of events, however, I now find myself in a position where I am asked to teach Christian Faith Formation without the use of hymns. Because Covid-19 is a virus that is spread by aerosol, there is evidence that singing makes it more likely for the virus to spread. Singing can propel the virus a greater distance than speaking according to some research. Our congregation’s Covid Advisory Committee, using the information available to them, has decided that at gatherings of our church, there will be no congregational singing. The current protocol allows for up to four singers, all masked and distanced from each other to sing, provided that they are more than 20 feet away from the congregation. They also have recently allowed members of the congregation to hum along, something that they couldn’t really prevent in the first place. I got really good at humming very softly, but there are some hymns, especially Christmas carols, that I cannot avoid humming just a bit.

Four part congregational singing is so deeply ingrained in me that I can hardly avoid joining in. Our father had little or no formal musical education, while our mother played piano, cello and trumpet. She had a beautiful alto voice and he learned to match pitch. In church, he usually sang the alto line down one octave as he sat or stood next to our mother. I learned to sing melody and then tenor and as my voice deepened, I could hit most of the bass notes even though my usual part is tenor. When I was in high school, I used to sing hymns by going through the parts, singing the soprano line on the first verse, alto on the second, tenor on the third, and bass on the fourth. For many years I sang in church choirs and learned to sing unison on the first verse and then four part harmony for the rest of the song.

Music has been an important part of the passing on of faith for thousands of years. It is likely that most of the book of Psalms was set to music, though we don’t have access to original tunes. Psalm 119 serves as a kind of “Introduction to the Jewish Faith.” It is arranged like an alphabet song, with a verse for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Poetic sections of other parts of the Bible also might have been recited to particular tunes. At least they were read in rhythm.

Prior to the pandemic, songs were a very important part of my teaching of the faith. I always sang songs with children at Vacation Bible School, at church camp, and in weekly class gatherings. I made references to hymns and often led the singing of a verse during Bible Study classes. I quoted hymn lyrics in prayers. The restriction on singing in our church has left me searching for ways to lead faith formation activities.

I am eager for the return of singing to our church and while I wait, I continue to repeat the lyrics to hymns. While I recite out loud, inside I’m singing: “There’s a song in my heart I am singing today.”

The van in the driveway

It got cold here. I was thinking that it was nothing we couldn’t deal with. We’ve lived in places that get cold all of our lives. This home has the mildest climate of any place where we have lived. Although we didn’t need our warmest clothes last winter, we still have then and our vehicles are prepared for winter. I made sure there was anti-gel in the fuel in the truck. Our house has an efficient furnace and we have a gas fireplace as well. It seems to be well-insulated and tight. A small gap in the weather seal on one door could easily be countered by laying a rug against the gap. What I didn’t realize that there is a water pipe in an outside wall of the garage feeding a hose connection. The wall is sheet rocked and I assumed that the plumbing was properly insulated. When I checked after a couple of very cold days, however, there was, sure enough, a split in the copper pipe. I shut off the water.

I’ve done my share of plumbing over the years. It is something that a homeowner gets to do. We had a place in our house in Boise where the pipes would occasionally freeze. A short session with a hair dryer solved the problem. We learned to use a bit of heat tape on that one place and didn’t have further issues. When I was manager at a church camp in Montana, the first year when we turned the water on I discovered that the water had not been properly drained the previous autumn. I don’t remember how many leaks occurred, but there were dozens. I got pretty good at cutting, splicing and sweating copper pipe. But I have done enough plumbing to know that it is a challenging operation and leaks can be frustrating.

I remembered that when we moved into the neighborhood we commented that there was a box van in a driveway about a block from our home that was a billboard for a plumbing company. It had the company’s emergency number on the outside in large characters and advertised 24/7 service. I went down the street far enough to read the number off of the van and made the call. The person I got informed me that they had at least 20 other emergency calls ahead of me and they would put me on the list but that it could be a couple of days before they got to me.

Given that I wasn’t especially fond of the idea of doing without indoor plumbing for a couple of days, I decided that I could at least cut out the burst section of copper pipe and cap it so that I could turn the water back on. I made a trip to our son’s farm to pick up a torch, solder and a tubing cutter.

Without going into all of the details, the plumbing job went like many other jobs for me. That is, I made several trips to the hardware store. The first was to purchase a bit of copper pipe, a couple of connectors and a plug. That way I would have the means of either making a complete repair or just capping the pipe. Then I made another trip because I ran out of solder. I also bought a new tube cutter as I had broken my old one. The third trip was to purchase a cap and clamp for PEX plastic pipe because I discovered that the copper was connected to PEX and there was a split at an elbow where the two came together. In usual fashion, I was able to complete the job after three trips. The water was turned back on. There are no further leaks.

In my adventures, I discovered that I wasn’t the only one with plumbing problems. The hardware store was filled with people seeking a variety of different solutions to frozen pipes. I talked to folks who were helping their neighbors with frozen pipes and folks who had problems in their own homes and folks who were seeking ways to make temporary repairs while they waited for a plumber. It was another of those “we’re all in this together” moments to which we have been accustomed during the pandemic years. I’m not the only one with problems, and my problems aren’t as severe as some of my neighbors.

My frustration, however, was intensified because on each trip to the hardware store I had to drive by that plumber’s cube van, painted with information about their 24/7 emergency service, that obviously had not been moved since it snowed on Christmas Eve. I don’t know the story of the van. Perhaps it is the home of a plumber who is sick. It could be the home of a plumber who is taking a much-needed vacation. Or maybe it is the home of the owner of the company who has an extra van because of a shortage of employees. Maybe the van is broken down and they don’t have time to get it repaired because they are too busy helping fix people’s plumbing. Whatever the reason, that parked van seemed to mock me each time I drove past. I needed a plumber. I was willing to pay a fair price for emergency service. But it will be days before I see one. In the meantime the truck sits in the driveway.

Wrapping a vehicle in advertising to make it look like it is painted with all of the phone numbers, web addresses and other information is effective advertising for a company. It gets your name out to the public. The van worked for the plumbing company. They were the first call I made when I discovered I had a problem. I got the number off of the side of the van because it was quicker than looking it up. The advertising, however, was having the opposite effect on me yesterday as I drove by. People are in great need of plumbers and here is a plumbing service vehicle that is just sitting. It wasn’t enough to get me to go searching for another plumbing company. I’m still on the list for the plumber when one becomes available. But that poor plumber is probably going to have to explain the parked truck in the driveway down the street and, I’m guessing it will be a question that will have been asked a lot of times before the plumber gets it from me. They could probably save themselves some frustration by parking the van at their business when the work is backed up.

Competition

Lately it seems like every game that our 10-year-old grandson plays with his 7-year-old sister is some kind of competition. He, bing older, is a frequent winner in these contests. She finds the situation to be frustrating, but will quickly engage him in another competition. The emotions can run high in these competitions, and their parents and grandparents regularly feel the urge to intervene. “Why does everything have to be a competition?” we ask. Occasionally we suggest that the distance between the kitchen and the living room is simply too small for an all out running race and that some games simply work better outdoors even though there is snow and cold outside.

I’m sure that chid psychologists and other experts would say that a certain amount of sibling rivalry is completely normal and that we shouldn’t be too concerned about the behavior. I’m pretty sure that they would also point out the ways in which we members of older generations contribute to the competition. After all, the parents of these children gave them a ping pong table for Christmas. The grandparents gave them a magnetic dart board. We frequently encourage playing games and gentle competitions.

Win or lose, there is a lot that can be learned from competition. By playing with the children and supervising their competitions, we can insist on fairness and discourage cheating. Children can learn right and wrong from the games they play. There is a reason why we use the word “loss” in connection with games. There is genuine grief in not being the winner. Learning to lose is, in part, learning about how to deal with grief. Learning to deal with small griefs is part of preparing for larger griefs which are a part of every life.

The competitors may not realize it yet, but their lives are about to get even more complex. In about six weeks they will have a new brother or sister, bringing the total of children in the family to four. That means, in coming years, longer waits to use the bathroom, a bit less private space in the family home, and a lot of other changes. I know. There were seven children in my family of origin. We never had all seven living in our home at once, because of the differences in our ages, but there were always plenty of kids. I’m number four and the last two were adopted and came into our lives together. My younger brother went from being the baby to having two little brothers in one event. I went from having one little brother to having three.

Today is one of the days that I remember the competition between the children in our family because it is our father’s birthday. When you are one of seven children and have a very limited budget, selecting a gift for your father is a real challenge. Add to that the simple fact that our father’s birthday was only three days after Christmas, another huge gift-giving challenge, and the race was on. The one gift that always showed up at every occasion for giving gifts to our father was orange slice candy. He seemed to really love the candy and the first thing he did when the gift was opened was pass them around, so we each got a piece. The problem with the orange slice candy is that we somehow knew that one package was sufficient for any occasion. Therefore it was always one of our older sisters, who seemed to also be better financed, who got to the store and purchased the candy before us. I think that I only was the one to get the package of candy one time in all of the years of birthdays, Christmases and father’s days celebrated in our home. If you weren’t the first kid to buy the present for dad, your choices were limited and the competition to find a suitable gift was on. I learned to keep a secret in those days, because not only did I want to surprise my father, I also didn’t want to share my ideas with my brothers because if I had a good idea one of them was likely to go out and purchase the gift before I could figure out how to scrape together the funds. We only had three days to pull off the birthday celebration, and although our mother was sensitive to our financial crunch, normal household chores were not items for which we were paid. Earning a bit of extra money usually involved doing chores for the neighbors or working at our dad’s shop. And payday for work at the shop was the end of the month, so we wouldn’t have the money in time for his birthday on the 28th. I rarely had funds left over after Christmas. I had a lot of siblings for whom I was expected to provide presents. Sometimes I could convince one of my sisters or brothers to go into a partnership for a gift, but that rarely worked out. Father’s Day, in the summer, was so much easier. Fishing gear was always in order and some lures and flies are not all that expensive. Besides Father’s Day is usually right after my birthday, when I seemed to have a few more coins in my bank.

Somehow we emerged from our childhood without major scars despite all of the competitions of growing up. I gained some valuable skills in the process. Having been well trained to wait for the bathroom, to never look inside a woman’s purse (and don’t you ever forget it!), and to wait until all of the dishes on the table had been passed before eating your first bite have all been skills that have benefitted me in my adult years. Thinking creatively and planning ahead for special occasions also has been an asset in my life. I’ve never regretted being a child of a large family.

And, when I am a bit frustrated with the contestant competition between our grandchildren, I remember not only how we competed as children in our growing up years, but also how intensely loyal we have been to each other over a lifetime. More important than who wins a particular game is that these children learn to be friends with each other and grow into adults who care about each other. On that score, I think things are going pretty well. They will have a lot of stories in common that they can tell and laugh about for years to come.

It's cold

Early in my career, when I was a pastor in small town North Dakota, I learned that there are times when folks end up talking about the weather for reasons that are not always caused by the weather. What I mean is that talking about the weather is a safe subject when folks are a bit worried that their opinions on other subjects might be controversial. Folks in that part of the country were careful to be polite and reluctant to say anything that they thought might offend someone else. If they were unsure of another’s political leanings, they might avoid talking about politics. If they don’t know another’s religious convictions, they might avoid the subject of religion entirely. That means that there are some settings where about the only topic of conversation left is the weather. Those people taught me a lot about patience. Sometimes I would be making a visit because of an illness or a tragedy in a family. I was eager to offer support and care. However, the conventions of the community demanded that I endure a period of talking about trivial matters before we got to the uncomfortable subjects.

I really don’t want to write about the weather all the time, but old habits die slowly. There are some days when I sit down to write my journal entry and the first topic that comes to mind is the weather. This morning, we are in the midst of record-setting cold that has descended on our area and is forecast to last much of the week. People often say about this area that the temperature ranges from 45 to 80 degrees year round. That hasn’t been our experience so far. While the weather is definitely more mild than other places we have lived, last summer brought record-setting high temperatures to the region and the daytime highs reached into the upper 90s. As I write the temperature outdoors is 9 degrees, three degrees colder than the previous record. And the wind is blowing. Gusts of up to 50 mph are in the forecast. It is definitely the kind of cold for which you want to bundle up before going outdoors.

I have an old, but very warm winter parka that I brought out each year in South Dakota. I owned a dress coat, but unless my day included a funeral, my parka was my go to coat for any time when the weather was colder than 10 degrees. And if I wasn’t wearing the parka, it was in the car with me when I headed out - just in case. I wore that parka in early November, 2020 when a foot of snow fell in the Cascades as we were making our last trip from South Dakota with a trailer full of household goods. By the time we reached our rental home, the temperatures were well above freezing and the parka was hung in the closet. It remained there for the rest of the time we lived in that house and moved to this house with us this fall without having been worn. I was thinking that I just might not need such a heavy coat now that I live in this place. I was considering giving it to Good Will. However, I have worn it both of the last two days and it certainly appears I’ll be wearing it quite a bit this week. Maybe it is a good thing to keep it in the closet. I might even consider getting out my insulated coveralls - another item of clothing that I haven’t worn since moving here.

There are, I’m sure, plenty of problems that will crop up because of the cold weather. There are places where water pipes and other infrastructure aren’t buried the deeply in the ground, because it isn’t common for frost to penetrate when the weather doesn’t stay below freezing. There are homes that are not well insulated. The high winds could result in power failures for some folks. There aren’t many snow plows and the roads are snow packed and slippery. Add to that the fact that people around here don’t have much experience driving on slippery roads while the traffic volume is pretty high because of all of the people and the result will be more accidents with people who are unprepared for the cold. Moreover, there are a significant number of people who are homeless and living on the streets, who are being exposed to life-threatening temperatures. Hopefully those folks are finding their way to the shelters that have opened up additional space.

in the midst of all of this, we are safe and comfortable. Our home is tight and secure and we have no need to travel much. Our pantry is full and we have all that we need for this weather. Other than some higher than normal utility bills which will crop up in a month or so, we won’t have much discomfort over the weather.

Perhaps, however, this extreme weather will give me an opportunity to practice the skills learned during our North Dakota years. Perhaps I can remember how to enter into conversation about the weather and be patient until the conversation moves on to more important topics. We need to talk about the problems of a lack of affordable housing and increasing homelessness. We need to talk about global climate change and the changes in our lifestyles that will be required as we take responsibility for a higher level of care for our environment. We need to talk about the failures of our mental health care system and the lack of resources to treat the illnesses of our neighbors. We need to talk about this global pandemic and how to protect the most vulnerable. All of those important conversations need to occur. They make talk of the weather seem trivial. I know, however, that sometimes you need to be willing to engage in small talk before folks are ready to talk about more uncomfortable topics.

Yes. It is cold out there. No, this freeze won’t last forever. And, yes, we have a lot more that needs to be said and heard.

Th hopes and fears of all the years

I enjoy looking at world news from different perspectives. I often read the headlines from BBC England as well as a few articles from that source. Yesterday, having a bit of time on Christmas morning, I listened to Queen Elizabeth’s address to the United Kingdom. The annual Christmas address from the monarch is a long-standing tradition. I’m not much on the monarchy, and I’m not a big follower of the royal family, but I have a bit of admiration for the plucky 95-year-old queen, and a bit of compassion for her this Christmas as she faces her first Christmas as a widow. I know that the holidays can be rough when one is in the midst of grief, and the loss of a loved one can make a big difference in how one views the season. The queen was frank about her grief, but she chose not to dwell upon that grief in her address to the countries of the Commonwealth. Instead, she spoke of hope. She quoted the old Christmas carol, “O Little Town of Bethlehem:” “The hopes and fears of all of the years are met in thee tonight.”

