Annual Meeting

Annual Meeting! No other aspect of ministry caused me as much consistent anxiety as the congregational annual meeting. In a church with the Congregational form of organization, the annual meting is a time when the members take part in major decisions, including electing officers, voting a budget, receiving reports of the previous year, and much more. Since I was a pastor for 42 years and I participated in the annual meetings of the congregations where I was a member for most of the years up to my ordination, you’d think that they would have somehow become routine. It never happened for me. The thing that made me worried about annual meetings was that there are so many things that are unpredictable and out of the control of any single member.

A budget can be amended. A nomination can be made from the floor. A member can raise an issue that makes others squirm. There are a lot of things that you can’t anticipate that can occur. In all my years, however, I never experienced a major disaster at an annual meeting. I never got fired or had my salary cut or ended up with some group in the church trying to take over control. I’ve heard about these things happening, but they never happened in my time as a pastor or church member. Still, I worried. I thought about what might happen. Over the years, I lost a lot of sleep over annual meetings.

Such meetings, however, are at the core of what I believe about church and how churches should organize themselves. The Holy Spirit moves through the people of the church. The ordinary members of the congregation bring perspective to the decision-making process. Over and over again, my life has taught me that there is a big difference between what I want and what God intends. Getting my own way is not the way to follow God’s call. I need others. I need the community of the church to help me discern God’s call. And a meeting where the everyday member of the church are in control - not the clergy - is one of the ways that the whole church can listen to the call of the Holy Spirit.

I lost sleep over congregational meetings in part because I wholeheartedly believe in them. I care deeply about the process and about the people who participate in the process.

Suddenly (at least suddenly from my point of view), I am no longer the pastor of a congregation. I have retired from my role as a congregational leader. I may again serve as a pastor of a congregation, but for now it is right that I step aside and allow new leadership to emerge. That doesn’t mean that I don’t care. It doesn’t mean that I am not paying attention.

Over the years, I invested a lot of time and energy in preparing annual reports for congregations. I felt that it was important that the annual reports become an active historical document of the year for the church. I put a lot of attention into how the reports looked. I tried to make them readable and approachable. I worked with others to include photographs and details about the congregation and its ministries. This year, I didn’t have any annual reports to write. I didn’t edit the document or design its layout. I doubt that very many people noticed that each year the annual report set the graphic layout for the church’s documents. Each year the appearance of the annual report was reflected in the appearance of the monthly newsletter, the worship bulletins and the letterhead of the church. Those details probably have slipped in the transition of leadership in the church. Maybe they weren’t important to others.

I have taken time to read the annual reports of two congregations that are very important to me. The congregation we served for 25 years, 1st Congregational United Church of Christ in Rapid City, is one of those churches. I won’t be taking part in their annual meeting. It isn’t appropriate for me to weigh in on the decisions in front of that congregation. The other set of reports that I read carefully are those of the congregation we are in the process of joining, 1st Congregational United Church of Christ of Bellingham, Washington. I have a great deal more ability to be objective as I read reports written by people whom I have not yet met face to face. I will listen in on the annul meeting of that congregation today, but I am not yet fully a member of the congregation and will not speak or vote in the meeting. Observing, however, is a good way for me to get to know the congregation and to observe its processes as it plans for the year to come.

The fact that I am up in the middle of the night writing about it is not a sign that I am anxious. I’m more relaxed about annual meetings than I remember having been for a very long time. I’m happy to observe and see what happens. Because I will be taking the actions of the congregations I love less personally, I hope that I will be open to sensing the call of the Holy Spirit in ways that were challenging to me when the vote on the budget was a vote on my salary and the slate of nominees was he team with whom I would be working for the year to come. That doesn’t mean that I don’t care, just that my perspective has changed. That change of perspective is also an important element in my understanding of how the church works. The work of the church as it seeks to respond to God’s call is never about one generation only. God’s promise to God’s people is always a generational promise, sometimes taking several generations to be fully revealed. Leaders need to step aside and allow new leaders to emerge. The future is not in our hands, but in God’s.

As to my being up in the middle of the night there is a big difference between being retired and the years before my retirement. I can go back to bed and sleep as long as I want. I’m not losing sleep just because I am awake for a little while. I don’t have a prayer to prepare or a worship service to plan and lead. I can switch on my computer a few minutes before worship begins and leave it on for the meeting without having to be in charge. It is another lesson in retirement and a new way to understand the power of God working in the congregation. I have to admit it feels pretty good. I’m going to learn to like annual meetings.

Fashion

I’ve never been very concerned about fashion. People don’t look to ministers to discover the latest trends when it comes to clothing. For the most part, I’ve sort of worn the same kinds of clothes those around me have worn. I haven’t been one who needed to shop in the fancy stores and I don’t give much attention to brands when it comes to clothing. Being short, I favored cowboy boots for a long time. They were the common footwear in the town where I grew up and once I became old enough to buy my own clothes, I usually had a pair of boots that added a half inch or so to my height. I used to wear Levis because they came in a size that I could wear right out of the store. Most pants have to have the legs shortened before I can wear them. However, over the years, Levis have changed their sizing and the quality of the jeans is nowhere as good as once was the case. A couple of years ago I tore through the knee of a pair of Levis the first time I wore them. To add insult to injury, I can no longer find my size in the men’s department at the store. I know wear a boy’s size 16 instead of a men’s size. I’m not smaller than I used to be, either.

The dress code for a minister has always been a bit different in different places. But for all of my career, I wore a dress shirt and a tie on Sunday. Most of the time I had a good suit for Sundays and in recent years I have had several. In the last couple of decades of my ministry I allowed myself to wear colored shirts with my suits and I wore sport jackets with dress slacks more often than I wore suits. Still, I kept a suit for weddings and funerals and other special occasions.

I’m definitely old school now. Younger ministers who are serving the congregations I have participated in don’t dress up very much. I can remember the days when I wore a dress shirt and a tie every day for work, but even I wasn’t doing that in the last years before I retired. Still, there were plenty of occasions where I wanted to dress in a professional manner and I kept my suits and dress shirts clean and ready to go in my closet.

Having worked with youth groups, I had no shortage of t-shirts. I had t-shirts from youth events and fund-raising efforts and dozens upon dozens of “a-thons” where you got a t-shirt for registering. I used to have a t-shirt from every United Church of Christ National Youth Event from the time of my ordination through the early 2000s. When I retired, I had a t-shirt from every Front Porch Coalition “Out of the Darkness” walk from the beginning of that organization. I used to have a half dozen t-shirts from various UCC national capital funds drives. I wore t-shirts and jeans on my days off and vacations for most of my life. A few years back an episode with skin cancer encouraged me to back off of short sleeve shirts. I cleared out quite a few of my t-shirts, but there were plenty of long-sleeved shirts to keep a drawer filled.

Our rental home is the first place we have lived that has a walk-in closet. It is fairly large and has a lot of hanger space as well as room for a large chest of drawers and plenty of shelves for shoes and hats and other items. Every day I walk into that closet and choose the clothes that I will wear. And every day I look at my suits hanging there. I haven’t put on a suit since I retired. A lot of that is the result of the pandemic. I haven’t been inspired to dress up to watch a worship service online. I plan to dress up for church when we are able to resume in-person worship, but I know I’ll stand out from the congregation. There aren’t many people who dress up for church any more. A few years ago I visited a colleague who retired a few years before we did and he told me that he was one of only two men in his congregation who wore a suit and tie to worship every week. Then the other man died and now he is the only one. He continues to wear the suit and tie in honor of his friend who did so for all of his life. Of course he is worshiping online these days, and I haven’t asked him if he puts on his suit. I know the answer.

I think that business is very slim for traditional men’s suit shops. Nobody wears that kind of clothes any more. I’ve seen clergy who wear clerical collars with work shirts and denim shirts and all kinds of shirts. Recently I watched an online preacher who had the tab for a clerical collar in his shirt pocket while he preached. He hadn’t even bothered to put it on. Casual clothes on ministers, bankers, doctors, lawyers and others has become very acceptable.

Also in that walk in closet are several clerical robes and stoles that I suspect won’t be getting any use in the years to come.

Meanwhile, I’ve settled in to work shirts and cargo pants everyday. If I’m out at the farm, which is fairly regularly, I can put on my muck boots and toss a couple of bales or walk through the pasture with my grandchildren. I have extra pockets to keep my plastic bag with my clean face masks handy. I can keep my keys and pocket knife and even my phone in my pockets and have them with me when I need them. The other day I hauled a trailer load of hay to the farm. I’ve been finding hay in the pockets of my sweatshirt ever since. In the summer when we are putting up wood for the winter my pockets will be full of wood chips from the chainsaw.

And when we can go back to church, I suspect I’ll get dressed up on Sundays even when I’m the only one. Then again, I’m pretty sure it would bother no one if I came in a work shirt and cargo pants.

Exploring

Growing up in a small town, we were allowed to explore and discover all kinds of details about the place we lived. I knew the names of all of the neighbors cats and dogs. I had climbed trees all around our town and looked at it from all different angles. We had walked up and down all of the alleys and peered into all of the garages and learned how to find our way around even on dark nights. As paper boys, we were up before many of our town’s residents and rode our bikes from one end of the town to another, discovering every shortcut possible. Our town was a safe place for kids and we knew that there were almost always adults watching us and that any infractions would be reported to our parents quickly, but we had a great deal of freedom to explore and discover all kinds of things about our town.

I don’t think that I’ve been as familiar with any other place that I have lived. In college and graduate school, we changed apartments with the school year. I got to know some of the buildings on campus and learned how to navigate to the places I needed to go, but I didn’t have the free time to just wander around and explore. After graduation, we lived in a small town, and got to know the people and place very well, but it seemed like I was always rushing from one place to another with little time to pause and explore.

Retirement is giving us an opportunity to explore our surroundings in a new way. We go walking every day. Sometimes we walk in familiar places. There are walking paths and trails near our home that we’ve been on dozens of times. Other days we discover new short cuts or wander through the neighborhood. Because we have time we will walk around a cul de sac and look at the houses or walk down a street just to see where it goes. We don’t know the names of the neighborhood dogs and cats, but we’ve greeted many of them and have identified some yards where the dog always is out and others where it is only out at certain times of the day. We know some apartments where there is usually a cat at the window.

Even though we have only lived in this house for about three months I feel like I am getting to know the neighborhood better than I have know some of the places where we have previously lived. The interesting thing to me is that we probably aren’t going to live here long term. We have rented a home with a one year lease so that we will have time to shop for our next home. So far, we haven’t found any great leads. Housing is expensive here and the inventory of homes for sale is small. We’re not feeling any pressure to act quickly, so we are taking our time and we are exploring a wide area. It is possible, but unlikely, that we will find a more permanent home in this neighborhood.

It is, however, a wonderful neighborhood. Unlike the subdivision where we lived in Rapid City, there are many different kinds of housing within a very close area. Within a mile of our house, there are single family homes, duplexes, apartments, mobile home parks, assisted living facilities, care centers, and many different kinds of housing. We can easily walk to a dozen different churches, to the hospital, to a grocery store with a pharmacy, to parks and to elementary, middle and high schools. There is a college that is just over a mile from our home. Being close to the hospital, there are many medical offices and other professional buildings within a close space. Despite all of this diversity, the neighborhood doesn’t feel crowded. The yard of our house is much smaller and the neighbors are much closer than was the case in our South Dakota home, but there is plenty of open space in our neighborhood. It doesn’t feel closed in and crowded the way our Chicago apartments felt to me.

The pacific northwest has long been an attractive place to live. The mild climate and abundant salmon runs attracted several different indigenous tribal groups thousands of years ago. When European explorers came to visit, settlers soon followed. Volcanic soils and abundant rainfall produced lots of crops. Dutch settlers found their skills at building dikes and stopping saltwater intrusion made many farming areas productive. Loggers found abundant resources for their trade. Miners discovered rich ores in the nearby mountains. For hundreds of years this region has been home to speakers of dozens of different languages. English and Spanish are the two most common languages in our immediate area, but we notice highway signs with place names in the languages of pacific tribes and neighbors with names that reflect a Chinese heritage. As we drive from our home to our son’s farm, we cross three different reservations: Samish, Lumi and Nooksak.

There is a lot to explore in the region. State and national parks are within less than an hour’s drive. We have easy access to the seashore and the mountains. The large city of Seattle is close enough for a day trip. And we have flown to international destinations from both the Seattle and Vancouver airports.

But for now walking around our neighborhood gives us plenty of interesting adventures. I don’t think that I have taken notice of the details of my surroundings as carefully since I was a child, exploring my hometown first by walking and then by bicycle. I’m rediscovering the joys of noticing who has painted their fence and who has trimmed their trees, paying attention to the pets and other animals, and walking down a narrow street just to find out what is at the end of it.

The pandemic has limited where we go and what we can do. We don’t know the restaurants of this place and haven’t explored the shops. We haven’t gotten to know the people in our church or sat in the library watching people. Still, there is much to see and do and discover and so far there has been adventure around every corner. I’m not bored yet.

Healthy boundaries

Throughout our careers as ministers, both Susan and I have been active proponents of recurrent boundary training for all authorized ministers. We have also promoted boundary training for church volunteers. In the early years of our ministry, there were very few opportunities for boundary training. Other than a few conversations about professional ethics in a seminary polity course, the abuse of power by clergy wasn’t a topic of our education. We had been pastors serving in the church for more than a decade before we had our first opportunity to take a serious continuing education course in clergy abuse and boundaries. The result was that there were predators who operated within the church and innocent people, commonly children, were abused. Some of the abuse came to light in various scandals that erupted within the church, but much of it went unchecked for decades. Both of us have been involved in the work of Committees on the Ministry and other groups within the church to which has fallen the grim task of investigating allegations of abuse and recommending appropriate responses when abuse has occurred. For a couple of decades I chaired the west river sexual abuse investigation task force of the United Church of Christ in South Dakota and participated in multiple investigations.

Early in our experience it became clear that our goal had to turn from investigation and response to prevention. Our mantra became: “No new victims.” What started as occasional offerings of boundary training became mandatory training every five years and recently the standard has been raised to mandatory training every three years. The training has been mixed in quality and effectiveness as leaders within the church learned the best ways to conduct the training. In the Tri-Conference of Iowa, South Dakota and Nebraska, the standard was raised before the training programs were in place and some clergy found ways to avoid participating in training at the intervals prescribed. The covid pandemic forced the church to develop effective on-line learning strategies and the Tri-Conference now offers regular recurrent boundary training in an online format.

Today is our day to participate in that training. Our standing as clergy is still in South Dakota. As retired pastors, we have not been participating in any ministerial activities since our retirement, but we want to maintain our standing and continue to find was to serve. It is our intention to transfer our church membership and ministerial standing to the Pacific Northwest Conference this spring, so we want to have all of our professional continuing education in place in preparation for the process of transfer of standing.

The commitment is reasonable. Because the course is taught from the Central Time Zone, it starts early out here in Washington, but that means that the six hour training will be completed early in the day for us. We have done a couple of tests to make sure that our home Internet service will support the bandwidth of two computers for our participation and are confident that we can fully participate in the training.

Clergy boundary training is not just about sexual ethics, although the suffering of the victims of clergy sexual abuse must never be forgotten and the dedication to prevention of further abuse is a definite goal of the continuing education of all clergy in our church. Clergy abuse power in other ways including financial improprieties, abuse of power in church decision-making, workplace harassment and other infractions of professional ethics. As retired clergy, we are aware of our ethical responsibilities to maintain barriers in our relationship with the congregations we served during our active ministry years to allow new leadership to emerge and the congregations to make their own independent decisions. While we deeply care about the people we have served, it is essential that we not abuse the trust that has been placed in us over the years of our service. Our decision to move away from South Dakota was based in part on our commitment to observing these boundaries. The physical distance removes us from the picture as the congregation goes through its own process of interim ministry and selection of new leaders.

So today is a day for rolling up our sleeves and going to work to listen carefully and learn as much as we are able about maintaining healthy boundaries for effective ministry. Much of the content of the class will be things that we have encountered before. This isn’t our fist opportunity to address the topics of the course. Repetition, however, is an effective teaching and learning strategy. I know that when I think I am fully informed and know everything that is being taught it is a time for me to buckle down and listen more carefully to nuances and details that I might have missed in previous discussions. I don’t know how interactive the online format will be and I understand that it will be exhausting to be in front of the computer for such a long span. My usual tolerance for a zoom meeting or Skype conversation is generally less than an hour at a time. I haven’t spend multiple hours online for any topic since I retired. I’ll have my cup of tea ready as we begin and supplies handy for breaks so that I can focus during the learning time. We rescheduled other plans so that there will be no interruptions during our class.

