November 2021

The book of hope

Doug Abrams wrote of his work, “My value as a writer is ‘truth hunting’ - the adventure of life and finding the secrets of how to live a good and meaningful life and how to create a wiser, healthier, and more just world.” It might be easy to dismiss such a bold claim if it came from another source, but I’m inclined to pay attention to what Doug Abrams writes.

I first encountered Doug Abrams through the book he co-wrote with the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu, The Book of Joy. In April 2015, Archbishop Desmond Tutu traveled to the Dalai Lama’s home in Dharamsala, India, to celebrate His Holiness’ eightieth birthday and to create what they hoped would be a gift for others. They looked back on their long lives to answer a single burning question: How do we find joy in the face of life’s inevitable suffering? Into that intimate and far-reaching conversation about peace, courage and joy, they invited Doug Abrams, who collected their stories and conversation, and the power of their shared spiritual practices over a week’s meeting. The resulting book was a powerful message about the meaning of life and the call to live for others. I read the book together with other clergy in South Dakota and delighted in our conversations. I was moved by Abrams’ way of being present and bringing us into a realm we might never have otherwise entered.

Now - as I scan the local news about record-setting flooding which has returned to the upper Nooksack and the community of Sumas and other places within our county; as the Omicron variant promises an extension of complexity and length to the global pandemic that has captured our attention for nearly two years; as the climate crisis threatens the lives, homes and health of people around the world; as scientists warn us of the catastrophic effects of the loss of biodiversity; as political upheaval in our country has resulted in major political leaders advocating for an abandonment of democracy; as we experience the first week of Advent in the midst of all of this discouraging news - this week I have discovered another book in which Doug Abrams has collaborated with a famous person.

The book is titled The Book of Hope and it is the report of Abrams’ conversation with Jane Goodall. It is the second book in what Abrams’ web site calls the Global Icons Series. Jane Goodall has already established herself as a leader in humanity’s exploration of hope with her memoir, published two years ago, Reason for Hope: A Spiritual Journey. The only thing that is keeping me from rushing right out to buy a copy of the book is the knowledge that our local independent bookseller is having a giving day for our church in one week when customers who designate our church when making a purchase will result in a donation of 10% of the purchase price to our congregation. We use the credit from those donations to purchase books for our church library, and to fund projects such as our church one book series.

Here I am, writing in my journal a glowing review of a book I have not yet read, while I am so far behind in writing reviews of the books I have read that the books section of this web site is down for a re-vamping. Life has its little ironies. Still, I can’t wait to get my hands on this book.

It wasn’t surprising to me that Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama found in their deep connection and friendship great joy. They are, after all, recognized spiritual leaders. Archbishop Tutu’s lifelong practice of the Christian Faith and the Dalai Lama’s deep commitment to providing spiritual leadership to the world’s Tibetan Buddhists give both men the capacity to reach deep into their spiritual practices and traditions to bring forth a joy that is much more than a passing emotion. My own journey in Christianity has been a source of great joy and I have sensed that joy in others. It is, however, a bit of a surprise that we in the religious community are needing to look a bit outside of our own circles of leaders to encounter the source of hope.

The apostle Paul wrote that three spiritual gifts - faith, hope and love - remain. Hope is the focus of the first week of Advent. Hope is a central element of our faith and practice. And yet, if you listen to much of contemporary preaching these days, it is hard to detect the notes of hope.

Walter Brueggemann writes of the prophets that they brought both harsh critical truth-telling and hope to the people of Israel. That combination is rare. There are many false prophets and few genuine prophets in each generation. I’ve heard quite a few sermons where preachers are boldly proclaiming truth in what some have called a “post truth” society. But that unique combination of truth and hope is elusive. I don’t know how long it has been since I left a worship service with a deep sense of renewed hope. With all of the talk of climate crisis, the needs of those who have no homes, the grief of the pandemic, and the failure of politics, it is easy to travel a bit close to despair as the challenges of this world are presented to us in carefully researched and well-chosen words.

Perhaps we have always lived on the edge of despair. Seeking the truth and avoiding deception means that we have to be realistic about the threats and dangers of this world. We are called to name the evil we see. Perhaps it is not an accident that we are called on the first week of each year in our Christian calendar to focus our attention on hope. And if a renowned scientist collaborating with a brilliant writer promises a bit of hope to us, we should not be afraid to pay attention.

I am eagerly looking forward to reading the book.

Milk and honey

In the story of Exodus in the Bible the people of Israel are promised that they will come to a land flowing with milk and honey. The phrase has come to be interpreted as a promise of a land that is rich and abundant where the people will live with joy. In other ancient literature, milk is sometimes a symbol of fertility and the promise of new generations of families. Honey is a symbol of delight and pleasure. I think of that promise nearly every day because I have a habit of preparing myself a cup of chai tea with a bit of steamed milk and some honey for sweetener nearly every day. I used to get up and make coffee first thing upon rising, but a few years ago a concern over an irregular heart rhythm and a conversation with my doctor about what lifestyle choices I could make to help my overall health resulted in a decision to cut back on caffeine. I found a decaffeinated Masala Chai that I enjoy and instead of drinking several cups, as was my habit with coffee, I prepare a single cup which I sip and enjoy after I have finished my breakfast as I begin my work for the day. Some days I drink the tea quickly. Other days I’m slower to consume it. Yesterday, I got busy as soon as I arrived at the church and more than half of my tea sat in the cup and I didn’t get to it until nearly 2 pm. It is a good thing that I have a double walled stainless steel cup that keeps its contents warm.

There is something about the milk in the tea that enhances the flavor and perhaps softens the impact of the cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, cloves and star anise. Honey adds just the right amount of sweetness. I associate hone with health as well. As a young man I received desensitization treatment for allergies and after a long period of allergy injections, my allergist advised me that a moderate amount of local honey might continue the desensitization process. It didn’t take much of a recommendation and I started using honey as a sweetener and have enjoyed it ever since. Not long ago I joined the Mount Baker Beekeepers association. As I learn more about the process of caring for honey bees in anticipation of one day becoming the steward of a colony of bees, I am even more appreciative of the sweetness of the nectar.

A little sweetness in life is a pleasure and I understand how the ancients associated joy with honey. Another sweetener that has a place in our usual stock of staple foods is maple syrup. When we managed our church camp we were very careful to control costs and to produce food for our campers without incurring excessive expanses. As a result we made breakfast syrup out of brown sugar and water with a bit of maple flavoring added. It seemed to satisfy the campers, but it didn’t come close in flavor and richness to genuine pure maple syrup. These days, with the benefit of a retirement budget that is not quite as tight as some other phases of our lives, I indulge in the luxury of a small bottle of pure maple syrup for occasional pancake breakfasts, usually when our grandchildren are sleeping over at our house or when we are camping with family.

There are plenty of people who measure the economy in part by comparing the price of gas to other times. I, too, have noticed that the price of fuel is higher than it was a few years ago. Fortunately for us, our recent moves have resulted in a decrease in our driving, so the high prices don’t impact us as much as they did when we were doing a lot more driving. Since high prices tend to affect my purchase decisions, I’ve been thinking that the high price of fuel might be a good thing for me, as it forces me to think carefully about how much I drive. So far, however, I don’t think it has had much of an effect on my lifestyle. The high prices have, however, gotten the attention of politicians who are constantly striving to gain popularity with voters. Under pressure from several advisors, our President has decided to tap the nation’s strategic fuel reserves as a way of increasing the supply of fuel and thereby gaining some drop in prices. It is a tactic that presidents have used before with some success.

