Springtime Ramblings

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There are plenty of signs of spring all around us. The flowering trees on our street are a bit past their prime, especially with strong winds earlier this week. However, they are still beautiful. In addition to the crocus, which are past their prime and the daffodils which are looking great, there are hyacinths blooming in several areas. It looks like the tulips in our lawn will be a couple of weeks before blooming, but we have seen tulips blooming in a couple of places around town.

Tulips are a big deal around here. Tomorrow marks the official start of the Skagit Valley Tulip Festival. The event was cancelled last year due to the pandemic. To discourage crowds and people getting too close to one another, the biggest tulip producers closed their parking lots and retail stores to discourage visitors. This year, however, they are eager to be back in business. The largest producers have reservation systems to limit crowding and allow for space for photographers to get pictures of the tulips without getting other visitors in their view. We haven’t yet made reservations, but plan to take several drives around the area and may book a space at one of the growers. The festival lasts for an entire month and there will be events in our town, so we will have a lot of opportunities to experience the beauty of the fields of tulips.

In the meantime, there are plenty of other signs of spring during this Holy Week. Yesterday on our walk we were strolling alongside a small drainage ditch and the chorus of frog song was so loud that it was impossible to ignore. We’ve walked by that same ditch many times in the months that we have lived here, but yesterday was our first time of hearing the frogs. The soil temperature has gotten warm enough to coax the frogs out of their winter hibernation. Temperatures haven’t been all that warm, mostly in the 50s, but the ground doesn’t freeze here, so it warms up more quickly.

The chicks in the brooder at our son’s farm are getting too tall to sit on the roost in the brooder. They will be turned out into the coop soon. Spring comes differently here than in other places we have lived, but it is definitely a new season.

After my wife experienced atrial fibrillation in the fall of 2019, we decided to buy fitness watches that have a simple EKG function, record heart rate, and have a fitness tracker. As part of her recovery, we started walking every day. We generally walk between 30 minutes and an hour and cover 2 - 3 miles. We monitor our exercise with the watches. I, however, have a gripe with the watch - or more precisely with the software engineers. Here is the deal. Yesterday, I dug 14 fence post holes. Admittedly, digging a fence post hole is different here than any other place I have lived. I didn’t have to get out the spud bar. There were no rocks in any of the holes that were too large to lift with the post hole digger. On the other hand 14 holes 26 to 28 inches deep take some work. After I dug the post holes, which took over 3 hours, I noticed the fitness tracker had recorded 2 minutes of exercise. I got an additional 2 minutes of exercise by dumping our compost bin. Later, I got 50 minutes of exercise by walking a little over 3 miles. I’ve noticed a similar phenomenon when I work with the chainsaw. I can work hard for two or three hours, but get no credit for exercise.

Of course, part of what the watch is measuring is how much I move about. I stand with two feet firmly placed when I dig fence post holes. Working the chainsaw also involves standing still. I get a full measure of exercise when mowing the lawn because I’m walking behind the mower. We have a self-propelled mower, so that is definitely not as strenuous work as digging holes or bucking logs.

It seems the software engineers understand a workout, but not work. Actually, I’d like to see some of those engineers, especially the ones that go to the gym several days each week, out bucking logs or digging post holes with me. I wonder if they could keep up. And most of them are probably only about a third of my age.

I’ll keep the watch. It amuses me. If it were truly a smart watch, as the advertisements proclaim, it would be able to learn. My leges are fairly strong. I walk quite a bit. I ride my bike a lot more than I did before I retired. But many of my favorite activities such as rowing and paddling are upper body exercises. My arms and shoulders are in good shape for a guy of my age. But I sit when I row or paddle and I’ve got the gut to show for it. Maybe the software engineers are trying to avoid looking like me.

I’ve got a couple of church activities for today, but nothing like it was when I was working. I’ll meet over Zoom with the Lenten Study Group and I’ll record a reading of scripture. Susan and I recorded Easter greetings for the congregation after worship on Palm Sunday. Even with the spring weather it is hard for me to realize that this is Holy Week. Watching a couple of extra services on the computer just isn’t the same pace as the life of a pastor during Holy Week. I used to say that for a pastor, Holy Week is 50% moving furniture. Of course I didn’t have the smart watch in those days, so I don’t know how many minutes of exercise I’d record, but I suspect it would be quite a bit. I made several trips to the choir loft and the basement each day during Holy Week and I moved my share of furniture. Life is different now.

Holy Week blessings readers. Our journey continues and my watch is counting my steps even though it can’t count post holes.

Worry from far away

I went to the dentist yesterday. Part of the process of moving is establishing care from a variety of providers: new dentist, new pharmacist, new doctor, etc. The dental technician who helped me said, “The weather this year has been very unusual.” I almost laughed out loud when she said it. I’ve been told that about every place I’ve lived since I became an adult, I think. When we are new to an area, we are told that it usually isn’t as hot or as cold or as snowy as we experienced. The comment yesterday was specifically in reference to the wind. Sunday was a blustery day with wind and rain. At times, the rain was coming down in sheets and the wind was driving it hard. It didn’t rain all day. We took a walk in the afternoon and stayed dry. But it was windy. The wind grabbed the trampoline in the back yard of one of our neighbor’s homes and threw it up against their house. We don’t know where the cover for our outdoor grill ended up. All we know is that it is completely gone and we can’t find a trace of it. It must have blown over the fence and who knows how far it went?

Yesterday was a really windy day in Rapid City, too. If we still lived there, we would be keeping our eyes on the wildfires that sprang up. Two smaller fires burned near enough to Mount Rushmore to have the road and the monument closed yesterday. They also burned some key power distribution poles. The Electric cooperative that supplied power to our home when we lived there reported that hundreds of homes were without electricity as crews scrambled to restore power. The bigger fire, burning west of town was estimated at 1900 acres. Two homes and numerous outbuildings have been lost to the fire and around 500 people have been evacuated. The photos on facebook and on the news websites show places that are very familiar to us. Our friends have posted pictures of the smoke plume and the thick smoke that blankets the city. The neighborhood where we lived is not under evacuation and the homes there are safe for now but we have friends who have evacuated and who are waiting to hear about their homes.

One news photo showed the county emergency command post, a vehicle with which I am familiar because of my work with the Sheriff’s Office and Pennington County Search and Rescue, parked in the parking lot of the high school our children attended.

To be clear, if we were still living there, we would not be affected by the fires. Our church building is far away from the flames. The Red Cross shelter is in a Baptist Church and supplies have been on hand for such for a long time. There is nothing I would be doing except staying out of the way of the firefighters, something some County and State officials have trouble doing. I feel, however, a bit like I am in the wrong place. When hard times come, I belong with my people and some of my people are there in the smoke and confusion. I know firefighters who are on the lines. I know officers who are staffing the command post. I know people who have evacuated their homes. I feel powerless as I look at the computer and try to figure out what the latest news might be.

Professional ethics are clear. There is a new pastor in town. It is my job to stay clear and allow that pastor to connect with the congregation. It is critical that I not interfere. It is a good thing that I am here - far away. But it doesn’t stop me from worrying.

I still get phone calls from church members. Last week it was a problem with the voice mail system on the church phones. This week it was a search for a contract signed several years ago. I don’t mind the phone calls. I try my best to help without meddling. And sometimes, as was the case with the phone system, I haven’t got a clue what to do. I guess the fact that I knew the service provider that supplied the phones off the top of my head gave them a place to call for help.

I sort of hope that in the midst of the smoke and the voice mail not working and all of the other challenges being faced by the interim pastor, someone says to him, “This is a very unusual year. It usually isn’t like this around here.” It would be the truth. The pandemic changed everything. Fire, while a part of life in the forest, doesn’t dominate every conversation every year.

On the other hand, we all knew that the hills were ripe for a major fire and that the way that homes are built up in the hills and the amount of fuel on the ground with dead trees and other problems mean that some fires will bring disaster to some families. Everyone I know who is out working the fires has been preparing for years for this kind of an event. They knew it was coming.

The state is tinder dry. Along with the fires in the hills, a grass fire closed part of the Interstate a hundred miles east of town. It doesn’t take much for wildfire to become huge and dangerous when the winds are blowing that strong. The winds have died down a bit with the coming of night, but they could easily be blowing more than 30 mph tomorrow. There is a lot of danger and a lot of hard work ahead for the people in Rapid City. I hope they know that were are lots of us who are far away who are keeping them in our prayers and hoping for safety for all involved.

Holy Week 2021 is one that the folks of Rapid City won’t soon forget.

Holy Week continues

The ways in which we observe Holy Week have been through many transitions in the history of the church. Just in the span of my career as a pastor there have been many changes. I remember that the big events in my childhood church were Palm Sunday, celebrated with a parade and florist palm, and Easter, celebrated with a sunrise service and an easter egg hunt. Our church had Maundy Thursday services, but they were considered to be an event mostly for adults and on Good Friday it was a tradition for several of the protestant churches in town to cooperate with an ecumenical service. I remember my father once saying that he would not close his shop and make it a paid holiday, but that any employee who wanted to attend Good Friday services would be paid during the time they went to the worship service. A few, but not many of his employees took him up on the offer.

When I became a pastor, it was becoming popular to recognize Palm Sunday as “Palm and Passion Sunday.” In addition to the reading of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem and a palm procession to “All Glory, Laud and Honor,” we would read the passion narrative, usually from several of the gospels. The service would begin on a triumphant note and end on a solemn note. The idea behind Palm and Passion Sunday was that the majority of Christians worshipped on Sunday only. Attendance at midweek services, even during Holy Week was light, so in order to have the entire congregation grasp the sense of sacrifice and the grief of the disciples, reading the passion narrative on a Sunday was required. We did that for many years. These days, however, it is more common to separate the liturgy of the palms from the liturgy of the passion. For the last few years of our careers as pastors, we held separate services and Holy Monday became the day of the reading of the passion. We held an evening service. At least once we had the reading set to music with a jazz pianist. Another year we had a multi-media event with illustrations of the passion projected as the story was read.

In that congregation we started a practice, observed for a few years, of holding a worship event every day of Holy Week. The process was interrupted by the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 and it remains to be seen how much of the experience will become a tradition for that congregation. It certainly hasn’t caught on on across mainline protestantism.

It is interesting that Maundy Thursday has become the night for a communion service in so many congregations. Christians tend to think of the service as a reenactment of Jesus’ last supper with his disciples. References to the celebration of the Seder that Jesus shared with his disciples and his institution of the sacrament of Holy Communion are common. Problems with the day of the week and Christian misunderstandings of the function of the Seder in Judaism aside, the mandate of Maundy Thursday is not Jesus instruction to “do this in remembrance of me.” Rather the mandate is the instruction he gave as he washed the feet of his disciples: “This is my commandment: that you love one another as I have loved you.” While foot washing is practiced in some congregations, it certainly hasn’t caught on in the congregations in which we have participated over the course of our ministry. We’ve held a few food washing ceremonies, but didn’t get many takers. And it is hard to imagine people being comfortable with the practice during a time of careful precautions to keep from spreading disease. Foot washing never became a Christian sacrament. Maundy Thursday is usually focused on the communion service. It is also a traditional time for choral cantatas and although some cantatas include the celebration of communion, most have to be adapted if used in congregations where the sacrament is offered during the same service as the cantata.

For many Christians the reading the passion is a Good Friday tradition. There are many variations on services focusing on the stations of the cross, though in protestant congregations observances tend to be quite different from the more formal observance of stations in Roman Catholic congregations. We developed a service that incorporated motion with prayers and the reading of the passion narrative during our time of serving the congregation in Rapid City. The church has a dramatic free-standing cross at the front of the sanctuary and its visual appearance makes a strong focal point for Good Friday observances. A black drape on the cross with the communion table stripped of its usual candlesticks made for a strong focus of a slow procession from the back of the room to the base of the cross.

In 1986, just after we had begun serving the second call of our careers, the United Church of Christ published a new Book of Worship. The book was the first Book of Worship with entirely inclusive language to be adopted by any major Christian Denomination. It was ground-breaking in many ways. It also was the first Book of Worship in our tradition to include the Great Vigil of Easter. Congregations of our denomination, however, did not establish a Great Vigil tradition for the most part. We held the service several times throughout our career, but attendance was very light. Of the services of Holy Week, however, the Great Vigil may be the one with the most ancient roots. In Roman times, the church developed the season of Lent and the intense time of Holy Week as a time of preparation for membership in the church. Those who did not know the full history and tradition of the church, engaged in spiritual practices, including fasting for a period of six weeks to prepare for becoming full members of the church. The Great Vigil was a kind of a review, with readings from the scriptures that start with the Creation story and continue throughout the highlights of the Bible and conclude with a reading from Revelation. It is a kind of review of Biblical traditions.

This year, we will observe Holy Week from our home. We watched Palm Sunday on the computer and we’ll watch Maundy Thursday with our own communion elements, Good Friday, Easter Sunrise and Easter Worship on our computer. It promises to be a very different week from the years of a public worship service every day of Holy Week. As the practices of the church change, we adapt. Nonetheless the week carries the promise of deep meaning and a renewal of faith. We journey onward.

Holy Week 2021

Holy Week 2020 didn’t turn out the way we expected. For almost a year we had been planning what we were calling the biggest blues night ever. Of course the blues isn’t what comes to mind first for most Christians when they think of Holy Week, but in recent years we had found that turning to the classic music form had helped us find expression for some of the emotions of the powerful week in the lives of Christians. Blues originated in the American South around thee time of the Civil War. It is a unique combination of spirituals, work songs, chants and ballads that reflect part of the African-American experience. You can’t separate music from culture and you can learn a lot about culture from music.

We called our night of music “Sittin’ with the Blues.” Sometimes you need to just sit with music and culture and experience them. Listening to the blues seems very appropriate in a time of grief, sorrow, sadness and loss.

Over the course of my career, I often referred to Holy Week as an opportunity to rehearse a universal human experience. Every human will experience loss and grief. Walking the events of the last week of Jesus’ earthly life allows Christians to think about our own mortality and the mortality of those we love in a unique way. It remind us that our faith is different from some systems of belief. Ours is not a religion of immortality. Christianity doesn’t promise that one will never die. Quite the contrary, our faith embraces the death of our savior and in that death discovers the meaning of salvation.

The distinction between immortality and eternity may seem subtle to some, but it is an important one. It is a distinction that many, including many Christian preachers, have missed. Religion has long played on human fear of death and religious leaders have often promised faithful people that they might escape death. It is something entirely different to tell people that they, like all others before them, are going to die.

Death, however, is not the end of the story.

Holy Week is not the end of the story of Jesus.

The pain and loss and sorrow and sadness and grief that we all experience is not the end of our story.

2020 is not the end of the story of our people, even though it was a year of incredible loss and grief. It was a year of far too much death and loss. And now, as we begin Holy Week 2021, our time has come to simply sit with our grief a bit. We don’t need to rush to Easter. We can allow the experiences of the year just passed to wash over us. As we approach 550,000 deaths in the US alone, there are too many personal stories, too many family tragedies, too many grieving communities for us to simply rush past the grief our our world. We would do well to sit with our grief.

Communities around the world are trying to find ways to express their grief and commemorate the loss. Back in October, artist Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg planted a white flag for each life lost to COVID-19 on the grounds of the Washington Armory. At the time the national death toll was 212,000. We remember the flags planted in the U.S. National Mall, each flag representing ten lives lost to the virus. Here in Washington, the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra performed Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings as a musical tribute to COVID victims. The piece, often associated with grief and mourning, begins with a single B flat. We’ve heard it before when President Kennedy was assassinated. We think of grief and loss when the music touches us.

Sometimes we don’t want to hear another say “It is going to get better,” or “You’ll get over this.” Sometimes we need to just sit with our grief, acknowledge its reality and power, and sense that others are also touched by the loss.

It is that communal experience of grief that we have missed so much in our year of pandemic. We have sometimes felt that we are alone in our grief because we were not able to gather face to face. I have to admit that Palm Sunday feels very strange for me this morning. I’m preaching. It is a distinct honor to have been invited to deliver a Palm Sunday sermon and I feel grateful for the invitation. But it isn’t a live event. I recorded the sermon last Monday. Like the other members of our congregation, I’ll be watching it as part of the Facebook livestream of worship later this morning. And it won’t even be live. The worship service is a combination of real-time offerings and other parts that have been pre-recorded. That is the way we are worshiping these days. It is unsettling and unfulfilling for those of us whose lives have centered on in-person, face-to-face worship. There is grief in not being together to wave palm branches and listen to the excited voices of the children. There is grief in watching a screen instead of being able to sit in a sanctuary.

Our faith, however, does not lead us away from grief. It invites us to sit with our grief, to experience our losses, to count them as real and then to remember that we are not alone. Even in our isolation, we are not alone.

The words of the spiritual come to my mind:

Jesus walked this lonesome valley;
He had to walk it by himself.
Oh, nobody else could walk it for him;
He had to walk it by himself.