I suspect that one of the lasting effects of the pandemic will be that much of clergy professional continuing education will continue to be offered in online formats. As retired clergy, we will need to be willing to learn new strategies and techniques for participation. The tools of effective ministry didn’t require any knowledge of computers and their use when we began our careers. That has changed. Whether or not we like it, we need to make the use of current technology in order to maintain professional competency and protect the people we serve.

It should be an interesting adventure and I expect that by the middle of the afternoon, I’ll be ready for a nap. Retirement doesn’t mean that I stop working, only that I change some of my strategies.

An uneasy comparison

It has been a week since the Johns Hopkins University tracker of Covid-19 deaths in the United States passed the 405,400 mark. That number is deemed to be significant because historians list the total US combat and non-combat deaths in World War II at 405,399. Since that number was passed, pundits and politicians have been using the number to emphasize how serious the pandemic really is. “More US citizens have died from Covid-19 than in all of World War II.” “This is a war with the casualties of war.” I’ve heard a lot of comparisons.

The number stood at 425,216 when I checked the tracker a few minutes before writing this journal entry. It is a tragic and shocking number and there are many indicators that it will go much higher before the virus’s deadly march through the population has ended. Another shocking statistic has been how the United States has suffered the highest death rate from the pandemic. It has remained fairly constant since mid summer that although the United States represents only 4% of the population of the world, it has suffered nearly 20% of the deaths. If you look at the map of covid deaths that appears on the Johns Hopkins website it is fairly easy to conclude that if you use the war analogy, this war, unlike World War II, is raging on our home turf.

The trauma of war is never limited to the fatalities. Nor is it limited to the grief of the immediate families of the casualties. The trauma of war extends to the comrades who survived but witnessed the violence, the doctors and nurses who treated the wounded, and the non-combatant witnesses as well. As I pastor, I’ve listened to too many death bed confessions and too many stories told by those who participated in World War II and lived for many years beyond the war to ever think that the casualties of war were only those who died before the end of the war was declared.

I suppose that there are some reasons why making the comparison between the pandemic and other historic events has some value. It is difficult for us to wrap our minds around the scale of the event that is occurring this year in our world. We don’t have the right words to speak of the tragedy. We look at the pictures of 400,000 flags on the national mall in Washington DC without being able to process them as individuals. It is the mass we see. It is just another big number in a world of big numbers. The Bureau of Labor Statistics says there are 12.6 people unemployed in the United States. The United States federal budget deficit was $984 billion in 2019. It is estimated that there are two million homeless people in our country. We are constantly confronted with huge numbers and find ourselves unable to process the information. As a result, we turn to analogies and comparisons to try to understand what is going on.

Comparing the casualties of the pandemic to the casualties of war, however, is problematic. Although both represent mass casualty events, for the victims and the survivors death is never a mass event. The pandemic has resulted in the deaths of over 2 million people, but their loved ones are not thinking in terms of millions. They are thinking in terms of Steven and Alan and John and Jenny and Harry and Denise and Mark and Beryl and Floyd and Paul and Muriel and Matt and Daniel and on and on. They are experiencing death as an individual experience.

If you sat on the battlefield of any war having witnessed the horror of the deaths of your friends and vowing to never forget them, any comparison that anyone makes will fall short and seem like a betrayal of your promise. “How dare you compare what is going on today to the tragedy of the war I experienced?” You can see how comparisons will always result in offending some people who have deep concern.

If you are currently mourning the deaths of multiple family members from the pandemic, there is no experience, in war or peace that compares with what is going on right now. This pandemic is unlike anything that the world has ever before experienced. Try as we might, every comparison will fall short.

If I were an advisor or political speech writer, which thankfully I am not, I would try to avoid all comparisons. I would seek to tel the truth about the depth of loss and the weight of grief through which we are navigating. I would try to find words of compassion and ways of making personal connections with those who are grieving. I would probably end up reaching for poetry and metaphor to express the tragedy that is too large for language, but I would avoid the use of simile. I would look for sentences that contained, “This is like . . .” and seek to replace them with other words. Simply put, there is nothing like what we are now experiencing. This pandemic is unique in all of history.

If you drive across central Washington you will see deep coulees and basalt cliffs and tortured landscape. Geologists say that the the end of the last ice age, between 12 and 15 thousand years ago a two thousand foot high ice dam gave way, draining Lake Missoula that covered much of Montana. More than ten times the flow of all of the rivers of the world rushed through and shaped the land. No humans witnessed the cataclysm. Geologists have drawn conclusions from the rocks and the shape of the land. Thousands of years later the scars remain to tell a story.

It is also true of human tragedy. The scars of this pandemic will remain long beyond the span of our lives. The stories they tell will be repeated - perhaps for as long as there are humans on this planet. It defies comparison. We would do well to be careful in our choice of words when speaking of the tragedy.

Ginger snaps

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When I was a child, I formed ideas that I can remember as an adult, but I don’t know where they came from. I can remember believing that store-bought cookies were inferior to those that were made at home. I don’t remember anyone ever telling me this. It was just something that I accepted as being the truth with no memory of how I learned it or came to that conclusion. We often had home-made cookies at our house, but we also sometimes had store bought cookies.

I have a very clear memory of boxes of Nabisco Vanilla Wafers. They came in a yellow box with the red Nabisco seal in the upper left-hand corner and the big printed “NILLA” in the center of the box. There were pictures of the cookies dancing around the box. There was a recipe for banana pudding on the box, though I don’t think we ever had banana pudding at our house when I was a kid. Proper pudding, we believed, was chocolate and it was to be made to Aunt Teddy’s recipe. We got chocolate pudding after someone got an angel food cake for their birthday. The angel food cake took a bunch of egg whites and left a bowl of egg yolks in the refrigerator. Chocolate pudding was something that was made from egg yolks. What I do remember about vanilla wafers is making sandwiches with them. You take two vanilla wafers and put a slice of banana between them.

I also remember being told, though I’m not sure by whom, that you didn’t criticize the food that you were served in someone else’s house. Complaining about food wasn’t tolerated in any form in our house. We ate the food we were served and we were served good food. I don’t remember it being a problem. My siblings had a few quirks. One of my brothers claimed that he didn’t like peanut butter and refused to eat it. I couldn’t understand him. What is not to like about peanut butter? One day we held him down and forced him to eat some peanut butter after which he declared that he did like peanut butter. I think he enjoys it as an adult. When I was a baby I had some kind of gluten intolerance. I remember thinking that I could eat Cheerios but not Wheat Chex and I was served oatmeal even if the rest of the family was eating hot wheat cereal for breakfast. Whatever allergy I had, I seemed to grow out of and by the time I was a teen, I was eating wheat cereal with the rest of the family and I don’t remember ever suffering any discomfort because of it.

When it came to store-bought cookies, I have a distinct memory of eating ginger snaps at our great Uncle Ted’s house. I don’t have any memory of anyone telling me this, but I remember somehow thinking that it was just fine that Uncle Ted had store-bought cookies because Aunt Florence had died and he lived alone and had to make all of his own meals except for the times when he came to our house for Sunday dinner and for dinner on birthdays and holidays. Uncle Ted was a machinist by trade and he approached cooking as if it were an engineering problem. If he could find a shortcut, he would pursue it. He made his own “instant” coffee before we knew anything about the kind they sell in the store. He invented kitchen tools and had home-made spoons and spatulas. I don’t remember seeing any other beverages in his home except coffee and water. If we were over at his home doing chores such as raking leaves, mowing the lawn or shoveling snow, he would invite us into the house at 10 am and at 3 pm for coffee break. As kids we didn’t drink coffee, so we were given water in a coffee mug and he would put out a plate of ginger snaps.

I remember the box of Nabisco ginger snaps. I think it has looked the same for a very long time. On the front it says, made with real ginger and molasses. I don’t know what other kind of ginger and molasses there are. Does someone make imitation ginger? Can you buy imitation molasses? At any rate, Uncle Ted didn’t serve us ginger snaps from a Nabisco box. The ones he served us came from a bag. I don’t know what brand they were. On rare occasions we might get a home-baked cookie that had been sent home with Uncle Ted after a meal at our house, but that didn’t happen very often. Mostly it was a cup of water and a small plate of ginger snaps.

I have no family recipe for ginger snaps, and I don’t know what kind of ginger snaps Uncle Ted served. So, being retired, I’ve made a couple of attempts at baking ginger snaps. I’m getting the recipe refined. They are mostly butter, sugar and molasses, with a bit of baking soda and flour and, of course, ginger and cinnamon. The best ones aren’t too big - about the size of the bottom of a water glass. In my mind, ginger snaps are different from molasses cookies, which are soft and chewy in the middle. A good ginger snap will snap when you break it in half. And, when you get it just right, you can take a bite then take a sip of water, or even better milk, and it will dissolve in your mouth.

I haven’t gotten them perfect, yet. I’m not saying that I will never again buy ginger snaps. But I’m hoping that my grandchildren don’t remember store-bought cookies when they remember visiting our house. So far they seem to approve of my ginger snaps. And we have glasses and milk for children and for adults.

I think my recipe for ginger snaps is a “keeper.” Now, one of these days I might try a recipe I found in a church cook book for vanilla wafers. A couple of those with a slice of banana in between might make a good memory for a grandchild.

Speaking of Marie Kondo

A friend who is a bit of a fan of Marie Kondo, posted a question on Facebook intended to spark conversation: “If you were to keep only 5 books, which five would you keep?” I don’t post much on Facebook other than birthday greetings and I am not tempted to go into my personal preferences in that forum, but the question seemed silly to me.

I am trying hard to downsize. We did give away about 2/3 of our books in preparation for this move. For the record, we had a lot of books. We still have more than the average home, I suspect. We have three bookcases in our living room now, down from ten in our library in our home in South Dakota. There we both also had offices with walls of bookshelves filled with our personal books.

I find the question impossible. If I were to only keep 5 books, I assume that one would be a bible. At this moment, we have more than 5 bibles in our bookcase. Which is more important, the bible my parents gave me for confirmation with an inscription in my father’s handwriting, or the bible my mother’s father received from the national setting of the Methodist church for his service? Is my “Aussie Bible” paraphrase in outback vernacular more valuable than Clarence Jordan’s “Cottonpatch” version?

I have no problem with access to books. Our son is the director of a community library. I have a library card and can access many more books than just the ones on our shelves. I make good use of the library and usually have multiple books checked out at any moment. Even though the library here is not open for in-person visits, it does have curbside service and our library card gives us access to a huge library of digital books that can be read on my tablet computer.

Still, there are books that we enjoy owning. I have books that were written by my teachers, books to which I personally contributed, books that I enjoy reading over and over again, and books that were treasured by parents and grandparents.

So, rather than respond to the arbitrary choice of five books which are most important to me, I’m simply going to make a few observations about Marie Kondo.

I’m sure that most readers of my journal know that Marie Kondo is an organizing consultant and author and the CEO of Konmari Media, LLC. She has quickly risen to fame with her principles of organization that lean heavily on minimalism. Keep only the things that give you joy. Sort through every possession and get rid of the ones you don’t immediately need. You know the kind of advice she gives. It has a lot of value and can be helpful in our materialistic society.

She is an interesting person, but I’m not obsessed with her ideas. However, since my friend often brings up her name, I’ll offer a few observations.

First of all, Marie Kondo is young. She is younger than our youngest child. Her parents are both still alive. That fact alone begs two questions. The first is whether or not she has any possessions that remain at her parents’ home. Even though she married and has lived with her husband in Tokyo, San Francisco and Los Angeles, it certainly is possible that there is a box of items saved from her childhood somewhere in her parents’ home. Her mother may even have kept some of her schoolwork or childhood treasures intending to give it to her when she gets older. The second question is: "Will she be as ruthless with getting rid of things when the time comes for her to share in the sorting of her parents’ possessions. Having inherited the job of sorting through the possessions of our parents and other elders when they reached the end of their lives? I know how easy it is to accumulate family treasures. Some of the things in our house have been in our family for generations and we don’t see them as our possessions as much as a trust from others that we will pass on to future generations.

I wonder if Marie Kondo will have the same dedication to minimalism when she is in her sixties as she does in her thirties. I didn’t have as many possessions when I was her age as I do now. We were minimalists when we lived in a furnished efficiency apartment as graduate students. We owned only one piece of furniture: a small desk. People change. We should at least allow Marie Kondo the possibility of changing as she journeys through her life.

Secondly, Marie Kondo has a big brother and a younger sister. They probably already know that the task of sorting the parent’s possessions will fall to them and not to Marie. It seems likely that the family organizing consultant might not become the family historian and archivist. She can throw out family treasures and know that she will be able to turn to a sibling in the future who might have kept some of the things she discarded.

Thirdly, Kondo now has two daughters, Satsuki and Miko. I don’t know their ages, but if they have not yet done so, I bet they will discover Lego building toys. It is my observation that Lego bricks multiply on their own. You can try to limit the number of Legos in a home, but they will expand. Lego bricks might not spark joy in Marie, but her daughters might have a different opinion. She is lucky that we are not family friends, because I’m pretty sure that I couldn’t restrain myself from making a gift of Legos to her daughters.

And finally, Marie Kondo comes from multiple religious traditions. Her teachings are heavily influenced by Shintoism a traditional religion in Japan. She attended Tokyo Women’s Christian University. Chances are she has either a book of Shinto poetry or stories or a Christian bible or book of some kind. She is the author of four books. My hunch is that either she is not planning on writing any more books or she has allowed herself to keep more than 5.

Jonah

The Book of Jonah is a fairly short read - about the length of one of my journal entries at 1,082 words in the original Hebrew. The length of the book can vary depending on which translation you read, but it doesn’t take much time. It is not, however, the shortest book of the bible. In fact, you could read 3 John, 2 John and Philemon in fewer words than Jonah. Here is an interesting challenge. Place markers in your bible, set a timer for 15 minutes and read the 5 shortest books of the bible: 3 John, 2 John, Philemon, Obadiah, and Jude. Not only will you be able to do it, you then can say that you have read Obadiah, which, according to one blog post I read is the least favorite and least read book of the bible.

Unlike the epistles and prophets, however, Jonah is a narrative story. It reads easily and quickly. When I was living inside the lectionary and preaching regularly, we would encounter a reading from Jonah every three years on the third Sunday after Epiphany. I know that I commented to the congregation several times that they should go home and read the entire book. I’ve read the entire book out loud several times and it doesn’t take that much longer than the readings from scripture in a normal worship service.

The story of Jonah is fascinating, and not just because of the bit about getting swallowed by a great fish and (I like the King James translation here) vomited onto the shore. It is a classic tale of redirection. Jonah tries to run away from God’s call and God intervenes. Jonah ends up complying with the call. But the story doesn’t stop there. Today’s reading tells part of the rest of the story:

“The word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time, saying,"Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you."So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the LORD. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days' walk across.Jonah began to go into the city, going a day's walk. And he cried out, "Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!"And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.” (Jonah 3:1-5, 10 NRSV)

It depends on your perspective. On the one hand, Jonah may be the Bible’s least successful prophet. If you shall know a prophet by his fruits, he didn’t make an accurate prediction at all. He says that Nineveh will be overthrown in 40 days. It doesn’t happen. God changed his mind. On the other hand, he might be described as the Bible’s most successful prophet. He succeeds in getting the people to change. He cries out the threat of punishment and the people believe in God, proclaim a fast, and turned from their evil ways. WOW! Imagine if someone could have that kind of impact in any American city today!

Even that is not the end of the story. Jonah is rather disappointed that after all he has gone through, he doesn’t get to see the destruction of the city. He gets depressed, sits down under a tree and proceeds to have a temper tantrum. Even the shade fails him. He tries to argue with God, but God has already made it clear by the events that have already occurred that Jonah isn’t going to win an argument with God. If you want God to change God’s mind, you have to repent like the people of Nineveh.

It is an amusing tale and one that our people have treasured for a very long time even though we often don’t know what to do with it. I don’t have much patience for those who want to explore the story as some kind of historical report. Whether or not it is possible for any fish to swallow a human being whole, whether or not someone could not only survive but find the life-sustaining resources to breathe and pray from within a huge fish, whether or not you would end up on dry land after such an adventure - these don’t seem like very interesting arguments to me. This isn’t one of the stories our people kept because they want to remember history accurately. It is closer to a kind of Paul Bunion tale that has been treasured because of its exaggeration and humor. It is a kind of morality tale about what happens when you try to ignore God’s call for your life.

Whatever the reason the ancients preserved the story and included it in our holy scriptures, it does stand out and, in my opinion, not because it is a short, quick read. It stands out for four words in the 10th verse that are truly amazing: “God changed his mind.”