All of the attention given to fuel prices and strategic fuel reserves might have diverted attention to some people from another shortage that recently caused a national leader to order a draw down of strategic national reserves. In case you missed it, the Canadian federation that controls nearly three quarters of the world’s maple syrup production recently announced that it will release about 50 million pounds of maple syrup from its emergency stockpile - almost half of the reserve - to keep the rich sweetener flowing to breakfast tables around the world. One doesn’t normally think of Québécois as folk who are willing to sacrifice their savings for the benefit of others, but this sacrifice of the reserves for the sake of a stable syrup price seems to demonstrate a remarkable generosity. I suppose you could raise the question of why the price of maple syrup on the world market is controlled by a Quebec cartel in the first place, but I’m no economist and often don’t understand questions about finances that being with the word, “why.”

Hélène Normandin, spokeswoman for the federation sometimes referred to as the OPEC of maple syrup, recently said, “The pandemic helped in our case because we’re seeing people cook more at home and use more local products.” However, I am thinking that if the price of the bottle of sweetener on the shelves of my local grocery store is controlled by a cartel in Quebec, it hardly qualifies as a local product.

So I guess I’ll use my maple syrup sparingly and stick to honey as my primary sweetener. I may not have discovered a land flowing with milk and honey, but I do savor a regular cup of tea flavored with the promised blessings.

Life is good. I am blessed.

Advent begins

Once again Advent has come. This is our second Advent of the Coronavirus Pandemic. It is a second year of disruptions in our lives and our ways caused by a rapidly-spreading illness. There was a time when I thought that part of my job as a preacher was to help people to understand and associate with how radical the hope of the Messiah had become in the time before the birth of Jesus. People had been talking about the Messiah for generations. The idea circulating among faithful people at least since the time of the prophets was that God would come to redeem Israel in a dramatic way. But year after year passed with the people experiencing layer upon layer of oppression and autocratic rule. Even after the people began to trickle back from the exile, foreign governments continued to rule over Israel. The tiny nation was passed back and forth between world powers, but never granted its own autonomy. The hope of a religious solution to the political problems of the country seemed far-fetched. The donation of the wealthy over the poor seemed too entrenched to be overcome. Hope could not be based in easily-observable phenomena. People had to reach for hope that defied what they could see.

That deep-seated longing somehow seems more obvious this year, as we come to Advent bracing for the worst as a new variant of Covid-19 spreads in a widening circle of nations, sparking frantic talks, travel bans, new quarantines and rules. Israel, the modern nation built on the principle of hospitality, is expected to put in place a total ban on foreigners entering the country today.

We are longing for some kind of return to what we think of as normal - some kind of return to the way things were before the pandemic. Will we forever be wearing face masks and unable to see the smiles of our friends and neighbors? Will the fear of illness and death hang over us as more and more people become infected and more and more people die?

The first Sunday of Advent is the Sunday of hope and we are asking, “Where is our hope?” Maybe we understand the longing of the ancients better this year than ever before.

As we planned for this first Sunday of the new year in our church, we have been talking about the feeling of homesickness. Could it be that our longing for return is a sign of the beginning of our preparation for the incarnation? We often talk about Advent as a season of preparing. Perhaps our preparations are born of the longing that we feel. I never experienced much homesickness. I grew up at church camp, so my first experiences of being a camper without my family took place in a location that was familiar and beloved by me. My first summers of working away from home were at my cousin and uncle’s farm where I had long believed that I belonged. I do remember a sense of a radical change that came from my first semester of college - a feeling that there was no going back now that I had moved out of the town where I was born and raised, but it is hard for me to describe that feeling as homesickness. When we moved to Chicago for graduate school, I knew that I only had to endure nine months of the city before we would be back in the mountains for summer. Even now, as an old man who has moved away from the Black Hills of South Dakota, the longing I sometimes feel for the familiar isn’t something I would describe as homesickness.

Maybe the analogy of homesickness falls a bit short for me personally, but I can identify with the longing for a world free from pandemic, ever spreading mutations and variations of the virus, and the persistent fear of others becoming ill. It is perhaps that longing that is the starting point for the season of Advent for me this year.

There was a time when Advent was longer in the church calendar - it started as a six-week season, just like Lent. It was, for the faithful, a long stretch of praying, fasting, study and self-denial in preparation for full membership in the church. That season was later shortened to the four weeks we now observe, but the sense of watching and waiting remains.

It is pretty clear, however, that we live in a culture that doesn’t like to wait for anything. I stopped by Tractor Supply to pick up a few small pieces for our son’s farm yesterday and there were Christmas carols blaring throughout the store. The bells of the Salvation Army are ringing from the doorways of the grocery stores. Our neighborhood was lit up with Christmas lights before Thanksgiving. People don’t want to wait. They want Christmas to come right now. Just being patient and waiting is a counter-cultural discipline for Christians in our culture where the Valentines Day displays are already in the storerooms of the shops ready to go out on December 26.

it seems right to allow Advent to begin slowly this year. I am looking forward to Christmas with its family gatherings and special treats for children, but I am willing to wait. We got out our Christmas boxes yesterday so that we would have our Advent wreath to light a candle this evening, but it will just be a single candle, not string upon string of lights adorning the outside of our home. I’m not ready to rush to Christmas. There is so much to think about, so much to consider, so much to ponder. It is going to take time.

Our hope is a light to our lives, a light that shines in the darkness of a world that has been obsessed with Black Friday. It is a light that reminds us that Coronavirus is not the only truth of this world. That light shines in the darkness. The darkness will not overcome it.

Sorting paper ephemera

When we were in graduate school, we were invited to share Thanksgiving dinner with a second cousin of mine who lived in a suburb of Chicago. We were living a long way from home and hungry for family contact and enjoyed our dinner despite the fact that the relatives were fairly distant and not well known. As we were visiting we learned that they had a box of fancy dinnerware that had belonged to our host’s mother, a great aunt of my mother whom I had known from family gatherings. They, especially the wife, were eager to dispose of the large box of china. She had checked the value of the dishes and found that it was a fairly common pattern and it would be difficult to sell and if sold would bring a low price. Somehow, we ended up accepting the box and its contents as a gift. We were students living in an efficiency apartment. We didn’t have cupboard space for the dishes. The box went into a storage area in the basement of our apartment building. We did, however, find a couple of occasions during our student years when we got out the china and used it for special dinners. Later, when we had a home of our own, we found space for it in a cupboard.

Many years later, after Susan’s mother passed away, we became the owners of the fancy dishes that she had collected. Now we had two sets of fancy dishes. Fortunately for us, we were able to give the first set of china to the daughter of a cousin who was newly wed. We now have only one set of fancy dishes. That set resides in a box in storage at present, but there is some hope we may find a home for it in our house as we settle.

I recently read an article in Forbes that listed “ten things that your children don’t want.” On that list was fine dinnerware. The article challenged, “As yourself, when was the las time you witnessed your grown son using a saucer?” Point taken. Furthermore, the article went on to say that most people our age have at least one set of fine dishes that no other family member wants to have. It suggested that the best way to dispose of the dishes is to find a replacement company that buys per piece.

I know that fancy dishes don’t bring much money. I’ve watched a lot of church rummage sales where the pieces are sold for pennies on the dollar of the original price. The greatest value we will get our of dishes is that of using them ourselves and remembering those who have gone before us who valued them. The day will likely come when we have to say good bye to them and we aren’t likely to find a family member who wants them.