That spiritual goes on to compare our journey of grief to Jesus’.

We must walk this lonesome valley;
We have to walk it by ourselves.
Oh, nobody else can walk it for us;
We have to walk it by ourselves.

The song, however, betrays its own lyrics. By acknowledging that Jesus has gone ahead of us, we understand that God will never abandon us. Even when we feel alone and cut off, we are not alone. Our faith is in God’s presence in every aspect of human experience, including death itself.

For this week, however, we are invited to simply sit with the loneliness and to experience the grief. It is not the end of the story, but it is the story for a few more days. Holy Week is upon us.

A busy day

When the schools closed down last year in response to the pandemic, our grandchildren began a structured program of home education. The school in the small town where they lived at the time was slow to offer online learning and when it did offer a few zoom sessions, they fell far short of a complete educational plan for the children. Their parents did some quick research and came up with a program of home schooling. Although the arrangement is temporary, it has worked for the family. When we moved to the area, we became regular volunteers in the homeschool just as we would have become volunteers in the public school had things been working normally. We enjoy learning with our grandchildren and watching them grow.

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There are some disadvantages to the program, however. One disadvantage if you are the ten-year-old brother of two sisters is that you spend all of your time with those two siblings. You miss things you used to do with your friends and others your age - scouts, sports, and just hanging out with others your age. And even though you love your family and you are glad to have sisters, there is part of helping them with their schooling that is, frankly, boring. Sometimes you wish there was someplace you could go without those two little girls.

Our grandson wanted some time away from his sisters enough to work really hard cramming a week’s worth of school into four days last week. That included taking his spelling test on Thursday instead of Friday, doubling up with his math assignments, doing extra reading and extra typing practice, and quite a bit more. Yesterday was his bonus day and he got up early to get dropped off at our house on his father’s way to work.

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We decided to see how much adventure we could cram into one day. It started with a five-mile bike ride. Actually grandpa had planned a two-mile bike ride, but we finished so quickly that we added another three miles and were back at the house by mid-morning. There was time for three games of Uno. The ten-year-old won two of them. There was time to get out a collection of Calvin and Hobbes cartoons and read curled up in an easy chair. There was time to play catch with grandma in the back yard while grandpa cooked burgers on the grill. And that was just the morning.

The afternoon included a short paddle in the canoe. A bigger paddle had been planned but a windy day brought some waves to the lake and prudence dictated a shorter paddle along the protected shoreline. Then it was back to the house, where grandma had been saving a commercial STEM crate project obtained at a discounted price as a sample. This project was the making of a spin art machine, complete with a small circuit board and switch and a couple of resistors in the circuit. Then there was time to try out the device and make some cards.

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Another 5-mile bike ride, this one planned for the stamina of the boy and including a couple of fun hills that were climbed and repeated for the extra fun of going fast, rounded out the afternoon. Along the way there were several snacks. A growing ten-year-old who is very active needs fuel for the journey. More time playing catch and reading a few more cartoons and before we were ready his father was there to pick him up.

It was a really fun day and grandpa didn’t have any trouble falling to sleep in the evening. It broke up the routine of spending all day every day with his sisters for the grandson.

We are deeply grateful for the gift of time we have with our grandchildren. We are aware that it is a privilege born of our ability to retire - a gift of the congregations we served who invested in our pension and the blessings of good health. We know that there are lots of loving grandparents who don’t have the opportunity to live close to their grandchildren, a luxury of the timing of the ages of our grandchildren and the circumstances of our life. Yesterday was one more gift in a lifetime of good fortune and blessing.

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Children around the world have missed out on experiences and learning during the pandemic. Although some are now able to return to regular school, the disruption in their education has made a big impact on their lives. Next fall, when schools spool up for a complete return, it will not be going back to school as usual. The wide variety of experiences and the discrepancies in educational experiences mean that students will return with very different learning needs. Classes divided by age will have even wider ranges of learning needs than before. In a real sense it will not be “going back to school,” but rather re-inventing the process of schooling.

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As has been the case in the past, we know we can count on the creativity and dedication of faithful teachers in our public schools and know that we can trust them to give a high measure of devotion to our children. But we also know that they are facing enormous challenges as they return. Teachers who are back in the classroom are finding that not all of their students are present. New practices and procedures aimed at limiting the spread of disease demand time and energy and interrupt the process of teaching and learning. In the fall when more students return, things will have to be very different from the way they were before the pandemic.

Even as we enjoy the blessings of extra time with our grandchildren, we know that we need to be learning about opportunities to support our teachers and schools as they face the huge challenges of a new season of learning.

Yesterday we had the luxury of two adults and one ten year old. It is hard to imagine the energy required of a teacher who has to face a classroom of ten year olds all by herself or himself. Those teachers deserve all the support we can give.

A time capsule

I read an article about pandemic time capsules. It appears that in some circles it has become popular to create a time capsule with items that are symbolic of life during the pandemic. The container can be as simple a a cardboard box or as complex as a stainless steel capsule that is water tight and, probably ordered from Amazon. The contents are to be a message to your future self primarily, though some proponents suggest creating a time capsule that would be discovered and opened by others after your life. The capsule might contain direct items such as photographs, notes or letters, newspaper clippings and other items. It might also contain symbolic items such as toilet paper or a bag from a meal delivery service. People are encouraged to be creative and enjoy the process.

I suppose it is a variation on creating a scrapbook or a photo album. My version of the idea, of course, is by writing an essay every day and posting them to the internet. I also have a digital file on the cloud where I and my children and grandchildren can access all of the archives, filed by date. I have no idea whether or not anyone will want to do so, but for now it is entertaining to me.

We used the concept as a teaching tool for many years. We asked those preparing for the rite of confirmation to imagine how the experience would change their lives. Then we invited them to write a not to their future self and enclose it in an envelope. We would keep those envelopes as we met with the class and went through the various exercises of learning about the history and tradition of the church, basic biblical literacy, and skills for living in community. Then, during the week of their confirmation we would give the letters back to the students and allow them to read them and reflect on the year. The ensuing conversation was generally meaningful as we compared their initial expectations with the reality of the experience. Often we gained insights that enabled us to become better teachers.

I’m not sure that we need special time capsules to remind us of our year of pandemic isolation. Years that involve momentous change seem to be more easily remembered than others. I often find myself reflecting on years when we moved from one home to another while the years in the same home tend to blur into one another. On the other hand the growth and development of our children and grandchildren offer many experiences that help us remember specific ages and stages of their growth and development.

One of the big developments that may affect our memories is the change from film photography to digital photography. I just looked and I have over 33,000 photos and 300 videos accessible through the photo application on this computer. I didn’t collect photos as readily when I had to purchase film and pay for developing. I remember the extravagance of the summer of 1978 when we took a trip to Europe and I budgeted 72 frames of film each day for six weeks. The physical weight of the film was a significant element in my travel plans. In those days we had to have special bags to carry film onto airplanes to prevent the x-ray machines from destroying the film. These days I carry enough computing power to have all of the photos I took on that trip accessible to my cell phone. What is more, I can sort my photos by date, by location and increasingly by using facial recognition software to identify individuals in the photos. The sheer volume of photos, however, makes it less likely that any single photo will inspire or even inform future generations. I have no idea what our grandchildren will do with photos. They may have access to all of our photos, but it yet remains to be seen whether or not that access will be meaningful.

We created time capsules on several occasions during my career as a pastor. Each time the capsules were created in response to a specific anniversary of the congregation. We also served churches where time capsules had been created by previous generations. In one church there was memory of a time capsule having been created and we planned to open it on the occasion of a church anniversary, but no one could remember where the time capsule was. Some thought it was behind the cornerstone of the building, sealed in the masonry. Others thought it had been stored somewhere inside. We never did find it. Nonetheless, we made a new one with some photos, a newspaper article about the anniversary celebration, a coffee mug, a contemporary English version of the Bible, a photo directory of the congregation and other items. I guess we’ll have to wait another 50 or 75 years to see whether or not anyone will be able to find it when the time comes.

There are lots of reasons to believe that the year that has just passed is worth remembering for historical purposes. The pandemic has been judged as a once-in-a-hundred-years event. Although it is difficult to predict, and some claim that pandemics will be more frequent in the future, it certainly brought to mind the 1918 flu pandemic and made us all try to get what information about that event that we could find. It begs the question, “How do we want those who come after us to remember us?” Of course, we aren’t in complete control of how we will be remembered. Future generations will have multiple ways of accessing information, many of which we can’t yet imagine. Those living in the early years of the 20th century couldn’t imagine how we would be able to access so much information so easily.

So perhaps those who create a time capsule to remember the year that has passed are doing good archival work. I won’t be making a capsule, however. I’m pretty sure that I would never be able to find it when I decided to take a look.

Reading

Despite the fact that I have neglected to keep up with the books section of my website, I am an avid reader. At any given time, I usually have at least two or three books going. Currently I am reading “House Made of Dawn” by M. Scott Momaday. I’ve decided that now that I have time, I’m going to read through the Pulitzer Prize-winning fiction of my adult life. And I also have been reading Amy-Jill Levine’s “Entering the Passion of Jesus” for an adult discussion group in which I am participating. Most weeks at our house include a trip to the library and despite downsizing and getting rid of hundreds of books in preparation for our move, we still have some very full bookcases that I visit frequently to re-read books that are favorites. There is no limit to the number of times one can read “Go Dog Go,” or enjoy a collection of Calvin and Hobbes cartoons. There are many books that reveal more depth and meaning upon re-reading.

Given my love of books and reading, I have developed a theory about reading. This theory is not based on science, though I’ve read a few articles by scientists and researchers. And the theory is probably not unique to me. It’s just something that I’ve been thinking about lately. The theory is that most people absorb information in different ways and to different degrees dependent upon the context and the media they use for reading.

I began my college career on academic probation. Knowing that my ability to continue to study was dependent upon earning good grades meant that I was highly motivated to do well. I soon discovered that my old practice of reading in bed wasn’t producing the comprehension required. Besides the volume of reading in college was too high for me to keep dropping off to sleep mid sentence. I found that I got the most out of a book if I was sitting at my desk or at a table in the library with a notepad and a pen close at hand. I also learned that certain foods, most notably the hot chocolate available at the student food service, tended to make me sleepy. I started drinking coffee during my first year in college.

These days I read mostly for recreation. You can often find me sitting in a recliner in the living room reading a book. However, I know that if there is something that I really need to understand, or if I am reading material that is challenging, I do better sitting at my desk or at our dining room table. My comprehension is best when I am reading a book while sitting at a table or desk.

Furthermore, I retain information best when I am reading from a paper book. There is something about the physical task of turning a page that holds my attention in a way that scrolling through a digital document does not. It is almost as if flipping through pages on the tablet computer is too easy for me. My tablet computer also allows my mind to wander in ways that a paper book does not. I can mark a passage by holding my finger over a word. I can look up something in the online dictionary, view other books by the same author, and wander away from the text in a thousand different directions when I have my computer in my hands. Just like I type faster using my computer than I can write with a pen and paper, I read more quickly with a computer than with a book. That can be good if you are going for volume, but it does decrease comprehension for me.

Audio books are not my cup of tea. Actually, I’m likely to get up and make a cup a tea while I am listening to an audio book. I’ll also file papers, trim my fingernails, sweep the floor and do dishes while an audio book is playing. I used to listen to audio books when I was driving, but I found out that the book distracted me from my driving and my driving distracted me from the book. There are still a lot of places where I might consider an audio book, but it is not helpful for me for something that I really want to be able to discuss intelligently later.

Those are personal observations, but based on my observations of myself, I think that there may be an educational cost to the trend of high school and college teachers assigning reading from books that are available only in a digital format. I understand that digital book have helped keep down the price of publishing textbooks, but I suspect that there is a hidden cost in decreased information sharing.

There are people for whom audio books are a blessing and a necessary learning tool. Perhaps most obvious are those who are blind. Reading a book in braille is even more physical than reading a paper book. Braille books tend to be thicker, heavier and they require for each letter to be felt and discerned individually. Being able to listen to a book allows a blind person to access more books. There are theories that those who cannot see hone their listening skills and are able to absorb more information through hearing than those of us who can see. Audio books are a definite aid in learning for those with other disabilities as well.

Digital books where the color and size of the text can be easily changed are a great learning tool for persons with certain learning challenges as well.

I suppose that elders have always feared that the current generation of children aren’t getting the education they need, but the combination of pandemic isolation and the shift to digital reading don’t seem to me to be good trends for optimal learning for today’s children. The problem with educational deficiencies, however, is that they take years to be recognized. The true cost of suspended schools will not be known for years - perhaps even for decades.

I’m grateful for digital reading. After all I publish digitally every day. But I don’t think that we will see the end of paper books in my lifetime and, I hope, for many generations afterward.

I'm not complaining

i suppose that I could complain about the year that has just passed. A year of living in the midst of a global pandemic with all of its restrictions has caused some stress. There have been a lot of losses. We didn’t have the Holy Week we had planned for our last year as pastors. My brass group never got to play the jazz pieces we had worked so hard to rehearse. We missed out on the kind of retirement celebration we had envisioned. We didn’t have the opportunity to share the hugs and farewells that seemed so natural after 25 years of ministry in our Rapid City congregation. Most importantly, we, like everyone else, have lost friends and acquaintances to Covid-19. There has been a pall of grief over our country and we are not immune to its effects.

There have been so many changes. For nearly 42 years we had practiced ministry as a hands-on, face-to-face enterprise. We had not thought of ourselves as media personalities and we left the recording of videos to others. We had written curricula for church schools that was based on people gathering in groups and were filled with in-person activities. We had participated in worship the center of the life of the congregations we served. For all of our lives, going to church meant going. We left our home and we went to the church building. All of that had to change and the last months of your active career is a hard time to learn a completely new way of doing your job.

This Sunday I’m serving as a guest preacher in the congregation where we “attend” church here in Washington. To do so, I prepared my sermon. I studied the scriptures. I tried to discover connections between the scriptures and the lives of the people in the congregation. It has been a challenge. I’ve only worshiped in-person in this congregation one time and that was in 2018 when our sabbatical included worshiping with several congregations in this area. My preaching included getting dressed up. I put on a clean white shirt and a tie. I set up the lights in our living room and I made a video recording that will be inserted into the worship service when it is live-streamed on Sunday. So it is Wednesday, and my part of the work of my guest preaching has been completed. I even figured out how to convert the video file, upload it to the cloud and send a link in an email message that allows the people at the church to insert it into the worship livestream. Never in my wildest imagination could I have envisioned such a way of doing worship when I began my career as a minister.

Looking back at the year, measuring Holy Week 2020 to Holy Week 2021, a lot has happened in our lives. And I suppose I could echo some of the complaints I have heard from others. People are exhausted. They are experiencing memory problems, short fuses, decreases in productivity and depression in the midst of social isolation. In the face of all of this, I realize how incredibly fortunate I have been.

Compared to a lot of other people, I never suffered a gap in my income stream. I went from receiving my paycheck to receiving the income from our retirement savings as smoothly as would have happened had there been no pandemic. I know a lot of people who experienced periods of unemployment, were laid off from their work, and have spent the year searching for new jobs. And we have had stable housing during the pandemic. We went from home ownership to rental, but that is by choice and we are currently shopping for a home to purchase and expect to be in that home by the end of the year. Moving twice in as many years should help us pare down our possessions even more.

Scanning my feed in Facebook yesterday I read a note from a friend who has been completely isolated during the pandemic. She has a job that allows her to work from home. She posted that when she received the first dose of vaccine this week it was the first time she had been touched by another human being in more than a year. The news stopped me short. WOW! I can’t imagine a year without being touched. We have been far more isolated than our usual lifestyle, but we have had each other. And inside of our pandemic bubble have been both of our children and their spouses and all four of our grandchildren. We’ve had dinner at the homes of friends and we’ve had guests to dinner in our house. There haven’t been any large group gatherings, but we’ve bumped fists and even shaken hands with lots of different people. I suppose, in retrospect, we were taking some unnecessary risks, but has seemed as if we have been careful. We’ve been wearing our face masks whenever we go out. We’ve tried to respect social distance from others. We’ve limited our excursions into stores.

I have, however, had the luxury living and traveling with my wife. We made all of the trips involved in our move together. We did have the safety of our camper for one of our trips, but we also stayed in the home of her sister and my sister during the pandemic. I’ve had the joy of my grandchildren running across the yard to give me great big hugs. I’ve walked hand-in-hand with my wife along the shore.

I don’t know how I would do with complete isolation. I’ve never had to face it.

Our friends who have been more isolated than we are strong people. The friend who posted on Facebook is an amazing woman with a lot of emotional and mental strength. Other friends who have remained in their homes during the pandemic have done well.