Jonah invites us to think about the nature of God in a new way. It invites us to think about our own lives and our future in a new way as well. The future is not predetermined. God hasn’t set our judgment in stone, but rather allows our lives to unfold. Certainly God had the power to stop Jonah from boarding the ship headed far across the sea to Tarshish. Jonah was given quite a bit of leeway to head in the wrong direction before ending up in Nineveh. On the other hand, God is not a disinterested observer in the story of Jonah. God actively participates to get Jonah headed in the right direction and to save the people of Nineveh.

Even when we don’t know all of the reasons the story has been so long treasured and told, it does seem worth our time to give it a read now and then. You can do it in the time it took you to read my journal today.

Old Boats

In his regular column in the January edition of the journal “Messing About in Boats,” Stephen Regan raised the question about how many former US Navy vessels should be kept as part of our historical record. He noted that approximately 80 former US Navy ships are now museum pieces. Historical institutions in the country also invest funds in preserving merchant ships, Coast Guard vessels, ocean liners and other things that float or once floated. There are 24 retired submarines open to the public when the pandemic isn’t raging. These mostly World War II vintage ships require constant maintenance.

As a subscriber to several journals and organizations that involve boating, and as someone who visits a lot of boating and boating-related museums, I frequently receive requests to donate to various boat preservation projects. Some, like the Wisconsin Canoe Heritage Museum in Spooner, Wisconsin, are modest institutions, based on grass-roots support. Others, like the Smithsonian Institution, with multiple museums and displays around the country and centered in Washington, DC, are multi-million dollar institutions that rely on government funding as well as private donations.

I think Regan’s question, “how many aircraft carriers and battleships are adequate to meet our historic preservation needs?” is legitimate. It is a decision that will be made not once, but continually, as we move forward.

I believe in preserving a bit of the past and I support the preservation of boats and ships as floating centers for teaching history. I am delighted that the USS Constitution is floating in Boston Harbor and that there are people who donate regularly to keep it from rotting away. I think that the on-going efforts to keep the USS Constellation afloat in Baltimore are worth the effort. But I wonder how many ships with the name “Iowa” need to be preserved. At this point all four Iowa class battleships have become museums. Those who live in Iowa, especially Navy veterans in the state, have trouble keeping track of the fund-raising efforts for the USS Iowa, lead ship of the class, which is berthed in Los Angeles as a Museum and the on-going fund raising for the USS Iowa, a brand-new submarine for which for which a committee is trying to raise $500,000 for commissioning and christening ceremonies. And if you are confused by that paragraph, you might also note that the battleship USS Iowa is the fourth battleship named after the state.

Iowa doesn’t have any ocean shoreline, but it is big on having ships named after it. Then, again, I have my biases. I grew up in Montana. The Montana-class battleship program was cancelled.

I don’t know what kind of problems fund-raisers are having meeting their goals, but I imagine that it has got to be hard to continue raising money for the on-going maintenance of floating historical museums when the museums are not open to the public. 2020 probably wasn’t a banner year for garnering the funds required to keep those ships from sinking. Some, of course, like the captured German U-505 submarine at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, are now on dry land, but they still require constant maintenance whether or not visitors are allowed to gather in their cramped spaces.

Somehow, taking a YouTube tour of a museum ship just isn’t the same as going to visit it and being allowed to walk through the interior spaces. And there are a lot of people like me, who make it a practice to avoid the attempts at becoming a donor to YouTube causes. Whenever they try to monetize the channels, I fast forward to get to the video.

In addition to individual museums, there are two groups that are charged with having oversight over the nation’s preservation efforts, the National Maritime Historical Society and the Navy’s Historical and Heritage Command. They have some tough decisions ahead as the number of ships no longer in service continues to grow with every advance of technology.

I don’t spend my life on the cutting edge of technology. Although I do have more than my fair share of boats, and am aware of the constant work required to keep them ready for the water, and have fallen behind in the last year with boat maintenance, I only have human-powered boats. I don’t have any boat motors in need of care. Oars and paddles don’t require much work, just an occasional bit of varnish. Wooden canoes and kayaks need to be stored away from the sun’s rays under cover, but other than an occasional sanding and refreshing of varnish they hold up pretty good. Now that my son has a barn and I live near his farm, I’m pretty well situated when it comes to having a place to store and care for my boats. Still, there is a bit of work involved and the list of things I need to get done seems to get longer each day. My varnish brushes will get a good workout in the next few months. The days are getting longer and my enthusiasm to get out on the lakes is fairly high, so I think I’ll get after the work over the next few weeks.

Reading about all of the museums trying to preserve old boats does, however, raise a question in my mind about my own fleet. What becomes of them in the next generation. I don’t think my children or grandchildren feel the need for all of the boats I have collected. The only boat I’ve ever had that has any historical significance has now been donated to the Whitney Preserve near Hot Springs, SD. My kids might keep one or two canoes, but the time will come when I need to find new homes for the boats. I’m hoping that I can find persons who are willing to treasure them. A good wooden canoe can last for hundreds of years with regular care.

That’s the problem with continuing to make new boats, whether you are a hobbyist or the US Navy. Someone has to figure out what to do with all of the ones you’ve already made.

Kulshan

2021-01-22
Part of learning to live in a new place is becoming oriented to the geography. It seems silly, but somehow our sense of North, South, East and West has been slightly altered by our new home. Part of our disorientation might come from the simple fact that we have never before lived so far north. Here in the winter, the location of the sun is never truly east or west, but always south. It isn’t really that much different from our home in South Dakota, but different enough that we tend to think of southwest, the direction of the sunset as west. The longer we live here the more we are gaining a sense of direction, but it takes time to get our internal compasses oriented.

There are some basics of our geography that might not be understood by those unfamiliar with this corner of the United States. For most of our lives, we have thought of Canada as being north of us. In Montana and North Dakota, the other high line states where we have lived, the way to Canada is north. If you look at a map of the longest international boundary in the world, however, you see that it takes quite a few twists and turns. In the Great Lakes Region, the border is a water border. Canada is north of Michigan, but it is also east of Michigan. New York has Canada to the north, but also to the west. Maine is nearly surrounded by Canada with borders on the east, north and west. And Alaska, of course, shares a long border with Canada that runs north and south, making Canada east in most of the state. Here in our little corner of the continental United States, Canada lies both to the north and to the west.

Mount Vernon is straight east of the capitol of British Columbia: the city of Victoria on Vancouver Island. On a clear day if you get in the right places, it seems like there are mountains in all directions. Even though we know that the Pacific Ocean lies to our west, the part of the water that is closest to us is the Strait of Juan de Fuca where the Salish Sea connects with the Pacific. The US-Canada border runs down the center of the Strait. There are snow-capped mountains on Vancouver Island that can easily be seen from the shore on a clear day. As one travels north, the land of British Columbia stretches a good deal west of the coast of Washington. Looking north we see snow-capped mountains. There are also places not far from our house where you can get a glimpse of the Olympic mountains to the southwest. And in the east are the Cascades, which rise dramatically and offer views of glacier-topped mountains year round.

Perhaps the most prominent feature of our region, aside from the ocean, is Mount Baker, known as Koma Kulshan or simply Kulshan to the indigenous people of the region. The tribes of the Pacific Northwest are quite different from our experiences with plains Indians. Tribes and language groups cross the international boundary. Many of the tribes were left with no land at all in the early part of the 20th century and have only regained reservation land by making corporate purchases of land. There are some very small reservations. Near here is a place where we drive across the narrow side of a reservation where it is less than a mile wide. It seems like some reservations consist of a welcome sign, a casino exit and a sign stating that you are leaving the reservation. Kulshan is sacred to several tribes. The Lumi and Nooksack people have ancient stories of the mountain. Its English Name, Mount Baker was given to it by the explorer George Vancouver who named it for 3rd Lieutenant Joseph Baker of HMS Discovery. The mountain also was known as Mount Carmel, named by Spanish explorer Gonzalo Lopez de Haro, who mapped it in 1790.

Mount Baker is the third-highest mountain in Washington and the fifth-highest in the Cascade Range. It is surrounded by wilderness and capped with more glaciers than any other mountain in the Cascades except for Mount Rainier. In 1999 Mount Baker ski resort set the world record for the largest amount of snowfall in a single season at 1,140 inches (95 feet). It also is an active volcano with a visible crater on one side. The crater is the reason for the indigenous name Kulshan. In the Lumi language, kwəlshé:n is the word for a puncture wound and refers to the crater on the mountain.

Living here and driving regularly between Mount Vernon and our son’s farm northwest of Ferndale, we are struck by the views of the mountain. Some days we can see little in the fog and rain. Some days parts of the mountain are visible while clouds obscure other parts. Some days the mountains appears to be far away. Some days it appears to be very close. The actual distance from our son’s place is 30 miles. It is a little farther from our home - perhaps 45 or 50 miles. Our house is at 190 feet above sea level. The top of Mount Baker is 10,781 feet. That is a steep rise in a short distance. The result is that there are lots of places that afford a good view of the mountain. There is a Bakerview Park and a Bakerview Street and a number of trails, roads and locations that bear the name Kulshan.

Like the indigenous people who have lived in this area for thousands of years, we newcomers are learning to orient ourselves to the mountain. We understand how the ancients felt that the mountain had a spirit and lent its identity to the people who lived within sight of it. It seems to us as if it has “moods” as the clouds girl around it. It helps us to understand where we are in this new place. We celebrate the days when the clouds part and the sun shines on Kulshan.

The Poetry is Back

By the time I took face to face classes from him, teacher and mentor Ross Snyder was 74 years old. He had taught Religious Education at Chicago Theological Seminary for generations of students. He had published scholarly books and practical books and two books of poetry. Among the assignments he gave to us as first year seminarians was to write poetry. At the time, I was not a fan of poetry. I had just finished four years of undergraduate education that had required the most intense scholarly work of my life to date. I had collected a file drawer full of outlines of books I was required to read, carefully taking notes on my reading lest I fail to understand the words that were set before me. Except for one course where fiction was among the required reading, I hadn’t read any fiction in my college career and I certainly didn’t make time for poetry. And yet, here was a graduate school professor asking m to write a poem. The assignment stumped me.

Ross, however, was a teacher to his core. He wouldn’t let me bypass the assignment. He coached me to write a paragraph. Then, he continued, “Count the words and remove half of them without removing any of the meaning.” I don’t think that the process produced poetry - at least I never found my stride with a poetry assignment. It was, however, a process that I have used for the more than four decades since. When you are a wordy person, as I am, learning to be concise is a discipline that improves preaching.

It has taken me decades of living to develop the growing appreciation for poetry that continues to enrich my life. Perhaps the most important factor in my love of poetry is my own aging.

It was Ross Snyder who introduced me to Jessie Jackson, the civil rights leader and director of Operation PUSH in Chicago. Jessie once commented that the two biggest challenges for a preacher were rhythm and pitch. I didn’t know what he meant at the time. I would have said Biblical scholarship and truth were the real challenges. Two other African-American preachers, Ruben Sheares and Jeremiah Wright, both of whom served Trinity UCC in Chicago, opened my ears to the power of rhythm and pitch in preaching. I loved to hear them preach and found myself swept up in their words, but I never imagined that I could speak in the ways that they spoke. I remember watching Ruben preach and feeling like the Bible was coming out of the core of his being and wishing that I could make the Gospel come alive as he seemed to do with such clarity and smoothness.

There are moments when words become art in ways that transcend. It is a truth reveals in the poetry of the Bible. It is not a mistake that the words of the Hebrew scriptures that Jesus quoted most often were the words of the poet Isaiah. Theologian and teacher Walter Brueggemann, who is perhaps the most influential Old Testament scholars of our time, refers to all of the prophets as poets and reminds us that poetry is the language of change and the language of justice.

My teachers were right. Poetry is essential to our humanity.

As I watched the Inauguration yesterday, I found myself thinking, “Thank God! The poetry is back!” I didn’t expect to be moved to tears by watching a 22-year-old poet reading her work, but I was. There was no poet at the inauguration four years ago, but that didn’t make that event exceptional. There have been only six poets featured in presidential inaugurations.

The first was Robert Frost who read “The Gift Outright” at the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy in 1961:

“The land was ours before we were the land’s 
She was our land more than a hundred years 
Before we were her people. She was ours…”

Maya Angelou read “On the Pulse of Morning” in 1993:

“A Rock, A River, A Tree 
Hosts to species long since departed, 
Marked the mastodon…”

In 1997, it was Miller Williams’ Of History and Hope”:

“We have memorized America,
how it was born and who we have been and where…”

Elizabeth Alexander read “Praise Song for the Day” in 2009:

“Each day we go about our business,
walking past each other, catching each other's
eyes or not, about to speak or speaking…"

It was “One Today” by Richard Blanco in 2013:

“One sun rose on us today, kindled over our shores,
peeking over the Smokies, greeting the faces
of the Great Lakes, spreading a simple truth
across the Great Plains, then charging across the Rockies…"

But yesterday! Yesterday it was a poet with the hands of a ballerina, the age I was when I received the assignment from my seminary teacher, who wrote the words the world will be quoting for generations:

“We’ve seen a force that would shatter our nation rather than share it,
Would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy.
And this effort very nearly succeeded.
But while democracy can be periodically delayed,
It can never be permanently defeated…”

Amanda Gorman had a speech impediment as a child. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times she said, "When you have to teach yourself how to say sounds [and] be highly concerned about pronunciation, it gives you a certain awareness of sonics, of the auditory experience.” In yesterday’s poem she described herself as “a skinny black girl descended from slaves and raised by a single mother [who] can dream of becoming president, only to find her self reciting for one”.

“We will rise from the golden hills of the West.
We will rise from the windswept Northeast where our forefathers first realized revolution.
We will rise from the lake-rimmed cities of the Midwestern states.
We will rise from the sun-baked South.
We will rebuild, reconcile, and recover.
And every known nook of our nation and every corner called our country, our people diverse and beautiful, will emerge battered and beautiful.
When day comes, we step out of the shade of flame and unafraid.
The new dawn balloons as we free it.
For there is always light, if only we’re brave enough to see it.
If only we’re brave enough to be it.”

Thank God! The poetry is back!

Inauguration Day, 2021

Yesterday National Public Radio aired an interview of historian and filmmaker Ken Burns by Rachel Martin. Martin was reporting on an essay Burns wrote for Politico offering an historical perspective on this time in America.

The story began by Martin saying, “Filmmaker Ken Burns has spent his career documenting American history, and he always considered three major crises in the nation's past: the Civil War, the Depression and World War II.”

“Then came the unprecedented "perfect storm" of 2020 — and Burns thinks we may be living through America's fourth great crisis, and perhaps the worst one yet.”

"We're beset by three viruses, are we not?" he explains. There's "a year-old COVID-19 virus, but also a 402-year-old virus of white supremacy, of racial injustice. ... And we've got an age-old human virus of misinformation, of paranoia, of conspiracies."

As upsetting as it was to have a group of people storm the United States Capitol two weeks ago, today we will witness a hallmark of American Democracy: the peaceful transition of power following a free and fair election. The insurrectionists who stormed the Capitol weren’t the biggest threat to our government and our way of living. They lacked the passion and commitment of those in the past who have sought to change the course of history. A little pepper spray was all it took to turn them back. They had not come prepared to sacrifice for their cause and have been whiny and complaining about their arrests for their crimes. If they had even faced the show of force that was used to clear a path for a photo op for the President in the midst of Black Lives Matter protestors, they would have scattered. They lacked true leadership.

While those who committed crimes, many of which are well-documented, should be prosecuted to the full extend of the law and given fair and objective trials, they are not the source of my worry about our great nation. What worries me is that there are millions of people, some of whom I know as friends, who have embraced the lies and misinformation about our nation’s recent election. It is not those who stormed the Capitol from without who pose the greater threat to democracy. It is the not insignificant number of members of the House of Representatives and Senate who even after the attack refused to accept the results of the election.

In the interview, Burns noted that such acceptance of the baseless claims of fraud are especially troubling after what is likely the most fair election in our history with the least amount of fraud, a fact born out by the opinions of court after court in state and federal jurisdictions which found no evidence of the fraud that was claimed by those who are upset that their candidate did not win. Their cries of foul are not supported by the facts. They have been unable to produce any evidence at all that can be seen by the courts.

Yet millions of Americans continue to listen to the lies and believe propaganda that is spread as if it were news.