According to Forbes, silver flatware is in the same category. Formal entertaining isn’t a priority for our children’s generation. Besides, real silver has to be hand-washed and dried and then polished. The same goes for silver-plated trays, candy dishes, serving bowls and candelabra. Objects that have been valuable to our generation and, often to our parents and grandparents, are likely not going to be treasured by our children and grandchildren.

The list of objects that our children don’t want includes Persian rugs, antique furniture, especially furniture with dark wood, and linens. No worries for us with the linens. We don’t have any fancy linens. Our old sheets are pretty much threadbare and we use our towels and the few tablecloths that we own. We haven’t much to give away in that department. Furniture, on the other hand, is a challenge for us. We own several pieces that have been in the family for multiple generations. We didn’t pay to obtain them, we received them as a gift from parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles. We are well aware that we own few true antiques that have monetary value. Still, it seems sad to think of these things leaving our family.

I giggled at the suggestion of the Forbes article that the way to dispose of collectables is to find a retirement home that does a gift exchange at Christmas and donate the collections to them. I’m not sure, but I don’t think that there are any nursing homes that have any interest in my collection of John Deere toys. I think that their best value is probably to allow the grandchildren to play with them when they come to visit, knowing that the paint will get rubbed off and some of the small parts will be broken. I’ve already decided that I don’t want the chore of dusting row upon row of miniature tractors, combines and haying equipment as they sit on the edges of my bookshelves. Besides, I don’t have as many bookshelves as I used to have. There may not be room to display all of them. If I take the Forbes article seriously, I need to be thinking of a way to dispose of them. I’m pretty sure that the article is right and our children don’t want them.

Thrift stores are full of old trunks, used sewing machines and film projectors. We’ve got a couple of trunks, old, but not valuable as collectors items. They weren’t made by Louis Vuitton. And as for sewing machines, the only one in our house is regularly used and we need it. We do have a slide projector, but I have nearly finished scanning all of our slides into digital format ant I don’t think we’ve used that projector in at last ten years. It may be time for it to join the others at the local Good Will Store.

Forbes lists books as top among objects that we have that our children don’t want. As difficult as it was for me to downsize and give away boxes and boxes of books, it was a good exercise. I know I’ll have to go through a similar process each time we downsize in the future. I do, however, plan to have a few books around me even when I am down to a single room in a nursing home, or wherever I spend the last days of my life. Even if I loose my eyesight, my books have been my companions and it will feel good just to hold one in my hands. My leather bound bible that I used leading worship is sticking with me.

The category in the article that I loved the best, however, was what they called “Paper Ephemera.” It includes old photographs, greeting cards, post cards and other things written on paper. We’ve got boxes and boxes of the stuff. I think we have a small box of old greeting cards that were saved by relatives. We keep trying to sort it, but we always end up keeping some. For now, going through the boxes is keeping us entertained. I suppose our children may be able to throw away an entire box without sorting, but we can’t.

I’m not sure we can follow the recommendations of the article and get rid of all of the things we have that our children don’t want, but it is a challenge that will keep us engaged for years to come.

Role models

Some time ago, as part of an effort to gain perspective on the news, I started to read articles posed on the BBC web site. The BBC has a web site geared toward an American audience at bbc.com, but it also has a site more geared towards a British audience at bbc.co.uk. I prefer the second of those two. It has a few articles with a distinctly British outlook and I often find small culture pieces there that don’t appear on the other site. It doesn’t exactly make me a world citizen, but it does help me become aware of a different perspective on the news.

Sometime last week there was an article about Nick Fletcher, a Tory MP, who claimed, in a debate on International Men’s Day, that there is a link between men turning to crime and women playing traditionally male roles in TV and film. His comments stirred several other MPs to comment and to question the rationale behind his debate points. I usually ignore article about International Men’s Day because I simply have not experienced any discrimination or oppression because I am male. I don’t feel any need for a special day to draw attention to the plight of males because I have not experienced any plight. I am aware of certain privileges that have come to me because I am male, but I have little energy or enthusiasm for some kind of a males vs females competition.

The article caught my attention, however, because the claim made by Nick Fletcher seems to me to be so completely silly. He claimed that “female replacements” in shows like Doctor Who were robbing boys of good role models. “Is there any wonder we are seeing so many young men committing crime?” he asked. I wasn’t present for the debate and there is likely a lot that I am missing, but on the surface it seems to be just like a pre-adolescent child who always wants to blame someone else. “Sure there are more men who commit violent crimes than women, but it isn’t the fault of men. They turn to crime because women are assuming roles in television and movies. It’s really the women’s fault for doing so.” When our children make such arguments, we work hard to teach them to take responsibility for their own actions rather than blame others.

Blaming the victim, however, is a long-standing tradition in male-dominated societies.

Mr. Fletcher has no interest in my opinion, but to his argument, I offer a story that I recall frequently and always think of on Thanksgiving. One of the holiday traditions at our house is that I bake buns. I make simple bread rolls when we are planning a big dinner. I like to have the rolls with dinner, but even more, I like to have rolls for sandwiches with leftovers the next day. Besides, my mother was a baker and she baked rolls for holiday dinners. My treasured memory, however, doesn’t come so much from growing up in a home where my mother baked as from much later. When she was in her eighties, my mother came to live in our home. It was a very fun time for us and we enjoyed having her be a part of all of our activities. One Thanksgiving morning, I was up early, preparing dough for buns and she, being an early riser, was the only other person in the household who was out of bed as I kneaded the dough. “Where did you learn to do that?” she asked. Her question threw me. I couldn’t think of any other possibility than that I learned how to knead bread from her. When I told her that I had learned from her, she was a bit surprised. We laughed at the exchange later because I kept telling the story.

I suppose that it is possible that my mother gave formal lessons in baking to my sisters that she never gave to me. I was the first son born to my parents and I spent a lot of time with my father as I was growing up. I started going to work with him when I was quite young and I always went with him whenever he invited me. I learned lots of things about airplanes and working in a shop and using tools that my sisters didn’t learn. So I suppose my mother thought that I wouldn’t have learned as many things from her.

My point is, simply, that growing boys and girls need positive role models, but gender isn’t the most important part of being a role model. Women can be strong role models for boys and men can be good role models for girls. I know how to bake bread for our family. My sister is a good, safe driver. I’m pretty sure that she was taught to drive by our father. Our mother was also a good driver, but when it came time for formal driving lessons, our father took the lead. Women can learn from men and men can learn from women. That seems so obvious to me that someone claiming, in a public debate, that female actors playing roles previously plaid by men somehow is linked to increased rates of crime among men, is simply a silly and false argument.

Then, again, no one invited me to take part in the debate.

I grew up in a household and in a community with a lot of positive role models, both male and female. I didn’t have a male elementary teacher until I reached the seventh grade, but I don’t think that presented me with any problems. I didn’t grow up thinking that boys couldn’t become teachers. Most of my childhood Sunday School teachers were women, but it never stopped me from loving the role of a Sunday School teacher. I’ve taught church school classes for all of my adult life and I enjoy it to this day. I’m pleased and proud to be a faith formation minister in a congregation where the lead pastor is a woman.

So, mom, it was you who taught me to knead bread and I can’t do it without thinking of you. And that is a good thing. I’m fortunate to have had such good female role models for my life.

Thanksgiving 2021

I think that Thanksgiving is one of the holidays we do fairly well here in the United States. I know that our celebrations are often filled with fictional, or at least very incomplete, history about the arrival of the Pilgrims, and the cruelties of colonization. I know that in recent years, the holiday has become fraught with politics and divisions between people. I have heard the stories of families who won’t be getting together today because of the toxic divisions that have come to the fore in the past few years. For some families the list of topics to avoid is so long that they feel it is better to just call the whole thing off.