Considering their stories, however, I count myself as among the most fortunate people. Next week we will receive the second doses of vaccine. In the three weeks between shots, I’ve been touched in a loving way every day. Prospects for generous hugs are good for today as well. I have no reason to complain.

Exploring a new place

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I’ve never been good at identifying plants. I know the names of some trees and how to identify them. It was pretty easy when we lived in the Black Hills, where Ponderosa Pine, Black Hills Spruce, Juniper, Oak and Cottonwood trees make up the bulk of the trees. Now that we have moved to northwestern Washington, things are different. There are a lot of new species of trees. We checked out a book on identifying trees in the region from the library, but there is a lot more that we need to learn before we would be considered to be knowledgable about local trees. A similar phenomena is true of flowers. There are a lot of flowers around here and the blooming season is just beginning. We know crocus and daffodil and tulip, but there are a lot more bulb, rhizome and tuber flowers springing up.

Yesterday we took a walk on a familiar path close to our house. Part of the path wanders trough a wetland, but the walking surface is raised so that we can walk on a dry path while looking at water running next to the path. As we walked along we noticed brilliant yellow blossoms that we had not before seen. It was just one more sign that spring is occurring all around us.

The flowers reminded us of the Calla Lilies that are popular for bridal bouquets. Of course the preferred flowers for brides are white and these were yellow, but we figured that they might be a variation on that plant. I don’t know if I have ever seen calla lilies growing. The place where we saw these isn’t anyone’s garden and I suspect that the plants have self propagated rather than been planted. I don’t think Calla Lilies are indigenous to this region. I associate them with South Africa, but I know that they are grown on this continent for the commercial flower market.

There is a story about Calla Lilies in Greek mythology. Zeus brought Hercules to nurse from his wife Hera while she was sleeping. As she awoke, she pushed the baby away from her and drops of milk flew across the sky, creating the milky way. Where the milk dropped on the land, calla lilies bloomed. The Romans picked up on the Greek story and had their own story about the lilies in their mythology. In Roman mythology Venus śaw the flower and was jealous of its beauty so she cursed it with an unsightly pistil.

I’m no expert on mythology, either. And I don’t know if the flowers we saw were calla lilies anyway.

Calla lilies are not to be confused with Cow Lilies. Cow lilies grow in deep water with long stems and lily pads that float on the surface of the water. These plants were growing directly from the soil in damp places, but not completely underwater.

Calla lilies are poisonous. I don’t know about Cow lilies.

If you were expecting expertise from today’s journal post, I’m sorry. I don’t seem to have much today.

What I do have is wonder and joy at the world around us.

Last night I ran a quick errand and as I was walking up to our house, I paused for a moment. I could hear a chorus of frogs singing in the night. It was a sound that is familiar, but I don’t remember hearing it at this house before. A short distance from our house there is a large lot that is maintained as a stormwater holding area. The lot has a basin in its center dug out and a surface drain that connects to the city stormwater system. There are beautiful willow trees growing on the lot and it is surrounded by blooming crab apple trees. It is a nice addition to the neighborhood. I’m pretty sure that the frog song was coming from that lot. It had been a lovely day with high temperatures in the 60’s and it was likely the warm temperature that coaxed the frogs up from their winter hiding places in the soft mud of the bottom of the stormwater basin.

Seeing the lilies and listening to the frogs made me miss our youngest grandson. After staying with us for a month, he and his mother have gone on to their new home in South Carolina. He was delighted with the reunion with his father and his dog and I’m glad that their family is together again, but he was a joy to have around and I miss him. If he had been here, I would have enjoyed showing him the flowers and having him listen to the frogs. He would have been excited to note that the bunny we occasionally saw in our yard when he visited is now a regular and that there are two, not one bunnies. That bodes well for more bunnies to come, but that is a story that he can learn when he gets a bit older.

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I’m a bit like a little kid these days, exploring the new place where I live. There are a lot of sights and sounds that are different from our Dakota home. We didn’t have any frogs at our house. They want a bit more water than the forest offered on the hilltop where we lived. And although we had crows, we didn’t have the big murders of crows that frequent our neighborhood here. We had Canadian geese, but we didn’t see trumpeter swans. And the occasional seagull lacked the number of companions that seagulls find here on the coast. There is much to see and learn in this new place, and we have the luxury of being retired and having a bit more time to explore.

My prayer of gratitude this morning includes appreciation for the rich diversity of the natural world with new plants and animals to discover at every turn. I miss the deer and turkeys that were our neighbors in South Dakota, but I’m meeting new animal and bird neighbors every day out here.

And, lucky me, I got to live in both places and learned to love both kinds of space.

Farming flowers

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It was raining, but we took a short drive after church yesterday. I wanted to take a few pictures of the daffodils in the fields, even though we lacked bright sunshine for the iconic yellow flowers. There is a series of country roads just west of town that are labeled “Tulip Route.” They guide viewers near some of the larger nurseries and fields filled with flowers. It is too early for the tulips to be in bloom. That event will crowd the roads and some of the bigger tulip farms are already announcing that they will require reservations for viewing and picture-taking to allow for social distancing and to give viewers an opportunity to take their pictures without other tourists in the background. There were no crowds yesterday. We started our journey at a farm we have visited before, where we purchased tulip bulbs as gifts for family members. Planting tulips was an Advent activity for our grandchildren and they can now see the plants emerging from their garden.

Back in the late ‘70s we visited tulip farms in The Netherlands during a visit to Europe, but I had never given much thought to flowers as a cash crop. I don’t remember that those fields were as large as the ones we viewed yesterday. There is something striking about large four-wheel-drive tractors in a field of flowers. It stirred memories of Dakota sunflower fields and the brief bloom of buckwheat, but this was even more dramatic. Sunflowers are grown for their seeds, mostly for oil seeds. A few farms raise confectionary seeds as well. Buckwheat is harvested as a grain. The daffodil and tulip fields are producing flowers for market and bulbs to be sold as landscaping items. The flowers and bulbs are shipped around the country from Skagit County. I haven’t yet seen them harvest the flowers, but the bulbs are dug with machines similar to potato and onion pickers.

Recently I had a conversation with our librarian and part-time farmer son who has done quite a bit of research on how to produce profit from a small acreage. One of the crops he is considering is dahlias. He grew dahlias at their previous home as flowers to attract pollinators and for the beauty of the blossoms. We’ve seen a couple of small stands selling dahlias and we can remember seeing dahlias for sale at the local farmers market last summer. What they call dahlia bulbs are actually tubers. They require a soil temperature of about 60 degrees, so they are planted in the late spring and dug up in the fall. They can be grown from seed, but local gardeners have a much more stable crop and are more pleased with the results of plants grown from tubers.

Dahlia plants produce many tubers. It is not uncommon to get a fourfold or fivefold harvest in a single year. The going rate for dahlia tubers around here is $5 per tuber. If you start with a modest investment, say $50, and carefully harvest the tubers in the fall and replant in the spring, you could produce enough to earn a couple of thousand dollars by the second or third year. As farming goes, that’s a pretty good return on investment.

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Of course there are all of the challenges and uncertainties of farming. The weather, some kinds of fungi, plants that under produce, the challenges of storing your crop, and a lot of other variables all caution a certain amount of care before investing. Farming is never a sure thing. As they say, “Don’t count your chickens before they have hatched.” Actually some of our son’s chickens have hatched. They’ve got 14 in the brooder who will join their layers before long, although I’m thinking that one or more might be roosters.

I was, however, writing about dahlias. Dahlias are indigenous to Central America. It is the national flower of Mexico and they are common throughout the region down to Costa Rica and Panama. Dahlias have been grown as a food plant. The tubers are fairly high in fructose and are cooked and eaten like potatoes in some places. The plant also has a rich history as a medicinal plant. Among the life-saving drugs that was administered to my wife after a drug reaction produced heart failure was Digoxin. Digoxin strengthens the force of the heart beat and is one of the older drugs used to treat irregular heart rhythms including atrial fibrillation. It was one of the drugs that worked and was safe for my wife. Prior to the discovery of Digoxin, dahlia tubers were used as a treatment for diabetes. Because the tubers are high in fructose, the body is able to use its energy more efficiently than some other carbohydrates. It was believed that eating the tubers stimulated insulin production, but it is not generally used as a treatment for diabetes these days with the discovery of more efficient treatments.

It remains to be seen if our son will produce a crop of dahlias for tuber sale. He has been successful producing flowers for their beauty and to attract bees and other pollinators. This spring, with a new place and new farming adventures to explore, I think a small patch of dahlias will be in order. He has tubers from last year’s crop and has ordered a small amount of additional ones.

I like the idea of flower farming and am fascinated to live in a place where they grow flowers for profit. I’m sure there will be plenty more afternoon drives through the fields to watch the process of growing and harvesting bulbs and tubers.

My father was a John Deere tractor dealer. Both our son and our daughter own John Deere lawn and garden tractors. Maybe our son will invest some of his earnings from his dahlias in a larger tractor one day. Maybe he’ll let me drive it from time to time. Don’t expect large acreages of daffodils and four-wheel-drive monsters, but a flower garden and a little tractor might be just right for a retired preacher who has nostalgia for the days when he was a boy.

Written on their hearts

One of the deep joys of my life at this particular stage is watching our children as parents. They both are amazingly good at the complex task of nurturing our grandchildren. Being grandparents gives us some advantages that we didn’t have when our children were young. I’m getting enough sleep these days. I can play with our grandchildren and watch them grow without the same sense of exhaustion that I experienced when our children were their ages. I can even stay awake when a child is napping, something that was a real strain when we were parents of preschoolers. No worries, I also am perfectly capable of taking a nap when the occasion presents itself.

Children are fascinating to me. I am filled with awe and wonder whenever I am around them. Ever since I had the opportunity to participate in the Chicago Theological Seminary laboratory preschool before we had our own children, I have been fascinated by how conscience develops in young children. At first, virtually all restrictions and limits on behavior are imposed by parents and other adults. Our young grandson is not capable of running down the stairs with a toy in each hand without falling, but that doesn’t stop him from trying. Fortunately for him, and for the rest of us, he has adults in his life who intervene and don’t allow him to plunge headfirst down the stairs. We also don’t allow him to climb to the top of the stairway railing. We keep him from running into the street. We pay attention to the food he eats and makes sure that it is safe.

He is a climber, and he would certainly have gotten himself injured were it not for the watchful eyes of his parents, grandparents, cousins, aunt and uncle. One of the roles for us as adults is to be ready to intervene before things get dangerous.

As he grows, however, he faces the task of self-regulation. By the time he heads off to college, he will need to be capable of imposing limits on his own behavior.

He already has learned that there are some things he can do to make his life better. He knows that if he wants something, saying “please” helps him get it. He is learning that it doesn’t always work, but it seems to always be a good idea. He knows how to ascend and descend the stairs safely, but sometimes he still needs to be reminded. We were visiting over Skype yesterday and I heard his mother say a phrase that she said a lot of times during their recent visit: “I don’t want to have to tell you again . . .”

As a grandfather, I can listen to our daughter and know that whether or not she wants to have to tell him again, she will. Again and again and again. Children learn through repetition, but sometimes it takes a LOT of repetition to get the message through.

It is all part of the process of developing the skills of inner regulation. Each of us, in order to make our way through this life have to develop our own set of disciplines and regulations. We have to learn to place boundaries on our own behavior. Our society is based on trusting individuals to do the right thing in many situations. We learn to follow rules even when enforcement is not obvious. We develop the ability to self-regulate.

We all benefit from reminders, regardless of our age and experience. The sight of the police car alongside the street reminds me to check my speed. The sign at the entrance to the grocery store reminds me to check to make sure I’m wearing my face mask properly. I even have a watch that reminds me if I’ve been sitting too long without sufficient physical activity.

The prophet Jeremiah began his work by admitting that he felt he was too young for the job. Still, at God’s insistence, he found the poetry to communicate a deep vision to the people. The Biblical book that bears his name paints a vision of a world where people live at peace with justice for all. In part of that vision he imagines the day when people don’t need to have laws and rules written on stone tablets or spoken by rulers. In his vision everyone has an understanding of the ways of freedom within them, “written on their hearts.” People won’t need to be told about God, they will have a relationship with God. People won’t need to have justice enforced, they will self-regulate and avoid injustice on their own. It is a beautiful vision.

In a way Jeremiah describes the process of becoming mature in faith. We grow up. We learn things that we didn’t know when we were children. We become more aware of others with thoughts, feelings and intentions that are different from our own.

It doesn’t happen all at once. As a parent, you usually don’t notice when it is happening for your child. You simply get to the point that you realize, “I no longer have to tell him (or her) not to jump on the bed.” I can sit down to table with our adult children and I don’t need to remind them to wash their hands first, and I can remember the days when we had to remind both of them to wash their hands at every meal, but I don’t remember exactly when the transition took place. One day I just realized that they don’t need reminders any more. I don’t have to remind them to brush their teeth or put on their jackets, even though they’ve been known to forget hats and gloves and jackets on occasion.

Our grandchildren will learn that their behaviors affect other people. They will learn that free people speak the truth, honor their elders, respect sabbath rest, let go of envy, refrain from stealing, remain faithful, and follow all of the other commandments. They will have the rules of our people “written on their hearts,” internalized in their brains, and have made them a part of their lives through all of their beings.

In the meantime, however, our daughter will have to remind her son of how to behave again and again and again.

Spring musings

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I can hear the wind rattling outside the house and the rain blows against the windows from time to time. It is early and it is dark but the weather already feels quite appropriate for the first day of spring except the first day of spring is new to me because I am in a new place. I spent a lot of springs in the Dakotas where warm weather in March can lull you into spring fever so that the April and May blizzards seem colder and more harsh than January’s offerings. I learned the poem about April showers and May flowers in elementary school, but I also know that flowers set out before Memorial Day were likely to get frosted.

Last night, however, when I went out to the car to run an errand, I turned on the windshield wipers and watched as rain mixed with hundreds of pink blossoms from the tree above danced across my field of vision. A couple of blossoms got caught underneath the wipers and made streaks and regular intervals for a couple of blocks until they lost their grip on the car and fluttered in the wind heading to parts unknown.

It really does feel like spring around here. The roses are putting out new shoots, hiding the places where so recently I pruned them. The bushes and trees are sporting new leaves and our neighborhood looks like a scene from the cherry blossom festival replayed in ornamental crab trees with white and pink up and down the street. One of the bushes in the front yard is bursting with red blossoms. I need to look it up and learn its name.

A book of poems by N. Scott Momaday, The Death of Sitting Bear, has been entertaining me. Some of his poems are brief and funny. Some are deep and demand that I read them over and over again.

Momaday is and Oklahoma Kiowa, but I hear the voice of my Lakota friend, Matt Iron Hawk when I read “The Theft of Identity:”

They say my footprints are those of a bear.
Yes, it is true. I crave the mountain air
And find retirement in a lofty lair.
Believe it or not; I really don’t care.

Hey ho yah,
Hey ho yah,
Humph!

It was Matt’s birthday last week - the day after St. Patricks. But Matt is not of this world any more. It was the Covid that finally got him, though Matt has not seemed to be well for quite a while. Some people thought Matt was gruff and quiet. He was, I guess, but he also was incredibly funny and powerfully wise. He was a native Lakota speaker and became my “go to” translator when I wanted to explore the meaning of a particular word. Matt could play the organ a little bit and he had a beautiful singing voice. If you sing from the Odowon with Matt, you’d better not be in a hurry. He didn’t rush the old hymns. I only heard him sing traditional Lakota Songs once, but he knew a lot of them. I don’t know what Momaday’s Kiowa singing sounds like, but when I read his poems, I hear them in Matt’s voice:

Hey ho yah,
Hey ho yah,
Humph!

Like Matt, Momaday reflects a deep understanding of the Christian faith that dances alongside his indigenous heritage. Here is his “Couplet in Tongues:”

She spoke language known only to God.
God gave a nod. Nothing to God is odd.

I suppose that I will think of Matt in the springtime every year for the rest of my life. Which is probably good because Matt refuses to make us sad, even when we miss him. He might be sitting by his big wood stove on a chilly spring day. On the other hand he might be driving grandchildren to school. Matt wasn’t one to sit at home all the time.

I’ve been working on my Palm Sunday sermon the past week and I’ll probably make the first recording on Monday - that gives me a couple of days for re-takes if I am not pleased with the first attempt. Palm Sunday always puts me in a Holy Week mood. The pageantry of the Palm Parade quickly fades into the practice of grief. It is on of the deep treasures of Christianity that it teaches us to practice loss and grief and to face death, sorrow and sadness every year so that when we come face to face with grief we are not left without resources.

Our faith doesn’t have a “get out of death free” card. Much better it has the promise that “I will never leave you alone.”