As i reflect on the three major crises of our nation’s past as enumerated by Ken Burns, it seems to me that they have all come to focus in the events following last November’s election. Part of our current situation is that we are living the on-going effects of those crises. Historian Barbara J. Fields said, thirty years ago, about the Civil War, “It’s still to be fought, and regrettably it can still be lost.” The storming of the Capitol made her words sound prophetic as a crowd of white people, predominantly male carried the Confederate Battle Flag into the halls of our Capitol. There is no doubt that white supremacy and those who spout its rhetoric have been emboldened by the last four years of a president who encouraged and emboldened them. Three years ago when American Nazis marched in Charlottesville, with deadly violence, the president refused to condemn their actions. He has embraced members of the alt-right in our country including neo-Confederates, neo-fascists, white nationalists, neo-Nazis, Klansmn and various right-wing militias.

It isn’t just the Civil War which is still being fought. Another of our nation’s great crises continues as the ideology and rhetoric of Nazi fascism and white supremacy rear their ugly heads as if we had no memory of the reasons our nation went to war and so many of our people died in defense of democracy.

The third crisis in American history is also present in the struggles of today as millions of Americans are out of work and facing their inability to afford the basics of life. A foreclosure crisis as large as the Great Depression is bearing down on our country. Despite the words of the out-going president who said, “We did what we came her to do,” his promise of jobs closing the borders of the nation to immigration has resulted in the worst record on employment and the highest unemployment in modern history. Ask a coal miner how the last four years have worked out for them. Tell the record numbers of homeless people in our cities that they don’t have it as bad as the folks in the Hooverville communities of the depression. Ask them how the tax cuts of the last four years have benefited them. Economic disparity is at an all time high as the rich get richer and the poor get poorer and the middle class disappears under the weight of debt.

Among those who have been arrested for the attack on the Capitol are those who traveled by private jet to the rally. The insurrectionists had money and leisure for travel. Their numbers didn’t include the folks with their cardboard signs asking for help standing at intersections in every city in America.

In 1936, with the nation sill in the grips of the Great Depression, FED stood before the unfinished Mount Rushmore carving and body declared that he believed that American Democracy would still exist in 10,000 years. I hope and pray that he was correct. If so, we will need to continue to speak truth to lies and stand up to the threats of unfinished wars. Inauguration is a beginning. There is much work for all of us as we move beyond this crisis.

Ring a bell, light a candle

2021-01-19A
Shortly after we moved to Rapid City, we became involved in the Rapid City - Imaichi Sister City Organization. Imaichi is part of the greater Nikko area and the Sister City relationship has now grown to include the Nikko area. At the time, we had teenage children and among the programs of the Sister City relationship were annual exchanges of high school students. Students from Rapid City would travel to Imaichi and be hosted by families there for ten days. Then those students would travel together with students from Imaichi who would be hosted in Rapid City for ten days. We hosted students in the ten day program and then were able to host a student for a year-long exchange. Misami fit right into our family and we had a wonderful year that has become the foundation of a life-long relationship between our families. Although both of our children went to Japan for the 10-day exchange and our daughter was hosted in Misami’s home, it took us 20 years before Susan and I were able to travel to Imaichi in 2018 and visit Misami’s family and meet her parents. One time when we only had one or two grandchildren, I once said, “I think 5 would be a good number of grandchildren.” I told our children that between the two of them they could have five children. It was meant as a joke, and when it turned out that we have 4 grandchildren, I was and continue to be delighted. Then, last year, Misami had a daughter and so now I claim 5 grandchildren. Our family has a set of deeply personal relationships that grew out of the Sister City program.

Now that we have moved to Mount Vernon, Washington, one of the things that I want to explore and learn more about is Mount Vernon’s Sister City: Kure. Kure is a port city in the Hiroshima Prefecture of Japan. Hiroshima City is one of the places we were able to visit in our 2018 trip to Japan, so we have a sense of the area.

2021-01-19-B
I know a little bit more about the Sister City relationship between Seattle and Kobe, Japan. That sister city relationship has been active since 1957, with a huge number of exchanges and connections. In 1962, the City of Kobe gave a giant bell to the city of Seattle for the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair. The “friendship bell” is located in a courtyard north of the International Fountain. I visited that bell with my family when I was a child, but I have never heard it ring.

The Kobe Bell will ring out this afternoon at 2:25 pm as six ringers participate in a ceremony with a great deal more solemnity, sadness and grief. The bell will be rung 40 times reflecting the nearly 4,000 lives lost in Washington State and the 400,000 lives lost nationally in the United States. The ringing of the bell will be broadcast live and all interested are invited to participate through the Seattle Center Facebook page. The ceremony is part of the National Memorial to Lives Lost to Covid 19. As part of the day of remembrance and recognition, the Space Needle will be lit in amber, the color of a candle, along with other prominent facilities in the downtown Seattle area. Because of the difference in time zones, the Kobe Port Tower, a prominent feature of Kobe, has already been lighted in amber in recognition of the event in Seattle and the grim connection between the cities of having lost community members to the pandemic.

The ceremony, while very emotional for those who have lost loved ones, is a necessary part of the healing that lies ahead for cities and nations around the globe as we begin the long process of growing from the devastation of the pandemic. The pandemic has redefined how we grieve as a people. We have not been able to attend the funerals of those we love who have died. The fear of further spread of the disease has isolated us from what is usually a communal event - the formal recognition of our shared grief combined with our expressions of love and support for those who were closest to the one who died.

A national day to express grief, to share the burdens that have fallen on those whose family members have been lost, and to renew our hope is a welcome step on the long journey of healing as a people, as a nation, and as a world. We survive our grief by sharing our grief. We become a community by sharing the grief of others.


In Washington, DC, 400,000 flags have been planted on the national mall, which is eerily silent because of security precautions required for the Inauguration of President Biden and Vice President Harris. A lighting ceremony at the reflecting pool of the Lincoln Memorial will take place today as an expression of our national grief.

After months and months of national and state leaders who seem to have not been affected by the grief of our communities in the face of so many deaths, it is refreshing to have a time set aside for us to share the grief of so many of our sisters and brothers. It is a powerful day to remember that none of us are in this alone. We share the journey of life and death, of joy and grief, with others. What happens to one member of our community happens to us all.

Deep in our traditions are the stories of creation that are a part of our Bible. In the second chapter of Genesis it is reported that during the process of creation, God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone.” In our tradition, we acknowledge that we were created for each other. It is part of our essential nature to be with others and to share their lives. That includes sharing their grief.

Today is a national day of sharing grief - a day of mourning. It is essential that we also remember that it is not the last day. This day of mourning is not the end of our story. In the depths of grief there is hope. So we will ring bells and light candles and remember together.

“The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.”

Shopping around

I went house shopping for a little while last night. Of course I didn’t “go” anywhere. I looked at houses online using the popular Zillow and Redfin websites. We aren’t ready to make an offer on a house yet. We intentionally plan to live in our rental house for another eight or nine months so that we can size up the market, decide just where we want to buy and figure out what are the most important features in our next house. So looking at what is for sale now, even though that is not what will be for sale when we are ready to buy, is a way of preparing for that decision when it comes.

I have to be honest that I have trouble getting up my enthusiasm for looking for several reasons. One is simply that it isn’t the best time to be buying a home in this area right now. It is what they call a seller’s market. There are more potential buyers than sellers right now. Interest rates are low. The pandemic has demonstrated to many city dwellers that they don’t have to live as close to their place of employment and that much work can be done remotely, causing an exodus from expensive urban core areas. This is especially true of those in high technology industries. Seattle, which is home to Microsoft and Amazon and other huge Internet players, has thousands of people who are discovering that they don’t have to live in the city and who are attracted by the surrounding area.

As a result prices are going up. As is true with many other things, patience is probably an important factor in shopping for a house.

Another reason is that we are quite comfortable in our rental home for the year. It isn’t a “perfect” house. No house is. But it is working well for the things that are most important to us. We have space for our grandchildren to visit. We have room for family dinners. We have places for most of the things we moved from South Dakota. As expensive as rent is, it is possible to make an even bigger financial mistake by jumping too quickly at a house.

Of course we will need to become more willing to jump quickly at some point if we want to get a house.

Another reason that we don’t know exactly what we want. This rental home is roughly 3/4 of the size of the home we owned in Rapid City. We are cramped in a couple of ways. We don’t have a study. My desk is in the kitchen. Susan’s is in our bedroom. Our books are in the living room. There are several boxes of office supplies and equipment that are stacked on shelves in the garage. We still haven’t figured out a permanent home for the sewing machine. It would be more useable if we could leave it set up and didn’t have to take the time to take it out and put it away for each use.

The way to overcome the cramped feeling is not necessarily to have more space. There are better ways to make multiple use spaces than we currently have employed. A study/office can double as a guest bedroom. The same can work for a sewing room. Right now we have two bedrooms that double as play spaces for grandchildren that might be better served by a small family room.

We are beginning to question our one-time assumption that it would work for us to downsize to 50% of the space we had in our previous house. That might be a bit too extreme for what we want.

Each time we ponder the situation we come face-to-face with the simple fact that many retired people we know have made multiple moves after their retirement. The home that is right for the next decade of our lives might not be the best place for the following decade. Right now being a bit out in the country with a commute to town for supplies and health care is appealing. It might not be so appealing when we are in our eighties. I’m already wondering about how much grass I want to have to mow in our next home.

Still, a house with projects isn’t all bad, either. I have the tools and skills to do a significant amount of remodeling and we are at a point where we could make some major changes to an existing structure, including making an addition where we would do a lot of the work ourselves. And I do seem to need to have projects ahead of me to keep my engaged and happy.

Along the way, I don’t want to become a complainer. We have it very good in our retirement so far. We are fortunate to have some savings and some flexibility in our decision-making. We are very fortunate to live close to our son, who has a farm with space for my shop and a place to store our canoes, kayaks and camper. We are lucky to be able to be so close to our son and his family that we get to see our grandchildren multiple times each week. Unlike a lot of our peers, we are able to take some time away from working for income to evaluate our situation and make decisions. One or both of us might take a job at some point in the future, but we have the freedom of choice. There are plenty of unemployed people who can’t find jobs right now. There is much to celebrate in our situation.

I think that the reality is that I’m not a very good shopper to begin with. I don’t like to shop all that much. I look at the pictures of houses for sale on the computer for a while and none of them seem like a perfect solution for us. What I want is a world where I could get more space for less money and that world isn’t where I live. While I’m at it, I wish the price of automobiles was close to what they cost 50 years ago, which isn’t going to happen, either.

So some days my mind wanders and I have less to say in my journal. This year seems already to be full of repetition, including a mistake in yesterday’s entry that went up for several hours. I keep thinking I’ll have something dramatic and meaningful to report, but patience might be required for that, too.

New leaders for new times

The Bible is full of stories about leadership transition. There is plenty of hero worship in the Bible. Some of the figure of our people’s past have taken on larger than life images in the telling and retelling of their stories. Moses, the great prophet and leader who is remembered for the Exodus from Egypt and his leadership of the people through forty years of wandering in the wilderness is said to have wanted to continue leading the people even at the end of his life. One of the stories that is not in the Bible, but is often told is about how Moses tried to bargain with God for a longer life up until the very end, when he died before he entered the promised land. Joshua, his successor, was the one to lead Israel across the river.

The reading from the Hebrew Scriptures for today, from the first book of Samuel, about the call of Samuel, is a story about a transition in leadership. Eli had a vision for the temple and its leadership. He imagined that his sons would take up the mantle of leadership in the next generation and that his family would become one of the families in Israel that provided multiple generations of leadership like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Eli’s sons, however, didn’t display the faith and leadership that was required by the times. The Bible reports that they were blaspheming God and the Eli did nothing to retain them. It is not uncommon for the second generation of leadership to abuse the privilege of their position. The people often reject leaders who come into power by benefit of their birth rather than by demonstration of leadership.

However things played out, the story of Samuel begins with Eli needing to receive the message that his vision of the future is not God’s will and that new leadership is going to emerge through God’s plan. It is a message that would be difficult for anyone to deliver. It is likely that there were plenty of people around the temple who could see that change was inevitable and that Eli’s sons just didn’t have what it takes to assume leadership. No one, however, had the courage to stand up to the powerful priest and tell him to his face that the time had come for him to step down and that his sons wouldn’t be the future of temple leadership.

Meanwhile there is this child, serving in the temple as the result of a promise his mother made before he was conceived. His name was Samuel. Samuel was awed by Eli and his power in the temple hierarchy. He was humbled at being allowed to live in the temple with the others. The bible doesn’t say that he thought Eli was God, but he definitely got it mixed up the other way. It is almost comical the way the text reports that the Lord calls to Samuel and Samuel thinks it is Eli calling. The process repeats again and again before Eli figures out what is going on and instructs Samuel to answer the call: “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”

I can identify with Samuel. I’ve often had trouble discerning God’s call from my own wishes and desires. There have been several times in my life when I convinced myself that what I wanted must be the same thing as what God wants for me. Fortunately, I have been surrounded by communities of faithful people who gently set me straight and invited me to listen more carefully. The routine is not, “Speak, Lord, and tell me what I want to hear.” It is, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” Then you really have to be listening.

At any rate, the message that Samuel receives is that Eli and his sons are going to be punished for their wrongdoings. It is a tough message to deliver. Samuel, however “told him everything and hid nothing from him.” That honesty worked with Eli, who accepted the news that Samuel had to deliver.

It doesn’t take an advanced degree in theology to see parallels between the biblical story and our contemporary political situation. Like Israel of old, we have our share of old men who inhabit the halls of power. Like Israel, the time has come when some of them have to learn to listen to what younger people have to say.

Over the years, I’ve often joked about the story of Samuel in comparison with my own life. I’ve imagined my father, living in a household of females, with a wife and three daughters, praying to God for a son. I’ve told people that the reason I became a minister must have been that he, like Samuel’s mother, promised God that if he had a son the son would be given to the church. Of course, that wasn’t the case. And I wasn’t my father’s only son. There are three brothers who came after I was born. It makes for a good story and a way of telling part of my story.

This year, however, as I read the texts from the position of a retired minister, I realize that I am not Samuel in the story. I’ve become Eli. I’m the old man who needs to step aside so the leadership of the kid who grew up in the church can emerge. It is easier said than done. I find myself reading the weekly messages and newsletters of the church I served for 25 years with a critical eye. I’ll probably pour over the annual reports of the congregation as thoroughly as I used to when I was the pastor. I worked hard on annual reports and anticipated annual meetings with a combination of worry and hope. I won’t be the center of any congregation’s annual meeting this year. The story is no longer about me and my leadership. And that is a good thing.

It is also a good thing that I have the stories of our people to remind me that it is God who provides the leaders that are needed in times like these.

Learning the stories of a new place

The history of our people is in part a history of place. The intensity with which our stories are remembered and passed on from generation to generation are, is affected by the places where our parent and grandparents lived. My mother was born and raised in Fort Benton, Montana. My father grew up in Minnewaukan, North Dakota. I heard a lot of stories from them, from aunts and uncles, and from my paternal grandparents about the Great Depression. Their stories clearly reported of the effects of the times from the perspective of those who lived in rural places in the upper midwest. I knew about the stock market crash, mass unemployment and Hoovervilles from school and text books. I knew bout the farm crisis from the stories of my family.

A little more than a month before my father’s 13th birthday, on November 11, 1933, the family on the farm in North Dakota woke after a windy night to black skies in the day. The topsoil from their farms and from the farms to the west was being carried aloft by the winds. The dry land, starved of water by too many months of drought and a summer when the crops didn’t produce, took flight and abandoned them. It was blowing away. The next day the skies over Minneapolis and Chicago were rust colored with the dust. A few days later, the dust could be seen in upstate New York. The “black blizzard” was the first of what grew into a longer tragedy. As the topsoil of the American plains disappeared, the people began to abandon the land. Although my parents’ families were able to hang on to their land, the winds of November, 1933 were a dark foreshadowing of a major decline in population for rural midwestern counties. Counties in North Dakota lost more than a third of their population. Other states also had similar declines. Hundreds of thousands of refugees streamed westward across the mountains towards Washington, Oregon and California, adrift and homeless. One of my great uncles on my mother’s side and one of my father’s brothers ended up in California. Their stories were part of my growing up.

There are other stories about the Great Depression that I never heard, however. It wasn’t the same in every part of the nation. In the Pacific Northwest, where I now live, there was no drought and there was no Dust Bowl. There was, however, depression and tragedy. It is a long story that began way before the 1930’s.

When we look at Mount Baker, we imagine that the mountain always looked as it does today. There is something so permanent about a majestic mountain, thrust up among the clouds and topped with snow. But Mount Baker is one of the most active volcanoes in the Cascade Mountains. Historians now know that the mountain had a huge eruption in 1792 and another in 1846. The eruption at the end of the 18th century wasn’t widely observed by European settlers, though exporters certainly saw part of its aftermath. A lot more is know about the 1846 eruption that occurred after many settlers had joined the indigenous people of the region, whose name for the mountain was Kushlan.