Abortion, guns, capital punishment - these are divisions over issues that go back decades. To that list you can add taking a knee, cancel culture, LGBTQ rights, critical race theory, policing, and, to top the list, the insurrection on January 6, and the “stolen election,” which wasn’t stolen, but that isn’t an argument you want to have on a day devoted to giving thanks. And if these fissures aren’t enough, brought to light by the 45th president of the country, there is the pandemic that forced many families to celebrate separately last year and this year has become a topic to avoid in so many relationships.

Think about it. In some parts of our nation there were restaurants and bars that banned people from entering if they wore a face mask. We call this the land of the free, but in our land, there are some who would deny you the choice of wearing a face covering for you and others’ safety, because PPE has become political. Or consider the recent governor’s election in Virginia where the Republican pulled off a victory and where the Democratic candidate had a 14-point lead among those who had been vaccinated. We claim to be leaders in the world in science and technology and yet becoming immunized in the face of a deadly disease that has already killed 776,000 Americans is now an indicator of how you are likely to vote.

I get it, sort of. At least I understand the rancor that can divide families and make getting together to celebrate that which is good about life. And I know that there have always been divisions in our nation and disagreements that pull us apart. I know that Thanksgiving has meant hugely different things in our country if you come from indigenous or settler stock. I know that the celebration has been vastly different depending on which side of the sin of slavery your ancestors endured.

But I don’t really understand why we can’t set aside our differences for one day to simply express gratitude for all that is good and wonderful about the lives we live and the places where we have found ourselves.

I don’t want to make light of the hardships and suffering that has come out of the massive flooding in our county and in the country just north of where we live. There are families who cannot be in their own homes this Thanksgiving and who won’t be able to return to them for months. There are dairy farmers who don’t know if they can obtain sufficient feed to keep their cows producing milk. There are communities where groceries are hard to obtain because of washed away highways and railroad tracks. But one thing that has happened here, for just a little while, is that people have set aside politics to help their neighbors. I’ve heard it said that once the water got deep enough to cover up the yard signs, neighbors helped neighbors regardless of their politics. I’m sorry it took a flood to get us to treat other civilly, but I’m glad that we are willing to do so.

There is so much for which I am grateful this Thanksgiving. I think of a friend and high-school classmate of whom we have said for decades, “He was born in the wrong generation.” He is the kind of guy who would have been a great cowboy had he been born in the 19th century. He is independent, self-sufficient, and knows how to survive in the mountains without a lot of mechanical devices. He is good with animals, can calm a nervous horse, and has the skills to survive a lot of inclement weather. He has no use for computers or the Internet. He doesn’t want to deal with banks and credit cards.

On the other hand, I believe that I am so fortunate to have lived my life in the particular slice of history where I found myself. I grew up in the days when the church was able to afford camps and outdoor ministries, which was particularly fortunate for me because I met my wife and life partner at church camp. I grew up in a time when studying philosophy and religion in college was possible and those of us who did so were able to find meaningful work for all of our careers. Today’s students can’t even find a philosophy professor, let alone an income sufficient to support a family if they choose to study the humanities. I came into adulthood in a time when it was acceptable to marry before you had nailed down your career and when no one expected you to achieve financial stability before starting a family. As a pastor, my time in the church was a particular phase in the story of religion in America when the life of a pastor was compatible with raising children and one didn’t need to have a partner with a “real job” to support one’s passion for the church and its ministries.

So on this Thanksgiving I give thanks for my family of origin and for the family we have become with the spouses of our children and our grandchildren and a network of relatives whom we love and with whom we enjoy sharing our time. I give thanks for our safety in a sometimes precarious world. I give thanks for the gift of health in a country that has such a broken health care system that only works for those who have money. And I give thanks for neighbors, even those whose politics I can’t understand.

Happy Thanksgiving to you. I pray that you will find an opportunity to lay aside the things that divide us and give thanks for the goodness we can share.

Howdy y'all!

Our son did his graduate work at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. When he was a student there, I proudly had a UNC sticker in the back window of my pickup and I enjoyed ribbing a friend of mine who graduated from Duke, saying, “No matter where you go in this world, when you look up at the sky on a cloudless day, you’ll see Carolina Blue.” Another joke phrase that I used at that time went something like this: “After raising our children in the deep southern culture of SOUTH Dakota, we decided that in order to be fully educated we needed to send our son up north for some Yankee culture, so we sent him to NORTH Carolina.”

I suppose that part of the reason I made jokes about it is that I have very little direct experience with the American South. I’ve been to church meetings in Texas, Florida and Georgia and when our son was a student at UNC, we made two road trips from South Dakota to North Carolina. This past summer we drove to South Carolina where our daughter now lives. Most of our lives, however, we and the majority of our relatives have lived in the northwestern part of the US. My father, my wife and both of our children were born in North Dakota. I, my mother and my siblings were born in Montana. And now we live in the northwestern corner of Washington, which is about as far northwest as you can go in the United States without heading to Alaska.

Our daughter is the person in our immediate family with the most experience with southern culture. Her husband was born and raised in Virginia. They lived in Missouri for five years. And now they have moved to South Carolina. We noticed that as soon as they moved to Missouri our daughter began to use the term “y’all.” After five years in Missouri it was so much a part of her vocabulary that we weren’t surprised during the next five years of her life when we received her greetings from Japan with the phrase.

I like that phrase. It seems to carry a sense of what is good about the American South - a sense of down-home hospitality and comfortableness with other people. When I try to use a fake southern accent, something at which I am no good at all, I make frequent use of the phrase. Don’t y’all love it when you hear y’all? Since I’ve lived my whole life with a short name, I enjoy going down south where my name has two syllables. Y’all call me Ta-ed down south.

Recently, however, I noticed one of my friends chiding an Australian friend for using the phrase on social media. “Are y’all trying to masquerade as an American?” It seems to me that if Yankees and now even Australians are using the term, it is well on its way to becoming a part of mainstream English. After all, it does appear int he Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary which points out that the correct spelling is y’all, not ya’ll. Once the OED starts correcting your spelling, you know you’ve gone beyond a regional dialect. But then y’all knew that already.

I don’t think I use the term in my writing very much, but I do find the phrase slipping into my conversation more and more. For the most part, I have simply used the plural you when I address a group of people. I used to occasionally use “you guys,” but I associate that phrase with the northeast, particularly parts of New York City, and I’ve never wanted to sound like I came from that particular city. I don’t have anything against New York, I’m just not a New Yorker despite my enjoyment of the magazine with the city’s name.

However, my consciousness of the positive nature of the phrase y’all has recently been raised by the use of it as a mantra by LGBTQ+ groups. “Y’all means all” is a way of encouraging the use of the phrase because it includes people of all gender identities as opposed to “you guys,” which is distinctly male in gender even though like y’all, it has been used to refer to groups of women or groups of mixed gender. There is definitely as sense that using “you guys” to refer to a mixed gender group emphasizes some members while excluding others. Being more conscious about my language choices probably means that I will use y’all more often.

I’m not worried about someone thinking that I’m from the south. Using a single phrase doesn’t constitute an accent. And I still use some particularly northern terms without thinking of them. Friends have often pointed out that I say “nort” when I say North Dakota and that i have a bit of midwestern twang when I refer to Minnesota (Minnesohtah). Seven winters of -30 temperatures have earned me the right to sound like the place left an impression on me.

I have noticed that our daughter has started to tweak the phrase. In a recent conversation she was commenting about how our house is starting to look like we are getting moved in by saying “y’all’s house is looking good.” I sort of thought that y’all is already plural, but I guess it might have a plural possessive, though y’all’s doesn’t quite roll off of my lips yet. So far, I don’t remember our daughter using “all y’all” (“I’m talking to all y’all).