One of the things that must be in the Queen’s mind as she addresses her people is that the world faces a great number of problems that simply will not be solved in here lifetime. There are wars and conflicts in the world that show no signs of ending quickly. Global warming and an increasing environmental crisis present challenges that are frightening in their scale and will require major shifts in governmental policy and personal choice. Refugees stream from one country to others in search of safety and some way to begin anew after losing all that they have had. The list of challenges of the coming years is long and it is clear that addressing those challenges will require the dedication and commitment of many lives. As she enters the second half of her nineties, and the death of her beloved husband, Philip, she must be well aware that part of what will be soon required is a transition of leadership and power from one generation to the next. She will not see with her own eyes the changes for which she hopes. She must invest in important initiatives that will play out only after the span of her own life has ended. The hopes and fears of all the years - the hopes and fears of all generations - come together as she reflects on Christmas with her people.

The news of the death of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, leader of so much change and hope in the world is yet another reminder of the passing of generations. Tutu was a leader in the mostly peaceful transition of power in South Africa that brought an end to official government sanctioned segregation and racism in his homeland. The world must be aware, however, that there is much work remaining and we will need to be about that work without his leadership now. The hopes and fears of all the years will be focused on the memorials that will follow his death and the realization of how much remains to be done.

In year C of the lectionary, our readings for worship take us on a breathtakingly fast journey through the life of Christ. Today, on the second day of Christmas, we will hear the story of Jesus’ remaining in the temple to speak with the leaders when he was a boy of 12 years old. Like the gospel itself, there is a whole section of the journey from infant to 12 years old left out of the cycle of readings. There simply are no scriptures that tell us of that part of Jesus’ life. As I imagine the boy sitting with the elders of the temple, discussing the meaning of life and faith in the midst of a country that is occupied by a foreign power where personal freedoms are limited and wealth is exported from the nation to Rome. They must have been well aware of the meeting of the generations. The temple leaders must have known how tenuous their political position was. The temple itself was threatened by the volatile political mix of Roman oppression and a growing Jewish resistance. The livelihood of temple priests and officials was threatened by the talk of Zealots and revolutionaries. The compromises demanded of them in order to curry sufficient support from Roman authorities to remain in their positions must have weighed heavily upon them. They likely did not recognize that Jesus was the Messiah, but they couldn’t help but be amazed by his answers and the intelligence of his conversation. I imagine the confidence of the twelve-year-old and the lack of fear about having been left behind by his family combined to make him a child that could not be ignored. The hopes and fears of all the years met in Jesus.

The words to the Christmas carol were written by an Episcopal priest in Philadelphia. Phillips Brooks wrote the words in 1868. One of the stories of the carol is that it was written as a Sunday School lesson for children. Phillips Brooks asked Lewis Redner to write a tune for the verses. Redner was slow to come up with the tune and he and Brooks thought that the simple carol was probably destined for a single use in their church. Brooks and Redner’s carol is beloved and familiar all across North America. However, in England, the words were soon set to a different tune, “Forest Green.” I was reminded of the difference in tunes yesterday as the carol was sung at the end of the Queen’s address to the tune familiar in the United Kingdom and Ireland. The words, however, ring in my ears as I prepare to worship with our congregation today. “Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light. The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”

The years have quickly passed for me. Although I am not yet as old as the Queen, I know that I am among the elders of the church these days. The future rests on the shoulders of those who are much younger than I. Still, I lay my hopes and fears upon theirs and there are moments of meeting when all of our hopes and fears come together.

May we never lose sight of our hopes and fears as we celebrate the coming of a new generation of leaders.

Christmas

I’m used to telling a Christmas story each year. It was a part of the 11:30 service at our church for many years. I tried to find stories that were relevant and somehow fresh to go alongside the familiar and ancient story of the birth of Jesus. One of the problems of being a pastor and a storyteller is that pastors know a lot of stories that aren’t theirs to tell. We are told the real stories of the lives of people. Some of what we know has been gained from confidential conversations. Other stories we know simply don’t belong to us. Telling someone else’s story is never the right choice unless permission has been granted or some authority has been given to tell the story.

I’m not sure that this is a story that I would have told in church, but it is a story that I have been granted permission to tell.

I served seven years as a Sheriff’s chaplain towards the end of my active career as a minister. I got into the chaplaincy through the back door in a way. I had been providing support services to persons who experienced the loss of a loved one to suicide for many years and through that process had met and spoken with a lot of Sheriff’s Deputies about their experiences of being first responders to scenes of tragedy and loss. I realized that the deputies themselves were survivors of trauma and suicide and were in need of support and care. Thus I became a chaplain.

In that role I met a young officer who was married to another officer who worked in a different area of the Sheriff’s Office. They experienced the tragic death of their son. The death was probably caused by a congenital heart condition. The two were well trained in CPR and were able to transfer their infant to the care of paramedics and he lived through an emergency life flight to a hospital 350 miles from their home. However, death came to their family. They were able to gain some consolation from the process of organ donation. The Sheriff’s Office rallied around the couple, but their journey of grief has been really tough since that loss.

As chaplain, I walked with them through the funeral for their son and checked in with them during the following weeks. I was there with a treat when they returned to work after the funeral. Etched in my mind was a conversation that I had with the mother’s father at the lunch following the funeral. He said to me, “These are my kids. Take good care of them.” I responded, “I’m one of the oldest persons serving with the Sheriff’s department. Most of these officers are younger than my children. I think of all of them as ‘my kids.’ I’ll take care of them as best as I am able.”

In the time since those sad days, a lot of changes have taken place. I came to the end of my work with the Sheriff’s Office and retired. The mother applied for and was accepted for service in another area of the Sheriff’s Office. There have been plenty of tears. The first Christmas was tough for the couple. Friends from the Sheriff’s Office decorated their home. They just didn’t have the energy or desire to decorate. There were other tough days, but they were there for each other and the community of the office was supportive of them.

When a pastor retires, one of the ethical requirements is that the pastor move on and cease to offer pastoral services to those who the pastor served prior to retirement. This is to create space for the new pastor to form important relationships. A similar practice is expected of chaplains who retire. There are new chaplains in the department and the care of those who I thought of as “my kids,” now has passed to other hands.

Still, I keep up with FaceBook, and continue to read the news from the department. I know that this Christmas there is a new baby boy in that family. I can only imagine the mixture of feelings that those parents must be going through. Fortunately, they gave themselves time to grieve after the death of their son. They also were there for each other and able to keep their relationship strong during trauma that sometimes forces couples apart. And now they have a new life in their family to celebrate and nurture. I know, however, that they are even more intensely aware of how fragile this new life is. All new parents have occasional fears about their children. They check on them as they sleep and make sure they are breathing. They wake in the night and have to go check again. They do everything they can to make their home safe for the new little one. This must be even more intense for this young couple. The next couple of years will be especially hard for them. Their son may have to grow quite a bit older before they will be able to relax.

Then again, I’ve never completely stopped worrying about our children and they are grown with children of their own.

Knowing how fragile and how precious life is makes love even more powerful. We know that our time together is finite. We all will one day die from this life. Each of us will experience the death of a loved one. Grief is part of what it means to be human and to love.

On this Christmas morning, I celebrate the birth of this little one. I’ll probably never meet him face-to-face. I’ll probably never get to hear the full story of his birth. But I know that this child, like the Christ child, is a child of God. I know that this child, like the baby in the manger, is a miracle of God’s grace and love. I know that his story gives me hope and peace and joy. I know he is welcomed with love.

Christmas has come. Alleluia!

Christmas Eve, 2021

Our grandchildren were at our home yesterday for a few hours of intense cookie-making and making Christmas presents for their parents. It was a bit wild for a few minutes, with paint and fabric markers and cookie dough in small hands and grandparents scrambling to contain spills and provide assistance to the small creators. Sugar cookies, cut to the shapes of Christmas trees, bells, stars, hearts and a few other shapes were liberally decorated with sugar sprinkles before they were popped into the oven to bake. Of course the young cookie decorators were eager to taste the results of their work and to package a box of cookies to go home with them, some of them destined to be left as a treat for Santa’s visit tonight.

It was precisely the kind of activity for which we made the move to this part of the country. After many years of living far away from our children and grandchildren, we feel extraordinarily blessed to have a home just a couple of miles from our son’s farm. We know that it is a blessing that lots of loving families don’t enjoy. In our mobile society, people travel far and often end up living a long ways from their origins. While we were enjoying three of our grandchildren, we were visiting by FaceTime with our fourth, who lives in South Carolina - almost as far away from our home here in Washington as you can get within the continental United States. We miss him and wish we had a way to see him and his parents more often. But we console ourselves by reminding ourselves of how much closer they are now than when they lived in Japan and we were only able to get together a few times in those five years.

After the children had been picked up by their mother we went for a walk and were talking about some of the lessons that we are able to teach our grandchildren. Grandparents are uniquely situated to teach grandchildren patience. Much of their lives is caught up in a need to be organized and move quickly. Three children need to get up, get dressed, have breakfast, and get organized to go to school most days. They have to share a bathroom, organize their school supplies and get out the door on time with jackets and shoes all on the right kids and each buckled securely into a car seat. After school there is homework and chores and supper and stories and a bit of free time for playing before stories and tooth brushing and getting to bed. Keeping the family flowing means that the parents have to work together to take care of details. The household is a place of nearly constant activity. The children are learning responsibility and care for one another and a host of other things. But they aren’t very used to having to wait for much of anything. Most of the time they are being encouraged to hurry up and move on to the next activity or adventure. When they come to our house, the pace is a bit different. We always have lots to do, but we also like to take time between activities to listen and to tell stories. And we’re always just a little bit overwhelmed with three children at three different ages all at once. We only had two children of our own. I sometimes wonder how my mother and father coped with seven children in the family. We find three to be a hand-full. But we do try to help them develop patience. And we do try to tell them stories of their heritage.

I enjoy telling stories and I like to tell our grandchildren stories of my parents and of the years when I was growing up. Usually they’re pretty interested in hearing those stories. I know that there will be times in their lives when those stories seem less relevant, so I try to tell them now when they are at ages to appreciate them. One of yesterday’s stories was about my brother whose birthday is Christmas Eve. I’ll be calling him to wish him happy birthday in a little while, but our grandchildren won’t be in on that particular call. Our grandson said he didn’t think that it would be that much fun to have your birthday and Christmas all together in a single holiday. I told him of the many things our parents did to make his birthday celebration a distinct event separate from Christmas. As our house, December 24 was all about the birthday until it got dark outside. We had a birthday celebration with cake and presents for the birthday boy at lunch time. It was a pretty natural event in our household because we had our biggest meal of the day at noon. Our father closed his store for an hour from 12 to 1 and we were used to gathering around the family table for that hour.

Christmas celebrations only started after our father was home from work and it was dark outside, usually after 5 pm. Then we had our supper and gathered around the piano to read the Christmas story and sing carols. Each child was allowed to choose one Christmas present to open on Christmas eve before heading to bed. We often were eager to get to bed as quickly as possible so that we could hasten the coming of Christmas morning when there would be a special breakfast and lots of gifts to open.

The Christmas Eve service at our church was for adults only. It happened at 10 pm. I think I only went to that service 5 times before I was married and our Christmas Eve traditions shifted to my wife’s church for a while before we became pastors of other congregations. There was a pickup choir that sang mostly Christmas carols in four part harmony and we lit candles and sang carols. Somehow those few years gave me a love for the late Christmas Eve service that remains to this day. I am eagerly looking forward to the 11:30 service at our church tonight.

We know that we have precious few years with our grandchildren before they will be off on their own life adventures. In the meantime we’ll try to continue to teach them a few lessons and tell them a few stories. After all, they’re teaching us a lot about patience as well.

The weather around here

Sherman Alexie, in his National Book Award-winning novel, “Indian Killer,” describes Seattle weather this way:

“At night, rain and fog invades the city of Seattle, an occupying force that pushed people inside homes, restaurants, and offices to escape it. One moment, bright moon and clear skies. The next moment, gray everywhere. At three in the morning the temperature drops, but not enough to frighten anybody but tourists.”

Alexie has the credentials to comment about the weather in Seattle. Although he grew up in a rural community outside of Spokane, he has lived in Seattle for most of his adult life. He’s seen plenty of Seattle nights and plenty of Seattle winters. I, on the other hand, am hardly native. This is our second winter in northwest Washington and like everywhere else we have lived, the locals keep telling us that the weather this year is unusual. In the summer when temperatures were in the nineties, we heard “it doesn’t usually get this hot.” A while ago, when there was record flooding on the Nooksack and Skagit Rivers, we heard how unusual the flooding was. They were right about the flooding. A 500-year flood only comes on a couple of times each millennium.

My experience of this region, however, isn’t that rain and fog invade every night. Nor does it rain every day. It rains a lot more than any other place I have lived, but even on a rainy day there is usually a break when the rain stops for a couple of hours. I haven’t kept track, but it seems like we have about as many nights when it is clear as nights when it is cloudy, and fog and rain are not an every night occurrence by far. We live up the hill from the bay, and there can be a layer of fog that creeps up to where we live, but there are plenty of other times when we don’t see any fog at all.

I love the Alexie line about the drop in temperature not being “enough to frighten anybody but tourists.” Compared to the other places where we have lived, the low temperatures around here aren’t low at all. It is about 40 degrees out in the wee hours of the morning today. Yesterday the temperature rose between midnight ant 3 am. There is no frost in the ground at all.

There are some wonderful benefits of all of that rain. Despite the mud, which is an issue in the open fields around here, the forests are able to absorb a lot of rain. The ground will get a bit squishy, but those giant trees are amazing in their ability to draw moisture out of the soil. A forest pathway that has standing water on a rainy day will be dry enough to walk with ease the next day. And all of that rain makes the undergrowth lush. Nearly every square inch of ground is covered in moss, lichen, ferns, mushrooms, and other living and growing things. Even when it is not raining, the trees will occasionally release drops of water from their branches at the slightest breeze.

Not all of the breezes are slight here on the coast, however. I’m not sure what I expected, but there is one aspect of the weather that is familiar to me: the wind. I grew up in windy country on the east slope of the Rockies in Montana, and I’ve lived quite a few places where the wind blows a lot. The one exception was the decade when we lived in Boise, Idaho, and there I discovered that one can miss the wind. The few breezes we got there were pretty mild compared with other places I have lived. Real wind is so uncommon that a storm with gusts to 25 mph, will result in all kinds of broken branches and tree debris in the yard. We used to say that the trees were as wimpy as the winds when we lived there.

That isn’t the case here. Combine the moist soil with the high winds, and we’ve seen entire sections of privacy fence blown over. I stepped out into our back yard last evening and was greeted with icy wind blowing hard off of the bay. There’s no fog when the wind is blowing that hard. The few clouds that were in the sky were headed towards the mountains at a quick rate.

Perhaps it is the luxury of being semi-retired, but I do find that I pay quite a bit of attention to the weather these days. The forecasts are calling for unseasonably warm weather across much of the country, but we’re supposed to receive a wave of storms off of the Pacific that might even give us a white Christmas. Mind you, snow in this country isn’t all that dramatic. Although the mountains get a lot of snow, down here on the coast we rarely see more than an inch. The stuff that does fall is wet and sticky and perfect for snowballs and making snow creatures. The roads will get a bit of slush, but aren’t bad even when it is snowing hard. Much worse is an ice storm, when freezing rain coats everything, as was the case the night before last. When that happens, it is best to just stay home. It is unlikely to last more than a few hours, but while it is happening, it is too icy to walk on the sidewalk, and too icy to safely drive.

As Christmas approaches, I’ll be keeping my eye on the weather. We’ve got two services on Christmas Eve and that means a bit more driving than our usual. On the other hand, the traffic should be light as others will be finished with work early on Christmas Eve.