Here in Mount Vernon the Skagit River, the largest river to flow into the Salish Sea, also known as the Puget Sound, takes a series of dramatic bends, widening and slowing on two nearly horseshoe corners. When Mount Baker experienced its 1846 eruption, millions of trees were blown down across the mountains to the south and east of Mount Baker. The Skagit river was filled with logs and mud and other debris. The debris formed gigantic log jams at the Mount Vernon curves in the river. The floating jams eventually consolidated into one floating mass, with trees becoming water logged and floating at various depths. The water passing underneath was wild and swirling and the river began to make sounds of groaning and sighing that could be heard for miles. For years river travel on the Skagit was separated into two parts - the upper river and the lower river with a portage between. Coal mined up river was transported by boat on the river to a spot above the log jam, unloaded and transported by wagon around the log jam, and loaded back on boats for the remainder of the journey. Logs cut for wood had to make a similar trip. Countless logs were lost to the jam when they went too far before being snaked from the river. It was 1876 - thirty years after the eruption when the jam was finally cleared. By then the locals had gotten used to using it as a bridge to get from one side of the river to the other. Those who cleared the jam had to cut through five to eight tiers of trees. Some trees were four feet and more in diameter and over 100 feet long. Clearing the jam was a dangerous job that cost the lives of several.

The log jam, however, protected the upper Skagit from floods that periodically resulted in salt water intrusion, leaving behind some of the most fertile soil in the entire United States.

On the second day of December, 1933, shortly after the dust bowl had begun in the Dakotas, it began to rain in northwest Washington. By the end of the month fifteen inches of rain had fallen in some places. Rivers all across western Washington - the Chehalis, the Snoqualmie, the Duwamish, the Skykomih, the Stillaguamish, the Skokomish, the Snohomish - washed away houses and swept millions of tons of topsoil into the ocean. The Skagit sliced through the remaining log jam and man-made earthen dikes and twenty thousand acres of farmland were covered with tidal saltwater. At the same time the drought was crushing the farm economy of the midwest, torrential rains and rising seas were destroying the profitability of farms in this area.

The stories those who have lived here a long time tell are different from the ones I heard growing up.

Now we know that there is an atmospheric river flowing over the northern United States that carries more water than the Mississippi. Where that water falls varies year by year and season by season, Sometimes it yields great crops from fertile fields. Sometimes it results in tragedy and hard times.

Always it leaves behind stories to tell.

A little pain

The baseboard and trim project continues at the farmhouse. A 12’ x 12’ room takes 48 feet of baseboard. A door requires 15 or 16 feet of trim. Windows vary by the size of the window. After our successes in the kitchen, we measured and made an estimate of how much more trim we would need to mill in order to complete the job. I made a trip to the lumber yard and came home with 130 feet of 4C 1 x 4 pine. The cost wasn’t bad, around $100, but having the lumber is just the start of the project. Each board has three grooves in it. We are using a table-mounted router to make the grooves, so that is three trips through the router for each board. Because we are being picky about our choice of boards, we ended up with 8’, 10’, and 12’ boards. We have no actual 12’ runs anywhere in the farmhouse, but it was the way to get the total length we needed. 8’ boards aren’t too hard to handle, but the 12’ boards take a bit of care to get them started and push them through the router. I have feather boards to keep the stock against the fence, but keeping the grooves even requires a bit of down pressure at the same time as the boards need to be fed through the machine. The direction of spin of the router means that the down pressure is held with the left hand and the board is fed with the right. I have roller stands to support the boards, but it still is quite a bit of work. I was able to set up the machine and mill all 130 feet of boards yesterday by about noon.

Of course, the job isn’t finished with the milling. Next we will do some hand sanding of the grooves, use a random obit sander to put the final smooth in them. Then they have to be stained and varnished, cut to length with all of the miters in the right places to fit, and nailed into place. It should keep us occupied for a while.

I was pleased with myself as I looked over the stacks of neatly piled boards on sawhorses while I ate my sandwich yesterday. Sitting there, I also noticed that my neck, shoulder and hand were fairly tender. I have a touch of arthritis in my hands, nothing serious, but they do hurt from time to time when I ask them to do jobs that didn’t use to bother me at all. Gripping those boards and holding them straight while feeding them through the machine made my hand tired and a bit sore. My shoulder and neck were also a bit stiff from standing at an angle and stretching to keep everything lined up.

It is a normal part of aging, but I don’t like to admit that I’m aging, especially to myself.

I’ve been reading “the Boys in the boat” by Daniel James Brown, the carefully-researched story of the University of Washington rowing team that surprised the world and came home with the gold medal from the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Brown delves deeply into the stories of the coaches and members of the team, telling of the hardships they faced and the tremendous preparation and hard work that led up to the victory. Competitive rowing is one of the most demanding whole body events in sport. There are no “time outs” or breaks. Rowers simply work at peak capacity for the entire race. The entire team has to breathe in rhythm to coordinate their action. The team the US sent to the 1936 Olympics was composed of young men who had felt the sting of the Great Depression and who were used to hard work, enduring discomfort, and feeling pain. Like all great athletes, they learned to work through the pain in pursuit of their goal.

I’m sure that a stiff hand, shoulder and neck, are nothing compared to the aches that those rowers experienced.

There are lots of things in life that are worth a little discomfort. Given the amount of pain that people experience, it is surprising that we don’t dwell on the pain more. We’ve just gone through another Advent and Christmas and told the story of the birth of Jesus over and over again. But we rarely think of the pain and fear that Mary must have experienced. It is hard work to deliver a baby and there is pain involved. A mother can’t avoid that pain and it can’t be stopped. When the baby is born the mother is usually completely exhausted. And then her work load increases with the little one to feed and clean and love.

We know that not all pain is to be avoided. We speak of growing pains and we know that a certain amount of pain is necessary for learning to take place. But we also live in a society that is pretty pain adverse. You don’t have to look hard in a drug store to find shelves full of medicines that claim to dull pain. The medicines work, too. Dentists and doctors speak of staying ahead of pain and write prescriptions for medicines that limit the amount of pain their patients experience. The crisis of opioid addiction in our country has its genesis not in thrill-seeking individuals in search of a “high,” but rather in actual pain and the effort to control it. In my years of working with people, I learned that every addiction has a direct relationship to pain. Before the addiction can be treated we must first face the pain.

It won’t be long before the minor discomfort I felt as I crawled into bed last night will be long forgotten. The approval of our family and their admiration of our work is enough incentive to keep me going. Others will visit the house and not even notice the trim work, but will notice the feel of the place and what a good home it is for children. Having rooms that feel finished is part of that feeling.

It is a good thing that when I am tempted to complain a bit about my pain, I have good stories about others who endured much more to read and to inspire me to work through the pain.

Unity

A couple of days ago I watched and listened as my wife helped two of our grandchildren settle a dispute. Her technique was simple. She only allowed one person to speak at a time. Then she practiced active listening, repeating what was said to make sure that it was understood by the other person before moving on to the other person’s turn to speak. We were both taught the technique nearly 50 years ago when we were students serving and in the Chicago Theological Seminary Lab Preschool. (No we weren’t preschoolers at the time. We were graduate students studying preschool education in a real school setting.) Martha Snyder, director of the preschool, was an expert not only at helping young children resolve their conflicts, but also at teaching adults to work with children in ways that encouraged the children to develop their consciences and become responsible adults.

Part of the disagreement between our grandchildren had to do with the use of language. When one child said, “I unforgive you,” the other naturally thought that forgiveness had been rescinded. The one who said it however, had meant, “I no longer need to forgive you.” It was a completely different sentiment than the way it was received and the ensuing miscommunication made one child feel as if he could not be forgiven and another feeling as if her attempts to restore the relationship were rebuffed. Anger and raised voices followed. Without a bit of help from a parent or grandparent, the conflict could have escalated.

It seems like a minor incident, and indeed it was, but it is in those kinds of incidents that children learn necessary skills for adulthood. Unfortunately, not all children learn those lessons. I’ve met plenty of adults who don’t have good listening skills, who go off in anger without understanding the other’s intentions, and who lack the skills to live and work well with those with whom they have disagreements.

I thought of the arguments of children yesterday as I listened to part of the testimony in the United States House of Representatives as they debated the second impeachment of President Donald Trump. Some of the testimony was understandably emotional. Members of the chamber and their staff members had faced a very credible and very real danger just a week previously. Members feared for their own lives. As the details of the attack on the US Capitol become clear, it is now evident that there was extensive collaboration with a mob that was manipulated to believe that they could override the normal process of a free and fair election and impose their will upon those with whom they disagree. Other members of Congress, who disagreed with the action of impeaching the president called for unity, arguing that further attempts to hold the President accountable for his speech and actions would only further divide a divided nation.

Frankly, they sounded like a preschoolers in their argument. It is hollow to call for unity, when what you really want is for the other side to capitulate. What you really want is to get your own way.

The events of history rarely give people time to stop, take a deep breath, and learn to listen. That is why it is so important to teach children those skills when they are three and four years old so that they can incorporate those skills into their lives. Maybe we all need to go back to preschool.

As our teacher taught us so very long ago, the first step is to teach those in conflict to speak one at a time and then to really listen to the other person as she or he speaks. Then you establish what really happened. To do so requires that the truth be told and that lies and misinformation be corrected.

Telling the truth has not been a hallmark of our political lives in recent years. Liars have been rewarded for their false rhetoric. Those who have committed direct perjury, even in front of the entire nation in public hearings, have been rewarded for their half truths and intentionally misleading statements.

If we want unity, we must be willing to tell the truth.

The truth is that members of the United States House of Representatives sought to overturn the legitimate process of casting votes and states certifying those votes. Having failed, they want to simply move on as if their behavior wasn’t part of the lead up to the attack upon the Capitol. Even after the attack, they continued to attempt to subvert the election.

If we want unity, we must begin by telling the truth.

In the terms of faith, confession must precede reconciliation and reconciliation must precede forgiveness. It is more than a series of rituals, it is the reflection of deep truth that has been discovered by millennia of people seeking truth and justice.

The truth is that our nation has not yet recovered unity from the Civil War. The politics of race still dominate our public discussion. It should surprise no one that some of the people who attempted to overthrow the legitimately elected government of the United States last week proudly displayed the Confederate Battle Flag and used it to desecrate the halls of the Capitol. It should come as no surprise that attackers literally beat other human beings with a flagpole of the American Flag. It should come as no surprise that people claiming to be patriots chanted, “Hang Mike Pence.”

If we want unity we must engage in the very difficult task of teaching those very people that the lives and feelings of others are valuable. We must teach them that peace requires justice. We must confess that the search for unity is not contained in a single speech or a single vote, but is a process that will take generations of hard work.

We must not let the crisis in our government lure us into forgetting that on the day the United States House of Representatives voted for the second time to impeach President Trump, 4,491 of our fellow citizens died of Covid-19. For their loved ones, the politics of the Capitol weren’t the biggest events in their lives yesterday. We can’t heal when we don’t even acknowledge the grief of our sisters and brothers.

Speeches don’t bring unity. For that we’ve got a lot of hard work ahead of us.

Like rats . . .

I read a fair amount of books about ships, shipping, and the history of seafaring. I’ve enjoyed fiction written about the sea and those who explore the world by sailing. One of the recurring conversations in our home is whether or not Herman Melville’s Moby Dick should be required reading for high school students. My wife, who I must say has never read the novel, argues that it is a nonessential book. I argue that it is a classic that teaches not only about the culture of whaling, but the structure of literature. We won’t ever resolve the disagreement, but I do have to admit that my wife gained a few points in our move because when we were sorting our books, I decided that we not only didn’t need two copies of the novel, we didn’t even need one. We didn’t move that book as I admitted that I am extremely unlikely to ever read it again and if I do feel such a need it is readily available in nearly every library in the country.

But I also consider myself to be reasonably well read in nonfictional literature about ships, the sea and the industries that depend upon boats as well as naval exploration and the adventures of amateur sailors. I’ve read Eric Jay Dolin’s exhaustively researched histories including Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America and Black Flags, Blue Waters: the Epic History of America’s Most Notorious Pirates. Every year I read several memoirs of sailors and sailing families. Jane Maufe’s The Frozen Frontier about the trips of David Scott Cowper through the Northwest Passage in his ship Polar Bound was one of my reads last year. There are many, many more.

Looking back, however, I can’t remember ever reading much at all about the phenomenon of rats leaving a sinking ship in my recreational reading. There is, however, a delightful essay on the Merriam-Webster website about the idiom. The phrase, like rats fleeing a sinking ship, has been in use for over four hundred years. It appears that there is significant popular agreement that mice and rats have an ability to know when a structure is on the verge of collapse and will decamp before it happens. By the 17th century the behavior was in regular use as a simile. In 1600 an anonymous person is quoted in “A Dialogue Between Two Members of the New and Old East-India Companies:” “Don’t suffer your Selves to be buffeted from Post to Pillar, by Pinning your Faith upon such that purpose no more than to find a way out for themselves, like Rats that quit the House before it falls.”

Like rats fleeing a rotten house may have had a certain ring to it, but by the mid 17th century the phrase had morphed into rats fleeing a burning house: “Yea, if but sickness come, these carnall delights will runner from you, affrighted like Rats from a house on fire.” (Richard Younge, The Drunkard’s Character, 1638).

By the latter part of the 17th century, however, rats decided that they had had enough of running from collapsing and burning houses, and the expression took on a new mode of egress: decamping from a foundering ship. Throughout the 18th century and well into the 19th the phrase was used as a political metaphor. There are numerous examples of the use of the phrase in political commentary, including rats deserting the sinking ship, abandoning the vessel and even fleeing it.

It is my hunch, backed up by other authors, that given the continued existence of rats and failing enterprises, political and otherwise, the expression is likely to be invoked for generations to come. Its use may continue to be as inevitable as death and taxes, if you know what I mean.

However, I still don’t know if the phenomenon is real, or just a part of the popular culture. Some of the most intense periods of shipwreck were the first and second world wars, when German u-boats wreaked a terrible toll from the ships of North Atlantic shipping, The sinking fo the British-owned Lusitania ocean liner and the American liner Housatonic were factors in the United States decision to enter World War I, and the toll on North Atlantic shipping by German u-boats during the second world war gave rise to the development of air cargo shipping which is common to this day. Nowhere in the books I have read about those chapters in history, however, have much information about the North Atlantic being plagued by hordes of rats deserting the sinking ships. Nowhere to my knowledge is there a tally of the toll among rats of these dark days of our history.

Still, it should surprise no one that the phrase about rodents and unseaworthy vessels has been showing up in political commentary in the past few weeks. Business columnist Michael Hiltzik of the Los Angeles Times wrote, “The line of rats deserting the sinking S.S. Trump is growing longer almost every day.” There certainly have been a lot of resignations from the Cabinet and other political positions in the week since the violent mob stormed the Capitol. Some of those resigning appear to be attempting to salvage their political careers by distancing themselves from the appearance of complicity with the president’s inflammatory rhetoric, as if they only recently became aware of how toxic such speech and actions are.

I have to admit that I don’t have much problem calling some of those people rats. The incompetent education secretary Betsy DeVos’ resignation was welcomed by educators. It seems that being in charge of the nation’s agency that deals with public education didn’t require a person who believed that public eduction is a good and necessary endeavor and the choice of DeVos as secretary was a cynical attack on the cause of education in our country. It may be an insult of rats everywhere to make the comparison.

Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao has also resigned and it appears that her husband, Mitch McConnell is also angry with the president, though it seems unlikely that history will remember his time in the US Senate as much more than playing lackey for the soon to be former president.

I think we need a new metaphor for the political fallout that we will continue to see in the weeks and months to come. In the meantime, I don’t expect to be reading much about rats in my exploration of naval texts.

Speaking of rain

As we announced our decision to move from South Dakota to Washington, I often heard from friends that we would need to adjust to the increase in rainfall. I noted that while it definitely is a wetter climate, rainfall varies depending on the location. Mount Vernon definitely gets more rain that Rapid City, a little over double the annual rainfall, and it mostly comes as rain. In Rapid City, a lot of the annual precipitation falls as snow, whereas snow in Mount Vernon is rare.

According to averages, we have already lived through the wettest month of the year, which is December. June, July and August don’t bring much rain at all to the region, so our previous experiences in the region were mostly during dryer times of the year. We have been sort of prepared for the change in climate. We both have good raincoats and waterproof shoes. We’ve been walking in the rain a few times, but for the most part we’ve learned how to keep an eye on the weather and walk between showers. A 100% chance of rain doesn’t mean that it will rain without ceasing all day long. There is almost always a time when the rain lets up for a little while.