Somewhere I read that British Airlines, Japan Airlines and Lufthansa have dropped the term “ladies and gentlemen,” from their cabin announcements, encouraging their employees to use the terms “everyone” or “attention all passengers.” I can imagine a cabin announcement on a Southwest Airlines flight beginning with, “Howdy, y’all,” but that isn’t the phrase I expect to hear on Japan Airlines anytime soon. As far as I know the Japan rail system still has “Ladies and gentlemen” as the address of its English language announcements.

I thank y’all for putting up with this little essay. I think I'm going to be using the phrase more often and if y’all start hearing it from a guy from Washington, y’all will know it is becoming standard American English fo’ sure!

Paint, paint, paint

Part of buying a home that someone else has owned and lived in is that there will be he need for some paint touch-up. It may be a place where a picture or other wall art was hanging and the previous owner used hollow wall fasteners to insert screws into the drywall. Perhaps a pet left behind a bit of damage to woodwork or paint. A room may have been freshly painted, but the process of moving furniture left a mark on a wall. There are lots of different reasons for paint touch-up in everyday living. The thing about purchasing a new-to-you home, however, is that matching colors can be a significant chore.

We have been in our new home for more than a month and yesterday I had a breakthrough of sorts. I found the right color to match the paint that was used for hallways and a couple of the main rooms in our house. It came after a significant amount of searching. The walls are a color I describe as light gray, though when I found the correct paint, the official name of the color is some form of silver.

The challenge in finding the correct paint has to do in part with the fact that the former home owner left behind dozens of cans of paint. Amazingly, a lot of them are shades of gray. After failing to find the correct color on my first four attempts, I went over to the shop at our son’s farm and cut myself a couple of dozen stir sticks. I then started opening cans of paint, stirring the contents, and then dipping a popsicle stick in the paint and allowing it to dry. The painted sticks, which didn’t come from popsicles, but are sold as craft sticks that I use to stir small batches of epoxy, were used to compare colors. After creating sample sticks of nine different shades of gray paint, I finally found the correct color. I went around the house painting the spots where I had filled holes with sparkle, in hallways, in the dining room, living room, and entryway of the house. Success! It was the ninth shade of gray that I stirred. No home needs nine colors of gray paint, but we have them.

That is if you don’t count the three spots on the downstairs bathroom wall where that particular shade of gray isn’t the right match. After that paint dried, I got out the popsicle sticks and tried to compare again. So far, I have found two more colors of paint that are wrong, but haven’t found the correct shade yet. I’d like to have a conversation with whoever thought that the bathroom needed to be a different color than the hallway. I’m tempted to simply go ahead and paint the bathroom to match the hallway if I can’t find the correct color.

It is important that homeowners be very careful about the disposal of paint. Paint that is buried in landfills can leech into the ground and contaminate ground water. Over the years there are some paints that contained lead and other toxic chemicals. Furthermore, if it is donated before it gets too old, places like Habitat for Humanity Restore locations will accept donations of paint. For oil-based paints, most communities have systems for properly disposing of paints that may contain toxins.

I don’t know what was going through the mind of the seller of our home that resulted in them leaving behind a clean home with two dozen gallon cans, five or six quart cans, and three five-gallon buckets partially filled with paint. But I do have some personal experience with leaving behind paint. When we sold our home in Rapid City, there was a bit of extra paint left behind. First of all, I left on the shelves cans with touch-up paint from the rooms in the house. Because we had lived in the house for 25 years, we had painted all of the interior rooms over the years. In contrast to the home we just bought, each can of paint was clearly labeled with which room it matched. Then there were several cans of exterior stains, some of which were no longer the current color of the house. I labeled the current exterior colors, but ended up leaving behind older cans of stain. Before moving, I called the local landfill for instructions for disposing of old stains. They said that they should be brought to a community toxic waste day. I asked when the next such day would be. They gave me an April day. Since it was October, I explained that I was selling my home and would not be around in April. I asked if there was any other way to responsibly dispose of the stain. The person at the landfill said, “Most homeowners simply leave them in the home when it is sold.”

So that is what I did. I’m not proud of it, but I failed to find another solution. I’m resolved not to leave a similar situation when I move from this house. I’m going to get on top of sorting all of this paint and disposing of all of the paint that is not needed for touch up. I’m also working hard to label the paint that I am keeping so it can be used for touch-up without having to go through can after can to find the right color. The fingerprint of paint intentionally left on the lid of the can by the paint store is insufficient to match colors, especially when there are several shades of similar colors. I’m pretty sure “Southwest Bedroom” is clear enough to identify where the paint goes.

Some of the lighter shades of paint can be mixed together and used for primer for new construction by Habitat for Humanity. Other colors can be sold at greatly discounted prices at the Restore. And, if I have some paints that can’t be donated, I’ll check with local authorities and figure out where it can be responsibly disposed of. This time, I won’t have the deadline, so if I have to wait, I can be patient.

And, when I paint an entire room, which I’ve already done with one room and I’m sure I’ll do with others in our time of home ownership, I’m going to choose a color that contrasts with all of the other colors in the house. It won’t be gray or silver. You can count on that.

Growing and learning together

A couple of days ago, I wrote about negative stigma attached to only children in my journal. Later that day, I mentioned the Adler quote that I included in the journal entry in conversation with my wife and son. Adler was an Austrian psychotherapist who described only children as pampered and wrote that parents who chose not to have more than one child were inflicting psychological harm on that one child. My wife was surprised at the quote and the attitude and asked me, “Where did you learn that?” I responded, “In psychology class in college.” She didn’t think that such a theory had much of a place in contemporary psychology and doesn’t remember having learned anything about psychologists that weighed in on family size.

The interesting thing about the conversation is that we both took the same introduction to psychology class in college, that we had the same professor and the same textbook. She took it one or two semesters before I. Furthermore, I didn’t take another psychology class in my undergraduate studies. To make matters worse from my perspective, we were competitive about grades in college, so I know that she got an A in that class while I got a B+. At least at the time that we took the class, the professor believed that she had done a better job of learning than I. The grades were based on a carefully designed scoring system of quizzes and tests, so there is evidence to back up the professor’s conclusions and the grades awarded. The grades may not have accurately reflected the actual learning that occurred, but they were fairly awarded.

Chances are good that she remembers more about general psychology than I. I tend to remember small details, individual quotes, and trivia while she tends to remember overall principles and concepts.

The conversation, however, reminded me of another important reality of my stage in life. Although I have grown and gained a great deal from experience and the constant exercise of my professional skills, my technical education is pretty far back in my life. I was 25 when I earned my doctorate and I’m over 68 now. Although I’ve participated in continuing education, post-doctoral studies and even done some additional degree work, my formal eduction took place a long time ago and there have been a lot of advancements in research and understanding since I was a student. Furthermore the development of computers and the World Wide Web has resulted in easier access to information and research, so today’s students are learning more content than was the case when I was a student and most of our research was done in the library.

I don’t remember evolutionary psychology as a field of study from any of my college experiences. I have only fairly recently begun to encounter articles that mention the work of evolutionary psychologists. The big names in psychology when I was a student were clinical psychologists, who worked with, studied and provided care for actual people. Educational psychologists focused primarily on human development and did their research in lab schools and other educational settings where there was some control of the subjects they observed. The ideas of human behaviors somehow being inherited, or hardwired in contemporary language, weren’t considered very much.