Whatever weather you are experiencing, I pray that this Christmas will be safe and warm for you and that you’ll have enough time free from worries about other things to notice the weather around you.

Solstice

In seminary, I formed friendships with folk who came from the southern hemisphere. Friends from South Africa, Indonesia and Australia were important to my education and the friendships have endured over the years even though the distances between us have been great. It seems that I always think of them at this time of the year. They taught me that my perspective isn’t the only one in the world. I’ve always lived in the northern hemisphere. I’ve always associated the celebration of Christmas with short days and long nights, cold weather and winter. But for the people of the other half of the world Christmas comes near the longest day of the year at the beginning of summer. In place of churches lit by candlelight they greet the season of sunshine and outdoor activities.

We now live the farthest north of any place where we have settled. Yesterday, the shortest day of the year, offered just 8 hours and 20 minutes of day. Actually, you have to measure in seconds to discern the difference in daylight. Yesterday was 8 hours, 19 minutes, and 39 seconds of daylight. Today will be 8 hours, 19 minutes and 43 seconds - four more seconds of daylight. The days, however, are getting longer.

For some reason we seem to notice the short days more in the afternoons than in the mornings. Although nearly 8 am is a late time for sunrise, the sunset coming before 4:30 makes the day seem awfully short. For a few weeks now, we have been going on sunset walks in the afternoon, before coming home to prepare dinner. We don’t seem to notice the short days as much when we have evening meetings, but when we are at home, the evenings seem to be longer even when we eat our meals at the usual time.

We are naturally accustomed to sleeping when it is dark outside and being awake when it is light, but we don’t need nearly 16 hours of sleep so we’ve been rising and going to bed in the dark for some time.

It is easy to see why the ancients paid attention to the length of days and made a celebration of the solstice. It is easy to understand why devising systems of paying attention to the angle of the sun and measuring the length of days became a priority. After months of the world seeming to get darker and darker, it is reassuring to have the days start to grow longer, even if it takes several weeks to notice the impact of the longer days.

Spring will come. New growth will return.

The thing that seems strange to me about this time of the year in our newly adopted home is that the weather is truly mild here near the ocean. The grass in my lawn is at its greenest. There is no snow on the ground, and on the days when it does snow, it rarely lasts for more than part of the day. We did have a bit of an ice storm yesterday afternoon and evening. The temperatures hovered in the low thirties as a gentle rain fell. The result was a glazing of ice on everything. We noticed that the sidewalks were getting slippery as we finished our walk. Later, we talked with our son about the condition of the roads. He ended up spending the night in the town where he works because the forecast was for it to remain icy until after midnight when the temperatures rose enough to melt the ice. It hardly is what we might think of as a winter storm and there is little evidence of it this morning, but in the late afternoon and evening yesterday the roads were treacherous and dangerous. The Interstate highway through our county was closed for a while after multiple serious accidents. That was just a few hours ago and now it is raining and the road surfaces have returned to their normal state. For a number of people who got on the highway at just the wrong time yesterday, however, it was a really serious situation.

The forecast is predicting snow for Christmas here and that has gotten some people excited. I’m hoping that it isn’t too much as we will be making two trips into town for church services on Christmas Eve. On the other hand, we have not experienced any problems getting around in the snow here. Our car has good tires and all wheel drive and we have plenty of winter driving experience. As long as it doesn’t get icy, the snow won’t be a problem for us and it would be fun to have a snow day for Christmas. When it snows here it is wet, sticky snow that makes for good snowballs and making snow creatures. And we know it won’t last. As I’ve mentioned in my journal before, I’m the only one in my neighborhood who has a snow shovel and within a couple of hours you can’t tell that I shovel my walks and driveway because the neighbors’ walk and driveways have melted.

The solstice has come. We didn’t have any special ceremonies or celebrations. Our traditions are focused on Christmas. The big grocery shopping has been done. The pantry and freezer are full. There are presents under the tree. We’re ready for our family celebrations.

I am, however, glad to note that the solstice has come. I’m ready for days that are a bit longer. I’ve always been one to be awake in the night, so the dark isn’t a big bother to me, but I admit that I am ready for longer days, later sunsets, and a bit more sunshine. We live in a place with more cloudy days than any other place we have lived and we notice the effect that the clouds have on our moods. A few more sunny days will do a lot to lift our spirits.

In the meantime, we are cozy in our home and enjoying our fireplace a great deal. Spring is coming. Patience is what we need.

Explorations

semiahmoooystercatchers

Our life here at the corner of the continental United States is filled with moments when we are aware that we have made a big move after a quarter of a century in the Black Hills of South Dakota. We loved our home and our life in South Dakota and left only upon our retirement to be closer to family and also to open up space for new leadership in the congregation we had served. It isn’t quite like Dorothy and Toto in OZ, but with a slight variation, there are frequent times when we say to one another, “I don’t believe we’re in Rapid City any longer.”

Yesterday we were watching black oystercatchers feed along the shore of the Semiahmoo Spit as we took our daily walk. There are plenty of birds that are new to us in this place and a few that we recognize from our home in the middle of the continent. We love seeing Bald Eagles and Great Blue Herons out her as much as we did when we lived in South Dakota. There are varieties of ducks on the waters around here that are similar to the ones we would see on the lakes of the Black Hills. The shorebirds, however, are quite different from the birds we knew in our former home. Among the strangest to us are the black oystercatchers. The birds are mostly black, with yellow eyes and a long orange beak. Once you have identified the birds, usually by their beaks, you begin to notice that their calls sound different from other birds as well. If you see a group of them together, you might imagine that they are telling jokes and responding with raucous laughter. Or, with a bit of imagination and a fresh reading of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, you might imagine them to be witches calling over their cauldron.

The main habitat for the oystercatchers is the intertidal zone, where the rising and falling tide exposes rocks covered in algae and seaweed and a wide range of animals, from crabs to sea stars. Seagulls like to look for food in the same space and they often focus on larger animals such as crabs and clams. Oystercatchers prefer smaller animals, but eat a wide variety of creatures that they can find including mussels, shore crabs, chitons, sea urchins, and whelks. One of their most consumed foods are limpets, snail-like creatures that have a muscular foot that holds them to the rocks and allows them to move around. The oystercatchers use their long beaks to dislodge the limpets and roll them over so they can get at the flesh underneath the shell.

Here is a fascinating thing about the oystercatchers: their beaks change shape over the course of their lives depending on what they are eating. Imagine being served in a seafood restaurant. You’ll get different utensils for cracking crab than you get for opening and consuming mussels and clams. The oystercatchers’ beaks change with their diets to give them what they need. You might expect this change to take a long time as a slow process of evolution, but that isn’t the case. The reason we see different shapes of beaks on birds in the same area is that they can change the shape of their beaks very quickly. Oystercatcher beaks grow very fast, up to an inch or more in a week. That’s well over four times as fast as our fingernails grow. The birds’ beaks are worn down through the process of obtaining food, often covered in shells, from among rocks. The growing beak shapes itself to the task at hand. The beak grows at night as the birds sleep and shapes itself to the food that has been consumed. Beaks can be used to stab or to hammer.

Unlike many other birds, oystercatchers take a long time to learn how to feed themselves. Hatchlings stay with parents and are fed by them for as long as four months, meaning that some of the birds we are seeing in December are still partially dependent upon their parents to help them learn how to find and obtain food. This time of the year it is common for several families to gather together, so if we see a few birds along the shore, we are likely to see others soon. The high-pitched shrieks and cackles are part of the process of communication between the birds.

birchbaysunsetagain
Like other places, we encounter fewer or more people on our walks depending on the weather. The birds are out in all kinds of weather. They need to feed constantly in order to survive. But people tend to stay indoors when it is cold or rainy. We get our share of blustery days around here with wind and rain. But there are also days with clear skies, though these days clear skies often mean colder temperatures. The last couple of days have been bright and sunny and we have had the luxury of taking our walks without raincoats, but we’ve needed hats and scarves and gloves to stay warm. The short days mean that we sometimes are treated to a beautiful sunset over the water in the late afternoon. The beautiful sunsets and the beginning of Christmas vacation have meant that we have encountered more people out to take a look. Some are walking along the shore. Others bring out lawn chairs to sit and watch the unfolding beauty of sky and sea. Dog walkers, like us, are out in all kinds of weather. We notice that there are days when the dogs seem to be having a better time than their human companions and when the sunset is particularly beautiful, the humans tend to move slower and look more often, sometimes confusing their canine walking partners.

Whether we are walking in the pine forests of the Black Hills or along the shore of the Pacific Ocean, we always find a lot to see and enjoy. Our lives are filled with gratitude for the health to walk and eyes to see. These days are filled with lots of new discoveries for us and plenty for which to give thanks.

Doughnuts and hot chocolate

When I was serving as a Sheriff’s Chaplain, I fell into the pattern of taking treats to shift briefing meetings. A little treat at an early-morning or late-night gathering was always welcomed and it provided an opportunity for me to talk to the deputies as they prepared for their work. The simple fact that I was willing to take time to be with them at an hour that most of the rest of the community was sleeping was appreciated and helped to form a bond that was helpful when there was a crisis or a time when a chaplain was needed. Like many other aspects of ministry, a chaplain forms relationships in everyday living that become avenues of assistance when grief and pain appear.

One of the treats that I used to take was a variety of doughnuts from a local shop that produced a great version of the tasty, sweet confections. Once, when I took a couple dozen doughnuts to a shift briefing for patrol deputies, someone commented to me that they avoided doughnuts. “Cops and doughnuts is just too much of a stereotype for me,” was the comment that I heard. For some time after hearing that comment, I stopped bringing doughnuts. I would bring cookies or energy bars. I brought fresh fruit in season. Then, a couple of months later, another deputy said to me, “How come you stopped bringing doughnuts?” I guess the stereotype was more important to some cops than to others. One of my really good friends who is a police officer is also a really big fan of doughnuts. He is is prime physical condition and not a bit overweight at this point in his life, so eating an occasional doughnut doesn’t seem to pose a health threat.

The exact origins of doughnuts are not fully known, but Washington Irving, author of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip Van Winkle,” wrote about Dutch families and traditions inn “Knickerbocker’s History of New York.” “It was always sure to boast an enormous dish of balls of sweetened dough, fried in hog’s fat, and called doughnuts, or olykoeks - a delicious kind of cake, at present scarce known in this city, except in genuine Dutch families.” New York was first called new Amsterdam - a reference to its Dutch roots. Olykoeks - or oil cakes - is another name for the delicacies. The name doughnut comes from rolling the dough into small balls, or nuts, before frying.

When I was a school child, I heard the story of how doughnuts got their holes in the middle. It seems that a ship’s captain’s mother started baking the confectionaries in that shape so that they could be placed on the spokes of the ship’s wheel for temporary storage during stormy passages. I doubt that the story is authentic, but it captured my imagination in a way that I can remember it decades later.

Like many other comfort foods, there is a connection between doughnuts and times of poverty. Doughnuts don’t require many ingredients. Flour, sugar and some kind of oil or lard are all that is required. A bit of yeast or leavening adds to the texture and flavor. It is likely that the origins of doughnuts come from someone trying to provide a tasty treat for a hungry family at a time when there were few ingredients and only the basics were available.

The close cousin to doughnuts on the reservations is fry bread. I have friends who can wax eloquently about fry bread and about how their mother’s or aunt’s fry bread is vastly superior to any other food. In a reservation community it is impossible to think of a funeral lunch without fry bread and “Indian Tacos” are available at most pow wows, fairs, and other gatherings. Unlike pemmican or buffalo stew or wojape, however, fry bread is not an ancient indigenous tradition. Fry Bread, rather, comes from the lean reservation years. When Indigenous Americans were moved onto reservations they were promised that food for their families was guaranteed by the government. Instead of providing sustainable herds of Buffalo, however, there were government commodities. Many the commodity foods were unfamiliar to the people. They were processed and preserved in ways that were unfamiliar. Among the commodities that were provided were flour, sugar and lard. The result was that someone’s mother or grandmother or aunt figured out how to make fry bread. The sweet taste and texture of the bread was a success and before long it became a tradition. It is kind of like the saying, “If life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” They took the ingredients they had and figured out how to make something good to eat.

I don’t know how many of our comfort foods have their roots in hard times, but I am willing to bet that there are quite a few. In our family macaroni and cheese is one of those comfort foods that can be made when there aren’t many groceries in the pantry. A bit of pasta and a bit of cheese produces a meal that children will eat and enjoy.

We have been thinking about comfort foods this week because we are planning a family dinner for Christmas Day. We like to ask each person who will be attending what special food that person would like to see on the menu and build our meal plan to include favorite foods. On Saturday, when Susan asked our grandchildren what foods they wanted, the first response was “candy canes.” The second was “marshmallows.” The third was “something chocolate,” which gave the obvious conclusion of hot chocolate with candy canes and marshmallows. That’s a great treat for children, but far from a well-balanced meal. I’ve been hankering for prime rib, but I’m pretty sure that the main course will be turkey for our traditional dinner. I usually ask for sweet potatoes and you’ve got to have stuffing and cranberries if you serve turkey, so the menu is starting to fill out a bit. I haven’t heard anyone mention pie or home-baked buns, but I’m pretty confident that those foods will make the menu as well. Our church has an 11:30 pm service on Christmas Eve, so I’ll be up at 1 am and it isn’t that hard to mix up a batch of bread dough and leaving it to rise before I head to bed. The smell of baking bread in the morning will make the house inviting when the rest of the family arrives.

May you find comfort not only in the foods of the season, but also in the stories of foods that you share.

Love

It is the time of the year when we receive annual greetings from friends around the world. And as those greetings arrive we are struck by how fortunate we are. First of all, we have friends who are understanding and patient with us. We never get our Christmas letters sent before Christmas. With our attention focused on church activities, this has always been a very busy time for us and we have fallen into the pattern of completing our annual greeting in the weeks after Christmas. Our friends seem to understand and accept our tardiness while still remaining our friends.

As each card or letter arrives we are touched by the memories of people who have come to be so important in our lives. A seminary classmate, who we knew for two years nearly 50 years ago has remained a very close friend. His family has visited us here in the US and we have visited them in Australia, but those visits have been infrequent. However, our connections are so strong that we can pick up deep and meaningful conversation any time we meet. Skype and FaceTime allow us to have more conversations these days than we did for years, but the connection is beyond technology. We will be steadfast friends whatever happens in our lives. We have shared the news of loss and grief as well as the celebrations of birth and marriage over the years.

A member of the search committee that called us to our first position as ministers after we graduated from seminary still inspires us. He and his wife were just 40 when we met, with teenage children. Now they are in their 80’s. They still live in the home where they hosted a time for us to meet members fo the congregation before we received the call to serve the church. It is the same home where our family was hosted overnight before we drove away from that town, moving to a new city and a new call to ministry. We have been friends and enjoyed each other’s company over the decades, keeping up with each other’s children and grandchildren. They have great grandchildren as well. There are so many differences in our lives. They live in the the same town where they grew up. We have moved from state to state. I suspect that we have rarely voted the same in any election. But we are deep friends and our lives touch each other and we delight in news from them.

A woman who was a young single mother when she and I set up the first computer data base to keep track of church membership in our congregation in Idaho has gone on to have a successful and meaningful career with the US Forest Service. Her faith shines through her greetings. Just a sentence or two posted by her on FaceBook reminds us of how solidly grounded she is in her values. Just as she was shaped by the church, our notion of what it means to be part of a church community is shaped by her life and witness.

The cards from South Dakota zip codes touch deep and powerful memories for us of people who live their faith in service to others. We have shared mission and ministry and learned to work side by side. We have found such joy in the stories of their families. We have shared so much faith together.