We are learning a few new ways to talk about the weather. In addition to storm and flood watches and warnings, which we also had in South Dakota, we have learned to listen to small craft advisories and storm surge predictions. Rivers running near or at flood stage can rise dramatically when they reach the ocean where tides rise and fall. And the rise of the tide isn’t even. There are times when it is greater and times when it is not as great. I knew all of these things theoretically, but it is interesting to learn them in experience. One of the weather terms that is new to me is “atmospheric river.” As weather patterns move around the globe, or perhaps it is better to think of the globe moving underneath the atmosphere, narrow currents of heavy moisture form streams of rainfall that flow in a pattern that is similar to a river flowing over land, with bands of heavy rainfall at the center and areas of lighter rainfall along the edges. There are eddies and swirls within the river that cause storms to linger in some places while they move more quickly in other places.

The west coast is currently experiencing an atmospheric river. Over the next 24 to 4 hours there will be increased rainfall all along the coast, with northwest Oregon experiencing the heaviest amounts of rainfall. Some places will get 3 to 5 inches of rain before Wednesday evening. That amount of rain translates to a lot of snow in the high country, so the Cascades, which rise to the east of town will see enough snow to make travel over the mountain passes treacherous and some roads will be closed until plows can catch up.

Just like South Dakota, heavy rain can result in flooding and mudslides and the forecasts warn of some areas that might be in danger.

We’re in a safe place and shouldn’t experience much more than a little rain. Even though we’ve lived most of our lives in places that are fairly dry, we have discovered that we are, for the most part, waterproof. We don’t melt when the raindrops fall on us and other than not being very good at keeping the water spots off of our glasses and having trouble remembering to take an umbrella when we leave the house, we don’t seem to be having much trouble adjusting. Our son has warned us that we will need to get used to replacing the windshield wiper blades on our cars more often, but so far that hasn’t come up for us.

The Skagit River flows right through Mount Vernon with a big bend that means that the downtown area has the river on two sides. It is the largest river that drains into the Puget Sound. The river and its tributaries drain 1.7 million acres of the Cascade Range and flow into the Puget Sound to the west of Mount Vernon. We have enjoyed walking alongside the river a couple of times each week. It is dramatic in its ever-changing nature. We have observed as much as six feet of change in the depth of the river in a single week. When it is running full, it is a wide and wild river, with trees floating by at over 5 mph. Other days it can appear very calm with a flat and placid surface. It can range in color from muddy brown to green to blue depending on the weather and the amount of sediment it is carrying.

I remember when we moved from Chicago to Hettinger North Dakota in the late 1970’s. I soon learned that one way to get the feel of the community and stay in touch with the people was to have coffee at the local cafe. If I stopped by the cafe between 9 and 10 each morning, I could see a significant portion of the members of the congregation and get caught up on the information that was most important for local folk. I used to joke that we could raise a quorum for a church meeting at the cafe most days. It was a good way for me to connect with the people I was serving. I quickly learned that the most frequent topic of conversation at the cafe was the weather. Farm and ranch folk pay attention to the weather. It is a critical element in their livelihood. You learn to never complain about the rain in southwestern North Dakota, though the locals complain about almost any type of weather that they are experiencing.

With the pandemic, I don’t have access to a place where the locals gather, so I don’t know if they complain about the rain here or not. I’m sure I’ll learn as the years go by. For now, I’m just trying to remember to take an umbrella when I head out for a walk.

Percolator

In an interview by Krista Tippett for her radio program “On Being” physicist Frank Wilczek, winner of the 2004 Nobel Prize in physics, recalled playing with a coffee percolator. He remembered distinctly the seven pieces of the device and his joy at learning to disassemble and reassemble the pieces. I knew exactly what those seven pieces are. We had a similar percolator in our house when I was a child. The percolator consisted of:

The pot itself with a handle and spout.
The percolator base which sat on the bottom of the pot.
The stem which fit over the tube at the top of the base.
The basket which fit over the stem and held the coffee grounds.
The lid for the basket.
The lid of the pot.
The glass bulb that screwed into the center of the lid.

For years we had a camp percolator that had the stem and base formed as a single part, thus only six parts.

The device worked simply and elegantly. The water at the base of the pot, being closest to the stovetop heat, boiled first, sending a burst of hot water up the stem. It hit the glass bulb and dripped back down on the basket where it dripped through the lid of the basket, ran through the coffee grounds and dripped out the bottom. By setting the percolator in just the right spot on the stove to maintain the right temperature, the coffee would percolate without burning.

At some point our family switched to an electric percolator, freeing up a burner on the stove. I cannot remember if the early electric percolators had the base and stem as a single part, but it was essentially the same machine with an electric element forged into the base of the pot.

Electric percolators were scaled up to make 30, 50 and even 100 cups of coffee. You can still buy both stovetop and electric percolators at hardware stores or order one from Amazon. Percolators make a distinctive sound as the coffee is brewing. More than the sound, what I remember is the smell of coffee brewing in the morning. The aroma isn’t that distinctive from the smell of coffee brewing in a press or a drip machine, but the percolator and the aroma are linked in my childhood memory.

For many years I brewed my coffee with an expensive and complex espresso machine with a water tank, boiler, pump and valves to control steam and hot water. I had a tamper to get the density of the finely ground coffee just right in the portafilter. I enjoyed adding steamed milk to make a latte. I learned to take apart that machine and make repairs. Parts were readily available, but it took a bit of mechanical skill to replace o rings and valves and keep the machine running well.

I’m pretty sure I got into the habit of drinking too much coffee. In my sixties, I developed a slight heart rhythm condition and decided that the time had come for me to give up caffeine. I experienced some caffeine withdrawal headaches, but nothing too serious. At first I drank decaffeinated coffee and teas. These days I allow myself a bit of caffeine in the form of tea, but simply don’t drink coffee any more. A few years later my wife also gave up caffeine. We drink a fair amount of peppermint tea at our house.

We were talking and thinking about coffee and caffeine recently as we recalled stories of our elders. One of our family stories was an argument that my brother had with our mother when he was an adult. She was urging him to stop smoking. He declared that she had her own addictions and blurted, “I’ll stop smoking if you stop drinking coffee.” She accepted the challenge and immediately switched to hot water. From my point of view, she took to the change much easier than him. He was soon sneaking cigarettes and eventually started smoking again. I’m not sure that he ever admitted defeat, but it sure looked like she had bested him. Later she returned to drinking coffee. Telling the story, I realized that one factor in her ability to quit cold turkey may have been the fact that although she drank coffee constantly during her waking hours, she didn’t make her coffee very strong at all. I’m pretty sure that several cups of her coffee had less caffeine than a single shot of espresso.

My wife’s grandparents drank coffee constantly. The coffee maker was started by the first person who got up in the morning and whoever poured the last cup immediately started a fresh pot of coffee. They had coffee with their meals and with snacks throughout the day including a couple of cups with a bedtime snack. They also complained every morning about not being able to sleep well. When we visited them there were two things you could count on - a cup of coffee placed in front of you as soon as you got up - and a conversation about how difficult it was for her grandmother and grandfather to sleep. Her grandfather lived into his nineties and her grandmother made it to 100 years old, so I guess the effects of caffeine were tolerated by them even if they had trouble sleeping.

Her grandparents also served and ate potatoes at three meals every day, but that is another story entirely.

They lived in North Dakota, which is where my wife learned to drink coffee. When we married, she didn’t drink coffee at all. I had started drinking coffee my freshman year in college when I found that other hot beverages tended to make me sleepy. I needed to stay awake and alert to process all of the college reading and so started drinking coffee. She made it through college and graduate school without drinking coffee. But when we moved to North Dakota, people didn’t ask whether or not you wanted coffee. They just served you a cup when you stopped by for a visit. Susan, being a very polite person, started drinking the coffee. Before long, she was drinking coffee every day. But in North Dakota, at least at that time, the coffee was like my mother’s coffee - extremely weak - barely colored brown.

So, yes, I do know the parts of a percolator even though we don’t own one. I can even write a 1,000 word essay on the topic!

Projects

As we were in the midst of our move to the Pacific Northwest, our son and his family made a move to a different home. They had been looking for a place with a bit more land for gardening and raising more of their food and found a ten-acre place with a 100-year-old home, a barn and more. Former owners of the home had undertaken a lot of home repair jobs, but some of them hadn’t been finished and others remained. For example, the home has new siding on three sides, but the original siding on the fourth side. Within the next few years, replacing the siding on the fourth side will be a summer job for us. Inside, they had updated wiring, installed a central vacuum system, and done a kitchen upgrade with tile floors and a new sliding patio door. But the job wasn’t finished. The new tile wasn’t finished where the sliding door had been installed. And there were no baseboards anywhere. And the patio door leads directly outside with no patio and no step to get up to the door.

Along with the house, however, there is that barn. It is huge, with space for us to park our camper and store our canoes and kayaks, and a lovely area to set up a shop. My tools have found new homes in that barn and I have been enjoying going out to the farm on a regular basis to work in the shop.

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Milling wood to match 100-year-old trim for baseboards was a challenge for which I was ready. I have a lot going for me. I have a shop with room to set up my tools. I can have the planer, router table, table saw and chop saw set up all at once with a dust collector to gather up the chips and dust. Using half of our garage as a shop back in South Dakota, I had to set up my table tools one at a time, hook them to a shop vacuum and put each away before getting out the next one. I spent a lot of time pulling out tools, making space to use them and then putting them away.

Another thing I have going for me here is that it is much easier to obtain wood. I already knew that there were sources for wood out here that aren’t matched in South Dakota. I built a kayak with cedar that I had hauled back to South Dakota from Washington State several years ago. The big box stores have about the same lumber selection as those in South Dakota, but there are plenty of local lumberyards and specialty wood shops that have a much larger selection of wood. In South Dakota, if I wanted a few 1 x 4’s, I had to go to the big box store and sort through piles of boards to find two or three that were straight enough to use. Here, I stopped at the local lumber yard and they brought out 10’ 1 x 4 boards that had four sides clear and were straighter than I would have found anywhere that I know of in South Dakota. And they sold those boards at prices that are competitive with the big box stores.

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Millwork, however, is a different matter. While the big box stores sell some millwork, they have nothing that approached the trim that was already installed in the farmhouse. Lucky for me, however, my son has a barn. I set up my router and with three passes per board I milled grooves into the boards to match those already installed around windows in the house. Our son did a great job matching the stain and finishing the boards and yesterday we were able to trim out the dining room and part of the kitchen. The house has bay windows, which means that the trim work wasn’t just a matter of 90 degree angles which are mitered by cutting 45 degree angles in the trim. There were 45 degree angles calling for two cuts of 22.5 degrees. And, as you can imagine, a century old home has some places where the walls aren’t quite as straight and plumb as they were when they were built, so we had to take some effort and empty a few shims to get everything to fit.

Which brings me to the other advantage of my new situation when it comes to getting a job done. I didn’t have to work alone. And that is the best part of working in our new situation. For the first time since he went away from home to go to college, I have our son to work alongside me on projects. In addition to not having to do the finish work because he did all of the staining and varnish work, he worked alongside me yesterday so that one could hold a board in place while the other was nailing. When we needed to glue a miter joint, there were two hands to hold each board in place. And we are having so much fun being together that we never run out of topics for conversation.

I’m sure that for our son and daughter in law their new home seems like an endless list of projects. After all, we still have a deck to build, with outside steps for the patio slider. We have one wall of a two-story house to remove the old siding and install new. There are trees to plant and gardens to tend and a huge lawn that will need mowing. There are additional rooms in the house in need of baseboard and rooms that need new paint. There is old carpet that needs to be removed and new flooring to install in some rooms. I have had the experience of being a bit overwhelmed by a house. I never did get caught up with all of the chores in the fixer upper we bought in Idaho and lived in for a decade. But for me, the list of chores is a real blessing. I’m having the time of my life thinking about the next job and how to tackle it. I’m excited to have about 60 feet of baseboard yet to mill.

If you’re looking for me, I’ll be out at the farm - probably in the barn.

Typing

I have a wireless remote keyboard that I use when writing on my laptop computer. I’ve don this for several years now and found that it has several positive benefits. The main benefit is that I use the keyboard a lot. The computer that I had before I got my present one had to have the keyboard replaced twice because I wore out the microswitches in the keyboard. On this computer the “A” is difficult to read because it has been touched by my fingers so much. Recently I was working with our grandson on a computer learning task with my remote keyboard and I had to take a sharpie marker and re-label a whole bunch of letters: E, R, T, I, O, A, S, D, F, K, L, X, C, V, B, N, and M. Using a sharpie to renew a keyboard is a very short term remedy. The ink is gone and the keys are once again blank. I don’t mind the blank keys. I don’t need to see the letters to use the keyboard. But it does interrupt my rhythm and slow my writing when a key becomes difficult to push or fails to register the pressure. On this particular keyboard, I have to be very careful with 8 and 9, but they keys still work with just a slight amount of extra pressure. Before long it will be time to order another keyboard and get this one to a computer recycling program.

I use the touchscreen on my phone to enter emails and a few other communications, but I’m very slow at the task. My thumbs are too wide to be accurate. In addition, I’ve had “trigger thumbs” on both hands. One has been surgically repaired. The other has been treated and doesn’t work quite right. However, I can touch type on a key board without every using my left thumb for anything except to rest on the desk next to the keyboard. I have a keyboard for my tablet computer. I just can’t get any speed going with the touchscreen keyboard.

The transition in keyboards during my lifetime has been dramatic. The keys I’m using to type this journal entry are far different from the ones on the manual typewriter that got us through college and graduate school. The range of motion is much smaller. The keys respond much more quickly. It doesn’t take much pressure to produce accurate language. My grandchildren don’t know about correction tape or correction fluid and they will never need to learn those things. I have shown them how to use carbon paper to transfer paper plans to a piece of wood, but they haven’t got a clue about using it to make copies of a document.

For decades I have claimed that there are two classes I took in high school that taught me skills I use every day. Those two classes are Latin and typing. That is a bit of an exaggeration. I do a lot of things that draw on what I learned in algebra and geometry as well. But they still teach algebra and geometry in schools. Typing and Latin don’t appear on the schedule in modern schools, though I think they do have some touch typing exercises taught in computer classes. At least the arrangement of keys on modern computers is consistent with the way the typewriters were in my high school classroom.

Back in my high school classroom, our teacher told us that the arrangement of the QWERTY keyboard was based on how often letters are used in common correspondence. By spacing the letters and moving the most frequently used keys away from each other, typing on mechanical typewriters is speeded up compared to arranging the keys in alphabetical order. Somewhere along the line I read that this isn’t actually the case, but that the letters are arranged in a pattern that enabled the quickest translation of Morse Code, the code used in telegraphy. I never learned more than the basic alphabet in Morse Code and I can’t remember more than just a few letters, so I don’t know whether or not this theory is accurate. Whatever the reason, the arrangement of the letters, numbers and punctuation marks on a classic keyboard are so much a part of my life that I can’t imagine having to learn to use a different keyboard.

Our son was born with a slight difference in the sensitivity of his hands. His right hand doesn’t send his brain signals as completely or as quickly as his left. As a result, he never was able to type efficiently using the two-hand method that I use. However, he needed to be able to use a computer to write as his educational career progressed. We invested in several different alternate keyboards, none of which were successful. He taught himself his own method of one handed typing that works very well for him. As a professional he uses computers for a large part of his work. He designs web pages, writes correspondence, and manages dozens of computer tasks. His speed on the keyboard is comparable to those of us who use two hands. And he uses a conventional keyboard, which means that even though he doesn’t use the touch typing method that I learned in high school, the keyboard skills he gained through his own work and practice are serving him well. It also means that he has become adjusted to a QWERTY keyboard just like me. I take that to be a sign that I’ll have some access to some kind of keyboard that I can use for as long as I continue to write, which is a good thing, because I don’t learn new skills as quickly as once was the case.

So I guess I’ll keep on using keyboards and wearing them out. In a way, I’m eager to try out the lattes version of the wireless keyboard I’ve been using. The ad says that the rechargeable batteries in the keyboard will last up to a month. I have my doubts. I use a keyboard a lot more than the average computer user. Sill, I kind of like using this keyboard with the letters that can’t be read. It is kind of like knowing a code. I bet I can get it to last a bit longer.

A Walk in the Park

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There are days in Northwest Washington that are so beautiful that it is breathtaking. Despite the region’s high rainfall, frequent fog and cloudy days, there are days when the clouds lift and the view is spectacular. Yesterday was on of those days - the second in a row after a bunch of rainy days. In the early afternoon, after having helped a couple of hours with our grandchildren’s homeschooling routine, we left the farm and turned east toward the Interstate and were greeted by a full view of Mount Baker in all of its snow-capped glory. Like other mountains, the distance to Mount Baker seems to change with the amount of moisture in the air. On a cold, clear day like yesterday it looks like it is right at the end of the street, despite being nearly 30 miles away.