To quote Momaday one more time:

The God in whom I scarcely believe
Is smug with me, tendering forgiveness,

Despite the sign planted near the street corner a couple of blocks from our home, God is not wondering where we will spend eternity. God knows that eternity doesn’t exist in Hell and despite the dire predictions of the faithful one who planted the sign, is about the business of saving everyone. God doesn’t stop loving even when we pretend God is not there. God doesn’t need us to believe in God in order to be God.

Even in this place that is considerably wetter than other places I have lived, I can receive the spring rain as a gift and a sign of God’s love. All of this rain makes for incredibly tall trees and lush dense undergrowth. Dripping ferns carpet the forest floor. If I were Momaday, I could write a poem about the gift of grace in every drop of rain. Alas, I am not and my skills at poetry are very limited.

Matt would make a joke, but he wouldn’t laugh out loud at his own joke. You had to look at the corner of his mouth or the sparkle in his eyes to tell if he was joking. Once, I asked him to help me understand the meaning of the Lakota word Takini, which is often translated “survivor.” He paused and said, “It means we’re still here!” He wasn’t joking that day.

The weather in spring, however, requires a sense of humor.

Inspired by Jane Goodall

There is an old joke. The way I remember it is that the following question was asked during a job interview: “Imagine you are escorted into a zoo enclosure where you find a chimpanzee and a gorilla. You are able to observe the behavior of the chimp and gorilla. Which is the most intelligent primate in the enclosure?”

I don’t think that this was ever used as a screening question in an actual job interview. It is more of a story that is repeated. Certainly I never encountered questions like that in any of the job interviews of my life. I did get asked hypothetical questions on occasion. During the public question period of the ecclesiastical council where I presented my ordination paper someone asked, “How would you respond if a single mother asked you to do her baby?” I didn’t have a clue what the questioner was asking. It turned out he was asking about baptism and posing a question about baptism of an infant born out of wedlock. I didn’t learn much from that experience, but I did make sure, in subsequent interviews and conversations with church leaders that I made it absolutely clear that I view the sacraments, baptism and communion, as gifts of the Holy Spirit. I do not believe I have the authority to refuse them to anyone and I hope that I never did in the years of my ministry.

Back to the question about you, the chimpanzee and the gorilla. It was Jane Goodall who taught many of us about not only the intelligence of other primates, especially chimpanzees, but also about their emotional intelligence. By employing techniques that were different from traditional scientific studies, she gave us a way of understanding the social behaviors of chimpanzees. She gave the subjects in her study names instead of identifying them by number as traditional studies had done. She observed them closely over a long period of time. She kept meticulous notes.

Her work as a scientist, however, is not the primary thing that has made her an inspiration to generations of people all around the globe. It wasn’t her ability to take notes that made me want to purchase a Jane Goodall t-shirt for my granddaughter.

What distinguished Jane Goodall throughout her life has been her ability to tell stories. It isn’t just that she observed the chimpanzees. She told us their stories. And it isn’t just the stories of the chimps that have inspired us. She has spoken eloquently about the deforestation of Africa. She has told us the stories of people who were living without access to health care and education who lived in crippling poverty. She raised funds for Tacare, a program that provides microcredit for women and scholarships to keep girls in school and supplies and education to restore the fertility of the land without the use of chemicals. The program has grown beyond Tanzania and now operates in six other African countries. She founded Roots & Shoots, a youth program that now operates in 100 countries worldwide. Youth in Roots and Shoots chose projects that make the world better for animals, for people and for the environment. She has advocated for legislation around the globe that protects wildlife and the environment. She has supported protecting the Endangered Species Act here in the United States. She has taught us that we are a part of the natural world and that we depend on healthy ecosystems. She has told us stories that remind us that we are a part of the larger picture of life.

Once again Jane Goodall is telling stories and teaching us about the world in which we live and our responsibilities to other living creatures. Working from her childhood home in Bournemouth, UK, where she has been living with her younger sister and her sister’s family during the pandemic, she has been granting interviews over Zoom, writing, and speaking to world leaders about a wide variety of topics. Among those topics is her continuing work to stop the trafficking of animals and the international trade in animal body parts. She reminds us all that the novel coronavirus has a direct link to wildlife markets. While scientists haven’t completely traced the origins of Covid-19, they are confident that at some point the virus mutated in such a way that it was transferred to humans from other animals. Viruses and bacteria can jump from animal to person. The way we treat animals has a direct impact on our world and that impact has become very clear in the devastating pandemic that continues to claim too many lives every day.

I have read the story of Jane Goodall with my granddaughters and it makes me proud and happy to know that they have heard some of the stories of this remarkable teacher and inspirational woman. One of the things that gives me hope in these troubled times is the natural curiosity and intelligence of our grandchildren. Being allowed to watch them learn and grow is truly one of life’s great blessings. Knowing that they are inspired and challenged by great teachers and storytellers like Jane Goodall gives hope that generations to come will learn from the mistakes of our generation and work together to make this world a better place for all of its creatures.

It renews and restores my hope to hear the stories that Jane Goodall tells. As someone who is a bit older than myself, she continues to demonstrate the power of remaining engaged and active in the world. And I have learned a few things about telling stories from reading her writing and checking interviews with her. She has made science come alive for millions of people because it is evident that she really cares about her subject matter. Genuine care and concern is at the heart of the best of the storytelling tradition.

So the answer to the question doesn’t really require that you decide you are more intelligent than a chimpanzee or a gorilla. The real answer comes when you realize that we are all in this together and how we treat one another is the key to our future.

A year later

Yesterday was a strange kind of anniversary for us. It was March 17 - Saint Patrick’s Day - one year ago that our Church Board voted to suspend in-person worship. It was the third Tuesday of March, the usual meting date for our Church Board. The fact that it was Saint Patrick’s Day makes it easy for us to remember. The initial suspension was for two weeks to allow for a deep cleaning of the building and to evaluate the pandemic. It was, of course, the beginning of a much longer period and things have not yet gone back to “normal.” In fact, we now know that as in-person worship resumes, things won’t go back to the way that they were. Like most other congregations, the one that was our church home in Rapid City, South Dakota has already made a commitment to offering worship on social media as a permanent part of its life. It has invested in new equipment to make that possible. There are many other signs that things have been changed by the pandemic.

Recalling the decision of March 17, 2020, brings to mind a series of decisions that were made that changed things drastically. After the initial two-week suspension, continuing the suspension was just the start. Our Holy Week activities were cancelled as well. We had big plans for Holy Week last year. The Tuesday Blues Night concert was shaping up to be one of our biggest and best. We had new artists lined up and were considering offering continuous music in two different rooms of the church with brass and piano jazz added to the evening’s activities. The Synagogue of the Hills, following the previous year’s Seder Dinner, was lined up for an even bigger event for the two congregations to work together on the Wednesday Seder. The choir was rehearsing a cantata for Maundy Thursday. We had confirmands preparing for the rite of confirmation who had expressed some interest in a Great Vigil.

It wasn’t just worship that had to be reinvented.

We were informed that we could no longer visit in nursing homes. Then we learned we could not visit at the hospital. The activities that were at the heart of our vocation were suspended. Bible study classes ceased meeting and one of our Bible study classes was a gathering of senior women many of whom did not have access to computers for online meetings.

The church, however, does not cease being the church when there is pressure. We scrambled and worked. Just getting the first week’s worship service on to Facebook was a challenge for us. We hadn’t done any livestream activities prior to that Sunday. Suddenly we were committing to offering livestream every week. We scrambled to put together a telephone calling tree to get in touch with all of our members. We did a thorough review of our addresses and information of our members to determine who could access online worship and who could not. We devised a check-in system for isolated members and started a weekly newsletter for those who could not access our computer services.

We were working hard. I also remember March 17, 2020 because it was the start of the longest period of my life when I worked without a day off. I went to the office for part of the day every day from that day through our retirement. There was no lack of things to do.

Yesterday, on the anniversary of all of those big changes, we were once again aware of how different the life of the church is during the pandemic. Susan is the guest preacher in the congregation in which we are participating here in Washington. That means her face and her sermon will be on the “livestream” this Sunday. But it won’t be live. We recorded the sermon yesterday. Before the pandemic, being a guest preacher meant preparing a sermon and showing up early for worship. Yesterday we had to transform our living room into a recording studio so that we could make a video that will be incorporated into the streamed worship at our church on Sunday.

After recording the sermon and watching it to make sure that the recording worked and after uploading the video files to the Internet so that they can be incorporated into the worship service, we took a short walk before eating our supper. We were eating early because I am participating in a Lenten Study group that meets over Zoom. Since we had the living room set up with lights, I used that space for my Zoom meeting.

As we walked, we were talking about all of the extra work that the lead pastor of our congregation here is doing and how all of the extra email, extra technical work, extra zoom meetings must be taking a toll on her. In addition to all of the extra work of pandemic church life, one of the ministers of her team is on medical leave, which increases her work load as well. Volunteering to preach one sermon each seemed like a way to help just a little bit.

We have the luxury of being able to give the process a bit more time than a working preacher. Being retired means that Susan could devote several days to writing and re-writing her sermon. A couple of times I came home to discarded pages of writing on the floor as she worked on a new draft. Then we had the luxury of doing multiple “takes” to get the recording we wanted. With all of the practice sessions, I got to listen to the sermon at least three times yesterday. A working pastor doesn’t have an entire day to set aside for just working on a sermon.

Our retirement meant that our lives would undergo a dramatic change regardless of the pandemic. The pandemic, however, changed things in different ways than we anticipated.

The Reformation is not some static process that occurred in history and has been completed. It is, rather, a continuing process. We are reformed over and over again. This pandemic has given a new expression to the reformation. Change is a way of life for the church. And we will be reformed through the process.

Still, I hope our memories of this year will be a bit more gentle than our memories of 2020.

The stories we tell

60 years after the worst of the Spanish flu pandemic, we began serving two small congregations in southwest North Dakota. One of the privileges of being a pastor is the opportunity to hear the stories of people’s lives and one of the things that people do in their aging years is to go through the stories of their lives. I have a deeper understanding of the phenomenon these days because I can now tell stories from 60 years ago. I find that I’m quite willing to do so. My grandchildren know a bit of what happens when their grandpa says, “When I was your age. . .” As we did our pastoral work, I heard a lot of stories about the lives of the people we served. I met a survivor of the sinking of the Titanic who couldn’t remember many details of the event. I met a lot of people who could remember the events of World War I. Their stories of the war and its effects on their lives were more frequent than stories of the great flu pandemic. The worldwide death toll from the war was reported to be around 40 million, but counting war casualties is a difficult task. Both civilians and military personnel die in a war and people die over a lot period of time. Some injuries take a long time to result in death. Some people die of disease during a war. Since the pandemic and the war overlapped, it is also hard to count the number who died of the flu. I have seen estimates ranging between 20 million and 50 million. That is a huge range.

As a pastor, however, I didn’t hear statistics. I heard individual stories. I heard stories of soldiers who survived the war and contacted the flue on troop ships coming home. I heard stories of the town changing its burial customs because of the fear of the spread of the flu. I heard stories of family members lost and grief that lingered decades later. I learned that part of the role of a pastor is to listen to the stories.

Now, decades and thousands of stories later, I wonder what stories we will tell of the coronavirus pandemic of 2020-2021. Perhaps it is more accurate to wonder what stories our children and grandchildren will tell.

On the one hand our lives were drastically affected by the pandemic. We had a very different, distanced farewell to the congregation we had served for 25 years. We worshiped outdoors. Some people stayed in their cars. Others listened from the edges of the parking lot. Some, however, came up and embraced us. We wore face masks and we were careful about hand washing and we didn’t encourage embraces or handshakes, but we didn’t refuse, either. Then we went through an extended process of moving that included listing and showing our home, sorting and moving our possessions, multiple trips to transport our belongings, stays in motels, meals on the road, and direct contact with others in certain cases. We made a different decision about our bubble than some families. We were allowed to visit our grandchildren and we sat at the family dinner table with them even after we had been traveling.

We took precautions. We tried to be careful. But we also got on with our lives. We were, I guess, lucky in terms of our personal lives. With one dose of Pfizer vaccine in our bodies and another to come in a couple of weeks, we never contacted the disease. Nor did either of our children or any of our grandchildren. Others weren’t so lucky. I’ve heard stories of the death of loved ones. I’ve heard stories of symptoms that linger. With deaths still running above 1,000 per day in the United States, the tragedy continues to unfold and stories continue to develop.

Millions have plunged into poverty because of the pandemic. Jobs have been lost. Although there have been some restrictions on foreclosures and evictions, millions have lost their homes. I see homeless people nearly every day, but I don’t know their stories. I don’t know which ones lost their homes during the pandemic and which ones have been homeless since before the outbreak. We are still keeping our distance.

There has been a lot going on during the pandemic. It isn’t just us who have made a big change in our lives. Our son and his family sold one home and bought another. They made a move during the pandemic. Our daughter and her family left jobs and assignments in Japan and are settling in South Carolina. They hope to close on a new home next week. We will tell stories of how we went through major life transitions in the midst of a pandemic. And, like all wars, pandemics, natural disasters and other mass casualty events, it is the survivors who get to tell the stories.

I’ve read a few articles comparing various pandemics. I don’t know if the comparisons are fair. the impact of events isn’t measured solely by counting. People who don’t make the casualty lists are the ones who get to tell the stories. And those stories don’t last forever. These days all of the survivors of the 1918 flu pandemic have died. The best you can come are second-hand stories and stories that have been written down. My stories about that time are merely memories of memories. I know a bit of the stories I have heard. I don’t know what it was like to live in those days.

Maybe our computers and social media will give a more accurate record of our time, though I doubt it. More data doesn’t necessarily mean more truth. The ways we tell our stories are different than they were for previous generations. But we will tell our stories and our children and grandchildren will tell theirs. I hope that they will tell more than that we were lucky in these times. I hope that they will remember that we made difficult decisions and that we tried to be careful and wise.

I know my admiration for those who have gone before has increased after hearing their stories. Perhaps some stories of courage and wisdom will remain from our times as well.

Of farms and churches

Last week we took a walk around the city of Lynden, Washington. Lynden is a community of about 12,000 people located 15 miles north of Bellingham, about 5 miles from Canada. It is an agricultural community, with lots of farm-related businesses, but the downtown has an urban feel with a wide variety of shops and cafes. The weather was pleasant the day we stopped to take a look so we parked at a hardware store and walked a couple of miles around the downtown area. There were some lovely old homes and wide streets and a lot of churches. As we walked we could often see four or more churches from any street corner. Not only were there a lot of churches, but they had big buildings that showed a lot of energy had been invested in their care. The names of the churches struck us: Covenant Grace Reformed Church, Faith Reformed Church, First Reformed Church, Third Christian Reformed Church, United Reform Church of Lynden, Netherlands Reformed Church, Bethel Christian Reformed Church.

I’m sure you can recognize the theme we noticed on our visit. The prominent denomination of the area is Reformed. It says quite a bit about the theology of the folks and the history of the community. Of course, we also saw a Lutheran Church and a couple of independent churches, but it is clear that the Dutch heritage continues to make itself evident in the congregations of the city.

It isn’t just the city of Lynden, though it seems a bit more apparent there than in some of the other towns of the area. There are a lot of signs of Dutch heritage in this region. We saw two Dutch style windmills in Lynden and I know of the location of several others in the two county area we have been exploring since our move. These windmills are not working mills, but rather buildings constructed to look like traditional Dutch windmills and erected as advertisements and reminders of the Dutch influence on the area.

One of those windmills is located near Mount Vernon on a large commercial tulip farm. In about a month the farm will be a destination for tourists who want to take pictures of the fields full of blooming tulips and the farm store with its tulip bulbs for sale will be a place to visit. We visited it several times before we moved to this area. We’ve purchased tulip bulbs that have been given as gifts to family members and the plants are growing in several different states.

Dutch immigrants were intentionally attracted to the Skagit Valley in northwestern Washington because of the Dutch experience with farming in coastal plains. Some of the agriculture of the area is dependent on the management of lands that are a part of a river delta, rich with tons and tons of soil that has been washed down from the volcanic mountains and spread out into the ocean. Those lands were largely salt flats and not productive as agricultural areas when immigrants began to flood into this area in the 18th and 19th centuries. They brought with them farming techniques from the lands they had left behind.

Among those immigrants were many of Dutch heritage. In the Netherlands, people have farmed low-lying coastal areas for centuries and developed agricultural techniques that work well in this region. They built dikes to hold back the seawater and reduced the saltwater flooding of the land. In the area behind the dikes they farmed the sediment-rich soil. Among the crops for which the Netherlands is famous are tulip bulbs grown for export to other places where flowers are desired.

The agricultural techniques of the Netherlands have been refined over the centuries in part because the region has attracted a large population with a relatively small amount of agricultural land. As Europe goes, the Netherlands isn’t one of the largest countries in terms of land mass, yet it supports a large population. Like the Netherlands, the part of Washington where we live is more densely populated than the other places where we have made our home during our lives. We keep repeating a line from The Wizard of Oz: “Toto, I don’t believe we are in Kansas anymore.” Of course we have never lived in Kansas and sometimes we change the quote to “South Dakota.” We aren’t living on the Great Plains of the center of the continent as we did for much of our adult lives.