I could go on and on, and I hesitate to stop because some of the writers of those cards are readers of my journal and our connections and shared faith run deep. I don’t want to leave anyone out. Each card is a reminder of how we have been loved and supported by people of faith on every step of our life’s journeys.

Today is the fourth Sunday of Advent - the Sunday that we light the candle of Love. At our church we’ll have a Christmas pageant, one of the first opportunities for children and youth of the church to participate in leading the congregation since the outbreak of the Coronavirus pandemic. We are eager to see the children in costume and to hear their offerings of music and voice, even though we know we will have to keep our distance and gather in the sanctuary with open windows and face masks. And we will think and speak of love.

Love transcends human limitations. As we read in the letter to the church at Corinth, “love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never dies.” Love is the core of our faith. We declare that God is love. And, as Christians, we affirm that we know about God because of the love we have been allowed to share with others. Love incarnate in the lives of others is what we celebrate at Christmas.

It is on this Sunday that we will once again hear the words of Mary’s love song. The story of our people records this wonderful song of love made real in justice for all people. We read the story of how two women, each pregnant with her first child, get together and share the joys and expectations of waiting for the birth of those children. They do not yet fully know what it means to be mothers. They have to engage their imaginations about what is about to happen to them. And, in their imaginations, they share their conviction that their children and the love they have for their children will make a difference in the world. They imagine that their children are linked to hope for those who have been oppressed and downtrodden. They sing together a song of peace and justice for all. And from their imaginations springs a song and a story that our people have been telling for thousands of years. It is the story of love that is stronger than time and distance - of love that never dies. We call it the magnificat - Mary’s song of love.

How wonderful it is that we live in the midst of that love. How amazing it is that we will dwell in that love forever. How powerful it is to have a season each year to remind us of that love. May you feel the love of this season today and every day.

Omicron arrives

I’ve long enjoyed looking at the news for different perspectives. I scan several different news sources each day and read articles from a wide variety of news organizations. I often read through the headlines of the BBC before writing my morning journal entry. Lately I’ve taken to listening to Canadian Broadcast Service radio when I’m driving around the area. Living so close to Vancouver, British Columbia, we get strong, clear radio signals from the radio towers that we can clearly see when we go for a walk along Drayton Harbor.

I’m not the only one around here who listens to CBC radio. Living near the border has reminded me once again of how love and family are not confined by political boundaries. We have acquired a lot of new friends since moving here who have family members who live across the border. It is very common for a family to have a son, daughter, sister or brother who lives in Canada. We know several couples where one partner grew up in Canada and the other in the United States.

The big news in British Columbia, as well as in most of the rest of the world, is the rapid spread of the Omicron variant of Covid-19. BC’s Covid-19 case rate has nearly doubled in the past week. As of yesterday, they were reporting 135 cases of the Omicron variant and numbers are expected to rise rapidly. The provincial health officer held a press conference yesterday and announced new measures and restrictions aimed at slowing the rate of transmission of the illness. Among the measures put in place were limiting indoor personal gatherings to no more than 10 guests, requiring the Vaccine Card for organized events, limiting many venues to no more than 50% of the seating capacity, requiring face masks, and pausing all sports tournaments.

The restriction that caught my attention, however, was the order that all New Year’s Eve gatherings and events be restricted to seated-only events, with no mingling or dancing allowed. That’s right, there’ll be no dancing on New Years Eve in British Columbia.

While I hope that people around the world do what they can to avoid the spread of the pandemic, and I hope that the folks of British Columbia remain safe, I can’t help but wonder whose job it might be to make sure that there is no dancing on New Year’s Eve. Maybe that is based on the sensibilities of US Citizens. I suspect that if a similar order were to be issued around here, there would already be protest dances scheduled.

When they announced that the latest variant of the disease would be called Omicron, I briefly thought that the pandemic might offer a chance for more people to learn the names of the letters of the Greek Alphabet. Because Greek is the language of our Christian scriptures, it seemed like a good idea for folks to at least learn the alphabet. Upon reflection, however, it doesn’t seem likely that the pandemic will be a good teaching tool. After all, I wasn’t aware that they were using Greek letters to name the variants until Delta came along. They I read that they didn’t start with Greek letters. The Alpha, Beta, and Gamma variants only got their names after the Delta variant became the most transmissible version of the virus. Then, after Delta, the next variant I was aware of was Omicron. That’s a big skip from the fourth letter of the alphabet to the fifteenth. It turns out that there really aren’t quite that many named variants because officials of the World Health organization decided to skip two letters, Nu and Xi. Nu was skipped because it is too easily confused with the English word “new,” and Xi was not used because it is a common name in China.

And before we get too concerned, although there have been 13 variants of the virus that have been given the names of Greek letters, only seven have become “variants of interest” or “variants of concern.” That means that we won’t be reading about many of the letters of the Greek alphabet. Furthermore, the Greek alphabet only has 24 letters, so it seems possible that if they’ve already reached Omicron after using the system for less than a year, they might run out of letters before the pandemic is over.

it turns out that naming diseases is a challenging process and that the World Health Organization has developed best practices for the assignment of names. There is a conscious attempt to avoid causing offense to any cultural, social, national, regional, professional or ethnic groups.

The letter names for the variants are much easier to remember than the system of letters and numbers that scientists use. I know these numbers mean something to trained researchers, but names like B.1.1.7 and B.1.351, don’t stick in my memory at all.

The former practice of naming viruses for regions ended up being misleading. It turns out that Ebola, for example, is named for a river that is actually a long distance from where the virus was first detected. The Spanish flu didn’t come from Spain. Scientists don’t know where it first appeared, but there is a good possibility that it emerged from the United States.

Whatever names are assigned and whether or not we learn all of the technicalities of the disease caused by the virus, the reality is that we are entering into a fourth wave of rapid increase in the transmission of the virus, with an attendant spike in serious illness, hospitalizations and death. Medical services, which are already overwhelmed by the first three waves, will fall short of capacity to be available to all of those who fall ill. Resources will once again run thin. Already overworked and tired health care workers will once again be pushed to the limits of human endurance. This pandemic is no joke.

So, my friends, be careful out there. Make sure your vaccination is up to date. Practice social distancing. Wear your mask. And even if you don’t live in British Columbia, stay home from the New Year’s Eve dance.

Bird Watching

Semiahmoogull

People around here don’t seem to be very big fans of seagulls. One day we met a man in Blaine who was tossing peanuts under a car. He said he did so because the seagulls wouldn’t go under the car to get peanuts, but the crows would. He liked crows, but he didn’t like seagulls. I know that one of the reasons people don’t like seagulls is that they are very opportunistic feeders. They don’t mind eating human food and if they get the chance they will go through a garbage can spreading the things they don’t want to eat all around the neighborhood.

I like to watch the gulls fly. They have amazing wings and great control. The other day we saw a seagull pass our car when we were going about 25 mph. It didn’t show any signs of needing to slow down or land. I’ve seen them nearly hover approaching a post to land in wind gusts approaching 30 mph. They will even fly backwards in a strong wind, reminding me of the versatility of the Piper Cubs my father used to fly.

surfingseagull
Neither seagulls nor crows are mentioned in the “Lets go Birding!” brochure produced by the Birch Bay Chamber of Commerce. Birch Bay, Blaine, and Semiahmoo are all places where we like to go walking and they are all great places for spotting birds. We picked up the colorful brochure about bird watching as a guide to some of the birds we are seeing. Yesterday on our walk we identified Barrow’s Goldeneye, Brants, Loons, Dunlin, Harlequin Ducks, Western Grebes, Wood Ducks, and Bald Eagles. We also saw plenty of crows and seagulls, but they, as I mentioned, are not included in the birding brochure.

When I have my camera with me, it seems as if the seagulls almost pose for pictures. They will perch on a railing or a post, facing into the wind, and sit calmly, allowing me to come within six or eight feet before flying off. That was especially helpful yesterday because I kept my gloves on part of the time to keep my fingers warm and I am not very good at operating my camera with gloves on my hands. If I pause to remove at least one glove, I am more accurate with the camera controls, but sometimes when I pause I miss the picture that I was seeking to get. If I leave my gloves in my pocket, my fingers get cold and are less responsive when I try to use the camera. Nonetheless I managed to get a few pictures of the birds yesterday. I can see why this part of the coast attracts seasoned birders along with amateurs like us. The birds are a lot of fun to watch.

I’ve never been one to see bird watching as a separate activity. I enjoy seeing the birds when I am out hiking or walking, but I don’t think of bird watching as a hobby or something I pursue with any discipline. I don’t have a journal in which I keep a record of the various types of birds I see. I have a few friends who are really serious bird watchers. They participate in regular bird counts and read all kinds of books about identifying different species. They know the names of a lot more different kinds of birds than I and can comment on the difference between winter and summer plumage and identify the gender of a bird from sight. I can usually tell the difference between a duck and a goose, a swan and a heron, an eagle and a hawk, but that is about it.

semiahmooeagles
Living here combined with semi-retirement, however, has given me more time to look at the birds. We kept a copy of Peterson’s Guide to Birds handy when we lived in South Dakota to identify the birds that came to the feeders in our yard, and we’ve added a guide to Pacific Northwest birds to our bookshelf here even though we haven’t yet gotten around to putting up our feeders since we moved. At least I know where the feeders are. I’ve been working at organizing the garage and though we still have a lot of boxes to sort, I’m beginning to be able to know where some things are located. One of these days soon I will pick up some birdseed and get the feeders out into the yard. We usually feed small seeds. Even though I like crows and seagulls, I don’t think they need our support to find food. We don’t have a very big yard in our new home, so it makes sense to see what smaller birds might stop by. The water birds and shore birds will congregate in places where we go walking and we’ll see which birds stop by our house.

semiahmooeagleDA754202-05_c
After Christmas we’ll take a short trip south, back to Mount Vernon, where we lived when we first moved to Washington. We were enthralled by watching the giant flocks of snow geese and trumpeter swans who live in the Skagit Valley for about half of the year and we want to load up the camera and make a trip down there just to watch the birds. I guess that despite what I wrote earlier about not being a bird watcher, I am becoming a bit of one. Maybe identifying birds is one of those retirement skills - something at which one gets better as one ages. It is good to have a few of those skills to offset the number of things at which I seem to have less ability and less stamina than once was the case.

I keep a few of my favorite photos in a slideshow that appears on my computer screen as a background. Mostly those pictures are of our family, with an emphasis on our grandchildren. I’ve also included a few travel photos of trips we enjoyed and there is a smattering of paddling pictures, including quite a few sunrise pictures with the light reflecting off of a lake. I’ve got a few general scenery photos as well. As I sort through the pictures, I am noticing that I’m including more and more pictures of birds. That is because I am taking more pictures of birds these days. I haven’t started keeping a bird journal, but who knows? There may be one in my future.

Choosing parenthood

I headed off to college in 1970. One of the things about the timing of my undergraduate education is that, like many coeds of my time, I read the book “The Population Bomb” by Paul and Anne Ehrlich. It was read by most of the students in our college, and I think, by a very large percentage of students educated in that decade. The book was a best-seller and a lot of copies were sold beyond college campuses as well. It warns of mass starvation, societal upheaval, and environmental deterioration caused by overpopulation. As it has turned out in the decades since, the timing of many of the predictions of the book were wrong. Scholars have argued since its publication about whether or not the book was overly alarmist.

In a way, Ehrlich argued that the planet would self correct for overpopulation through mass death. He predicted that hundreds of millions of people would starve to death in the 1970s and 1980s. It didn’t quite turn out exactly the way he predicted, but it isn’t difficult to see that some of the predictions of the book have come to pass. Climate change and global pandemics were among the things that were predicted.

It is hard for me to say how much impact the book had on my personal life and decisions. I grew up in a large family with six siblings and can remember thinking that I was more fortunate than peers who had small families. By the time I married, during my college years, I had revised my thinking about family size and envisioned a smaller family. As it turned out, we became parents to two children and now are grandparents of four, soon to be five. That puts us somewhere in the range of the 2.1 births per woman generally considered to be “the rate of replacement” for a population.

On a wider basis, it is hard to assess the impact of the book and related discussions on the global birth rate. The global birth rate has been falling for all of my life, with the decline in recent years being dramatic. In 1990, the global birth rate was 3.2 births per woman. In 2021, it was 2.3. The birth rate in every European nation is below 2.1. In many of those countries 2021 marked record low birth rates. A new Pew Research Center study here in the United States found a growing percentage of childless US adults between the ages of 18 and 49 intend to remain that way.

One of the most common reasons cited for the decision to remain childless is financial instability. The costs of raising children are seen as a barrier. Many people believe that their personal finances may never recover from the pandemic. The threat of inflation looms over the world economy. Fewer families are able to achieve home ownership than was the case in previous generations.

However, I am not convinced that declines in birth rates are solely due to financial concerns. We were not what much of society considers to be financially stable at the point where our children were born. We didn’t own a house until after our children were born. We’ve always had careers in the nonprofit sector where accumulation of wealth is uncommon. We have been well treated by our employers all of our lives, and we have been able to have some financial stability through home ownership and modest savings. That level of success, however, is fairly recent. For most of our lives, we have lived modestly. On the other hand, I don’t believe that our children were a financial burden on us. When I think back on what purchases in my life have given me the most pleasure and meaning, investment in our children ranks very high. Perhaps nothing in life gave me more joy than investing in our children’s education. Although we struggled with college expenses, it has always seemed to me that it was one of the best things we did with our money. I’ve made some poor financial decisions and bought a lot of things that weren’t worth the price I paid. But investing in education for our children has always seemed like a good purchase for me. I value the modest savings we have for our grandchildren over the other assets we have. It feels good to invest in a future beyond the span of our lives.

If you look at the global economy and birth rates, smaller families are a product of wealth, not of poverty. It may be that the fear of financial instability is a stronger factor in family size than the reality of financial instability. And there is no shortage of fear in the world today.

More volatile than the population of the world has been the volatility of change in general. When the Erlich’s first published their book, it was impossible for us to envision the impact of computers and the Internet on human life. We thought that the shoe phone on the TV show “Get Smart” was a wild fantasy. We had no ability to imagine that we would carry smart phones with us wherever we went with continual access to communication, social media, and a vast information network. When the pandemic hit less than two years ago, we had no idea how it would impact our daily lives. I remember traveling to Japan in 2018 and thinking it a bit strange how some Japanese people wore face masks when going about their daily lives. Now I think it is strange when I see someone in the parking lot of a store who isn’t wearing a face mask. A lot has changed in a short period of time and rapid change results in anxieties and fear about the future. There is no indication that the rate of change will slow, either. Change and its related anxieties are accelerating.

I don’t envy young couples with their choice about becoming parents. I think that the decision is more complex and challenging today than it was when we were making those decisions. But I do wish that our grandchildren will know some of the joys of being parents and grandparents. It would be sad to have them denied that wonderful part of life. Parenting can be terrifying. It can also be the right choice, even when there are voices predicting doom and catastrophe. I’m glad we didn’t allow the Ehrlichs’ book to dissuade us from becoming parents.

Magnificat

For decades I preached a sermon nearly every week. The worship style of the congregations we served included a reflection on the scriptures that was anywhere from 7 to 30 minutes long. Most of the time, I prepared sermons that were between 10 and 15 minutes in length. I worked hard at learning the difference between spoken and written language and expressing myself with rhythm and pitch that engaged the congregation. I learned to look at the people in the pews and use their reactions as feedback to inform my preaching. I paid attention to the comments or lack of comments I received after worship. While preaching is understood as an important part of a pastor’s work, it isn’t the only task and there were many weeks - perhaps most of them - when I felt I could have used more time in preparation for preaching. I had to balance my need for study and reflection with my need to serve the people of the congregation. After all, preaching is only part of the relationship and I would have been unable to deliver consistently meaningful sermons if I didn’t get to know my congregation as individuals and as a group.