These days, psychologists frequently ask questions of why a particular human behavior exists and often they discover, or at least speculate, about evolutionary reasons for particular behaviors. The survival of the human species in the early stages of humanity favored communities and those who formed close relationships with others over lone individuals. Lone individuals had fewer opportunities to mate and reproduce, they had less support in times of famine or illness, and so those who lived in community became more successful. The urge to form deep and lasting relationships and to live in community are not the product of a single generation or our own notion of right and wrong as much as they are the result of many generations of human experience.

The theories of evolutionary behavior can be used to explain the development of moral codes and even religions. If evolution favors communities where the good of the group is valued over the good of any individual, altruistic behavior and even sacrifice of self for the good of the group becomes a positive moral choice. Other religious principles and practices have produced generations of people who have lived meaningful lives and passed on the stories of the past to their children.

Were I to return to college and begin studies all over, an unlikely event, I think I would be intrigued by studies of evolutionary psychology and invest more time in reading and learning about the insights that could be gained from understanding the evolution of human behavior. The study fascinates me and I may read more on the subject in years to come as I have a bit more time to follow my interests. Being a reader, I’ll probably find a few books at the library that deepen my understanding.

I might even discover that there is an evolutionary reason for my continuing curiosity and desire to study and learn. I know that I am happier when I have a bit of understanding not only of what motivates me, but also of why my friends and neighbors behave the way that they do. Learning about psychology helps me be more effective and satisfied in the work that I do and more connected as a citizen and member of the community. Deepening my capacity to understand others makes it easier for me to accept behaviors and lifestyles that are different from my own.

I haven’t yet come to a full understanding of why two people with decades of shared experiences retain different memories, but I have come to appreciate it a lot. I value Susan’s feedback and reactions more highly as time passes. I rely on her memories to reinforce my own and to give me a fuller picture of our past. I count myself as very fortunate to have a life partner with whom I shared so much of my student experience. Among other things, she helps me check my memory, which seems to be getting less, not more, accurate.

We’re still learning together.

Christ the King, 2021

One of the things about publishing my journal, as opposed to simply keeping a journal for private use, is that I worry a bit about repetition. I come by the worry about repetition naturally, after having been a preacher for 42 years of my life. Throughout my career, I followed the Revised Common Lectionary, a calendar of texts for worship, that is set in a three-year cycle. That means that throughout my career, the texts that formed the basis of my sermons repeated. My job as a preacher, however, was not just to read and reflect on the texts, but rather to enable the congregations I served to make connections between the texts and the lives they were living. While there are events in our lives that are based in tradition and repeated, our experience changes as we age and the meaning of these events continues to be fresh.

I know that I have written before in my journal about the last Sunday of the church year known as Christ the King or Reign of Christ. And I suppose that I could spend some time in preparation for today’s essay by going back through previously-published journal entries to see what I have written on this day of the year before. However, such research isn’t my style in writing personal essays.

If you find the topic of today’s journal to be repetitious, feel free to skip this one. There will be fresh topics in the days to come.

Unlike most of the days of the Christian Calendar, Christ the King, also known as Reign of Christ, is not an ancient holiday with its roots in the early church. It is a 20th century addition to the Christian calendar and has been observed in Protestant Churches for less than my lifetime. The festival began in the Roman Catholic church under the direction of Pope Pius XI in 1925. The pope was concerned about the destructive forces of the modern world: secularism in the west, the rise of communism in Russia and fascism in Italy and Spain, forerunners of the Nazism soon to overtake Germany. The intent of the festival was to celebrate the rule of Christ over all of the earth as a contrast to the totalitarian claims of these ideologies.

I suppose that the Roman Catholic perspective is different from that of Protestants, but from a Protestant point of view, it was more than coincidence that the day chosen by Pius for the recognition of Christ the King was the last Sunday in October, coinciding with the Protestant celebration of Reformation Sunday - a celebration with more ancient roots, but observed only in Protestant churches. It was seen by some Protestants as a kind of “Counter-Reformation Day” and generally not observed in Protestant churches.

After the Second Vatican Council in 1963, however, the Roman liturgy and calendar was reformed. Part of that reformation was moving the festival of Christ the king to the last Sunday of the Church Year, just before the first Sunday of Advent and the beginning of a new year in the Christian calendar. The effect of this move became more than an ecumenical gesture. The last Sunday of the church year already had a tradition of emphasis of thinking about the end of history, called “eschatology” by theologians. The combination of thinking about how God interacts with human history and celebrating the reign of Christ resulted in a revival of the festival’s original intention of celebrating the distinction between the teachings of the church and the aspirations of political leaders.

When the Revised Common Lectionary began to be adopted by Protestant Congregations in the late 1970’s, Christ the King became a part of the recognized liturgy for congregations that follow that pattern of readings. The texts chosen for this Sunday are an amalgamation of the epistle and gospel readings for the original October celebration of Christ the King and those for the last Sunday after Pentecost in the old Roman lectionary. in year B, the middle year of the lectionary and the year that ends with this Sunday, the gospel text for the old October Christ the King festival was adopted as the reading for the last Sunday of the year. It is the dialogue between Jesus and Pontius Pilate in John 18:33-37 in which Pilate asks Jesus if he is the king of the Jews.

That is probably way more detail than most members of contemporary congregations want to hear, but it seems especially relevant this year as we witness the turmoil in our own country over the conflicting ideologies and world views of a Trump-led Republican party and those of a very slim majority of centrist and left-leaning politicians. This division has affected families, is determining who will be included in family Thanksgiving celebrations this week, and created deep divisions in local communities and local politics. The verdict in the Kyle Rittenhouse case has generated deep acrimony and angry debate.

In contrast to this deep divisiveness in our country, the past week here in the Pacific Northwest has brought about a powerfully renewed sense of community as we have pulled together to help our neighbors deal with the effects of damaging floods, and continue to reach out to help those in communities cut off by landslides and destroyed highways and railroads. We have found a way to set aside our political differences and pull together as a community.

The basic idea of Christ the King, that there is a power in this world that more important than the politics of government, seems to be critical in these times. The symbol of the United Church of Christ is an acknowledgement of this concept. It is a cross on an orb with a crown at the top. The orb represents the globe - the entire world divided into three sections, as in opening of the Acts of the Apostles: “Then you will be my witnesses to testify about me in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” The crown at the top of the cross symbolizes the rule of Jesus, even from the cross over the political powers of this world.

As we celebrate today, we would do well to remember our charge not to submit to the totalistic claims of present political ideologies, but rather to live our lives in service to Jesus and all people as children of God.

Families large and small

I was the fourth child in our family. There were three sisters before I was born. And when I was 2 1/2 another brother was born. Then two more came. I shared a room with my brother. Later, when I was a bit older, we moved to a different room in our house where we had a set of folding doors that divided his end of the room from mine. I’ve almost always had a shared bedroom. For two years of my college education, I did have a private room with no roommate. Then I got married and I’ve had a roommate ever since.

I am not aware of anything that I missed by learning to share my space with another person.

A couple of blocks down the street from where we grew up was a family that had only one son. I can remember thinking that he was unlucky to be the only kid in his family, though I don’t really know why I thought that.

There is a stigma attached to only children. Negative stereotypes about only children include the belief that they are inflexible, shy, bossy and antisocial. Decades of careful research have demonstrated that those stereotypes have almost no basis in reality. Children that grow up without siblings grow up to be well-adjusted and productive adults.