The interesting thing about the Dutch connection around here is that the Netherlands continues to be a place of agricultural innovation. As the population of the world increases at the same time as the amount of agricultural land decreases a crisis of huge proportions is developing. In the coming decades food production will need to become exponentially more efficient in order to avoid mass famine. The Dutch are leading research into modern techniques to increase production. Huge greenhouses are being operated with increasingly sophisticated technologies to maximize the production of food from small areas of land. Satellite images are being used to give a larger picture of agricultural production while seed monitors and remote cameras are allowing computers to analyze individual plants and provide data on how to increase production.

Our increasingly connected world no longer requires mass immigration in order to share farming techniques in new areas. Much is being learned from the agricultural practices of The Netherlands that is influencing the way farmers will produce food in the future around the world.

We don’t yet know where we will find a home to purchase for the next phase of our lives. We are a bit anxious as we look around and shop for a place to settle. Living in a rental house gives us the freedom to consider many possibilities. Like the Dutch settlers of years ago, a church home is very important to us. Unlike them, we are not at a life phase where we will be starting a new congregation. And we will be able to commute to worship. For now we are worshiping online during the pandemic. Soon, we hope, we will be able to worship face to face once again. Instead of bringing the church with us as the Dutch immigrants did so long ago, we’ll try to move close to an existing congregation.

We didn’t find a United Church of Christ congregation in Lynden. If we settle there we’ll have to be willing to commute 15 miles - a task that is not too big of a challenge for us. If we do, we’ll be driving past several Dutch Reformed Churches.

The Ides of March

The coming of Daylight Savings Time yesterday prompted conversations that w have repeated many times in our household. Yesterday we were talking about how may more clocks we used to have to set. These days we use our phones and digital devices to tell us what time it is and they automatically make the time shift for us. In this house at present, we had to set five clocks yesterday: A bedside clock radio, the clock in the microwave in the kitchen, the clock in the oven in the kitchen, the clock in our car and the clock in our pickup. There were days in the past when we had to manually set watches, alarm clocks in each bedroom, wall clocks, mantle clocks and more. Our antique clocks are presently in storage awaiting the time we settle into a more permanent housing situation, so that eliminates three clocks that need to be set.

Another conversation we had is a reminder that not all people think of the passage of time in the same way. North American indigenous tribes generally measured time by the lunar calendar, speaking of specific full moons as indicators of the passage of seasons and the time for planting, harvesting or hunting activities. Lunar calendars are common around the globe. However, long ago, those observing the passage of time found that counting days gave a different kind of measurement. Even so, not all people count days in the same fashion.

In Roman times, the days of the month weren’t counted up the way we do. Instead, they counted backwards from three different fixed places in each month. The Nones fell on the 5th or the 7th of the month, so early in the month days were identified by how many days until the Nones. When the Nones arrived, they counted backwards from the Ides. The Ides were the 13th of the month for most months, but the 15th in March, May, July and October. That is why the Nones fell on different days in different months. It was nine days before the Ides. After the Ides, days were identified by how many days remained before the Kalends, or the 1st day of the next month. It sounds a bit awkward, and it is for us, because we are so used to counting days from beginning to end. The Roman Calendar was originally a lunar calendar, with the Ides being the day of the full moon, but it was readjusted to better fit a solar calendar over many years of observances.

In Roman times, the Ides was generally a day of celebration. It was a tradition to offer a sacrifice fo Jupiter, the supreme deity on the Ides. The sacrifice then was accompanied by a feast and people observed the day with picnics, drinking and revelry. In the Roman calendar, the first of the year came in the spring with the Ides of March and it was common to observe and ancient Greek ritual of beating an old man dressed in animal skins. He was symbolically driven from town, symbolizing the driving out of the old year.

It was the playwright Shakespeare who gave us the modern identification of the Ides of March. It is the date when Julius Caesar was assassinated, stabbed to death in a meeting of the Senate. Caesar was warned of the event by a seer and is said to have joked with the seer as he passed him on the way to the Senate, saying “the Ides of March are come,” implying that the prophecy had not come true. The seer responded, “Aye, Caesar, but not gone.” The death of Caesar triggered a civil war that resulted in the rise of Octavian, later known as Augustus. On the fourth anniversary of Caesar’s death Octavian excited 300 former officials who had been his enemies in the civil war.

Shakespeare doesn’t include all of the details in his play, but the warning about the Ides of March has remained a part of popular culture.

For the past 40 years the Ides of March have been marked in our household as the birthday of our son. 40 years ago the Ides fell on a Sunday and while Sunday is a less common day for the birth of a child, it is more frequent in households where one parent is a member of the clergy. Our son, Isaac, with both parents being clergy, came shortly after noon on a Sunday, timing his arrival so that three services were missed by his father, the scheduled preacher for the day. And his father wasn’t the one doing all of the hard work that day.

In our household, the day is not a day to dread, but rather a day to celebrate. We lived in North Dakota when he was born and that year brought an especially mild spring to that part of the country. It was, however, still North Dakota, where frost is common until the end of May. I, however, got spring fever in the midst of the joy of becoming a father. That spring I put out my tomato plants, grown indoor from seed, too early and the frost got them. Undaunted, I put out a second batch of plants. They too were frozen. It was only the third set, purchased from a nursery that finally produced fruit. The phrase “Beware the Ides of March,” became a sort of a joke about the dangers of getting too excited about spring before the cold weather has passed.

The significant spring storm that brought icy roads and severe weather to Colorado, Wyoming and Nebraska over the past day made for some cold conditions in South Dakota as well. It was enough to remind folks there that spring weather is still a ways away. Out here, where the weather is more mild frost is still a possibility. It’s too early to set the tomato plants in the garden.

We celebrated the Ides one day early because Sunday was a day off work for our son and daughter-in-law and a good time to celebrate his birthday. His three children were pretty excited about the special dinner, cake and presents. We reminisced about his birth and all of the fun days of celebration we have shared over the years. Like the ancient Romans, we have counted the days until his birthday and used it as a time to celebrate the coming of spring.

And, like Caesar, we don’t yet know how today will turn out. “The Ides of March are Come.” “Aye. . . but not gone!”

Computer challenges

When I look back, it is easy to see how much technology has changed the way we do so many things. There were no personal computers and the primary device for writing was a typewriter when we went to college. We did our research in the library using physical books. Churches used mimeograph machines to duplicate paper bulletins for worship and to prepare newsletters that were mailed to the homes of members. Telephones were connected to the wall with wires. When we wanted an item that couldn’t be bought in our town, we waited until we traveled to a distant city or we got out a catalogue, filled out an order form, put it in the mail and waited. It took weeks for catalogue orders to arrive. I don’t remember our lives as being worse in those days, just different.

When personal computers became available, we were not the first adopters. The price prevented us from buying as soon as I wanted. Our first personal computer was not much more than a word processor. Our second machine got the task of printing address labels for two small town weekly newspapers. I would set it up and feed the labels into the dot matrix printer in the evening and it would print away during the night. If the printer didn’t have a jam, I could deliver the labels the next morning. I always worked a day in advance so that if there was some glitch I had time to start over. the computer earned its way and I learned about database management in the process.

That was years ago. Times have changed. We’ve had several generations of computers since. Along the way, we got a cell phone and then we each had our own cell phone. Now, in our retirement, we each have our own laptop and our own cell phone and I have a tablet computer as well. We’ve invested quite a bit of money in technology and we’ve made our lives fairly dependent upon our tech gadgets.

Usually things work pretty good for us. Sometimes they don’t. Today is a “don’t.” Last evening I downloaded and installed new operating software for my laptop computer. I had been having a bit of trouble with my email program and with my web browser. They would work, but there were some issues with synchronization with my cell phone and my computer would occasionally connect to the wrong wi-fi signal. It was a bit frustrating, but it didn’t seem to be a big deal. I thought the new operating system would clear up any issues.

I was wrong.

I spent a couple of hours wrestling with the computer after the software installation. It would connect to the Internet, but it didn’t recognize the connection through the default browser and my email program. I’d launch the program and it would act as if I wasn’t connected. Another browser, however, worked. I used the backup browser to troubleshoot my problem. I found an excellent article with step-by-step instructions. At least I wasn’t the only one who had encountered the problem. That is a little consolation.

However, the problem persists. I don’t know whether or not I will be able to upload my journal post this morning. I’ve run out of options at the moment. The next step will be to make an appointment at the computer store and take the machine in to have someone with more expertise work on it. My experience with that in the past is that I’m going to encounter quite a bit of disruption. It will take time to get an appointment. I’ll have to drive to another town to get the service. Then, there is no certainty about how much time it will take them to correct the problem. There is always the outside possibility that the machine has some problem that will require a major change. I am dreading the possible expense and disruption of the change. I’ve become overly dependent upon my laptop.

The software that I use to post my daily journal does not have a mobile version. I can’t use it on my notebook computer. I have a single license, so it isn’t installed on Susan’s laptop. I’m frustrated and worrying.

Jesus taught about anxiety. “Consider the lilies of the field.” I know in my mind that the worries of this particular problem are minor and that things will work out. I would have never attempted a major computer system upgrade on a weekend before I retired. Sunday morning wouldn’t find me without a computer, and if it did, I knew that my time would be invested in leading worship and being with people. Back in the year 2000, when the Y2K problem presented us with an unknown, I advised people that if the computers all crash, we will continue to gather in the church to worship.

Things have changed since then. Worship is online. Susan is the liturgist at our church this week and she recorded the scripture, another reading and the call to the offering on her computer on Wednesday then emailed them to the person who compiles the worship service. We will watch the worship service on her computer or the tablet if I can’t resolve the issues with this machine.

I think that I’m dependent upon this machine. I get up and enter data into it every day. I save that data on the cloud. The truth, however, is that my life will continue without the computer. If I can’t make things work for a few days a few people will wonder what is happening with my journal. Most people won’t notice at all. The world doesn’t revolve around me and there are people with much bigger technology challenges than I.

Still, I’m frustrated and anxious. I’m wondering what will and what will not work. My readers are a part of an experiment that is about to go live. I’ll see if I can publish this post. If you are reading this at your usual time at least that much is working.

If not, we’ll try to catch up after a trip to the computer store.

Farewell Learjet

People have their stories about brushes with famous people. I’ve lived my life mostly in contact with ordinary folks, but grew up thinking that famous people were pretty much like the rest of us. NBC’s nightly news report featured Chet Huntley. We all know that he was an ordinary guy from an ordinary family. His dad worked for the railroad and was stationed in our town for a while. He graduated from high school in Whitehall and went to the University of Montana in Bozeman. The news show ended each night with an exchange between friends, “Good night David.” “Good night Chet.” They seemed like ordinary folks.

We didn’t know he would become famous at the time, but Dana Carvey lived in our town when we were kids. We have a picture of him playing in our backyard swimming pool.

Our family had hosted U.S. Senator Lee Metcalf in our home.

There was a story about our father’s meeting Howard Hughes that has been retold in so many different versions that I’m not sure of the details, but our father served as a flight instructor in California during the Second World War and somehow their paths crossed.

Our father had met Clyde Cessna, Walter Beech and Bill Piper and on at least two occasions bought airplanes directly from Bill Piper at the factory in Pennsylvania.

And we knew the story of Bill Lear, who not everybody can name as the inventor of the 8-track tape player. 8-tracks were the rage in car stereos when I was in high school and I had a portable 8-track stereo with a stack of cartridges. Lear was also on the team behind Magnavox “majestic dynamic speakers.” We didn’t have any of those in our house because our father was of the same build it yourself generation and our stereo had been assembled from a Heathkit. My father and one of his pilots were in Denver to see the first commercially produced Learjet. Of course they met Bill Lear face to face. The Learjet was a real breakthrough in 1963. It could carry eight passengers at over 550 mph and while it didn’t quite make the design goal of selling for half a million dollars, at $650,000 it was $400,000 less than any other jet aircraft on the market at the time.

Our father was growing his business at the time and expanding into farm machinery. The pilot who worked for our company was so impressed with the Learjet and with Bill Lear that he invested a big chunk of his savings in Bill Lear’s company. Five years later he was able to buy a new airplane and take the summer off to fly to Alaska. I don’t know how much he earned, but we thought he must have become rich from his wise stock purchase.

Growing up surrounded by airplanes and talk of airplanes, it seems a bit sad to know that the iconic Learjet will now go the way of the 8-track cartridges. Of course a few examples of both will remain in museums for generations to come, but Bombardier Aircraft, the current owner of the Learjet company has seen declining demand. Learjet will be discontinued as Bombardier concentrates on its Global and Challenger series of private jets.

Of course Bill Lear is no longer around. He was a risk taker who sold the company to Gates Rubber in 1967 in order to raise funds for other interests and projects. At the time he was working on closed circuit steam turbine cars and trucks to replace piston powered cars. The idea never came to fruition, which is why you never hear of Learium, a chlorofluorocarbon similar to Freon. It’s probably a good thing. Freon isn’t kind to the environment and Learium might have been just as dangerous.

No one in our family ever came close to considering owning a Learjet except in flights of imagination. We’ve figured out how to be very happy without access to the kinds of funds required for private jet ownership. But I did learn to identify a Learjet at the airport. I could tell the difference between it and the jets manufactured by the competition. And although it never made it to the market, I followed the development of the LearAvia composite airplane with a rear propellor that Bill Lear was working on at the time of his death of leukemia in 1978. I remember the year because it was the year we graduated from seminary and began our careers. We traveled with my parents that summer after graduation. My father speculated that Lear’s widow would see the certification of the LearAvia and it would go into production, revolutionizing aircraft manufacturing as much as the original Learjet had done. It was not to be. She sold her shares in the project and it was scrapped before the airplane was certified. It was ahead of its time. Decades later Beech went to production with the all composite, Burt Rutan designed Starship but that was a short-lived venture and those planes have now been relegated to museums. Composites have, however, revolutionized the aviation industry and are becoming common in commercially produced airplanes. It just took more time than we expected.

It turns out that Bill Lear had nearly as many wives as he had careers and I suspect that his personal life wasn’t as happy as some other people. He developed ulcers when he was in his twenties. He survived several lawsuits and charges of patent infringement. His most famous and successful projects had to be sold to others in order to raise money.

History will remember Bill Lear long after it has forgotten a lot of other folks who were a part of our lives. Some of his ideas will continue even though the Learjet is now being phased out. I have a lanyard with the Motorola brand and logo on it. It came from a meeting of the International Conference of Police Chaplains I attended a few years ago. Motorola produces portable radios used by law enforcement around the world. I don’t know for sure, but I might have been the only one at the convention who knew that the name Motorola was one of Bill Lear’s ideas. He came up with the name while on a road trip during which he and Howard Gates designed the first car radio.

Vaccine

I am of an age that vaccines have made a huge difference in my life. The big vaccine news at the time of my birth was polio vaccine. The first effective vaccine was developed a few years before I was born, but it was not used in the US. The inactivated polio vaccine, developed by Jonas Salk, and used across the U.S. was approved when I was 4 years old. Then, when I was in the third grade, the Sabin oral polio vaccine became available and we received it. Prior to the vaccine, people lived in fear of polio. The disabling and life-threatening disease spread from person to person and when it moves from the gut to the nervous system the results are paralysis. The disease can progress as quickly as a few hours. Developing a vaccine to slow the spread of the disease was a life-changing event for parents and children. The World Health Organization lists polio vaccine as an “essential medicine.”

I can remember receiving the oral vaccine. We received it at school. It was considered to be something that everyone did. But I never experienced the fear of polio in the way that people did before the development of the vaccine.

Of course polio wasn’t the first pandemic to sweep the globe. Smallpox, plague and typhus caused huge impacts on health and mortality rates centuries before I was born. Disease and the fear of disease has been with humans as long as humans have inhabited this planet.

It is interesting to think, however, about the impact of vaccines and other tools of modern scientific medicine to change not only the course of diseases and their transmission but our perception of the world in which we live.

This morning we will receive our first dose of the coronavirus vaccine. A small prick in our upper arms is nothing new to us. We have been diligent in receiving our flu vaccinations every year for most of our adult lives. The difference, of course, is the high mortality rate of Covid-19 combined with the politics of vaccine research and distribution. The reason that today is the day for our vaccinations is that we have been able to focus considerable attention on searching the internet, getting on waiting lists and paying attention to where we could obtain it. It didn’t hurt that we have a son who is a librarian and who kept on top of the research on how to obtain the vaccine for us.

We are fortunate. We don’t have health histories that put us into the category of the most vulnerable. We were happy to wait our turn. On the other hand, we put effort and energy into getting in line as soon as our age category was eligible. It took a bit longer for us that for some of our peers in other states. There have been problems with uneven distribution of vaccines. While becoming vaccinated is important for us, we don’t want to be cutting in line ahead of others who have more urgent need.