My current job doesn’t involve preaching. I have only delivered one sermon in the church where we now belong and that was before I was received into membership and before I began working for the church.

What I do now, however, gives me a fairly regular opportunity to deliver what in this church is called “Time with Children.” The traditions of this church are to pass around the responsibility for this part of the worship service and I participate as a member of the congregation more often than I am the presenter, but I do, as one of the Interim Ministers of Faith Formation, have responsibility for making sure that this part of worship has a leader and I have been invited by the lead pastor and other congregational leaders to appear in this part of worship on a regular basis. One of those opportunities will come this week. I’m on for presenting the time with children on Sunday.

I find that the task of preparing a five-minute time with children is every bit as challenging and engaging as preaching. On Sunday, after worship, I came up with a few ideas and jotted a few notes. Yesterday I led a small-group Bible Study and began to think about what might make the scriptures connect with younger children. Because our congregation is very careful about social distancing and because all of our worship is hybrid, which means there are many people who are participating over social media, I have focused a lot of attention on the visual aspects of my presentations. I’ve been using props for object lessons. I’ve been thinking about what items will connect with a child watching on a television screen.

We have used crèche or nativity scenes to teach the Christmas story for all of our careers. In my home, growing up, we had a crèche scene that came out with the Christmas decorations every year. On Christmas Eve, it was our family tradition to gather around the piano. Different family members would read different parts of the Christmas story from a family bible. We’d sing some familiar Christmas Carols. And one by one, each of us would put one or more figures into the crèche as the story unfolded. I remember holding a shepherd and a sheep and waiting until after the angel had appeared to the shepherds to place my figures in the scene.

Later, when we had children of our own, we always put out several crèche scenes, including ones with pieces that were appropriate for play for the children. We watched as they set up their own games and told their own stories about the figures. Often other toys entered into the scene and the figures were arranged in unusual ways. I remember seeing Mary and Joseph on the roof of the stable, sometimes with an angel. Our grandchildren play similar games. One week this Advent, we saw that Mary had left the baby Jesus with Joseph and gone across the room to consult with some angels. Another time all of the crèche figures were lined up in a grand procession with Mary bringing up the rear, holding a huge chest that usually is one of the gifts of the wise men.

The tradition of putting together a crèche dates back at least to St. Francis, who used live actors and animals to create teaching scenes. Understanding that the majority of the people in the church did not know how to read or write, he wanted to teach them Bible stories and so had them act them out. Often there were no speaking parts and actors simply stood still creating a strong visual story for those who were watching - almost like an illustration of a specific biblical scene. Nativity scenes were very popular among the people Francis served.

This week, I want to make a connection between playing with the toys that represent the characters in the story and the meeting of Mary and Elizabeth that is part of this week’s gospel reading. It seems to me that Mary and Elizabeth were also engaging their imaginations as they spoke. Although both were pregnant, neither had yet become a mother at the time of their meeting. They must have talked about the future and about what having a baby would be like. They used their imaginations, and one of the products of imagination is the Song that has become known as the Magnificat. Mary sang God’s glory as the two women visited.

Maybe a child holding a doll and pretending that the doll is the baby Jesus is a very similar activity to Mary singing her song of praise to Elizabeth. Both are engaging the imagination to think about how God and people are connected. Both are acts of connecting with the stories of our people.

In our Christmas pageant this week we will continue the tradition of having a live human baby. A family with a new baby will play the roles of the holy family. But for the worship service before the pageant I think I’ll use one of the dolls from the church nursery. Both will stir our imaginations and perhaps lead us to the kind of wonder and joy that inspired Mary’s song.

Semiahmoo Spit

Drayton Harbor is a protected body of water to the west of Blaine, Washington. It is more protected than Birch Bay, which is the bay nearest our home. A small peninsula, Birch Point, separates the two bodies of water. The northern tip of Birch Point is about 5 miles from our home and from that headland, a narrow spit protrudes to the northeast reaching another mile and a quarter and nearly stretching all the way across the harbor, leaving a narrow entrance between the end of the spit and the end of the Blaine pier. We have walked out to the Blaine pier on a couple of occasions, and yesterday, we decided to walk out the spit from the other side of the harbor.

Semiahmoo Spit is built up of sand, gravel, and clay deposited by the ebb and flow of the tides right where the United States meets Canada. As you walk out the narrow spit, you can clearly see White Rock, British Columbia on one side and Blaine, Washington on the other. There are a few trees and grasses on the spit, which is alternately built up and then partially washed away by the tidal action. The spit now covers about 125 acres of land with a widened base at the headland and also a widened end at the tip.

The Lumi people camped and lived on the spit for centuries before the first visits by Europeans. They harvested the abundant fish and crabs and other sea life from the harbor. European prospectors, searching for the Frasier River which empties into the Salish Sea north of the spit, first came to the area in 1858. A trading post was soon established and a town was proposed. It was the site of the first fish cannery in Whatcom County and by 1891 the Alaska Packers Association cannery was the largest salmon cannery in the world. A century later, in 1980, the canneries were closed and the land was purchased by a land development corporation which established the Semiahmoo Resort at the tip of the spit and a golf course on the headland of Birch Point.

There is now a county park with a modest museum at the headland and a road and walking trails that extend from the parking area of the park out to the shops and restaurant at the tip. At low tide it is possible to walk all the way around the spit on the gravel beaches. A little over two miles out and back makes a perfect distance for our daily walks, but the spit is definitely a place to walk in fair weather as it is exposed to the winds and the waves can get high on the northwest side of the spit which protects the calmer waters of Drayton harbor.

We’ve never become accomplished birders, but we enjoy watching the seagulls, ducks, grebes and herons that frequent the bays around here. When the salmon are running the bald eagles congregate and there is a large and active heron rookery on Birch Point.

Yesterday was our day to make our first walk out the spit and we know that it is a place where we will return regularly to walk.

I can understand the attraction of the condominiums that the developers have built on the tip of the spit. With Semiahmoo Bay on one side and Drayton Harbor on the other, both sunrises and sunsets are easily visible over the water. the reflections of water and clouds should be spectacular. And on blustery days, a tightly sealed home would be a fun place to watch the waves on the Salish Sea. On the other hand, it is not a place where I would choose to live. With just one road in and out of the place, it seems a bit vulnerable for a place for permanent homes. The homes are essentially at sea level, just a few feet above the water and it doesn’t take much imagination to envision a large wave, such as a Tsunami wiping off every structure on the spit, perhaps even submerging the entire spit. There is less than 150 years of experience of permanent structures on the spit. Whatcom county experienced 500 year floods this year, so we know that there are homes that are built in places that are vulnerable to events that are less common than a century and a half.

The 2011 Took Earthquake produced 39 meter Tsunami waves in Japan. If such a tsunami was to strike this area, everyone on the spit would find themselves in the water. Knowing that might make it difficult for me to sleep at night in a condo on the spit. I prefer to visit and look around and head to higher ground to sleep.

It is fascinating to me that the majority of the boats on the Blaine Marine Park side of the harbor are working fishing boats. Most are far from new and show signs of needed paint and repairs. In contrast, on the Semiahmoo spit marina easily visible across the bay, the boats are primarily recreational, with plenty of new yachts. The contrast is striking. The presence of all of those yachts is one indicator that those who live in the condos on the spit are people with significant financial means.

It will take us some time to explore this new place where we live. There is a lot to see and take in and exploring by walking is our preferred method of exploration. The discovery of a new trail and an interesting place to walk opens up more territory for us to explore. We’ll be back to walk out the spit and experience the view again and again as the years unfold. We’ll get better at reading the tide tables and learning the rhythm of the land and water. We’ll be watching the crabbers and fishers as the go through the seasons. And we’ll keep out our eyes for the birds that make the area home as well as those who visit on their migrations. We have much to see and do as we explore this new home of ours.

We need to work together

Late Saturday afternoon, I was putting away our utility trailer. We had used it to move a washing machine and dryer that we installed in our son’s home on their farm. The trailer is stored under a roof overhang on the north side of the barn. Although there is a large concrete pad where the trailer goes, the concrete on the west side of the barn is narrower and the corner is a bit tight. At the end of a long day of working, I got a bit lazy and instead of backing the trailer around the corner, which is what I should have done, I headed out forward, intending to pull out onto the open field and back the trailer into its place.

I should have known better. I knew that the ground was saturated with water from recent rains. I knew that it likely had soft spots. In less time than it has taken for me to write these few words of description, I had my 4-wheel-drive pickup stuck with the front wheels dug in deep enough that the front differential was sitting on the ground. I knew I needed help. I knew that the two other vehicles on the place wouldn’t work to pull my pickup out.

The solution to the problem was like many other problems on the farm. A phone call to a neighbor brought his pickup over. He backed up on the concrete. I attached a tow strap that I had for such occasions and within a few minutes my pickup was back on solid ground. As I unhooked the tow strap and rolled it up to put it back in storage, the neighbor jumped out of his pickup, introduced himself to me. He previously knew our son because he had hayed the big pasture on the farm this summer, but we had not yet met. We shook hands and he headed off with my genuine thanks.

It was a normal activity. It is what neighbors do for one another. It is what I have done for lots of others and I would not hesitate to do for one of the neighbors on the farm.

There is another detail about that brief event. The neighbor had at least three Trump bumper stickers on his truck and at least three more that were rather crude in their criticism of the current President of the United States. When he hopped out of his truck after towing me out of the mud he was wearing a bright read MAGA hat. I’m not very big on bumper stickers, but I happened to have two small ones on the bumper of my pickup: one saying, “A great city deserves a great library,” and another promoting keeping boats clean to avoid transporting invasive species. However, there is no way that the neighbor was unaware that our son and his family have very different political opinions than he does. After all, they have painted rainbow colors on a sign that is easily seen from the road. And I’m willing to bet that the MAGA hat-wearing neighbor didn’t vote for the library district bond issue that is promoted by the sign at the end of our son’s driveway. That issue is currently causing a lot of debate in our county as it will appear in a special election in February after falling just 26 votes shy of a needed super majority in November. Although our son is a librarian, the vote is for a different district than the one where he is the director.

People don’t have to agree about politics in order to be kind and neighborly. I’ve known this for a very long time. I’ve served congregations where there are major differences in political viewpoints of the members. I’ve worked shoulder to shoulder with folks whose votes are consistently the opposite of mine. It is the way I think our community should be. But in recent years, communities and families have been torn apart by polarized politics. Shouting matches have turned violent. People brandished weapons in the United States Capitol less than a year ago. Emotions over politics are high. I’m sure our helpful neighbor wore his MAGA hat on purpose. He wanted me to know that the guy helping me was a Trump supporter.

It gave me pause to remember something that has been said in the aftermath of the devastating floods that have left huge swaths of destruction in our county. “What does it take to get people to act like neighbors? Water deep enough to cover up the yard signs.”

For a very long time the media have given large amounts of air time to the political maneuvering and just plain nastiness between Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and President Joe Biden. They are portrayed as mortal enemies. But those two need to set aside their differences this week. No matter how long and bitter is the history of their political disagreements, they need to work together to provide the federal aid that is necessary for the people of Kentucky, Tennessee, Illinois, Missouri and Arkansas to recover from what may have been the most destructive tornadoes ever to occur outside of the usual tornado season. The storms that ripped through the region Friday and Saturday have left death and destruction in their wake. They haven’t found all of the missing people. They don’t have a final count of fatalities.

Everyone in our country needs to do what we can to help those people. That means using the power and financial resources of the Federal Government wether or not you support higher taxes. It means working together to repair and restore highways and bridges regardless of how your senator voted on the infrastructure bill. It means that politicians need to set aside their rhetoric and work together whether or not they like each other.

That is what neighbors do. The job ahead makes a stuck pickup a very small matter indeed. But a stuck pickup can remind all of us that there are things more important than the politics that divide us.

Gaudete

It is fairly common for students of the Bible to think that Greek and Hebrew are the important ancient languages. After all the books we call the New Testament were originally written in Greek. The parts we call the Old Testament were originally written in Hebrew. Furthermore, the early church used a version of the Bible called the Septuagint, which is the entire 66 books, including the Old Testament translated into Greek. The Septuagint is still in regular use in the Greek Orthodox Church. For Western Christianity, however, there is a third language that is very important in the understanding of scripture and tradition: Latin. In the fourth century, Jerome prepared a translation of the Bible into Latin, which, at the time was the common or colloquial speech of many within the church. The Vulgate underwent a major revision in 1592 and was the principle bible of the majority of Christians until the late 20th century. All of those centuries of having the scriptures read in Latin and developing liturgies and traditions around that language have had a huge influence on Christianity. Even though our traditions come from the Protestant Reformation and the adoption of common languages for Bible reading, we share a common heritage with the Roman Catholic church and Latin words and phrases turn up in the life of the church on a regular basis.

Today is one of those days that have been shaped by the use of Latin. Its name in the church calendar, Gaudete Sunday, is Latin. The name comes from Philippians 4:4, which begins: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice!” That verse is the common Introit or first words spoken in a liturgical congregation on this day. For congregations that use the Revised Common Lectionary, the words are part of the reading of the Epistle for the day. In Latin, the phrase is “Gaudete in Domino semper: iterum dico, gaudete.”

The tradition of Gaudete Sunday dates back to the fifth century, when Advent, like Lent, was a six-week season with a primary mood of penance and fasting. It was determined that the long seasons of expectation and preparation for membership in the church created a need for some kind of a break. Studying the texts read on those Sundays, church leaders came up with Gaudete Sunday. The companion festival or feast day in Lent is Laetare Sundy, the fourth Sunday of Lent. Laetare aslo comes from the Latin Bible: “Laetare Jerusalem” - “Rejoice, O Jerusalem (Isaiah 66:10). In the ninth century, when Advent was shortened from six to four weeks, Gaudete Sunday was moved from the fourth to the third Sunday of the season.

The observance of Gaudete Sunday in local congregations varies widely. In congregations with a more liturgical bent, the color of the Advent candle and sometimes the vestments worn by clergy changes from the purple of penance or the blue of Mary to pink or rose. In those congregations, the candles of the advent wreath reflect the colors, with three purple and one rose colored candle.

In his 2014 Gaudete Sunday homily, Pope Francis said that instead of fretting about all they haven’t done to prepare for Christmas, people should think of all the good things that life has given. That advice rings especially true for pastors serving congregations. It is at this point in Advent every year that I begin to feel overwhelmed with all of the things that need to be done. In our congregation, we have a Christmas pageant that will be presented next Sunday. We need to get out all of the costumes, call the children and youth who will be leading the pageant, prepare for a rehearsal including a re-write of the script, coordinate with parents, and the list of things to do goes on and on.

Of course the week will unfold and Christmas will come whether or not we get all of the things on our list accomplished. The reminder to pause and think of all the good things that life has given is especially relevant to me as I approach worship today.

One of the joys of this Advent for me is that I have begun to ring handbells in our handbell choir. Handbells are among the instruments that we have been able to continue to play during the pandemic, when vocal singing has been curtailed and our vocal choir is not currently singing. I’ve loved handbell music for all of my career and especially enjoyed it during the 25 years we served in Rapid City with a long-standing and rich handbell tradition both in the church and in the community handbell choir. I served on the board of directors of Bells of the Hills for about a decade. But I never actually rang bells in a choir, except briefly during Music, Arts, Dance and Drama camp. The required rehearsals simply took more time than I was able to give during my years as a senior pastor. Retirement, however, has freed up time so that I am able to take up a few bells. Because I haven’t been ringing, I don’t have muscle memory and I have to rehearse a bit more than the other members of the choir, so it is convenient that I work at the church and can slip up into the choir loft to get a couple of extra rehearsals.