On our way home we decided to explore one of the gems of the Washington State Park System. Larrabee State Park was the first state park established in Washington. Frequently when we tell others where we live those familiar with the area will tell us about Chuckanut Drive. We first drove Chuckanut with our son several years ago and it fully lived up to the things we had heard. Located on the seaward side of Chuckanut Mountain, south of Bellingham, the road is a 21-mile stretch of beautiful scenery, winding through tall Douglas fir, cedar and hemlock trees and gorgeous views of the Salish sea and the San Juan Islands. If you stop to hike, you will see many Pacific Mandrone trees that shed their bark. While they grow only up to 50 to 100 feet tall, substantially shorter than the surrounding trees, they are dramatic and exotic looking. The salal plants growing underneath, with their glossy leaves that remain year-round add to the beauty of the plants.

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Not being familiar with the park, we were content to follow winding trails that mostly led to the beach where clamming and crabbing were once common activities. Although currently closed to shellfish harvesting, the beaches and views from the shoreline are well worth the short walks. The Burlington-Northern railroad runs right along the shoreline through the park, but despite an average of 16 trains per day, none passed during our visit. There is an underpass the allows pedestrians to access the beach without having to risk crossing the tracks.

Days of worrying about the disruptions in Washington D.C. and the struggles of discussing the news with our grandchildren combined with the sadness of the news of deaths in the attacks on the U.S. Capitol piled high on the season of death during which the United States continues to have much higher infection and death rates than most other countries of the world to set a mood of sadness. The clearing weather, beautiful vistas, and isolated and quiet walking trails offered a balm to our spirits.

Over and over during the span of our lives, when we have felt powerless in the face of the confusing events of the world, we have found solace in the beauty of nature. A walk through the forest, a paddle on a lake, and time to watch a sunset are gifts that remind us that there is still great beauty in God’s creation.

We are not alone in our need for time with God in nature. The Bible reports that Moses would go up on the mountain to pray and b gone for days. Jesus sought out a lonely place to pray. The stories of our people are filled with reports of spiritual leaders who took time to immerse themselves in nature in order to nurture their spirits. We can sometimes feel closer to our ancestors in faith with a walk in the woods than we can inside of a building.

In this place that is new to us, our eyes are continually struck by vistas and views that we have not before seen. We’ve never before lived so close to the ocean. Though we have been blessed with many visits, it is a new thing to be able to stop by the shore on our way to or from the farm. Having an ocean view as part of our daily life is a new experience. The stunning combination of lofty snow-capped mountains and the ocean is a feast for our senses that we are enjoying. Being allowed to live in such a beautiful place after the gift of a quarter of a century in the magnificent Black Hills of South Dakota is gift upon gift that have graced our lives.

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Meanwhile, over in Japan, our daughter and her family are experiencing record snow and blizzard conditions. Though they also live near the ocean, they’ve been unable to visit it much this year with the base on lockdown due to Covid at times and yesterday they were staying at home as the base was closed due to snow. They’ve had 80 inches of snow already this winter. That’s right - nearly seven feet. With the blowing and drifting you can barely see the tops of the fence posts in their yard. Street crews are running out of places to put the snow they plow from the roads. They are seeing the power of nature in a completely different way than our experience of living in a place where little snow falls. Sharing a FaceTime call with our daughter is truly experiencing a different world than the place where we live.

In a world filled with worries and fear and grief, our hearts are filled with gratitude for the blessings of the situation in which we find ourselves. We pray that we will never take for granted the beauty that surrounds us and are doubly grateful that we have the health to walk and explore the place where we live. Part of our ability to enjoy that beauty is a gift of those who have gone before who decided to preserve places as parks so that everyone would have access to special places. To those visionary people and to those who work to preserve those special places, we owe a debt of gratitude.

Epipany 2021

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In his memoir, “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me,” Sherman Alexie writes about his physical and mental decline as he ages. He's younger than me, so it seems a bit worrisome to read his predictions of his own life and aging process. Alexie is a humorist, however, and terribly funny as a writer at the same time as he is serious. His memoir is painful to read, yet deeply meaningful and deeply important for others to read. At the same time, it is really, really funny. The poems invite you to return to them again and again both to understand and also to discover the indomitable spirit that produced them. The book I’m reading is borrowed from the library, but I’m thinking that despite all of my resolutions and despite having to give away three quarters of my library in order to move, I may purchase my own copy of the book. It is just the kind of book that I want to read over and over again. At any rate, as he writes about his decline he predicts that one day he will have to stop writing - that he will run out of words. And when that happens, he says, he intends to sit on his front porch and misidentify birds. I chuckled when I read it because I’ve been known to misidentify birds. I also chuckled because Alexie lives in Seattle, about 60 miles south of where we now live. The weather in Seattle isn’t all that much different than it is here. If he really does get to the point where he is stilling on his front porch misidentifying birds, I hope that either he has a covered porch or that he has a good rain coat - preferably both.

I’m not out of words yet, though I often use familiar words over and over again and I’ve been known to repeat myself, even in my journal, many times over. However, I don’t have the right words to write about the horrors that transpired in Washington, DC yesterday. I’ve dealt with a few bullies in my day, and I’ve known some terrible narcissists, but the day that the President of the United States, who refuses to accept reality and incites violence, violates his oath of office, ignores the rulings of the courts and then actively encourages lawless rioters as they cross barricades, disobey orders from law enforcement officers, and wantonly ransack the United States Capitol is a sad day in the history of our country. The president actually praised the mob that attempted insurrection. Inciting insurrection is a violation of federal law and I’m willing to allow congress and the legal process and the courts decide the fate of the man who is soon to be a former president, but there is no doubt that it will go down in history as a sad day for democracy.

Hopefully, however, it will also go down in history as a day that despite the failed leadership of an administration that could find no compassion for the deaths of 350,000 Americans to a pandemic, despite the temper tantrums of a would-be despot who has no love for the constitution and the time-honored traditions of our nations, democracy prevailed. Vice President Pence, in a sharp and surprising break from his usual sycophantic and cowardly praise of the President, declared, “To those who wreaked havoc in our Capitol today, you did not win. Violence never wins. Freedom wins. And this is still the people’s house.” Even Senator Mitch McConnell, who has become famous for using the legislative process to block action and work around the will of the people, called the violence a “failed insurrection” and said it had only clarified Congress’s purpose. “They tried to disrupt our democracy. They failed,.” he said. Remember the people who those leaders were criticizing were carrying banners and flags and signs supporting the President that those very leaders had been incapable of criticizing or even questioning throughout the past four years.

It is clear that the President crossed a line yesterday in his praise of those who sought to overturn the vote and turn to violence to get their way. It is also perfectly clear that congress has now accepted the vote of the majority of Americans and the vote of the electoral college and confirmed the election of Joe Biden as the next president of the United States. After 245 years of constitutional democracy and peaceful transitions of power, our democracy was seriously threatened. Even the President’s closest political allies understood that the time has come for him to step aside, whether or not he does so peacefully.

Of course they will pay a political price for their courage. He is still a powerful man with access to those who have enormous amounts of money. He still is a vengeful man who doesn’t mind throwing his closest friends under the bus. He will seek revenge for the actions of Congress. He will try to stir up crowds and mobs again.

I wish no harm to the man. I hope he finds a way to reflect on his years. I hope he writes a memoir, though he didn’t actually write any of the books that have his name on the cover so far, and I doubt that he will go through the hard work of writing an honest reflection. I doubt that he has a home that has a front porch, but I think he would be good at misidentifying birds.

I don’t know what else to say. It is going to take a while to sort out yesterday’s chaos.

Here is the thing. It didn’t rain here yesterday. It was a beautiful, sunny day. We went for a three and a half mile hike on an old railroad bed converted to a beautiful trail. We looked up at majestic snow-capped mountains that have been hidden by the fog. When the clouds lift here it is spectacular. It doesn’t really rain every day. Nonetheless I won’t be giving up my raincoat anytime soon. I know it will rain again. I know gray days are ahead. I’ll remember Epiphany Day 2021 for a long time. I just hope that I can remember the beauty of the day when the bullies failed and the constitution prevailed.

A world of change

It is getting almost routine. I have my credit card set up to notify me by text message when I make a transaction. A few days ago I received notice that someone was attempting to use my credit card number to make a purchase of over $900 in Ohio. I quickly took steps to report the fraud and protect my credit card. The issuing bank was immediately responsive, cancelled the card and the unauthorized transaction never posted to the card. A few days later I received new cards in the mail, with new numbers. All is well.

It has happened to us several times over the past few years. Each time, we have caught the attempt at fraud and, working with the bank, the situation has been resolved with no harm to us.

I don’t know how the would-be thieves got ahold of my credit card number. The previous transaction with the card had been at a gas station. We don’t use the card that often, so tracking each transaction is easy for us. I’ve heard of skimming that takes place at some gas stations. The purchase was at one of several gas stations we’ve discovered that do not have “pay at the pump” devices, so you go inside to pay for your purchase. The card, however, was never out of my hands. I used a device inside of the gas station to pay for my purchase. It is also possible, and perhaps more probable, that the card number was obtained by someone who was able to get it from an online transaction. We use that card, and only that card, to pay for online purchases and it got a bit more exercise in the time just before Christmas as we made a few purchases.

It is interesting to note that at least three times when attempts at fraud have been caught involving our credit card the attempted payee was a medical provider. It makes me wonder if desperation over high hospital bills is a motivator for crime. I have no particular evidence other than our scant anecdotal experience, but it does make me wonder. Our for-profit medical system in the United States results in a large amount of financial distress for many people. Medical expenses are a leading cause of bankruptcy in our nation and those facing the loss of their homes or other major disruptions from bills they cannot pay become desperate. That desperation does not excuse illegal behavior, but it might explain how someone gets their thinking twisted so far that they don’t consider the victims of their crimes.

Increasingly we operate in a world in transition when it comes to financial transactions. I rarely carry my checkbook with me and we don’t write very many checks. Since we know that our rental home will be our home for just a year or so, we ordered the smallest number of checks available printed with this address. We’ll be going through the change of address process again soon. It used to be that one changed addresses by sending notifications through the mail. When we paid a bill, there was a checkbox on the envelope and a form in the return slip to indicate a change of address. These days address changes are done online. Since our move was accompanied by changes in email addresses as well as our physical address, it was complicated by all of the changes that we had to make. And we are still discovering places where we failed to make the change. Fortunately for us the mail forwarding system has worked well and we paid a small fee for extended forwarding service just in case we missed something. Our Christmas letters informed many of our friends of our new address, but we may have yet another new address by the time they send out their cards next year.

Regardless of our address, however, we have moved away from the use of cash and checks as the primary methods of making financial transactions. It wasn’t long ago that I would physically go to the bank to deposit my pay check and I’d get a bit of cash as I made my deposit. The cash would be spend over the coming month and sometimes I had to make a second trip to the bank to get additional cash for small purchases, items for our children, and other miscellaneous expenses. When we traveled, we would occasionally encounter a gas station that offered a discount for cash purchases and we’d take advantage of the discount. We would use cash for tips in restaurants and often pay for meals with cash. These days, I have cash in my wallet that I know I’ve been carrying for a couple of months and I rarely go to the bank to get cash. If I do, I use an automated teller machine and don’t go into the building. I watch our son when we do things together and he almost never uses cash for any type of purchase. In fact I don’t think he carries cash very much. His debt card is the vehicle for making purchases.

The cards have changed, too. New credit cards no longer have raised numbers that can be copied with a paper and carbon paper system. The information is transferred electronically via a magnetic strip or an electronic chip. Our debt cards work with a tap at some terminals. I can make transactions with my phone and even with my watch, though I haven’t gotten used to those systems yet. The pandemic has prompted some merchants to discourage the use of cash, preferring touchless transaction systems.

I remember many conversations over the years with grandparents and other elders about the pace of change and how much things are not the way they used to be. I guess that now I have become a member of the grandparent generation, my conversations must sound similar to my grandchildren. They will likely never use checks and will not find it strange to make a financial transaction by waving their watch at a machine. The will not have to learn to balance a checkbook, but will need to be alert to preventing fraud with their electronic records.

It is a good thing that they aren’t burdened with all of the memories and experiences that occupy my mind as I make my way in a world of change.

Plan

In recent years, a practice has become popular in several different mainline congregations of passing out “star words.” The practice is quite simple. On the Sunday on which Epiphany is celebrated, pieces of paper, cut into the shape of stars and containing a single word, are passed out. The idea is that each person receives a word and uses that word as a guide to thought and meditation throughout the year. I don’t know where the practice originated, but it dose’t have deep roots in Christian tradition. I haven’t been able to find examples of the practice that are more than three or four years old. Nonetheless it has become quite popular in many congregations.

This year, due to the limits on in-person worship, the congregation in which we are participating mailed out the star words. The instructions were to wait to open the envelope containing star words until the worship service on Sunday, January 3. It also offered a bit of explanation of the practice, “Epiphany as a Sunday (and as a church season) is about Light, but it’s also about revelation, about wisdom, about being willing to follow the Stars of God’s invitations as far as thy will lead us.”

The instructions also included advice to choose one of the stars without looking at the words. “If you get a word you like, great! You have the opportunity to keep it near to you for the year . . . If you find yourself with a word you don’t like, well, the Spirit is tricky like that: you have the same invitation.”

People have reported that they have found deep meaning in the practice. In doing a little research on the practice, I found the story of a person who got the word RESTRAINT and over the course of the next year lost 90 pounds, completely changing physical and spiritual health. Another person received JOY and rediscovered joy. Yet another received COURAGE while in the midst of cancer treatment, took the star along with the journey and had it on the bedside table when she died in hospice care.

It is easy to collect anecdotal evidence of the success or failure of a spiritual practice. In the traditions of the church, it usually takes several generations, often hundreds or thousands of years, for a practice to become thoroughly immeshed in the practice of faith. Right now it is impossible to tell whether this is just a fad that will rise and fall with the times, a practice that will be retained by a generation, or something that will become a fixture of Christian practice. At this point, it doesn’t really matter to me. I’m willing to play along and gain from the practice what I can. I have lots of years of experience of discovering depth upon depth by responding to prayer requests made by others. A simple request to think of a single word for a year seems worth my time.

The word I got is PLAN. It isn’t yet Epiphany Day, which is January 6, so I admit that I have a while for the word to sink in and guide me to see God in unexpected ways and places. My first reaction was to think, “That’s ironic!” 2020 was a year I entered with a lot of plans. One of my plans had already been in need of adjustment. I had planned to officially announce my retirement at the annual meeting of the congregation, but I was forced to do so more than six months earlier, so there was no surprise in that. I had planned to produce the biggest Jazz and Blues night ever during our congregation’s Holy Week observances, but Covid forced its cancellation. I had planned to wind down my ministry, slowly delegating tasks to others and cutting back. Instead, I worked as hard as I ever worked. For the last three months of my career, I worked without a day off, going to my office every day to respond to the challenges of a pandemic. I had planned that our congregation would have a celebration of Ministry with outside speakers and a series of inspiring events. That too was cancelled. I had planned that we would be ready to place our home on the market and move by the end of July, but that was not to be. 2020 was a year of adaptation. It was a year of plans upended.

And here I am. I have retired. I have moved. I am participating in a new congregation, but have only worshiped in the building once. I am living in a rental home with the intention of finding a home to purchase sometime in the next nine months. And my star word is PLAN.

I think it will take me quite a while to figure out where the Spirit is leading me with that word. I know that when one submits to the leading of the Spirit, one is often surprised, so I’ll be open to being surprised this year.

One of the pastors of the congregation has said that over 4,000 star words were distributed in about 1,400 pieces of mail. Our envelope contained 5 words, so I still have three to give away. I suspect that for every inspiring story of life transformation there are plenty of words that fall short. Some of them won’t even be remembered a year from now. Some people will find the words momentarily amusing, but not discover a new spiritual discipline. Spiritual practices are like that - they grow slowly and take time to develop.

However, this year is a good year for me to take on a new discipline. There are lots of other new things in my life and a few extra minutes of prayer and meditation each day seem like a good investment. I plan to reserve my judgment until I’ve given it a year. I’m pretty sure that there will be plenty to learn as I go through this year.

Then again, my word is PLAN, and I’ve already learned that some of my best plans go awry.