On the other hand, we are eager to travel. And our travel wasn’t terribly restricted by the pandemic when compared to others. We made the decision to make an Interstate move of our household in the midst of the pandemic. Our move involved multiple drives from South Dakota to Washington and back. We spent a few nights in motels last summer and autumn. We tried to be as safe as possible and careful about keeping our distance, wearing our face masks, washing our hands and disinfecting surfaces. But we took risks.

Bigger than the fear of contraction the virus ourselves was the fear of inadvertently spreading it to others. We didn’t want to contribute to the problem by our choice of behavior. Although we will still need to be careful with our behavior, becoming vaccinated is one way that we can help reduce the spread of the virus.

I’ve had enough conversations with those opposed to widespread vaccination to know that our opinion about vaccines isn’t the only one out there. Inaccurate stories about negative effects of routine childhood stories spawned an anti-vaccine movement in the United States. The choice not to vaccinate children has contributed to outbreaks of measles. Fortunately enough people have chosen to vaccinate their children that diseases such as whooping cough and mumps haven’t surged excessively.

The politicization of vaccines is, however, new. I don’t think that political party affiliation has before been such an indicator of vaccination rates as is with the coronavirus vaccine. CBS news reported that over a third of Republicans don’t want to get Covid shots. While our friends have reported to us that it is easier to obtain vaccines in red states and those living in states with Republican majorities have in general been able to obtain vaccine before we did, the vaccination rate is lower in red states than in blue states. Texas has one of the worst vaccination rates in the country. Although there have been shortages, the vaccination rate here in Washington is reasonable, with about 20% of the population having received vaccine. We do, however, lag behind our former state of South Dakota, where the rate is above 25%. And Washington is a blue state while South Dakota is a red state, so the generalities don’t apply across the board.

We probably won’t remember today as a turning point in the administration of vaccines or as a turning point in our lives. In a way receiving polio vaccine probably was a bigger deal than becoming vaccinated for coronavirus. For today, however, receiving our shots is big news in our lives. It is something that we can do that has potential health benefits not only for us but also for the wider community.

We’ll leave the debate to others. We have seen the benefits of scientific medicine in our lives and we will continue to make the best decisions we are able with our health care. And today we’ll get a dose of vaccine that has proven to be both safe and effective. It is worth the effort.

Learning to give

Over the years, I have received a lot of requests for help. People know a little bit of Christian theology and rightly turn to the church, and to those who work there, for help. Our scriptures give us plenty of reasons to help those who have need. Sometimes I helped people who might have had a good story, but less need than others. Sometimes I turned away those in need because I couldn’t figure out how to help them. People would come to the church in need of large amounts of money to make housing deposits or to pay fees to get utilities reconnected after service shut offs. I tried my best to keep up with community programs and our church participated in several ecumenical groups that provided a wide range of assistance to those in need, but real people “fall between the cracks.” There are legitimate reasons why people are not able to access services that are available. And the need seems to always be greater than the ability to respond.

Early in my career, I visited with some people who were on a big trip and ended up in our town without money for gas or lodging or food. I listened to their story of and unplanned trip to attend the funeral of a close family member, unexpected car repair expenses and other details that I don’t now remember. I helped them get a meal, a tank of gas and a single night in a local motel. The next day the owner of the motel called me complaining about the drunken party that had taken place in the motel and the damage to the room that had resulted. I didn’t know what to say. I hadn’t directly provided alcohol and the people didn’t appear to be drinking when I visited with them, but I didn’t have proof other than the story I was told. And, I later reasoned, addiction to alcohol is a serious condition over which they might not have had full control.

Regardless of that specific incident, I am sure that there were times when I offered assistance to those who didn’t have as much of a need as others who were turned away. I tried to be reasonable, but I had no way of checking out the stories I was told. Later I started telling folks that sometimes I pay for fiction. I buy books and pay for a good story, so why not make a gift in response to someone who has a very good story? I certainly don’t want to waste money that could go to help those with genuine need, but I had to be a steward not only of limited funds but also of limited time. I confess that there were times when I bought a meal or a tank of gas because it was the easiest thing to do at the time.

As a result of my experiences, I find it easy to see myself in the parable of the sheep and goats. There have been times when I have seen those who are hungry and have given food, but there are other times when I have seen hungry people and not responded. I’ve visited those in hospital or in prison, but not all of them. I’ve made judgements about my resources and could easily find myself in both the camp of the “sheep” and that of the “goats.”

As we were discussing Jesus’ teaching about the widow’s mite last night, I reminded others in our group that the widow wasn’t completely destitute even if she put the last of her cash in the offering. She was a widow and she was on the temple grounds. The commandments about helping widows are very clear. The temple was a place where she could get food to survive. Some of the support of the widows came directly from the offering that she and the others were making. That fact, however, in no way diminished the graciousness of her gift. She trusted the temple with her survival and went all in with her offering.

Two incidents in my decades as a pastor continue to stand out in my memory that illustrate to me some important truth about generosity and giving.

Once a man with whom I was familiar and whose family members I had met came to my office and asked for me. I had helped him on numerous occasions in the past and he knew that even if I didn’t help him, I would take time to listen to his story and try to direct him towards help. On this day there was something that he wanted or needed that cost $15. He asked me directly, “Can you give me $15?” I had invested a lot more than that in him previously and was getting tired of the constant requests and the sense that whatever I was doing wasn’t solving his problems or ending his need. I began to explain about the small amount of funds that I had available in the church to help others. I kept my honoraria and occasional donations from our church trust in a special account ear marked for helping those in need. The account was, as usual, depleted. I had already put money from my own funds into the account that month. I explained that the church didn’t have a way to make cash gifts. He listened patiently to my explanation and then said, “That isn’t what I asked. I asked if YOU could give me $15.” The answer was obvious to me. Of course I could. It changed the way I thought about helping others.

Another time, a woman with two children lingered after worship and eventually asked me if I could give her a ride to the bus station. She had spent the night in a women’s shelter and they had arranged for her to get a bus ticket to go to her sister’s town. The bus station was a couple of miles away and she had the two little ones. After asking her if she would consent to them riding in my car, I gave her a ride. On the way I asked her if she had food for the 15 hour bus ride. She said, she had nothing, but that if she got to the bus they would be OK. As I dropped her off, I gave her a $20 bill for food for her and the children on the trip. She asked me if I could wait in the car for a few minutes. I thought she wanted to make sure that her bus ticked would work. In a few minutes she returned to the car and handed me two one dollar bills. “That’s my tithe,” she said.

She had turned the tables. Instead of being the donor, I blame the recipient of a gift for the church. Quite frankly I felt unworthy of the gift she had offered, but at least I had the good sense to accept the gift and thank her.

Jesus had a sense about the widow’s generosity that he pointed out to those who would listen. She has made a precious gift. It should be honored and treasured and received with as much grace as it was given.

We don’t engage in charity to solve all of the problems of the world, but to engage in the sharing of God’s love. And that love is abundant. We won’t ever run out.

Speaking of the weather

I suppose every place has some kind of weather reputation. One of the things that I remember about our move from Chicago to North Dakota is that I had several friends in Chicago who cautioned us about the cold weather in North Dakota. It does get cold in North Dakota and where we lived often had days that were colder than Chicago, but Chicago isn’t known for its tropical weather, either. It is called the windy city for a good reason. I remember plenty of cold days in Chicago winters. What was strange about the move is that when we arrived in North Dakota, several people with whom we talked asked us about how we had managed the cold Chicago weather.

We tolerated the cold weather in both places fairly well.

When we moved to Boise, Idaho, the locals there bragged of “360 sunny days a year.” Some of my friends knew that Boise is pretty much in a desert and warned about the dry conditions, but the city itself has access to plentiful irrigation water and doesn’t have a desert feel at all. And it is close to the mountains that enjoy plenty of winter precipitation. What we didn’t anticipate, and no one mentioned about Boise is that the wind doesn’t blow there very often. Growing up in a very windy place on the east slope of the Rockies and having lived in Chicago and western North Dakota, I was used to wind, but I didn’t know that you could actually miss the wind. I missed the wind during our time in Idaho. Occasionally, we’d have a little storm and the wind would blow 30 or 40 mph and the streets would be littered with tree branches and other debris. Even the trees weren’t used to wind. In the town where I grew up in Montana we knew that when the wind speed display on the local television channel showed 0 mph it meant that the wind had been blowing over 100 mph. Somewhere between 100 and 120 mph the wind gauge would break and the display would read 0 and that was the only time it showed no wind. But in Boise, I missed the wind. The air would get stale. I learned to drive up into the mountains to get above the inversion and breath fresh air.

Moving back to the Dakotas, our Boise friends worried that we might freeze, but as the Dakotas go, Rapid City isn’t the coldest place. There are plenty of jokes about the banana belt. We didn’t see any bananas growing, but we also didn’t suffer from extreme weather. There were some memorable storms, but weathering storms gives good stories to tell and we never really suffered even when the electricity was off for a few days.

The weather reputation of the Pacific Northwest is that it always rains. Those who don’t live here make jokes about rust instead of sun tan, about folks developing gills, and about rain that is so constant that the locals don’t even know it is raining. It is the wettest place we have ever lived, but it isn’t nearly as bad as its reputation. We walk outside every day and there have been a few days when we walked in the rain, but most days there is a break in the rain long enough to allow a good walk. And in the midst of rainy times, the sun does break forth. The last few days have been glorious, with shirtsleeve weather, sunny skies and beautiful views of the mountains. I’m not sure we’ve seen any truly cloudless skies, but we’ve seen plenty of blue skies and sunshine. It doesn’t rain constantly here and we don’t carry snorkels in our car. In fact, I think I’m beginning to become a bit of a local in that I rarely bother with an umbrella. Most of the time umbrellas are more work than they are worth. A little rain doesn’t hurt anything.

When we lived in Boise, I often had meetings in Portland, Oregon, and I used to think that the locals in Portland didn’t know when it was raining. I’d be ducking around trying to keep dry and the locals would be going about their business as if nothing was happening. I remember walking down the street in downtown Portland and realizing that I was the only one with an umbrella. I may have developed more understanding for those Portlanders in the last few months.

What we do have is an early spring. The crocuses are blooming along with daffodils in some places. The tulips are up and the fruit trees are blossoming. All around us things are green.

Our county is famous for its April Tulip Festival. All month long people flock to the fields around town to look at the rows and rows of colorful tulips. Our region produces a huge percentage of all of the tulip bulbs sold in the United States. I’ve never before lived in a place where growing flowers was a commercial enterprise with big machinery and acres upon acres of glorious flowers. When I think of tulips, I think of Holland and there is a Dutch connection to the tulip farms here in Skagit County. After European settlers began to move into the area, there was a concerted effort to attract immigrants from Holland because of their skills at engineering dikes and other systems to hold back the water. The lowlands of the county are prone to frequent flooding and some fields are flooded every year. Dikes are constructed to minimize the back flow of saltwater from the ocean and to control the flooding. Along with the immigrants came tulip bulbs and now Skagit county is a lot like parts of the Netherlands.

This year some of the tulip farms are requiring reservations for those wanting to walk through the tulip fields. Plans are in place to allow for separation of visitors to minimize the threat of spreading disease. In reality, I suspect, separating the tourists is good business. After all people come to take pictures of the flowers, not other tourists. We’ll see. I don’t plan to pay for a tulip tour this year, but we’ll take drives out into the countryside and see what we can.

In the meantime, I’m enjoying the sunshine and adjusting to life in a new place with a new climate.

Looking at the boats

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Yesterday was a beautiful spring day here in the Pacific Northwest. The sky cleared up, it was warm and sunny - shirtsleeve weather. The trees are just starting to bud out and flowering trees are showing color. The crocuses are blooming and the tulips are a few inches out of the ground. We decided to take a short drive through the tulip and daffodil fields to the nearby town of La Conner. Located on the Swinomish Channel, the downtown area has a waterfront that is home to a small fleet of working fishing vessels and hundreds of recreational boats. The town is directly across the channel from the Swinomish Indian Reservation. The two areas are connected by a beautiful arched bridge, set between two high hills to allow ships with tall masts to pass underneath. There is about a half mile of boardwalk along the channel on the La Conner side of the channel. It is a good place to have a look at the boats and get a sense of the nautical life in a very protected place with good access to the Salish Sea and the nearby San Juan Islands.

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Moored along the channel and parked in slips in several marina areas are rows upon rows of boats, many of which are really big by my standards. A 40’ to 50’ vessel with a fly bridge can have three levels of living space. Some of the vessels are known as live-aboard and some folks live full time in their boats. Many are recreational boats. Folks pay for a slip with electrical and water service and pay a pump out service to empty their holding tanks.

We have met a minister who serves in another coastal town who has a primary residence in Seattle, but has a live aboard trawler in a slip in the town where she serves as a second residence.

I’m familiar with having more than one property. When I was about six years old, my parents purchased a run-down auto court with several rough cabins by the river at the edge of town. After my father died, my mother built a lovely two-bedroom log cabin on the property, but when we were kids, it was a group of old cabins that provided some shelter, but weren’t really up to winter living. We camped at the place in the summer, cooking outside at a fire pit and using a shared shower house. That meant that our parents had two places to watch and keep maintained. Over the years, we fixed up some of the buildings at the river place and I learned a lot about replacing window glass, painting and shingling roofs in the process.

Knowing how much work and expense a second home can be, I have never aspired to own one. We have been fortunate to have a camping trailer that we purchased used after our children were grown. It is our version of a vacation property. We can pull it to campgrounds all around the country and have a place to cook our meals and sleep in comfort. We’ve camped all across the west and towed our camper over mountain passes and through beautiful country.

A boat, however, would be an entirely different kind of living space. It requires a whole set of skills for navigating open water, learning about tides and currents and docking procedures. I’m a big fan of boats and own several canoes and kayaks. Some I have purchased. Others I have made. I also have a small row boat that I made a few years ago. I understand the lure of a craft that can navigate the waters. I’m sure I’ll have a kayak in the Swinomish Channel this summer from time to time. I’ll also row and paddle in area lakes and probably take a few paddles on the Skagit River. There are lots of interesting places to explore in our new home.

I am not, however, attracted to the large boats that we see. Having to maintain a vessel that is in the water full time and has to be hauled out for bottom paint and inspection is a whole new level of adventure and expense. I don’t know what it costs to rent a slip in a protected harbor, but I suspect it is substantial. My first boat was a canoe that I built from scratch because I didn’t want to pay the price of a factory-made canoe. I later owned a small sailboat that was on the trash pile at a local boatyard. I salvaged the hull and made fiberglass repairs and paint, adding a bit more weight than the original design. I salvaged a mast and and old sail from another boat that had reached the end of its career and was able to learn a bit of sailing without spending too much money. I think I almost broke even with that boat when I sold it. My most expensive boat in terms of money spent, it a whitewater canoe that was purchased with part of an honorarium I received from performing a wedding. I usually didn’t spend honoraria on myself, but this was an unusual wedding performed when I was on vacation from my usual work and I was really attracted to the boat at the time.

The joke among my canoe and kayak buddies is that the perfect number of boats to own is a matter of a simple mathematical formula. The correct number of boats for an enthusiast is n + 1. In that formula, n = the number of boats you currently own. Boating enthusiasts often seem to want just one more. Randy Cadenhead wrote, “All boats new and old large or small cost the same - one dollar more than you have.” If you put that together with the formula you come up with the definition of a boat: “a hole in the water that you fill up with money.”

I’m happy to leave the expensive boats to other owners. In fact, I’m resolved to keeping my fleet from growing. That means I need to sell or give away one of my kayaks this year when I finish the one I’m building. I think that at my age the formula has become “n - 1.” I’m resolved to spending more time paddling and less time working on boats. That definitely favors fewer boats and definitely puts me out of the market for a bigger boat.

Still, I like walking alongside the channel and looking at the boats.

A quiet house

I got up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom and I didn’t stub my toe on the step stool. For the past month, I have had to remember that there is a good chance that there is a step stool in front of the sink in the bathroom. A little one needed it to be able to reach the sink to wash his hands. He was a good age to teach about washing hands because he loves to play in the water. The hand towel often ended up quite damp and wasn’t hanging on the ring where it normally lives, but wadded up on the surface of the counter. But this morning, everything is in place in the bathroom and the stool is in the corner where even in the dark, I won’t hit it with my bare foot.

The pantry shelves, however, are not back to their “usual.” The bottom shelf has a toy truck, a little people airplane, and a basket of miscellaneous toys. The next shelf up has plastic bowls and baskets that can be played with without being broken. The top shelves are crammed with things that normally are spread out on the lower shelves. There are more canisters and containers on high shelves in other places in the kitchen.