Today we will be ringing bells during worship to offer a musical meditation to the congregation. So there will be an early rehearsal before worship, ringing during the service, and another rehearsal after the service to work on our Christmas Eve music. I’ll be able to feel the workout in my hands and arms by the end of the day. I am, however, looking forward to all of the ringing with joy. It is part of my expression of Gaudete.

We lit our Gaudete candle early as our grandchildren were at our house for supper last night. After a meal of tacos and while the children nibbled at the remains of their gingerbread houses, we told a bit of the story of Advent and explained why one candle is pink. A relaxing supper with our grandchildren is another joy of this phase of our life. Despite the long “to do” list, there is much for which I am able to give thanks and reason to rejoice again and again.

Lights of the season

Although the use of a creed in worship is not a regular practice in many, if not most, congregations of the United Church of Christ, I have often read or recited the Apostles Creed in worship settings. The creed was often a part of ecumenical services in which I participated over the span of my career. I have, however, been consistent in my refusal to use any creed as a test of faith. I understand using a statement of faith as an expression in worship. I do not understand the use of a creed as a test of who believes the “right” things. Once, years ago, I refused to sign the Apostle’s Creed as a requirement to membership in a ministerial association and was denied membership after years of serving the organization, including serving in its principal offices. I made a conscious decision to stand with members of other faith groups who could not sign the creed. I was careful to be clear that my opposition was not and expression of my faith, nor was it an opposition to the use of the creed in worship, but only an opposition to the abuse of the creed by using it as a “screening tool” to determine who could and who could not belong to the organization.

The history of creeds is a fascinating story. The Apostles Creed is itself a bit of a correction to an earlier creed, the Nicene Creed. In Roman Times it was decided that there should be a statement of what Christians believed. A council of bishops was convened to draw up the statement. The terms were that they must come up with a statement to which all of the bishops agreed. After a long period of deliberation and argument the Nicene Creed was produced, but not easily. In order to gain unanimous approval, the council had to first defrock a couple of bishops who dissented with the creed. The couldn’t come to unanimous agreement, so they declared that those who disagreed could no longer be bishops.

In the United Church of Christ, our Statement of Faith was crafted by scholars and church leaders to honor the ancient creeds of the church as a testament of faith. It is expressly stated in the official teachings of our church that the Statement of Faith is never to be used as a test of faith. We trust God to judge who is and who is not faithful. We welcome all into the practices of faith that are a part of our church.

I’m wary of any tests of faith. That includes any judging of the lighting displays on homes at Christmas. I understand the joy of putting up Christmas lights. Although technically Epiphany is the season of light, the use of lights to celebrate Christmas is a joyous tradition. We light Advent Candles. We have strings of lights that we put on our Christmas tree every year. We enjoy the lighting displays that our neighbors put on their houses. I simply do not believe that those who have the most lights necessarily have the most faith. Tracing the outline of an architectural feature with a string of lights is hardly a statement of faith.

Because our Christmas celebrations focus on church and family, we haven’t gone in for big displays of Christmas lights. We don’t put up special lights to celebrate Halloween, either. I have no objection to displays of Christmas lights even thought I don’t quite understand the mixed metaphors of lighted Santas and the snowman from the Frozen animated movie. I really don’t get the house down the street that has an inflatable Darth Vader figure with a red and white stocking cap. I do not, however, need to understand the meaning behind the lights of my neighbors. I don’t consider lights to be a meaningful test of faith.

I have a friend whose wife died during the last year. I noticed on FaceBook that since she loved Christmas and he is honoring her through his preparations for the holiday, he put up and decorated a half dozen Christmas trees in their home on the day after Thanksgiving. I happen to know that part of their adjustment to his wife’s illness they downsized and moved into a smaller home. I’m thinking that six Christmas trees is a lot in any home and probably makes his smaller home a bit crowded. And all of those trees and all of those decorations must mean boxes and boxes that need to be put into storage for most of the year.

Last year we started a new-to-us tradition of purchasing a live tree from a nursery for Christmas and planting it at our son’s farm following our celebrations. As a result, our tree is a bit smaller than we used to have when we went out into the forest in need of trimming and cut down a tree with a forest service permit during the years we lived in South Dakota. A live tree with a root ball weighs a lot, so a smaller tree is essential to our being able to get it into and out of our house. As such, we have a few more decorations than fit on our tree. Last year we decorated the banister and hung Christmas balls and put lights along the staircase in our rental house. This year our new home means we will decorate a bit more modestly and some of our decorations will probably end up in the boxes this year. Still, we don’t begin to have enough decorations for a half dozen trees. Nonetheless, we will be happy and our home will feel cheerful for the holiday. It might not look like anything special on the outside as you drive down the street, but it will seem special to our grandchildren when they come to share a celebration dinner and exchange a few gifts. They have been enjoying playing with our collection of nativity sets on their visits since the first Sunday of Advent.

Enjoy the Christmas displays of your friends and neighbors. Celebrate with them the joy of the season. But don’t pass judgment on the house with no special exterior lighting. Inside might be a warm and wonderful celebration of the season.

The place we live

salishseaview

Yesterday, during an interview with the Committee on Ministry of the Pacific Northwest Conference, we were asked about how we were adjusting to life after our move. Our response was positive. It isn’t easy to make a big move, and our move was complicated by the Covid pandemic. Many of the dynamics of our move, however, would have been challenging at any time. We were leaving behind a place where we had loved living and people who were our friends. We were trading a more rural lifestyle for a more urban one. And the weather is very different. There is much to learn about the place we now call home.

One of the things we had to learn is that it doesn’t rain every day. I know that sounds silly, but we didn’t know what to expect. There have been days in the last month when it rained more in a day than the average annual rainfall in the driest place we had previously lived, Boise, Idaho. But it doesn’t rain nonstop, even though we live close to temperate rain forest.

There is a walk that is very close to our home that gives us an opportunity to explore this new place. The first part of the walk is a winding path through the forest, with huge trees, ferns and mosses. The forest provides a natural acoustic barrier. It is quiet as soon as we step onto the path. The forests around here have some unique features that are very different from the forests of the Black Hills. those differences are more than just rain, but the amount of rainfall is a big part of the difference. Add to the rainfall, the temperatures are very moderate. Although there were a few days when the temperatures reached the high nineties last summer, that heat wave was very unusual and set all kinds of records. In a typical year summertime temperatures rarely get above 80 degrees and in the winter, the temperature seldom drops below freezing.

The forests around here have Epiphytes: plants that grow on other plants. Mosses, spike mosses, ferns and lichens cover trees and branches and give the forest a kind of “jungle” feel. In the areas that have not previously been logged, there are very large, very ole trees. Sitka spruce, western hemlock, Douglas Fir, and big leaf maples can reach over 100 feet and up to 250 feet tall. A giant tree might have a trunk that is over 30 get in circumference. There are nurse logs, that we sometimes call grandmother trees. When a tree falls and decays, it becomes filled with germinating seedlings. As the small trees grow, their roots eventually reach the ground. As the nurse log continues to rot away there will be a row of trees on stilt-like roots.

The forest, however, is just part of our walk. After 15 or 20 minutes, we find ourselves walking along the shore of the Salish Sea. It is one of the world’s largest and biologically rich inland seas. The Salish Sea encompasses the Puget Sound, the San Juan Islands and the waters of the Strait of Juan de Luca and the Straight of Georgia. It stretches from Olympia, Washington on the south to Cambell River, British Columbia on the north. Nearly 7,500 miles of coastline, including 419 islands provide home to more than 8 million people. Vancouver, BC, Victoria, BC, and Seattle Washington are urban centers. Most of the coastline of the Salish Sea is more like the area where we live - more sparsely populated and more rural in character.

The Salish Sea is home to 172 species of birds and provides an excellent place for bird watching. We frequently have to consult our bird book because we have viewed a species that is new to us as we walk. We are learning to identify the various geese and swans that winter in the area and migrate north during the summer.

Just south of our home here, in Bellingham, Western Washington University offers degrees in marine and coastal science, with the Salish Sea as the laboratory for learning and research. with 37 species of marine mammals, 253 species of fish and more than 3,000 species of invertebrates, there is a lot to study. The Salish sea is home to the world’s largest jellyfish that can reach to 7 feet across and the north pacific giant octopus, the largest octopus in the world. There are rockfish in the sea that are more than 100 years old.

Of course there is much more to the Salish Sea than can be learned by walking along its shore, but for us, who have lived most of our lives a thousand or miles from the ocean, being able to walk to the beach and along the shore is a fascinating adventure. There is always something new to see, which includes the many moods of the sea, depending on the weather, especially the wind. There are times when the sea is absolutely calm and other times when the surf sports 3 and 4 foot tall waves crashing on the shore.

This huge ecosystem of rainforest and sea is divided by an International Border. Politically the area is governed by the USA and Canada, but that border is invisible to the fish, marine mammals, birds and other wildlife. Recent flooding of the inland waters illustrated how much we are a part of a larger system that transcends political boundaries. As we often comment, we don’t live in Canada, but you can see it from here. That is literally true. We can see Canadian mountains from our bedroom window and when we walk along the shore we can see islands that are in Canada. Just a few miles north of here, we can see the tall buildings of Vancouver and the border crossing between our two nations.

So, in answer to the question, no, it doesn’t rain every day here, not even in the winter. And on rainy days it doesn’t always rain all day long. The days are short in the winter - we are a long ways north. It is a fascinating and wonderful place to live and there is much that we have yet to learn.

Another school lockdown

Last night a parent asked me to include on my prayer list the students of Sehome High School in Bellingham. Several of the youth of our church are students at Sehome and the things that occur at the high school have a broader impact in the church because they affect siblings and other family members as well as students who are attending middle school and anticipating going to the high school in the future.

It is hard to know where to start to tell the story. There will be no cases at Sehome today. In a statement posted on the school’s website, Principal Sonia Cole posted, “There will be no school at Sehome tomorrow, Thursday, December 9. to give our staff time and space to get in a better position to support our students when school resumes on Friday.”

For some of the students, the anxiety and disruption came to a head last Friday, when the school went into a two hour lockout because a 16-year-old student brought a Gloack-17 style airlift pistol to school. Law enforcement and school officials were able to identify the student, who was detained and later released to his parents. Charges of possession of a dangerous weapon on school facilities were referred to the prosecutor’s office. Students came home for the weekend after the incident with an elevated sense of anxiety. When the school goes into lockdown or lockout, instruction stops and students and faculty are often left with insufficient information to properly assess the threat. They don’t know if there is a weapon or perhaps an active shooter on the property. They don’t know what is going on. All they know is that there has been a threat that has been taken seriously by school officials.

We all talked about the incident over the weekend. It was mentioned int he pastoral prayer at our church, along with prayers for the victims of school violence all across the United States.

Then, on Monday, several students received a threatening message via AirDrop. School staff reviewed the message and called the police for support. The threat was determined not to be credible, but not before police had searched the high school and its perimeter. Officers were visible during the time between classes and student anxiety returned to a heightened level.

By this time, there were as many rumors flying as solid information. Some of the students were aware that there had been a three-hour lockdown last week at another school in the district, Ferndale High School. That indecent turned out to be a student bringing a BB gun to school.

Then, yesterday, Shame High School was locked down for an hour while school officials and Bellingham Police investigated yet another threat.

It isn’t surprising that the principal made the decision to close the school today to allow students and parents to process all of the recent threats and incidents. There is a lot of fear involved with just going to school. At least one family in our church picked up their student from the school early on Wednesday and simply brought the student home so that they could talk and process all of the stress of the past week.

Fortunately it appears that there is no direct connection between the cluster of incidents. Still it is unsettling to have so many incidents occurring so close to each other.

All of this is against the backdrop of school violence in the United States. There is a lag in the statistical reporting, but according to Education Week, there have been 20 school shootings resulting in injury or death since the start of the school year this fall. The deadly gunfire in Oxford, Michigan last month made the headlines briefly, but it quickly faded from the headlines as the news cycle moved on. School shootings, even those with multiple fatalities, are common enough that they don’t remain in the news.

We aren’t as directly affected by all of this right now because our children have become adults and our grandchildren are still elementary students. But we’ll have a middle school student next year and high school isn’t that far away. And the high school our local grandchildren will attend is among the ones that have experienced a lockdown in recent weeks.

I remember well the anxiety and fear that surrounded our children’s high school when multiple threats caused multiple evacuations of their high school in the wake of the Columbine school shootings.

Schools need to be safe places in order for learning to occur. When safety and trust are eroded, the ability of students to invest in learning decreases. It is hard to learn when you are paralyzed by fear.

Once again our pastors will struggle to find the right words to include in their pastoral prayers. Once again we will do what we can to help calm the fears of students and parents. Once again we will be asking ourselves, “How long can this go on? When will we be able to trust the safety of our children?”

There are no guarantees in life. It isn’t possible to be alive without encountering risk. And we all need to develop skill at assessing risk and avoiding unnecessary risk while assuming responsibility for certain risks that we take. That is part of the transition from childhood to adulthood. We learn to trust our children with increasing levels of risk. During their high school years they begin to drive and our fears elevate, but we do what we can to manage that risk and teach our children to drive safely, wear their seatbelts, and assess whether or not a driver has been drinking. We talk with them about highway safety and safe driving. There is a level of control that they are able to assume.

However, when it comes to gun violence, there continue to be incidents where that threat cannot be controlled. Despite strict rules, weapons are still coming into our schools. After a brief lull at the beginning of the pandemic, incidents of school violence are once again on the increase.

We owe it to our children to do a better job at managing this violence and decrease the threat. As the students, faculty, and administrators of Sehome High School take a day away from classes today, all of our community needs to make a fresh commitment to ending school violence.

Guide to Australian sports

If you are a regular reader of my journal you already know that I am not a big sports fan. The sports I love the best are those in which people I know are playing. I love high school and college basketball when I know someone who is playing on one of the teams. I enjoy a good baseball game when the players are folks I know. I follow professional sports just a little bit because it is such a topic of conversation among the people with whom I live and work. In the United States, it is a good idea to at least know who is competing in the World Series or the Super Bowl when those events roll around because it is sure to come up in conversation with folks. And, yes, I did become a bit of an irrational Chicago Cubs fan nearly a half century ago when we lived in Chicago for a few years. I’ve kept up that bit of fan status over the years, but, it doesn’t take much effort because they have only competed in the World Series once during all that time and that year they won. Odds are fairly good that I may not have to worry about the Cubs as a winning team for a long time and it is simply easier to be a fan of the losing team in my opinion.

So, among the many items in my gratitude journal is my gratitude for the simple fact that I was not born and I did not grow up in the United Kingdom. No offense intended, but I have to confess that cricket makes no sense whatever to me.

“England’s Ashes campaign began in depressingly familiar fashion as the tourists were skilled for just 147 by Australia on the opening day of the series at the Gabba.”

That is the opening sentence of a sports article on the BBC website this morning. I haven’t a clue what any of it means, except I think it means that England lost a competition with Australia that took place in Australia.

“With skipper Joe Root falling for nought, England were 11-3, having opted to bat on a green-tinged pitch offering assistance to the pace bowlers. Australia's attack was relentless, led by Pat Cummins, who claimed 5-38 on his first day as captain.”

Do any of those numbers have any meaning at all? Actually, do any of those words have any meaning at all? I guess I can understand that there are two people whose names are reported.