Thoughts that come to mind

It is raining here in Mount Vernon. The forecast calls for rain today and tomorrow and Wednesday. We might get a break from the rain on Thursday. There are some things about the rain that we have had to learn since we moved. One is that a rainy day usually doesn’t mean that it rains every minute of the day. When we see a break in the rain, we try to go for a walk, though we’ve also learned that we can go for a walk in the rain without any ill effects. On Saturday we walked in the rain and wind and with rain jackets and waterproof shoes returned home without getting too wet.

Yesterday we walked along the Skagit River in downtown Mount Vernon. The river is now flowing at 18 feet above what we assume is the low water mark. There is a scale marked on a bridge that shows the water level. It was at 13 feet a couple of weeks ago. Five feet higher and the river is a sight to see. There are trees and logs floating down the river and it spreads out as it rises, so it is quite a wide span of rushing water. We walk fairly quickly, but the logs were going faster than we walk. We estimated that the river is running about 5 mph on the surface. That’s a lot of water going by.

highwater
At 18 feet, city’s storm drains, at least in some places, begin to back up. You can tell this is a regular phenomenon around here because the city is full of catchment ponds. There is one a half block from our house. I suppose that those areas, which are normally just a kind of wetland, begin to fill with water as the river rises. We’ve been told that the river may reach flood stage by Friday. Flood stage is something that the city has anticipated. There is a massive flood wall through the city. The river would have to come up another 10 feet before it would get to the riverwalk where we were walking yesterday. After that, they put removable panels in the flood wall which rise another 12 feet or so. On the one hand, I would sort of like to see how the system works. On the other hand, I think that much water would be a real concern.

Our house is on a hill and way above where the river flows. We have no concerns about water in the house. Downtown is literally down from where we live and the area has experienced flooding in the past prompting the construction of the flood wall system.

There is already a lot of snow in the high country and the hope is that it will remain as snow and not add to the amount of water in the river. However the point where rain turns to snow varies by altitude and temperature and a blast of warm air from the coast can melt the snow in the foothills. Places that are prone to mudslides are under a watch as the moisture in the soil raises. The ground is fairly saturated here. There are plenty of places were is is squishy underfoot. It is a different sensation from the dry pine needles upon which we usually walked when we lived in the Black Hills. I’ve learned that wet leaves can make a slippery surface and one has to be careful when walking.

It is all a bit new to us. Forecasts call for 3 to 4 inches of rain per day some days. Three days of that would equal the annual rainfall in some of the places where we have lived.

On Saturday, I stopped at a supermarket that is not far from home. I don’t usually shop in that store, but it was convenient and on the way home from the farm. I just needed a dozen eggs and a half gallon of milk. As I walked across the parking lot, I saw a banner on the side of the store. The grocery store has a pharmacy and the banner said, in large letters “Free Flu Shots.” Then in smaller letters it said, “10% off.” I could tell that there wee other words on the sign, but I couldn’t read them from across the parking lot. It got me to thinking: How can you get 10% off of something that is free? I chuckled as I walked towards the store, realizing that the advertisement was working. I often ignore such things. After all I’ve already had my flu shot and I was stopping for only eggs and milk. I’m not prone to impulse purchases from the pharmacy when I’m heading for groceries. But I was determined to read all of the words on the sign.

storebanner
What the sign said was, “Free Flu Shots with most insurance*” and “10% off your next grocery purchase with any vaccination.*” The asterisks were indicating a footnote that was even smaller at the bottom of the banner.

So the flu shots are not free. They are covered by most insurances, including medicare. The discount, however, could have some value. There are weeks when I spend more than $100 in the grocery store. If I hadn’t yet received my flu shot and I was planning a trip to stock up on groceries, I could see myself tempted to get the discount. I don’t know if the discount is helpful when it comes to getting the population vaccinated, but it probably doesn’t hurt.

With all that is going on in the world today, with all of the people who are grieving the loss of loved ones, with all of the uncertainty about elections and the future of democracy in our country, the water level in the Skagit River and the banners on the grocery store aren’t very significant in the scheme of things, but I’ve learned that little things occupy my mind quite a bit these days. I think it may be a sign that I am worrying less. I’ve grown comfortable with turning over some of the big concerns to others.

Maybe I’ll learn how to be retired after all.

Now I just have to figure out what time of day to go for my walk.

Epiphany

The Gospel of Matthew doesn’t have the story of Joseph and Mary going to Bethlehem, of the child wrapped in swaddling cloths and laid in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn. That story belongs to Luke’s Gospel. There are no stories of the infant Jesus in Mark or John. Matthew’s Gospel begins with a chapter-long genealogy of Jesus the counts 14 generations from Abraham to David, 14 generations from David to the Babylon Exile and 14 generations from the Exile to Jesus. It goes on to tell that Joseph considered divorcing Mary when he found of her pregnancy because they had not yet lived together as husband and wife. He was convinced in a dream to go ahead with the marriage and named the child Jesus because of that dream.

Then the second chapter of the Gospel begins with the strange story of visitors who were not Jewish: ”In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” Apparently, their visit created quite a stir: “When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him.” As has been demonstrated in the politics of our time and place, it is never a good thing when a powerful leader is overcome with fear. They do irrational things and their irrational fear results in tragedy and suffering. In the case of Herod, his fear was that another ruler would rise up to displace him. He foments a plan to destroy this child. The Gospel goes on to report that Herod is tricked by the wise men and Joseph has another dream and the Holy Family escapes Herod’s infanticide by fleeing to Egypt for refuge.

The Gospel is not specific in details. We don’t know how old the child was when the visit occurred, but we assume that he was very small because the wise men find the Holy Family in Bethlehem, which, according to Luke’s Gospel, was Joseph’s ancestral home, but not the family’s regular home in Nazareth. We don’t know much of how Mary reacted to the visit of strangers from far away who weren’t of their faith and who presented valuable gifts. We don’t know if the gold offered by the wise men was used to finance the trip to Egypt. We don’t even know for sure how many wise men there were, though the Bible reports three gifts and tradition has followed up with stories of three wise men.

The story of the visit of the wise men has given birth to a host of traditions that now center on the time after Christmas. Initially Epiphany was the celebration of the visit of the wise men and its celebration has settled on the 12th night of Christmas, which is called Epiphany Day. In many contemporary churches, the Sunday closest to the 12th night, January 6, is chosen as Epiphany Sunday. In other churches, the second Sunday after Christmas is the day of the reading of the story of the visit. In many contemporary churches the story of the visit of the wise men is included in Christmas Eve services and repeated on Epiphany Sunday. However, few churches go on to read the stories of Herod’s infanticide and the grief of the parents which is reported in Matthew 2:16-18. The chapter ends with an explanation of why Jesus grew up in Nazareth instead of Bethlehem that is different from the story told in Luke’s Gospel.

The whole story is strange and fantastic and hard to imagine. Like many other stories of faith that are hard to understand, we have returned to them again and again. In the Christian Calendar, Epiphany is not just a day, but a season that follows Christmas and lasts until Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent. Because Epiphany has been observed every year since the early days of the Church, there as layers upon layers of tradition and experience. Some of the meanings of the story have taken generations to develop.

Among the aspects of the story that have been emphasized over the centuries is the manifestation of the Christ child to people outside of the Jewish faith and tradition. The recognition and worship of the Christ child by gentiles is seen as an important part of the eventual distinction between Judaism and Christianity. It has become common to celebrate Epiphany as a season of light, drawing on pre-Christian traditions of solstice celebration and a mid-winter (in the northern hemisphere) anticipation of longer days and warmer weather. In addition, the tradition is to read through the stories of Jesus life during the season, which creates a kind of rush because the season is short and there are a lot of gospel stories. Epiphany is a variable season as the Christian calendar adjusts from a solar calendar to a lunar calendar. Christmas is always December 25. Easter can vary depending on the phases of the moon. Epiphany, then can be as short as 4 weeks and as long as 9 weeks. If one attends worship regularly it seems like the Gospel readings are fitting from event to event to event and Jesus is going through his ministry at a lightning pace.

In the church we have been attending since retirement, the focus today will be on Epiphany and the revelations about life and faith that come from spending time with the gospel story. I’m looking forward to the worship service even though I am not a fan of Facebook worship. It seems like we are ready for a season of light and the revelation of new meanings and understandings. 202 has been a difficult year for so many people, with so much grief and so much loss. It has been a year of change for us and we are open to discovering new paths and new opportunities as we look forward.

Today, I don’t have to explain why the story of the wise men appears in the gospel. I don’t have to preach a sermon at all. I can sit back and listen carefully to the thoughts and observations of others and add another layer of experience to the story we’ve been telling all of our lives.

May your Epiphany be a season of light this year.

Still sorting

Like 2020, 2021 will be a yea of sifting and sorting for me. The move resulted in a reduction of the amount of possessions that we have, but there is still a lot less. We still have boxes in our garage that contain items that are not in current use. I still have tools that are duplicates and may not be needed. There is more, however, that needs to be sorted than physical possessions. I’ve been sorting through old photographs that stir old memories. Some of those photographs are of people that I don’t remember. Some can be discarded. I’ve kept images that are out of focus, duplicate, and for other reasons probably should have been discarded years ago. One of the advantages of having scanned thousands of slides in recent weeks is that it is relatively easy to sort and discard the images that don’t need to be kept. I can make up folders of images to share and move them around with a simple click on the computer. Another advantage is that I have reduced the physical clutter. My computer doesn’t take up more space now that I have tens of thousands of images stored in the cloud.

The topic of sorting came up yesterday in a conversation with my sister, who is two years older than I. She has been doing the same process for several years, having moved from one state to another and downsizing to a smaller home. She has items stored in a large steel outbuilding. I have items in the barn at our son’s farm. Both of us intend to spend significant time this year going through those items and reducing our inventory.

There are people who consider that process to be a chore that must be done and see possessions as a burden that drag one down. My experience, however, has not been like that. I’ve found a great deal of pleasure in the memories that these things stir. I’ve found joy in having memories renewed by the discovery of an item.

I don’t use wood planes very often, but there are occasions when a sharp plane is exactly the right tool for the job. Even though I have a power planer and power sanders, the ability to shave off a thin strip of wood from the bottom of a door is a very satisfying experience. A sharp plane will peel off a curl of wood that looks neat and smells wonderful. The feel of a wood plane in my hands is very satisfying. I know which of my planes belonged to my father and which belonged to my grandfather. I have another that belonged to Susan’s grandfather. I am not a cabinet maker. Nor am I a carpenter. It is likely that I will have a temporary increase in woodworking projects now that I have some time, but I’ll never be a person whose living is dependent upon tools like wood planes. A production carpenter these days needs to use lasers and CNC machines and all kinds of modern precision tools. I don’t know if there will be anyone in future generations who has any need or desire to own a wood plane. But I have a whole portion of a tool chest with wood planes. The tool chest is a wooden one that I made by hand. Just looking at it makes me want to help my grandson build his own toolbox.

Developmental psychologists assure us that every stage of living has its own tasks. Retirement brings with it a need to look back and evaluate, appreciate and integrate the memories and activities of a lifetime. Those who fail in this task can experience despair at the end of their lives. Just as there are essential learning tasks for every stage of development, end of life tasks are important to being able to function in society and having a sense of well being.

As we talked about our process of sorting, my sister and I both appreciated the meaning of the task. Finding just the right home for a particular item is very satisfying. Knowing that something that we have kept for a long time has value and meaning for another person is deeply meaningful. As we prepared for our move, the times when we could deliver items directly to someone and see their joy at getting an item were much more meaningful than the days we took boxes to a donation center and dropped them into a bin. Both actions were necessary. We need to be able to engage others in the process of redistribution. I’m grateful for the rescue mission and Good Will for their operation of thrift stores and their role in helping us recycle items rather than having them go to a landfill. But there is far more pleasure in finding just the right person for a particular item. Just like acquiring books one at a time is more fun that getting a whole box all at once, giving them away on at a time is more fun than packing up the boxes and delivering them to a warehouse or other storage point. Libraries make a quick sort of items that they won’t be keeping. A few can be sold for funds to make new acquisitions for the library. Many used books are sold by the pound and discarded in large quantities. I had to do both actions with my personal library, though I donated books to the AAUW book sale rather than selling them by the pound.

Still, after all of the sorting of 2020, I’ve got more to do. I suspect that sorting will be a part of every year for the rest of my life. It isn’t as terrible a chore as some might imagine. It can be fun and meaningful.

Who knows? I might run into someone who needs a particular size of wood plane. I might bring a smile to the face of an old friend by sending a photo as an attachment in an email. I might rediscover a memory that adds meaning to my life.

Happy New Year

Well, friends, it is 2021 and I still don’t have a flying car in my driveway. I’m not complaining, just saying. I can hear the fireworks in the distance an hour after midnight and I still have not yet been to the moon despite the fact that I read the book, “You Will Go To The Moon” by Mae and Ira Freeman when I was six years old and believed that it was predicting my future. As far as I know, there is no space station orbiting the earth with the primary purpose of serving as a way station and place to change space ships for tourists heading to the moon.

I’ve been celebrating New Year’s Eve on East Coast time for several years - a feat made even easier this year by our move to Pacific Time Zone. It was 9 pm local time when the ball dropped in Times Square in New York City. I didn’t watch it. I was watching my nephew build a Lego set on a Twitch livestream, which is a bit like YouTube, but not quite the same. He had a pretty big crowd of followers - more than the number who would show up to church in the congregation I served before Covid. Then again, his followers don’t have to go anywhere to watch. The application is specifically designed to play in the background on your computer or tablet so that you can have it on and sort of pay attention to it while you are doing something else. I didn’t have much “else” to do, sitting in my La-Z-Boy recliner in front of the fireplace and chatting with my wife and sister. I topped off my evening with a dish of mint chocolate chip ice cream before turning in a little after ten. Then again I’m up a little after 1 am to publish my journal entry and my nephew is still working on his Lego set. He’s building the 2,646-piece Lego Nintendo Entertainment System kit complete with a console, controller, cartridge and, of course a television set: Legos specifically designed for those 18 years old or older. He’s figured out a way to earn money while playing video games and is very entertaining as he does it.

Still, there’s no flying car in my driveway. 2021 certainly seemed like the distant future when I was a kid. It seemed pretty far away when I was the age my nephew is today. He hadn’t even been born when I was his age. For me the future seems to have arrived. I’m retired. I’m loving being a grandpa. But I don’t have tickets for a trip to the moon. If I did, the flight probably would have to be cancelled due to the pandemic anyway.

The power of the human imagination is incredible. Our capacity for creative thinking is genuinely amazing. 25 years ago, computer game players and engineers designed the Nintendo 64 video game console. It was a breakthrough with its 64-bit central processing unit. But those brilliant engineers probably could not have envisioned that one day adults would entertain themselves by building a Lego model of the console. And they certainly didn’t imagine that they would do so in front of a green screen while chatting with their followers over a social networking platform and understanding what they are doing as building community.

Here we are. 2021. It isn’t quite the way I imagined it would be when I was 10 or 20 or even 50 for that matter, though by that age I’d pretty much given up on owning a flying car or traveling to the moon. These days I’d be satisfied with a self-driving car that would allow me to keep driving after I lose the ability to safely navigate city traffic. I’m pretty sure that someone has already designed the experience of a flying car and a trip to the moon that can be had by putting on a virtual reality headset. I don’t have a VR headset and didn’t have an Oculus Quest 2 on my Christmas list this year. I’ve been led to believe that such things can result in dizziness and nausea anyway.

I’m quite enough entertained by watching my nephew on Twitch and reading the latest Sherman Alexie book on my iPad. Then I nap for a couple of hours and get up to write my journal on a laptop computer that has more computing power than the entire moon launch team had at their disposal. Things haven’t turned out the way I imagined, but some of those things are far more fantastic than I was able to imagine.

I welcome the new year as I have welcomed other new years with a sense of excitement about new things that are emerging in my family, in our community, and around the world. We’ll be inaugurating a new president in 20 days. It probably isn’t quite as dramatic as those in Great Britain waking to their new Brexit reality this morning. We don’t have new words to our national anthem like Australia does today. Still, I suspect that there will be plenty of change. After all I didn’t see the pandemic that has killed 1.4 million people worldwide coming. I didn’t know how much it would change our lives and affect the way we form communities. I didn’t expect to learn much about social media in the final months of my active working career. Things don’t always turn out the way you expect and there is always something new happening. 2021 will surprise me in good and bad ways I’m sure.

Happy New Years to you. May you find joy in the midst of change and disruption, peace in a wild and sometimes violent world, hope when others flirt with despair and love enough to keep you engaged in reaching out to others through whatever media is available.

As for me, I’ve only retired from my former job, not from life itself. I’ve got nieces and nephews and grandchildren to keep me young. And if I get bored in my retirement I can always build a Lego set.