Both leaves are still in our dining room table, but the chair with the booster seat strapped to it sits alongside the wall, not at the head of the table where it has been for the past month.

In the living room a Strider Bike sits waiting to be packed in its box to be shipped to South Carolina. A bin of teddy bears sits between our recliners.

All afternoon and into the evening last night our house was quiet - too quiet.

Saying good bye at the airport was hard. Our grandson was over stimulated by all of the people, noise and activity at the airport. Our daughter was struggling with a stroller, car seat, diaper bag, back pack and an active child in her arms. The line for the security screening was backed up with other travelers. We did our best.

It wasn’t the hardest farewell of our lives. Putting her on the plane to New Jersey to go work as a nanny when she was in her early twenties was harder. Saying good bye at the airport when she went off to live in England was done with less confidence.

The thing that made it so possible to say good bye at the airport yesterday was knowing deep down how eagerly her husband was waiting for his wife and son to be with him. He had gone ahead to arrange their housing and prepare for their arrival. Moving from Japan to South Carolina is more than a big trip. It is a thousand and more details that have to be worked out. As it is, they are in temporary housing with their furniture in storage or transit. It will be a couple of weeks before they can close on their new house and begin settling in. Life in temporary housing won’t be perfect. But they will be together as a family as it should be.

We have it easy compared to our ancestors of centuries ago who said good bye to their children who boarded ships and crossed oceans and were never again face to face with the families of their origin. We’ve experienced our daughter living on three different continents since she moved out of our home. We live in a very mobile society. And we know that we can stay close and remain connected even though we are separated by thousands of miles. We’ve driven most of the roads between here and there. Her brother lived in North Carolina for two years when he was in graduate school. We managed to make a couple of trips to visit him. He was married there and we all gathered for the celebration. The year we moved to South Dakota, I was on a team planning a national youth event that took place the following year at the University of South Carolina, about 30 miles from our daughter’s new home. I’ve commented to several friends, “Hey, she may be about as far away as you can get in the continental US, but at least she’s on the same continent. You can drive to where she is moving.”

They were able to get a direct flight from Seattle to Charleston and we could get the same flight to visit them some time. And we have already had a video chat with them and got to see our grandson reunited with his father and with his dog. He may not understand all of the disruptions of his life in the past couple of months, but he knows that his family is together again and that is good.

Still, our house doesn’t feel quite the same.

The good news is that our other three grandchildren are close by. We can “borrow” them any time our house feels a bit too quiet. There is a small table in our garage where our 10-year-old grandson and I make model airplanes together. There is a room upstairs with a big doll house that our granddaughters like to fill with toys and stories. And my boats and projects and tools live in the barn at their place, so I go there on a regular basis.

Yesterday after going to the airport, we took a nap and watched church on the computer. Virtual church means we can watch on our schedule so we had church in the middle of the afternoon instead of the usual morning time. After church, we went for a walk. As we walked we paused for a brief conversation with another couple of elders who were walking on the same path. We asked each other if we lived close to the path and learned that they live in a nearby “over 55” community.

There is no attraction to an “over 55” community for me. I want to kick the soccer ball with my grandkids in the front yard. I want to watch the teenagers who live across the street. I want to see the young couple pushing their kids in their stroller down the sidewalk. I can put up with occasional noise from neighbors for the feeling of a place where all ages live together.

I’ll get used to it, but right now our house is just a little bit too quiet for my taste.

Home

The congregation that we served in Boise, Idaho, had suffered two major building fires prior to our time as their minister. The first, in 1942, completely destroyed the church building. Rebuilding a new, more fire resistant church during the Second World War was a daunting challenge. Then, just a decade later, in 1952, another fire struck, this one burning the roof off of their new brick-faced building. Again the congregation rose to the task and not only repaired the fire-damaged building, but also expanded and added an education wing. Those years of intense focus upon the building and fundraising for new building needs produced a lot of fond memories for the members of the congregation and there were plenty of stories that still inspired the congregation when we arrived as pastors more than three decades later.

We often say that the church is more than a building and that if the building that houses our congregation is destroyed, the congregation would continue to thrive and minister. The truth, however, is that I have never served a church without a building. Perhaps the closest I have come was during the final three months before my retirement when we were nearly shut down because of the pandemic. In those days, I went to the church building every day, but it was usually empty. The focus of our ministry was outside of the building in many ways. We developed telephone trees and special mailings and expanded our social media profile significantly. I offered a special online prayer every morning. It is interesting, in retrospect, how those prayers had their own sense of focus upon the building. Each day I would select a different place within our church building as a background for the prayer I was offering. It was a kind of tour of the building for those who could not come to the building. And all during that time, our congregation continued its generous ways supporting the building with their donations. We did a lot of cleaning. We took care of some needed repairs to the building. We kept up with the yard work.

As our relationship with our new congregation here in Washington grows, we have found definite challenges with remote worship. It just doesn’t feel the same as worshiping in a face to face setting. Virtual coffee hours just aren’t the same kind of fellowship for those of us who don’t know the other members of the community. Small group activities are a bit better. I am enjoying a Zoom Lenten study and getting to know the other members of the group. We have been honored with telephone conversations with the pastors that have been helpful. Slowly, we are becoming connected to the congregation. As we have done so, we have also learned that although the congregation is not currently meeting face to face and the building is mostly empty during the pandemic, the trustees are still working hard on keeping the building repaired and ready. A list of major projects looms, including replacing part of the roofing, updating heating and air conditioning systems, and other projects that remind us of the final capital funds campaign of our careers as ministers.

We say that the church is more than a building, but we form attachments to the building. While it is literally true that the destruction of the building is not the same as the end of the congregation - something our Idaho church proved - buildings are important to congregations.

Israel has fully explored that relationship between the community and the building for millennia. Two temples in Jerusalem were constructed with a vision of making a single worship place for the entire world. Both were destroyed. The people of Israel have long struggled with their name which both indicates a place and also a wider community of believers that find themselves spread out all over the world. One faithful Jewish leader once commented that the faith is threatened by the confusion: “Too many people think of Israel as a place when in reality Israel is a people.” Clearly, however, passion for the country of Israel extends around the world. You don’t have to live there to have intense feelings about the country.

Those mixed feelings about buildings and places are important to remember as we recall the events of Jesus’ cleansing of the temple. The report in the Gospel of John that is the lectionary selection for today is perhaps the most clear. It reports that Jesus refers to the destruction of the temple while himself being within the temple. But John’s Gospel also makes it clear that Jesus words are metaphoric: “But he was speaking of the temple of his body.”

It is interesting that the lectionary places this reading on the same Sunday as the reading of the ten commandments from the 20th chapter of Exodus. The struggle to become a free people is a major theme of our Hebrew scriptures. As our people adjusted to the freedom of the exodus from Egypt, they kept engaging in behaviors that made them less, not more free. It seemed at times as if they were running away from freedom, turning to idol worship when God had so clearly demonstrated the divine commitment to human freedom. The commandments are granted as a simple guide to a life of freedom. We remember those commandments as having come at a time when our people had no land - during the years of wandering in the wilderness.

Our story teaches us that we are a people of history, not a people of place, but our emotions keep connecting us to specific places. Sometimes we sacrifice our freedom in an attempt to connect ourselves to a place. Again and again we have to learn that while we become temporary custodians of place, we can never own a single place. Our time passes and others come to be the custodians of the places we call home.

Moving to a new home more than a thousand miles away at the time of our retirement reminds us once again of the truth of the opening of Psalm 90: “Lord, thou hast ben our dwelling place in all generations.” Indeed we do have a home. It just isn’t a place.

Breakfast

I’ve read that in southern Thailand there is a city called Trang that is obsessed with breakfast. Crowds begin to flock to the dim sum halls, vintage cafes and street vendors before 4 am. The places that serve roast pork begin putting the pigs into the ovens around midnight. At a time where people are asleep in most of the rest of the world, you can wander down the streets and stop for bowls of noodles or rice porridge, curries, stir fries, soups and fried dough and roast pork, indulgent and delicious.

The city began its breakfast traditions to accommodate workers. It is far rubber growing areas and rubber tappers need to do their work in the early morning, traditionally rising at 2 am to prepare for work. In some cases, rubber tappers have already eaten two meals before the sun has risen. The city also is filled with Chinese immigrants who work in a variety of early morning jobs. By 7 am local restaurants are filled with families, school children, pensioners and people on their way to the office. Breakfast is a big deal in Trang.

I’ve never been to Trang. I’ve never been to Thailand, but it certainly sounds like a place I’d love to visit. I’m a big fan of breakfast.

There was a time, years ago, when our children were pre-teen, and our daughter and I were the early birds of the family. Our son and my wife tended to enjoy staying up later in the evening while we would arise in the morning when they were still in bed. In those days, Saturdays were often special times for dad and daughter. We would get up and get dressed and ride our bikes to a McDonald’s restaurant for breakfast. It was a good time for us to be together and enjoy the morning. I have been an early riser for as long as I can remember, only modifying my schedule slightly in my retirement to sleep in a bit later, though I’m still not one for staying up late at night.

For the past month, breakfasts have been very special at our house because our daughter and her son are visiting us. They have been living in Japan and are in the process of moving to a new home in South Carolina. The shipping of their furniture and household items along with the process of buying a new home combined with the need to be careful with covid prevention practices has given us this bonus time. Part of that bonus is time for father and daughter to talk in the mornings. We generally eat before my wife rises. Making the breakfasts even more special is the presence of our grandson who seems to hit the ground running every morning. There is absolutely nothing like being greeted each morning by a nineteen-year-old running full steam ahead to give you a great big hug.

For the first breakfast of their visit, when they were jet lagged and not sure what time it was after flying from Japan and crossing the International Date Line, I mixed up pancake batter and made dollar pancakes. At our house “dollar” pancakes are a bit bigger than dollar coins, especially the newer dollar coins. Somehow we got to calling them sand dollar pancakes, which more accurately describes their size at 3 to 4 inches in diameter.

Our grandson really loves sausage patties, so they have been a regular part of our breakfasts.

All of that is about to change. Tomorrow after breakfast we will take our daughter and grandson to the airport in Seattle where they’ll board the plane to go to their new home in South Carolina. The only thing that makes it possible for me to say good bye to them is knowing how much her husband and his father has missed them during this time of separation. I know that they will be greeted by an eager and loving family member when they arrive. I know that their family belongs together.

So, naturally, we stayed up a bit later than usual last night talking and one of the things we talked about was what we’d have for breakfast this morning. Breakfasts together seem to be incredibly precious now that we are aware how few we have left on this visit. Today we have the luxury of a leisurely breakfast. Tomorrow will be rushed because we have to load luggage and people into the car early to make the 90-minute trip to the airport. The menu today includes sausage, of course, and french toast. I picked up a loaf of cinnamon bread and another of blueberry bread for a special treat. It isn’t quite deep-fried dough and roast pork, but the oven in our rental house is too small to roast an entire pig and we’ve never really gotten into dim sum for breakfast at our house. On the other hand, McDonalds hasn’t been our breakfast choice for many years.

Being the father of our daughter hasn’t been quite as exotic as breakfast in Thailand, but she has brought a great deal of adventure to our lives. She may not be leading me around town on a bicycle any more, but her travels have resulted in my visiting some wonderful places. Pictures of trips to visit her in England and Japan spark precious memories for us and we are looking forward to making a trip to South Carolina before too long.

I’ve already checked it out. There isn’t a Krispy Kreme Donut Shop within range of a bicycle ride from their new home. It won’t be long before our grandson is old enough to go out for an early breakfast with granddad. Maybe I’ll have to learn to eat breakfast grits. I’m pretty sure I could go for bacon milk gravy and biscuits or cheesy grits with bacon. And I’m thinking that our daughter would go for southern-style chocolate gravy.

Whatever we eat, breakfast with our daughter and her family is a special treat. Maybe we could be like the folks in Trang Thailand and go for two or three breakfasts each day when we are together.

Space to ponder

Wednesday evening I was participating in our church’s Lenten study over Zoom. The group was discussing the stories commonly known as the cleansing of the Temple. All four Gospels present the story, each with a slightly different perspective. As we discussed the stories, I kept thinking of the layers of depth in the gospel narratives. Jerusalem was a multi-cultural and multi-lingual city. The feelings of faithful Jews of Jesus’ day about the second temple were complex. After more than 500 years since the destruction of the first temple, construction on the second had been going on for more than four decades. Ceremonies were conducted in the new temple, but there was also resentment of the role of the Roman government in its construction. John’s Gospel reports the story of the cleansing of the temple near the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, just after the story of the wedding in Cana. The other gospels place the event in the final week of Jesus’ life. John reports that Jesus, in response to the questions of other Jews in the Temple said, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The statement must have been shocking to those who heard it. They knew the history of the destruction of the first Jerusalem Temple. They knew that it had taken five centuries before construction on the second had begun and that the current temple had been under construction for forty-six years. It is pretty obvious that Jesus’ statement wasn’t a literal reference to the physical building. John goes on to clarify: “But he was speaking of the temple of his body.”

One participant in the class asked, “How are we to take this story? Is it metaphor or history or biography?”

I think there is no easy answer to the question. Biblical literature, in general, is complex. Meanings lie at many different levels. We return to the texts again and again and learn new things each time we encounter them.

Somehow our conversation drifted to some of the challenges of language. The four gospels have different audiences and the gospel writers had different levels of access to the writings of the other gospels. We often refer to Matthew, Mark and Luke as “synoptic” or having the same point of view. This isn’t quite accurate, but the gospel of John definitely takes a different perspective than the others. These differences may have arisen in part from differences of language. Although all four Gospels were written in Greek, the native languages of their intended audiences may have been different. To the extent that John’s gospel focused on a gentile audience as opposed to a primarily Jewish audience, the language of the Gospel may have been more native to some of the intended members of the audience than was the case with the other Gospels.

I have never been good at languages. I have enough credits in French to have made it my minor in my undergraduate studies, but I never became fluent in the language. I can still read a bit of French, but I by no means can speak the language. In seminary, I studied Hebrew and Greek, but never rose above a rudimentary ability to decode the languages. I tried to learn a bit of Spanish as our congregation pursued a sister church relationship with a congregation in Costa Rica, but I remained dependent upon translators for conversation. As we hosted exchange students from Japan and our children traveled to Japan, I spent some time trying to learn some basic Japanese words. Later, when our daughter lived in Japan and we were able to make two trips to Japan, I decided to try to learn a few concepts rather than attempt to learn the language. It isn’t difficult for an English-speaking person to travel in Japan. The trains all have English language signs and announcements. It is easy to find English-speaking help in stations and other locations.

Still, I am fascinated by the impact of language upon culture. At a bare minimum, the language we speak influences our perspective on the events of the world.

I think that the writer of the Gospel of John was able to use certain poetic phrases and images because his audience had a feel for the depth of Greek poetry and language that was different from the audiences of the other gospels, despite the fact that Greek was the original language of all four Gospels. It is as if the stories of Mark, Matthew and Luke were told in Aramaic and Hebrew for a while before being written down in Greek, whereas John had some theology and some images that came from thinking in Greek.

Retirement has given me the luxury of time to ponder some questions in a different way than I did during my active working years. In a way it reminds me of my student years, when I would ponder a concept for weeks at a time, trying to figure out how it fit into the structure of my thinking. These days, a conversation often sparks an ongoing reflection. Days after our Zoom meeting, I am still thinking of what we said and of how I might have offered different ideas and insights to the group.

There is a Japanese concept for this kind of spacious pondering. The word in Japanese is “Yutori.” It can be translated as “relaxed” or “free from pressure.” It is a concept that has been at the heart of an evolution of Japanese education policy for several decades now. The idea is that children learn best when there is less pressure. This prompted more days free from school and changes in the curriculum to allow more time for unstructured learning. Japanese children still are immersed in a much more rigorous and more structured educational system than American children, but the idea of Yutori continues to bring about changes in educational policies.

I think that the concept of Yutori might also be translated as “spaciousness.” In Japan the word is used for the process of leaving early for an appointment so that you arrive early and have time to look around. Yutori is giving yourself space.

Perhaps retirement is a Yutori process - giving space. If so, it may be a good time for a new kind of learning. Bible study, which is a process of discovering depth upon depth, might be a good fit for this phase of my life.

At any rate, I seem to keep pondering and pondering is a way of learning.

Now I am pondering whether or not the break from in-person school and church is a “Yutori” moment for our society. Perhaps we have been given space to deepen our understanding.

Food and entertainment

There is a lot of laughter around our dinner table. We amuse ourselves with stories and memories of other meals and other times. We are entertained by the children. Sometimes we pause to take a picture of spaghetti in the hair or a peanut butter smeared face. Last night it was a bowl of rice. In addition to the roast beef, green beans, carrots and potatoes we had a small bowl of rice because there was a bit of rice left over from another meal and our grandson loves rice. He was really going after the rice, using a small, child-sized spoon and a bowl. His grandmother gave him another scoop of rice from the serving bowl and minutes later he had the serving spoon in his hand and he was shoveling in the rice with a spoon that he could barely get into his mouth. Our response was laughter which encouraged him. He continued by taking rice directly from the serving dish.