Later it appears that despite what seemed like Australia dominating the match, the weather intervened: “England were all out by tea, only for a huge storm to wipe out the evening session and prevent the start of Australia's reply, meaning day two will start at the earlier time of 23:30 GMT.”

I already know that when someone from Britain mentions tea, they are talking about more than a cup of hot beverage. There are usually biscuits involved, which aren’t biscuits at all, but rather cookies and sometimes they also have crumpets and I have no idea what a crumpet is. I may have eaten one at some time, but I really don’t even know what shape or texture to expect from a crumpet.

And you think that a game that has batting might share something in common with baseball, but I’m not too sure because along with the batting in cricket there is bowling. And to my non-sports-fan mind, it is a bit difficult to imagine how bowling works when there are wickets involved. Did I mention that there are wickets in cricket? Like American baseball, there is catching, and I think a match begin with a coin toss, but even that might be a bit different from the ceremonial toss that begins every American football game.

The article reports that Australian captain Pat Cummins said, "It's all gone to plan so far today. I'm proud of all the guys. We stayed really composed. I was probably going to have a bat, but I wasn't upset to lose the toss. It was 50-50.”

I would think that every coin toss is 50-50, but then again, what do I know about cricket?

As I mentioned before, I try to read an article about sport from time to time just so I can keep up with the conversation. I’m not completely at a loss when it comes to sports and England. I know that everywhere else in the world, football means soccer, whereas here in the United States, football means American football which is played to different rules with a slightly different ball than Australian rules football, which you don’t have to worry about too much because they also play American rules football in Australia. The big difference is that the Australian rules don’t seem to involve helmets or pads or any other type of protective clothing. And the field is bigger. It, of course, isn’t called a field in Australia. There they call it a pitch, which has nothing to do with pitching in baseball. Is there pitching in cricket. I think so. Anyway Australians play football on an oval pitch with 18 players on the pitch unless they are playing American rules football which is played on a rectangular pitch with only 11 players per side. Of course American football games usually have two teams: offense and defense. I don’t think the Australians do when playing their football which isn’t soccer, but they call soccer football too. If you are an American and not yet confused by the accent, the words themselves are capable of confusing you considerably.

At any rate, I’m grateful that I didn’t grow up in Australia where I would have to have some kind of working knowledge of three games called football as well as cricket. I doubt that I could sound anywhere near intelligent in a conversation about sports in Australia.

Then again, I’ve been entertained by the Cubs for decades. It doesn’t have to be complex for me to enjoy the game. I don’t even mind knowing in advance who is going to win.

A bit of snow

winterinbirchbay

Some days I think to myself, “My, we certainly have chosen a funny place to live!” Yesterday was one of those days. There was about an inch of snow on the ground when we woke. Over at our son’s farm there were a couple of inches. I went ahead doing what I thought anyone would do on such a day. After I ate my breakfast, I shoveled my walks and my driveway. There wasn’t much snow. The “job” took about 5 minutes. The snow was already melting, but a bit more was falling and you never know what the temperature is going to do on a day like that, so I thought it best to get the driveway and walks cleared before going on with the next part of my day.

Then I cleared all of the snow from the windshield, the hood and the roof of the cab of our pickup. Our truck is too long and too tall for the garage on our house, so it sits in the driveway. It fits right into our neighborhood because nearly every driveway in the neighborhood is filled with cars. Many houses have more cars than spaces in their garages. Others use their garages for storage of furniture and other items and park their cars outside. In the evenings, when most people are at home there are cars parked on the street in front of nearly every house.

Driving my pickup from my house to the farm, it was clear that the practice of shoveling snow is not a common art in our neighborhood. As far as I could tell, I was the only one who had done so. It seemed strange to me, because a few degrees drop in temperature could render sidewalks and driveways full of ice, but I guess snow isn’t all that common around here.

When I got to the farm, I was surprised to find out that the school had a two hour delay in start time. The kids were happily making snowmen and sledding down a pile of wood chips in the yard. Their place is pretty flat and they don’t have any real hills, but the pile of wood chips is tall enough that they could get a short run. I think their clothes might have been a tad wet when they went to school, but they showed no signs of distress as their mother bundled them into the car.

Later in the day, when Susan and I were returning from a short errand, we noticed a car stopped in the middle of the street. The windshield was fully obscured by snow, and it was obvious what had happened. the diver had gotten into the car and used the wipers to clear the windshield, turned on the heater and driven a block or so and then put on the brakes for an intersection. When that happened, all of the snow from the roof had slid onto the windshield and hood of the car. The windshield wipers couldn’t move the heavy snow, so the driver got out and was clearing the snow from the windshield with bare hands.

It appears that people around here not only don’t own snow shovels, they don’t seem to own hats and gloves, either. I confess that after more than a year of living here, our cars don’t have the kind of winter gear we used to carry in South Dakota. There are no sleeping bags in the back of our vehicles and our winter survival kit, with emergency food and supplies is currently sitting on a shelf in the garage, waiting for us to go on a trip. We do, however, have good snow brushes in both the car and pickup. There are tire chains in the tool box in the back of the pickup. There is a short-handled shovel in the back of the car. And we always have hats and gloves and jackets with us.

The snow hadn’t all melted by the time I went to bed last night, and as I headed to bed I took a look outside from a second-story window of our home. We seemed to be an anomaly in our neighborhood. Shoveling the driveway and walks made our home stand out from the others. It’s OK. We’re newcomers and we aren’t expected to know all of the local customs.

We used to joke about being newcomers when we lived in a small town in North Dakota. We lived there for seven years, but we decided, according to local tradition, that you have to stay in the town for three generations to be considered a local. Everyone else is a newcomer. We didn’t stay long enough to achieve local status. I doubt if that is the case around here. There is quite a bit of coming and going. There are always houses for sale in our neighborhood and we see moving vans and U-haul trucks in driveways almost every week.

One of the signs that we are becoming locals is that I renewed the licenses on our vehicles last week. They didn’t really expire until January, but the online renewal process is so easy and quick that I went ahead and we have already received our new stickers and registrations in the mail, with our new address. The stickers are on the vehicles and we’re good through January, 2022. The “Famous Faces, Famous Places” license plates have been made into a star that is hanging on the end wall of the machine shed at the farm. it glows when headlights shine on them and the star is kind of pretty when you drive up after dark.

The forecast is for a high in the mid forties with rain today, so I don’t think there will be any snow by lunch time. Those who didn’t shovel won’t have any problems with their driveways or sidewalks. You probably won’t even be able to see the small piles of snow that were on the edges of the driveway at our house.

I guess it is a good thing I sold my snowblower before I moved out here.

Glitter

Late yesterday afternoon I was on my hands and knees carefully running the vacuum cleaner over the floor of our dining room and kitchen. The flooring is planked vinyl and we usually care for it with a dust mop, but the situation required a different approach. What had happened was that a small vial of glitter had been spilled during a craft project. Glitter can be hard to clean up.

It is important to note that things being spilled is part of life with children. We have some plastic table cloths that can take a glass of spilled water and protect the surface of the table. We have had meals at our house where two or three glasses of water are spilled in the same meal. We’re used to reaching for a towel or grabbing a handful of napkins to clean up a spill. We joke about spills and comment when we get through an entire meal without a spill. We encourage our grandchildren to learn about liquids and being careful. We remind them to place their glasses away from the edge of the table. We let them have the experience of pouring and filling water glasses. A spill is not a threat to our lifestyle.

And it is important to note that the amount of glitter spilled was small. I don’t know what that vial held, but I think it was less than a tablespoon. Nonetheless, after sweeping, vacuuming, and wet mopping he floor, I can still see the sparkle of glitter on the floor. Our son commented that our house has now been inaugurated and that glitter will be among the things we leave to the next owners when we sell the house. He might be right.

It is probably some form of justice that we got involved in cleaning up spilled glitter. We’ve been hearing about the challenges of glitter on the floor, in carpets and on other surfaces for years from church janitors. It is hard to resist using a bit of the substance when making certain kinds of crafts. The snowflakes our grandchildren made yesterday are quite beautiful with a bit of glitter on them. Fresh fallen snow sparkles in the sunshine and these craft snowflakes sparkle in the kitchen light. They really are pretty. We have been involved in crafts that use glitter for decades.

The joke at our house is that glitter has a half life of about a human generation. Half life is defined as the time required for half of the unstable nuclei of a substance to undergo their decay process. Every substance has a different half life. Some are extremely short. Carbon-10, for example, has a half-life of only 19 seconds. That means that the isotope isn’t encountered in nature and is known only in a laboratory. On the other hand xenon-124 has a half life of 1 sextillion years. That’s roughly 1 trillion times the age of the universe.

When we talk about the half life of glitter, we are thinking of substances that require a very long time to decay. We also are joking about what seems to be the phenomenon that any attempt in cleaning up glitter seems to reduce the amount spilled by only half. Since you can never clean up more than half of the glitter, there is always a bit remaining.

Whenever we talk of glitter at our house the story of the Christmas angels comes up. Years ago, in Rapid City, children dressed as angels for the Christmas pageant wore costumes that were made from cloth that had glitter on it. They looked pretty good as they walked up the church aisle during the pageant. They also were leaving behind glitter as they walked and as they sat in the pews. The pews in that church had pads on the seats. After the pageant a team of volunteers cleaning the church vacuumed the pads and carefully cleaned underneath them and all around the church. Still, years later, one of us would be talking to someone who had attended church and notice the sparkle of glitter on their clothing. The glitter from that Christmas pageant is still showing up at that church. We believe that people will be discovering glitter long after its source has been forgotten.

Despite our experiences, we will continue to create crafts that involve glitter. I suppose it is possible to have a house where all glitter is banned and none is used and no cleanup is necessary. That, however, isn’t the kind of house where we want to live. We want to have a home where grandchildren play, where the delight of sparkling objects is treasured above the potential mess, and where a glass of water spilled at dinner brings a smile and not a harsh rebuke. We want to live in a home where children come running to the door and greet us with a big hug. We want to have a home with toys and snacks and other things that delight children.

After all, there are people my age who have sustained injuries or developed illnesses that prevent them from being able to get down on the floor. I’m fortunate that I am able to do a bit of cleaning and can still get down on the floor to play with my grandchildren. And if it takes me a little bit longer to get up and if my joints creak a little, it is a mark of my age and a reminder of all of the good times I have had.

I’ll keep cleaning up glitter as the days go by. But I will also look forward to that glint of sparkle when I turn on the kitchen light first thing in the morning. It makes me happy to have a bit of sparkle in my life. If a bit of the glitter gets on my jacket or in my hair and someone else notices, I hope it makes them smile.

After all, I know something that lasts longer than the glitter - the memories of happy children bringing sparkle to my life.

Lighting the candle of peace

On the second Sunday of Advent we light the candle of peace. Like hope, peace is elusive in our world. The biblical concept of peace involves the cessation of conflict between nations and peoples, but it is more that just the absence of conflict. It also is the presence of justice. The biblical concept of Shalom includes health and wholeness for all people. Our history has taught us that we humans aren’t very good at making peace.

For the soldiers who have come home from the War in Afghanistan, the longest war in the history of the United States, there may be a release from the conditions of war, but in the wake of this war, we are once again reminded of what has been true of every war. War changes people and that change is permanent. The fighting and hostility may have reached its conclusion for some, but the conflict continues. The trauma of war is not something that one gets over. It stays with those who have been caught up in the battle for the rest of their lives. The official end of United States participation in the War in Vietnam is recorded as the Paris peace accords, signed in January of 1973, but for 85,000 homeless Vietnam Veterans in the United States, the war never really got over.

2021 marked the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, but for former members of the Afghan security forces who are still in the country and who are being hunted down and killed by Taliban soldiers, the war is far from over. Executions and abductions continue and dozens for former forces have been killed. The declaration of peace has resulted in a year of violence and it appears that more violence lies ahead for the troubled nation.

On Tuesday, President Biden is scheduled to talk with Vladimir Putin and express US concern about Russian troops massing on the border with Ukraine. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that the US has evidence that Russia has made plans for a large scale attack on Ukraine. Ukraine says Russia has deployed armored vehicles, electronic warfare systems and 94,00d0 troops along the border.

Ugandan forces have once again crossed the country’s western border to go into the Democratic Republic of Congo. The troops are in pursuit of members of a group called the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) which was founded in Uganda, but then forced into DR Congo. Ugandan leaders say the group is part of the Islamic state group. Suicide strikes have been countered with air strikes and hosts of innocent civilians have died in the various attacks.

The list of places of violence in our world is long and complex. These few examples are yet another demonstration that human efforts at bringing peace to the world are far from successful.

One of the lessons of Advent is that there is much for which we pray that we are incapable of achieving by ourselves. The gifts of Advent are gifts of God, not human achievement.

The Gospel of Luke has the amazing story of Zechariah, a priest in the temple at Jerusalem who had prayed for years to become a father. One day Zechariah was chosen by lot to be the priest to carry the incense into the sanctuary while the people were praying outside. While he was in the sanctuary an angel of God appeared to him and told him that his wife would bear a son who would turn many people to God. Zechariah questioned how such a thing could be and cited his and his wife’s ages as a barrier to them becoming parents. The angel gave his name, Gabriel, and told Zechariah that since he did not believe the words of the angel, Zechariah would become mute, unable to speak, until the child was born.

Loss of the ability to speak is not a good career move for a preacher. Elizabeth, wife if Zechariah conceived and bore a son. The relatives and neighbors rejoiced. Zechariah recovered his ability to speak and sang a song of praise and prophecy that is recorded in the Gospel story. That song is the reading for our Advent worship this week. It ends with these words: “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

Zechariah’s vision is not of peace resulting from human diplomacy. It is not of peace-making by world leaders. Rather it is of the light of God showing humans the way and guiding our feet onto the pathway of peace. When I read this passage, most intensely during Advent, I begin to think that there are many times when our words and all of our talking do little to bring about peace. Maybe we, like Zechariah, would do well to sit in silence and listen for a while.

This Advent I am aware of how our Advent wishes are very different from a set of goals that we set and then go to work to achieve. They are, rather, prayers that we offer and meditation worthy of our silence. Hope, Peace, Joy and Love are the prayers of every Advent. They are not accomplishments to be celebrated, but gifts of God.

There is a small technical problem in translation that occurs at the end of the song of Zechariah. Scholars have some disagreement about the tense of the verb used to describe the dawn from on high. Some translate it as a future tense: “the dawn from on high will break upon us.” Others translate it in the past: “the dawn from on high has broken upon us.” Like other visions inspired by God, the future becomes present. The not yet already is. The gift of Christ is both vision for our future and a present reality.

The peace for which we long is also a gift we are able to receive. Our prayer, often repeated as a benediction in worship is for the peace of God - the peace that passes all understanding - to be with you. We may not understand, but we are able to receive God’s peace. Perhaps the first step in that process is to accept the gift of silence and listen.

Healthy living

It is a story that would have seemed strange to us a couple of years ago, but things have changed. Now the story is, I imagine, fairly common. Some of us had been together in a setting where care was taken to prevent the spread of the Covid-19 virus. All of us had been vaccinated. We wore face masks. We kept our distance. We followed the protocols that we had been taught. Later, one of those persons discovered that they might have been exposed to someone with Covid and so administered an at home Covid test. The at-home test kits are available at pharmacies and test for the present of Covid-19 antigens in the body. These tests deliver results in about 15 minutes. They are considered a preliminary screening tool and those who receive a positive result are advised to go to a physician’s office where a reliable PCR test can be administered which will detect active Covid-19 infections and provide results in 1 to 2 days. There is some evidence that people who have recently received vaccines are slightly more likely to obtain false positive results from the at-home kits.