At least one of the sources of the negative stigma attached to only children may have some basis in the work of G. Stanley Hall, a child psychologist of the late 1800s and early 1900s he asserted that only children were coddled and indulged and that they turned into hypersensitive and narcissistic adults. He is often quoted saying that being an only child is a disease in itself. His work was in some ways corroborated by that of Alfred Adler, an Austrian psychotherapist who described only children he treated clinically as pampered and wrote that parents who chose not to have more children were inflicting psychological harm on their one child.

Those ideas caught on and have become part of popular culture, which reinforced the stereotype. I grew up with “Leave it to Beaver,” a popular television show with two kids, well adjusted; “My three sons,” with three children, well adjusted; and “Dennis the Menace,” an only child who was a trouble-maker.

Most contemporary psychologists and decades of data, however, have revealed that only children score well in areas such as achievement, motivation, and personal adjustment.Toni Falbo and Denise Polit reviewed 141 different studies about only children and discovered that overall, “the review indicated that only children were comparable in most respects to their sibling counterparts.”

The stigma, and the research, are of interest to me because we have two children. One is the father of three with one more on the way. The other has one child and is likely to only have one child. We get to observe our grandchildren and compare two different families - one with an only child and the other with a sibling group. I am well aware of my bias, but so far, I have to say that all of our grandchildren are demonstrating intelligence, social skills, strong language development and other positive traits. In short they are delightful people. Our only child grandson is polite and quick to use “please” and “thank you” even though he is only 2 years old. Our sibling grandchildren tend to be a bit noisier and occasionally squabble amongst themselves, but they, too are polite and well adjusted socially.

Of course we will have decades to observe those grandchildren and our observations will never be objective. And if we only consider our grandchildren, our sample size is far to small to draw any conclusions about other children. We do, however, have jobs that bring us into contact with a lot of other children and so far, I have not found children to be more or less well adjusted based on the size of their families.

I’m of the opinion that Hall and Adler simply got it wrong. They applied cultural norms in a time when families had less control of family size and when large families were more common than ones with a single child. Their sample sizes are necessarily small because there simply weren’t many families with a single child. Furthermore, their practices led them to study children who were brought to them because of problems, developmental delays, or social maladjustment in the first place. Neither conducted any random studies of children in general.

There are a lot of other factors that have an impact on development and maturation in children. And many of those factors are far more influential and important than the number of siblings.

Having grown up in a family with lots of children, however, I am aware of how much I enjoy having children around. Last night our son and his family were at our house for dinner and the conversation at the dinner table was rich and varied. There was a bit of cross talk and a few times when multiple conversations were going on so that I couldn’t follow everything that was said. But there were also times when we were all listening to what one person was saying. The children were telling us about their report cards, which came home from school with them yesterday. Our son was talking about his week at work, during which he was doing more city work responding to flooding than library work for several days. We all were sharing things that made us thankful as we look forward to celebrating Thanksgiving next week.

There is something very special to me about having the dining room table full of people and the joy of a family meal, where we pass serving plates and share the stories of our lives over our dinner. I don’t know if I would feel differently had I grown up as an only child. I certainly don’t mind the quiet dinners with just Susan and I. I don’t feel lonely when our children and grandchildren are busy with their lives. I just really enjoy it when we do get together.

And I hope that they will continue to enjoy being together for the rest of their lives.

All you can eat

On Tuesday, I mentioned our grandson’s appetite, which sparked memories of when his father was a growing boy and able to eat a surprising amount of food. There an incident that has been getting a lot of comment in Chinese social media that again reminded me of growing children and their capacity to eat food, even though the incident doesn’t involve children at all.

In China, as is the case here in the United States, there are “all you can eat” restaurants. One restaurant, however, has banned a food live-streamer because the amount he can eat is costing the restaurant’s owner too much. The man, known as Mr. Kang, told Hunan TV that he was banned from the Handai Seafood BBQ Buffet in Changsha city after a series of binges.

He ate 1.5 kg (3.3#) of port trotters during his first visit and 4 kg (8.8#) of prawns on another visit. It is pretty obvious that this man is capable of eating enormous amounts of food. That kind of binge eating isn’t exactly good for your health, but the restaurant claimed to be a place where you can have “all you can eat.” It isn’t called “all that is good for you to eat,” or “all you should eat,” “or all a normal person can eat.” It is called “all you can eat.” Mr. Kang, apparently can eat more than the restaurant owner can afford. “Every time he come here, I lose a few hundred yuan,” he said. “Even when he drinks soy milk, he can drink 20 or 30 bottles. When he eats the pork trotters, he consumes the whole tray of them. As for prawns, usually people use tongs to pick them up. He uses a tray to take them all.”

The story of the conflict between the binge eater and the restaurant has garnered more than 250 million views on Weibo. Some commenters have said that the restaurant should not be an all-you-can-eat restaurant if they can't afford it. Others felt sorry for the restaurant owner.

There is a back story in the comic strip “Dilbert” by Scott Adams about Dilbert’s father who never appears in the strip, though his mother is a semi-regular character. At one point Dilbert had a girlfriend who asked about his father and learns that he is living at an all-you-can-eat restaurant because he still hasn’t consumed all that he can eat. If you think about it, there is something especially comical about a 24-hour-all-you-can-eat restaurant. I’m not sure such an institution exists, but in the fictional world of a comic strip, it makes a fun concept. If there is no closing time, all-you-can-eat might be interpreted by someone as all-you-can-eat over the span of days or even longer periods of time. One price, move in, and eat for the rest of your life.

A story that is told in my family, that i do not know the whole story and I don’t even know if it is true at all, tells of my great Uncle Ted, when he moved to California, participating in a banana eating contest. The way the story was told to me is that he ended up winning the contest even though there was another contestant who ate more than he because the other contestant got sick and died. I don’t know if this was a cautionary tale to warn children about the dangers of eating too much at one sitting or if this was an actual event. If you think about it, dying from the over consumption of bananas would be a terrible thing. At any rate, we were told that Uncle Ted didn’t like bananas and wouldn’t eat them as a result of the contest.

Who knows? He might have been a candidate for an all-you-can-eat restaurant in his younger years.

I’ve eaten a few meals in buffet restaurants that advertise all-you-can-eat. There is a lot of food, and you could, in theory, consume more value than the price paid for the meal. But I was raised on church pot luck dinners. And we raised our children on those buffets as well. You have to learn to take a reasonable portion and eat with some moderation to avoid over eating in such a circumstance.

As a pastor, I’ve witnessed several incidents when a child discovers that you can go back for additional portions and without drawing too much interest, specializes in a single favorite food. If, for example, you take only chocolate brownies, you can consume quiet a few, before you are discovered, if you only take one at a time. I think that both of our children had incidents at church pot luck dinners where their eyes were bigger than their stomachs and they took larger portions than they needed and the result was food waste. We try hard to avoid food waste at our house and we tried to teach our children to moderate their consumption. Learning about such things is part of growing up. I’m trying to be careful not to draw too much attention to our grandson’s appetite because I want him to learn to pay attention to his own body and eat because he needs food and not because he is getting attention for how much he eats.

As for Mr. Kang and the Handai Seafood BBQ Buffet, I guess they’ll have to work out their own relationship. The restaurant owner says he is banning all live-streamers from the restaurant. In doing so, he is in line with the Chinese government that is cracking down on eating influencers and is considering banning such videos altogether. President Xi Jinping called on people to “fight against food waste.”

I don’t understand why someone would want to make a video of themselves eating so much food in the first place and I don’t understand why someone would want to watch such a video. Perhaps that could be a new story line for Dilbert or another cartoon. Then again, I doubt if such a story line would hold my interest.

I’ll stick to trying to eat a bit less than I can. I’m pretty sure it would be good for my health.