His mother is working hard to teach him how to behave at the dinner table. Left to himself, he would like to bring toys to the table. He probably would like to take food and wander around the house as well. But his mom has rules and expectations. We eat at the table, not in the living room. Toys and food don’t mix. I’ve even heard the phrase that I said to our children and I remember my mother saying to us when we were children: “Don’t play with your food.”

Eating and food bring us a lot of joy. I guess we don’t play with our food in the sense that we play with toys. Throwing food, for example, is not tolerated in our house, whereas we are allowed to throw a ball in the back yard.

Thinking of eating and playing brought to mind memories of a curriculum writing job that we had a couple of decades ago. One of the stipulations for writers is that we were not to write any craft projects that used food as a principal ingredient. There were to be no macaroni pictures or seed arts. The concept was that food is an essential commodity and there are many people in the world who lack sufficient nutrition. Therefore, food should be used to feed hungry people, not for arts and crafts.

Not long after we completed our assignments for that project, we went to Costa Rica to share ministry with our sister church there. We saw some beautiful pictures made with beans and seeds and other food products that had been made by local artists. In a place where food and a lot of other essentials were in short supply, art emerged. And the artwork was made of the things that were available, which included some grains and other food items.

My children scratch their heads and make comments about the “olden days” when I tell them about my memory of Mr. Potato Head. The original toy that I remember from my childhood didn’t come with a body. It was a set of parts for hands, feet, mouths, eyes, noses and ears that had sharp pins attached. You poked them into a potato or a cucumber or another vegetable to make a figure. I’m not sure, but I think they came in a cereal box. I also remember something about sending in an order form to get more parts.

By the time our kids came around, there was a plastic body and no real vegetables were injured in the making of the toy. The parts were attached with plastic pegs instead of sharp pins. Our kids played with them a bit. We would giggle at hands poked into eye sockets and ears in the place of the mouth and nose. It was temporarily entertaining, but far from the most popular toy in our house.

We have a Mr. Potato head and a Mrs. Potato Head in our camper that has entertained our grandchildren on several occasions. There have been no extended conversations about playing with food or food being an object of entertainment in a world with starving children over the games with the toy, though I suspect that complaints about rotting vegetables in toy boxes might have had some relationship to the change in the toy from using actual vegetables.

For some reason, Fox News and the recent CPAC meeting seem to be upset with the decision of Hasbro toy company to drop the Mr. and Mrs. titles from the toy, calling it just Potato Head. I guess that they were noticing that potatoes don’t seem to have very many gender characteristics. The Fox News pundits and speakers at CPAC seem to think that it is a symbol of a culture war demanding political correctness. I’m not sure that Hasbro was concerned with political correctness any more than they were when the toy changed to a plastic body. They were concerned with marketing. Mr. Potato Head was the first toy to be advertised on television. The folks at Hasbro are interested in sales, not in manipulating culture. And their attention to marketing didn’t start with the popular toy. After all, they no longer refer to their company as Hassenfeld Brothers. They know a thing or two about responding to public demand and making money selling toys.

I scan the headlines from Fox News because I want to be aware of many different perspectives and I know that some people rely exclusively on a single source for their news. As a result, I am struck by recent days when Fox News seems to be making a point of the withdraw of Dr. Seuss books and the change in the name of Mr. Potato Head when other news sources are reporting on the hearings on the January attacks on the U.S. Capitol and the precautions being taken today because of threats of additional attacks on March 4, an old date for the inauguration of the president. I am cynical enough to think that those in charge of Fox News aren’t finding much to their liking in the actual news and prefer avoiding the harsh reality of how their coverage contributed to the violence in January.

In the meantime, our grandson has no need of toy eyes and ears. He is entertained by the process of eating itself. Who knew having different sizes of spoons could be so entertaining? He is exploring his own culture without the need for commentary from any news source.

Rich in relationships

I read a story on the BBC News website about an antique hunter who bought a small rice bowl at a yard sale in Connecticut for $35. The buyer, who was not identified in the article, took the bowl to a professional for an expert evaluation. The six-inch bowl was estimated to have a value between $300,000 and $500,000. It will be auctioned by Sotheby’s Auction House on March 17. The listing describes the bowl as exceptional and rare, one of only seven such bowls in existence. Most of the others are in museums.

The buyer is going to have a lot to report at income tax time.

I don’t identify much with the buyer who is in the process of making a fortune from an astute purchase. I won’t ever be such a buyer. I don’t buy much at yard sales. I don’t attend many yard sales. I do, occasionally, walk through church rummage sales, but those sales have been suspended in the season of pandemic, and it isn’t clear how soon they can be resumed. I might be attracted to a rice bowl. We like to have rice dishes and eat from our rice bowls at least once a week. But I can almost guarantee that I wouldn’t spend $35 on a rice bowl, no matter how pretty. Our rice bowls were purchased for 100 yen (a bit less than $1) at Dyso, a Japanese version of a dollar store. I once considered paying $5 per rice bowl from Amazon, but talked myself out of the purchase, which was a good thing because our daughter gave us rice bowls for Christmas the last year she lived in Japan. I didn’t ask her, but I hope she got the ones for our gift from Dyso.

So don’t expect to read a story about me making a rare antique find and a huge profit at a garage sale. It isn’t going to happen.

I do, however, completely identify with whoever sold the rice bowl for $35 at the sale. I have gotten rid of a lot of things that have been around our house for very low prices. More likely, I would have put the bowl into a box for Good Will or donation to another charity. I really don’t like garage sales and though we’ve had a couple in our nearly 5 decades of marriage, neither of us is inclined to do that very often.

One of my favorite songs of the musical Fiddler on the Roof is “If I Were a Rich Man,” sung by Tevye. The intro is spoken: “O Lord, you made many, many poor people. I realize, of course, that it’s no shame to be poor, but it’s no great honor either! So, what would have been so terrible if I had a small fortune?” After singing about all of his fantasies about being rich, the song has a striking outro: “Lord who made the lion and the lamb, You decreed I should be what I am. Would it spoil some vast eternal plan if I were a wealthy man?”

The answer to Tevye’s rhetorical question is, of course, “Yes.” Indeed it would spoil some vast eternal plan if I were a wealthy man. Some of us are simply happier in life knowing that we aren’t fabulously wealthy. I have no desire to be Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, Warren Buffet or Mark Zuckerberg. I’m perfectly happy being myself. Sometimes I wish I had made some more astute decisions earlier in my life. Sometimes I wish I hadn’t wasted money on some of the frivolous purchases I’ve made. But I have no designs on being rich.

Having said that, I realize that I am fabulously wealthy compared to the character in the musical. I’m fabulously wealthy compared to a lot of people in the world. My life has been filled with luxuries, not the least of which is comfortable housing, convenient transportation and the luxury of frequent travel. I don’t worry about food insecurity. We have a well-stocked pantry and are able to make at least one trip each week to the grocery store. In fact, with the rate we go through milk with the visit of our grandson, I’ve been going a couple of times each week. And I don’t just buy milk when I go.

I suppose that my retirement might feel a little more secure and the shopping for a new home might be a bit easier had I discovered a rare antique worth $300,000 - $500,000 amongst our possessions. However, I’m not going to lose any sleep looking for such a treasure. I’m pretty sure that the antiques we kept have value that is mostly sentimental and the ones we gave away have value for others. I don’t expect for anyone to find a valuable treasure among my possessions. Of course the person who sold the rare 15th-Century Ming Dynasty bowl for $35 didn’t expect to have anything for the garage sale that was worth $300,000 to $500,000 either.

In my fantasy, I’m more likely to imagine that I can sing as well as Chaim Topol, who played Tevye on Broadway, or make my trumpet sing like Brandon Ridenour. If you haven’t heard it yet, check out his YouTube recording of Rhapsody in Blue. It will change your perception of what a trumpet can do. That is his father accompanying him in the video. I’d settle for being able to play the piano like him.

I don’t, however, believe in magic. I don’t expect to suddenly have wealth or talent that I don’t have. I get a fair amount of joy from witnessing the talent of others. I’ve invested a fair amount of time and energy over the years encouraging others to experience the joys of giving and I think I’ve succeeded a few times in helping people to make wise charitable giving decisions. I’ve witnessed those who have found joy in wealth and I don’t want to take any of their joy from them.

But I prefer to be rich in marriage, in family, in grandchildren, in friends and faith. It is more than enough for me.

Pondering big questions

On my bookshelf is a copy of the bible that belonged to my grandfather. I keep it in a cedar box because my mother kept it in that same box. As things go, it isn’t really all that old. He received it in 1927 - less than a century ago. Like his parents and in-laws he was a devout Methodist and learned about the bible as a child growing up in a faithful household. This particular copy of the Bible, with his name embossed on the cover is the King James Version, a particular translation that Christians have been using since its first publication in 1611, though it took several decades after its first printing before it was more commonly used than the Geneva Bible. That adds a few more centuries. But in the span of history even that isn’t all that old. It stands in a line of faith that stretches back thousands of years. Some of the texts gathered together into what we call the Bible are stories that faithful people had been sharing for many, many generations before there were any written documents.

I don’t use my grandfather’s bible very much. I have a lot of copies of the Bible and there are versions that I prefer for devotional reading and study. Once in a while I will take it from the shelf, open the cedar box, remove the leather-bound book and read a bit - perhaps the story of Jesus’ birth from Luke or the call of the prophet Jeremiah or Psalm 90. I suspect, though that the words I have scanned the most are those from the opening of the Book of Genesis: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.” Those familiar words aren’t the most ancient words in our Bible. They aren’t even the most ancient story of creation contained in the Book of Genesis. We don’t know exactly when those words first emerged, but we do know that they first emerged in Hebrew before the English language existed. When I studied Biblical Hebrew, I memorized those first few verses in that language and when I say them it provides a bit of a connection between me and those who came a long time before I was born.

Many biblical scholars believe that the words of the first chapter of Genesis arose within the community of faithful sometime around the Babylonian Exile. Up until that time, the questions of origin were more frequently answered in terms of family heritage. The book of Deuteronomy gives the declaration of the history of our people with the liturgical response: “My ancestor Jacob was a wandering Aramean who went to live as a foreigner in Egypt.” Our people had formalized the answer to the question of origins in terms of the experience of being slaves in Egypt. The experience of exile in Babylon, however, brought the need for a different kind of origin story. Exposed to the ancient stories of those among whom they lived during the exile, the people of Israel began to feel a need for a cosmology that explained more than family lineage. They pondered questions about the origins of all existence as separate from the questions of where our people came from.

Over the centuries, the words of the beginning of Genesis emerged as the way we start to tell our story. These words were in common use, memorized by generations upon generations long before the emergence of scientific method, long before there was any teaching that we might call the discipline of physics, long before there was a distinction between science and religion. And yet they contain a concept that continues to be pondered by modern scientists. The cosmology textbook, Reaper Man, by Terry Pratchett states: "Light thinks it travels faster than anything but it is wrong. No matter how fast light travels, it finds the darkness has always got there first, and is waiting for it.” Perhaps it is not accurate to call Pratchett’s book a cosmology textbook. Wikipedia refers to it as a fantasy novel. It is an attempt to think about the universe by someone who is at least schooled in contemporary science including physics. The book has been around for about 30 years and there have been plenty of discoveries in the field of physics in those decades, but it is popular among those who ponder the origins and scope of the universe from a scientific perspective. It is entirely possible, however, that Pratchett’s idea of darkness being first has its roots in the cosmological thinking of Jewish thinkers who encountered Babylonian and pre-Babylonian organ stories: “And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.”

We, whose ideas are shaped by modern scientific theory, tend to think in terms of certain laws of physics. Nothing can travel faster than the speed of light. The problem with thinking of physics as a set of laws, however, is that the laws don’t quite explain all observable phenomenon. Quantum physicists observe that subatomic particles do not behave independently. They are entangled. They emerge in balanced pairs. Quantum information appears to be transferred between particles instantly - that is faster than the speed of light. The laws of physics, however, state that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light. Even the most astute of minds, wrestling with the nature of the universe, find the universe to be more complex than our capacity to understand: “the darkness has always got there first, and is waiting for it.”

Somehow at this particular phase of my life, it is reassuring to pick up an actual book that is more than a century older than I, that has been treasured by generations of my family, and read the words of people much more ancient than any I can remember and realize that we have been pondering big questions for a long, long time. I don’’t have to come up with all of the answers on my own - the important questions are bigger than a single generation.


Happy grandpa

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Throughout our married life, we have enjoyed getting together with our siblings. When our children were little, their ages were close to the ages of the children of one of Susan’s sisters. Whenever the five cousins got together, they enjoyed each other and played together well. But there was plenty of emotional intensity about our gatherings. The adults were eager to share conversation. The children had different styles of playing. On one visit, I remember saying to the other adults, “Anybody can get one or two kids crying at the same time. It takes a real pro to get all five crying at the same time.” All five kids crying at the same time was a rare occurrence, if it ever happened. I don’t remember crying. I remember laughing. I remember family meals and happy children.

Of course, there is nothing particularly unique about a few children being together. For most of my growing-up years, we had five children in our household. Our parents seemed to be quite capable of providing for us all, keeping us well fed and clothed, getting us to school on time and helping with our homework, teaching us bout family life and going on some wonderful adventures.

The book I’m currently reading tells the story of a family that had eight children at home. They had a girls’ bedroom, a boys’ bedroom and a bedroom for the parents. Both parents were immigrants and new to the United States, and they endured a lot of hardships and forged a wonderful family life.

We never had eight or even five children, but we were blessed with two. Not long ago I was talking with someone about my age about raising children and the other person asked me what age I enjoyed the most. I didn’t have an answer. I enjoyed all of the ages of our children. That is not to say that there weren’t sleepless nights and worries. There were. And there were challenges with certain phases of our children’s development. Our two were so different from each other that every day brought surprises and unexpected moments. I can say without a doubt that being a father is on of the best parts of my life. Since it is so wonderful for me, I naturally wanted for our children to have the experience of being parents. And, selfishly, I wanted to be a grandfather.

Before we ever had children, I told my wife that I thought I could be a good grandfather. I like making toys and I am fascinated by watching children learn and grow. Being a grandfather, however, is far better and more wonderful than I was able to imagine.

I’m treasuring and trying to hang on to all of the wonderful days we are having right now. We have had both of our children and all of our grandchildren close for three weeks and we have just one more week before our daughter and grandson will board the airplane to fly to South Carolina to move into their new home. Our son-in-law has gone ahead, settled details with the house they are buying, cared for the family dog and begun his work. He is eager to have his family together again. I understand that. I want them to be together, too.

But for one more week, I’m reveling in the incredible joy of having family close. Four grandchildren make our home the best place to be. Since we cannot go to church together with the restrictions of a pandemic. We decided to dress up for Sunday dinner anyway. I haven’t worn a tie since I retired, but I figured out how to get myself gussied up. The kids all have different notions of what is dress up clothes. After watching church on the computer, we sat down to a “fancy” lunch with cucumber sandwiches and pigs in a blanket and a platter of fruits and vegetables on toothpicks. We had a cake for dessert. We spent the afternoon playing games. There were soap bubbles and a soccer ball and playing catch in the back yard. There were crafts and finger painting and I had time to work with our oldest grandson on a model airplane he is making. There was a silly charades game and a board game where marbles roll in a three dimensional maze. The younger children had a tea party and invited a host of stuffed animals and toasted with play dishes and imaginary food.

I laughed and laughed and laughed.

2021-03-01-B
Since we all got dressed up, we took family pictures. These aren’t the kind of pictures that a professional photographer would make in a studio. These are family snapshots. Now that we all have digital cameras and phones that take pictures, we get instant gratification. For most of the afternoon, I had a slideshow of pictures we had taken that day to which I added images as I took them and as others sent me pictures from their phones. In the evening after our son’s family had returned to their house and our youngest grandson had gone to sleep upstairs, I sat at my desk and watched the images flash across the screen. It was the same screen on which we had watched church. Watching family pictures was a moment as sacred as worship had been in the morning.

I’m reluctant to post pictures of our grandchildren on the Internet, but I have permission from our children to do so in my journal. Still, I’m cautious. I’m not going to be a Facebook granddad who is constantly displaying images of his grandchildren to strangers. I think, however, that the number of people who read my journal is fairly small and most of them are our friends. After all, you have to wade through a lot of words to get to a small number of pictures in my journal. As I write this morning, I know that a couple of pictures from yesterday say more about my state of mind than any words I could find.

I am a very fortunate and privileged person, who is delighted to be able to live in a multi-generational family. And I’m a silly grandpa who is totally smitten by his wonderful grandchildren.