The person who suspected possible exposure got a positive from the at home test. Acting responsibly that person notified others with whom they had been in contact and made arrangements for the follow-up PCR test. When I received the news, one person advised that I might go ahead and get an at-home test kit. However, I didn’t feel that I was at risk, having followed safety protocols and not having any symptoms. I do not have an at-home test kit at my house and decided that I did not need to be tested at that time.

In the meantime, another person in the group did administer an at-home test and received positive results. A second test administered by that same person also returned a positive result. That person also scheduled a PCR test at a physician’s office and notified the group. Concern levels were raised after these results. Plans for the weekend were changed. Once again, I didn’t feel at risk and decided to take a wait and see approach.

It turned out that both of the people who had received positive results from their home tests tested negative on the PCR tests administered in medical offices. The most likely scenario is that there was no exposure to the virus. However, out of an abundance of caution, at least one member of the group has self-imposed a ten day quarantine to make sure that no one else is exposed to possible exposure.

I couldn’t have imagined such a scenario before the pandemic left such devastating results on the world. Now it seems like a reality that might happen again and again as we learn to live with the presence of this illness in the world. We have learned to fear the disease and the spread of infection.

Modern scientific medicine has so long focused on symptoms and illness that we often lose sight of wellness and wholeness. As we go through the process of establishing new health care relationships following our move, we are deeply aware of how our health care providers focus on just a narrow part of our entire lives. The dentist looks only at our teeth. The optometrist looks only at our eyes. The dermatologist considers our skin. The cardiologist checks our heart. Our primary care physician is supposed to consider our overall health, but doctors in our country are not trained to consider health. They are trained to look for disease. An examination with a primary care physician is a series of tests looking for specific diseases.

Schools, once seen as centers of intellectual health and churches, once seen as the centers of spiritual health, rarely see themselves as part of the overall health care picture. Physicians are increasing their awareness of how important mental and spiritual health are to the overall well-being of their patients, but the system persists in relegating health care to a very narrow list of symptoms with very little consideration of the overall well-being of patients. The use of the word “patient” itself denotes that the role of the person involved is one of passivity rather than active engagement in working towards wholeness and wellness.

A self-test that yields rapid results uses a very narrow set of chemical criteria to declare either negative or positive. A positive result is not an indication of illness, but it has the capacity to disrupt lives. In our little circle, seven or eight people had their anxiety raised. Two people rushed to consume high cost emergency health care and at least one person is self-imposing a ten day isolation from others, meaning a readjustment of work schedules and responsibilities as well as additional effects on co workers and family. All of this is because someone suspects the possibility of illness, not because of any evidence that illness is present.

Like our physicians, we have become so focused in illness that we are unable to look for wellness.

As I age, I am well aware of a growing list of symptoms that are a part of my life. I am stiff when I rise. I have a bit of arthritis in my hands. My feet have a tendency to swell if I don’t remain very active. I have a couple of places in my body where tendonitis causes a bit of pain. I have to be careful about my balance. I don’t see as well as once was the case. My hearing isn’t perfect, either. I could make a long list of symptoms to give to a doctor. The bottom line, however, is that I am a healthy person. I can put in a full day’s work at the office or at the farm. I can get down on the floor and play with my grandchildren. I walk several miles each day without needing a cane or walking stick. I consider myself to be a healthy person.

I refuse to surrender my health to a list of symptoms and I refuse to surrender my health to a dependence on a medicine cabinet filled with at-home tests for illness when no symptoms are present. I work hard to be responsible. I don’t want to unwittingly spread illness to others. I follow the safety protocols. I seek out vaccination when it is recommended. But I am not going to lock the doors and quarantine because of the fear that I might have been exposed to someone who might have been exposed to someone who might have had a positive test. Instead, I’m going to go for a walk and get some exercise and be grateful for the health that I enjoy.

Looking at the stars

There were just a few clouds when I stepped out on our back deck last night. Our neighborhood has street lights, but they are not the super-bright ones that make it impossible to see the sky at night. I took a little time to gaze at the stars and watch the sky as a few airplanes crossed overhead. This house is sort of reversed from the one in which we lived for twenty five years in the Black Hills. That house faced north and our back deck was on the south side of the house. This house faces south and our back deck is on the north side of the house. The rental house where we lived for a year between those two houses also faced mostly south with the back deck on the north side of the house. As a result, I’m not feeling disoriented about directions in this house despite the winding roads that lead to our home.

It has, however, taken more than a year for me to begin to become oriented to the night sky. I look up and have to think for a while before I can identify familiar stars and planets. I have to do a bit of searching for the constellations, which sometimes aren’t quite where I expect them to be. I have decided that the issue is not so much the orientation of the house as the clouds in the sky.

First of all, there are simply more overcast days here than any other place we have lived. When we moved to Boise, Idaho, now more than 35 years ago, our realtor boasted that the city enjoys 360 days of clear skies each year. That boast might not be completely accurate, but there aren’t many cloudy days in that place. When we moved to South Dakota, there were a few more cloudy days, and we would occasionally wake to the magic of fog in the hills, which made the place seem mysterious. It also added a delightful sparkle to all of the trees on frosty mornings. Now we live in a place where the locals say a day has clear skies when there are still plenty of visible clouds. If there is a patch of sky without a cloud, we tend to simply enjoy and appreciate the view of the blue, or at night, the patch of stars.

The winds aloft must have been blowing strongly last night because as I sat outside and looked up at the sky, the clouds were traveling across the sky at a good place, leaving the patches where I could see the stars in between and giving me a view of most of the sky from horizon to horizon over a period of 15 or 20 minutes.

I am not an astronomer. I can’t name very many of the lights I see in the night sky. I know the locations of just a few of the major constellations. I understand the principles of celestial navigation, but I couldn’t apply them. I’ve never used a sextant when finding my way depended upon my ability to make an accurate measurement.

However, I do appreciate having a sense of where at least a few of the major stars can be found in relationship to where I am. I appreciate how ancient people were able to find familiarity in the night sky and learned to find their way home based on their observations. I marvel at the journeys undertaken by people to cross oceans in a time before radio navigation or GPS, but I can identify with the sense of feeling oriented to the world when you can see the night sky.

We are approaching the time of the year when we always tell the story of wise ones from the East who followed a star to visit a baby. The stories of our people say that those wise ones worshiped the baby and offered gifts. We’ve used that story to explain our own traditions of giving gifts as we celebrate Christmas. I’ve read the story so many times that I have entire sections memorized word for word. The other parts of the story are so familiar to me that I can tell the story without any reference to the words on the page. It makes sense to me that people in the ancient world would have noticed a change in the night sky. A star that was new or different would have been worthy of study and caused a careful observer to question the meaning of such a phenomenon. They didn’t have airplanes and satellites to contend with when they observed the night skies. They also didn’t have light pollution that results in our being able to see fewer stars and planets.

On the other hand, while the process of following a star worked to get them to a particular region, it didn’t give complete directions for them to find a specific address. To find the child they had to stop along the way and consult with other scholars, including those who were familiar with the traditions and scriptures of the people. They used clues from the writing of the prophets, given to them by the advisors of the king, to find the child. And then, they trusted their instincts and the messages of their dreams to plan an alternate course for their return journey.

I only know the story as our people have been telling it for thousands of years. I don’t have access to many of the details. I once attended a planetarium show that purported to explore what the star of Bethlehem might have been and how it could have appeared in the night sky, but such a program is based on quite a bit of conjecture and speculation. After all, we don’t know the exact day or even the time of year in which that star appeared and the wise ones used it to find the Christ child.

Looking at the night sky, however, inspires awe and wonder in me. So do the stories of our people. Both are necessary for me to understand where I am and my place in this vast universe.

Less interested in the games

I was speaking to a friend last night and learned that he was at home when he had previously planned to be at Revelstoke, a ski resort town on the west slope of the Canadian Rockies. As things turned out, the highway they had planned to follow on part of the journey to their destination, Canada 1, is closed by flooding between Abbotsford and Hope. The route around the closure involves crossing the Cascades here in Washington on US highway 2 or Interstate 90, then continuing east in the United States before taking secondary roads north. The road closure adds about three hours to a trip that normally would take six hours in good weather and there are several mountain passes between here and there which means counting on good weather in the winter is a gamble. Fortunately for this particular friend, they were able to reschedule their trip and hope to make it to the ski town yet this winter.

Another friend’s family didn’t have the same option. They came from their home in Canada last week to Bellingham to attend a family funeral and navigated the long journey around the closed roads to spend the weekend with family before facing the trip home which started in the dark and ended in the dark after a very long day.

Folks are starting to figure out ways to work around the closed roads and railroads which will be closed for some time as major engineering and construction will be required to re-open the lines of commerce and communications following what authorities are calling a 500-year flood event.

The canceled ski trip somehow reminded me of the year we planned and then cancelled a trip to Calgary during ski season. Our plan had been to drive from our home in Boise, Idaho, to my home town in Montana where we would pick up my mother and drive from there to Calgary. It would be a trip of a thousand miles each direction and our plan was to go in February with our two small children and my mother. I was more adventurous about winter driving in those days.

As it turned out, our trip was cancelled. Despite a lot of planning to arrange a trip to the 1988 Winter Olympics, we ended up getting caught up in a ticket scam when we ordered our event tickets. As it turned out, our check was seized by the RCMP in the investigation of the scam and we were not out the money we had sent, but by the time things were sorted out, there were very few event tickets available. We could only have gotten tickets to be alongside the course of a couple of downhill skiing events, too far from the finish line to see the results. There were no tickets left for stadium events such as figure skating, which had been a priority for us. That combined with our very tight budget and the strain our family would have put on the relatives with whom we planned to stay to make the wise choice that of watching the olympics on the television.

I was much more obsessed with skiing in those days. Living in Boise gave me easy access to frequent downhill skiing. Our local ski resort had night skiing with lots of lights and holding a season pass meant that I would sneak away for a couple of hours of skiing during the work week. Downhill skiing is a sport that slightly favors short-legged people. If you aren’t out to win races, you can get a lot of enjoyment from simply keeping your weight over the center of the skis.

As a result, I have sympathy for a friend who had to delay a ski trip. As it turned out, we never did become a part of the crowd at any Winter Olympics competition. It seems likely that we never will attend the games in person. What is more, I am not even very interested in the 2022 winter games. I haven’t been following the athletes and I have no desire to undertake a journey to China to be a part of a crowd. Times change. Priorities change.

Back in 1988, one of the winter sports events I followed at the Calgary Olympics was bobsled. The 4-man Jamaican Bobsled Team became the darlings of the world by qualifying to compete. Jamaica, as you can imagine, isn’t exactly a hotbed of winter sports. The team was an anomaly and they were definitely underdogs, but the presence of the team at Calgary as well as subsequent returns of two-person teams to other winter Olympic games, brought a lot of attention to the tropical island nation.

This year, I’ll probably pay a bit of attention to Arif Khan, who qualified for the Olympics skiing on artificial slopes at Ski Dubai. He was the first, and so far the only, athlete from India to qualify for the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics. India has never won a medal at the winter Olympics. Khan is 31 years old - a good deal older than most of the other competitors. I’m always interested in outsiders who push the boundaries of sport. Even if he doesn’t earn a medal, the fact that he has qualified is a major accomplishment. And Khan is guaranteed to remember these games for the rest of his life. After all, he pushed back the date of his wedding in order to train for the competition.

I am not, however, as interested in the Olympics as once was the case. I may watch a few videos of the competition on my computer, but I won’t be planning my life around the live televised coverage of the events, as was the case years ago. Sports does provide some much-needed distraction in a world where the news is dominated by disaster, pandemic and violence. But in the face of so many crises, sports also seem to be a bit less important than so many other things that are happening.

I wish the athletes well. I pray for their health and safety. I hope the injuries will be few. The Olympic games are meant to promote good will and peace between nations. May they do so this year as well. For now, I’m glad to know that my friends are not out on the roads and safe at home.

I belong to a family

One of the challenges of any move is the process of establishing new relationships with health care providers. In our case, we had just begun to establish new relationships with doctors and physician’s assistants in Mount Vernon, where we lived for one year when we made the move up here, which has meant establishing some new relationships. It has been a bit complex. There are some doctors who are not accepting new patients and others who are so busy that scheduling an appointment means a wait of months before being seen. We have not been suffering in any way, but the process has been time-consuming. In general, I have the perception that medical practices in the area are under staffed. Wait times of more than half an hour to get a response to a phone call are not uncommon. Web pages are incomplete, not up to date and frustrating when they crash or fail to work for simple functions such as making an appointment.

The shortage of physicians in the United States is due in part to intentional practices of the American Medical Association which, in the name of maintaining high standards, has consistently worked to keep admissions at medical colleges and universities low. Many well-qualified students are denied admission because there is pressure on medical schools to keep the number of graduates low. Low supply and high demand translates to high prices in a capitalistic economy and the ever increasing gap in pay between physicians and other health care employees is dramatic. It is common for a medical practice to be struggling to find employees to work as receptionists and office workers at near-minimum wages while guaranteeing income for physicians in numbers approaching a million dollars per year.

Health care prices in our country far exceed those of other countries while health care results are worse than those of our neighbors. We are paying more and receiving less. It is not a good trend and it has resulted in a severe erosion of trust in the medical professions.

All of that translates to a struggle for us to find health care providers. Part of that process has been filling out a lot of forms. Despite the trend toward electronic medical records, our move has illustrated how poorly various medical providers are at communicating with each other. We have had to become the stewards of our medical records and personally responsible for getting information from one practice to another when it should be easy for one provider, with our permission, to transfer our medical records to another provider.

So last night I was once again filling out health history, medication and immunization information for an appointment with a doctor’s office that will occur in January. I am not ill and this is not an emergency visit. I simply need an annual check-up and want to have the prescriptions for the medicines I take come from a provider who has actually seen and examined me. Medicare pays for an annual wellness check, but moving twice in two years has resulted in the span between check-ups lengthening.

Providing information to be entered by hand in the computers of the new practice required me to fill out eight pages of forms. This was pen on paper work that could not be accomplished by a computer and it was all information that I have previously provided to other medical offices, but in order to receive care one does what needs to be done and I was filling out the forms. One of the forms asked for birth year, age at death, and cause of death of close family members. Filling out the form was an opportunity for me to remember my parents and siblings who have died. I miss them and always will. My father died before he met my son, but I know they would have enjoyed each other. If nothing else, the fact that they both have raised chickens would give them a topic for conversation. My father would have really enjoyed our grandchildren. He reveled in the children of my older siblings and he would have enjoyed being grandpa to more children.

One of the things I remember my father saying repeatedly to me and to my brothers and sisters is “A family is hard work, but it isn’t a job. You can’t resign from a family.” He stressed over and over the obligation to stay in relationship with each other even when disagreements entered our relationships. I’ve thought of him and his lessons about family unity often over the span of my career in which I have witnesses many family estrangements. I’ve watched siblings argue over inheritance and rifts between family members open up that never heal. I've witnessed the break-up of marriages. Sometimes relationships have been so abusive that estrangement is the best choice for those involved. Having made the best choice, however, doesn’t heal the pain and loss that come with the breakup of a family. Just as I have learned to live with the grief of the loss of family members who have died, some families have to learn to live with the grief of the loss of family members due to estrangement. Often I have not understood the dynamics of the families I have witnessed break up. There are a lot of things in this life that are real even though I don’t understand them.

It may be a little thing, but I am very grateful that recalling my family’s medical history brings a smile to my face and a longing for those who have gone before me. I’m grateful that I miss my mother and father and sisters and brother. It would be so much more painful to record the medical histories of those with whom I had suffered broken relationships. We certainly didn’t always agree, but we were always family and that has made a big difference in my life. It is a value that I hope we have taught to our children and I will strive to teach to our grandchildren as well.