Looking up

Susan, who walks with me every day, is used to my going off of the path. Sometimes I wander because something captures my interest. Yesterday I had us scrambling over logs and other flotsam on the beach because I was intrigued at the amount of things that had washed up on the shore during the recent rains and wind. Sometimes I wander because I am not looking where I am going. I’ve always had a tendency to look up at the sky. When I hear an airplane, I want to look and identify it. I learned to do so when I was a young child and my father earned our living by flying airplanes. The problem as I near 70 years of age is that looking up when I am walking sometimes affects my balance and my sense of direction. At times like that, it is good to have a walking partner who will reach out and gently guide me for a few steps while I refocus my vision and pay attention to where I am going.

You’d think that someone who is always looking at the sky might know a bit more about astronomy than I do. I’m interested in astronomy, but I am also a person who goes to bed quite early most evenings. So when the astronomers are peering skyward, I’m sleeping. Combine that with the simple fact that i’ve been more interested in identifying airplanes than stars and the result is a very limited awareness of the movement of stars and planets and other objects in the night sky.

I have, however, appreciated the fact that I have been able to see stars as I looked into the night sky before retiring for the past two nights. It is significant because clear skies were not a part of our experience over the weekend and during the early part of the week. A break in the rainfall has been very welcome as people dig out and clean up from the recent flooding.

I’m not likely to be able to see stars tonight, however, which is a minor disappointment because if we were to have clear skies, I would be able to see the lunar eclipse. The partial lunar eclipse will last for more than 6 hours. The last time a partial lunar eclipse lasted that long was in the year 1440, when the Incas were building Machu Picchu. The next time the earth will see a partial lunar eclipse that long will be February 8, 2669. Since I would have to live to the age of 715 years to see that one, it appears that tonight’s event is my once-in-a-lifetime chance to witness such a long eclipse.

It doesn’t seem likely that I will see it. The forecast for 10:02 pm, when the eclipse is supposed to start is for 99% cloud cover with and 81% chance of rain. Things should clear up slightly during the eclipse. At 4:03 am, when the eclipse will end, the forecast calls for 76% cloud cover and only a 19% chance of rain. At maximum eclipse, which occurs at 1:03 am, we are supposed to have 98% cloud cover. If the forecast is accurate, those who see the eclipse will be somewhere other than Northwest Washington. I think I’m safe in staying in bed and checking out the pictures on the internet the next morning. I’m pretty sure that even though this is a rare astronomical event, missing it isn’t going to disrupt my life that much.

There are plenty of people in our region who will be looking skyward today. The forecast of more rain isn’t exactly welcome. The ground is saturated and the rivers are running above flood stage. Fields remain flooded and there are a lot of people whose homes are still underwater. Damage from recent mudslides have cut off many communities. Just north of us, in British Columbia, a state of emergency has been declared. Roads and rail lines have been cut by landslides. There are many communities where essential commodities can’t get through. Even a small amount of additional rain could result in more landslides and flooding. With thousands of people evacuated to shelters, shortages of essential supplies could become critical in the next week. British Columbia Premier John Horgan said, “There’s not a person that hasn’t been affected or will not be affected by the events of this past weekend.” He also commented that British Columbia must “bring the seven billion other souls that live on this planet to understand that we need to act now . . . to protect us from these types of events that will happen in the future.” For Horgan, and the rest of us who live in this region of the earth, human-caused climate change is a reality that cannot be ignored.

As we warm up the atmosphere, we also warm up the oceans. That means that more water is evaporated and the atmosphere can carry more water. The result is atmospheric river events when a month’s worth of rain falls in a couple of days. Last week world leaders met in Glasgow for the COP26 climate conference. They discussed climate change and proposed policies to slow global warming. In a sense, however, their discussions were academic and distant from the problem. According to University of British Columbia atmospheric scientist Rachel White, we in the Pacific Northwest are living the reality of human-caused global climate change.

A few raindrops on my roof and a cloudy night isn’t going to cause any inconvenience or disruption for me. Although I might complain slightly about missing a direct look at the lunar eclipse, it isn’t as if I had been counting on viewing the eclipse. I probably wouldn’t have even noticed had not the websites I frequent mentioned the event. And while I’ll admit that the last two days of not needing my raincoat when I went walking were nice, I don’t suffer much from the weather around here. Our home is dry and most of the roads around here are cleared.

Moreover, when it is raining hard, I tend to look down and pay attention to where I’m walking, which keeps me from wandering off course too much.

Perspectives on the weather

I guess it is a matter of perspective. I spent more time than usual yesterday watching video clips and trying to figure out the impacts of the recent rains and wind. At one point, when our son was trying to figure out a route to come home after having spent the previous night in the town where he works due to road closures, I noted that the Washington Department of Transportation was listing 110 road closures in Northwest Washington. There were so many that it was hard to go through the list to obtain meaningful information about where you could and where you could not drive. A coupe of the closures affected places where we routinely drive. Since the official policy of our church is to close the building when the schools are closed, we decided to work from home and not venture out to places where we might be in the way or might be caught up in heavy traffic. Our son did make it home. A drive that normally takes 45 minutes took more than 3 hours because of backed up traffic around detours, but his trip was safe and he was glad to be home with his family for dinner.

Here is where the perspective comes in. I’ve seen a couple of interviews with officials where the term “the worst storm in a century” has been used. Since last summer’s heat wave was the “worst in a century” we have already been present for two “worst in a century” events by living here for one year. Neither of those “worst in a century” events seemed to us to be nearly as disruptive as a good South Dakota blizzard. In early October of 2013, Winter Storm Atlas dumped over 20 inches of snow and brought 60 mph winds to the Black Hills. We were without electricity at our home for several days and it took three or four days to get dug out so we could go to town. Our lives were disrupted a bit, but we were never in real danger. We did lose some trees in our yard, but they did not fall on the house. We had plenty of groceries, and by carefully managing our refrigerator and freezer, we didn’t lose any food during the power outage. We still had a land line phone, which kept working even though our cordless phones didn’t work due to the lack of electricity. We figured out how to charge our cell phones from our car batteries.

The record rainfalls, mudslides, closed roads and power outages of the past few days simply didn’t have much impact on us. Our home never lost its electrical power. Our neighborhood storm drains worked without any problems. There was water over the roads in several places, but we could find out which areas to avoid before we headed out. And we were able to stay home for most of a couple of days while things were straightened out.

If our home had been one of the ones under water, however, we would have a different perspective. If we had been one of the people who spent the night in their cars because they were out on roads that got cut off by landslides and flooding, we might describe the storm differently. The office manager at our church was charging cell phones and other devices at the church yesterday because they do not have electricity at their home. There are some shelters that are full of people who cannot return to their homes and whose homes won’t be livable for a long time due to flood damage.

Fortunately, the storm has not resulted in many serious injuries. There is a report of a missing person in our county and there are reports of several who died and who are missing in British Columbia, just to the north of where we live. People can survive wading in the water when it is 48 degrees outside and there is the possibility of drying out after a little while of being wet.

I don’t want to minimize the losses which are very real. It is just that it is difficult to compare various events. Is a blizzard more dangerous than a rainstorm? It isn’t if you are in a car that is being swept off of the highway by a mudslide. It is a matter of perspective.

In the Bible, the number 40 is used in symbolic ways. Sometimes it is used to describe a very long time. 40 years of wandering in the wilderness was another way of saying that a generation passed without the people of Israel having a permanent home. 40 days and nights of rain is a way of saying that no one could remember there ever being so much rain before or after. We use different words to describe the weather in our time. We say, “the worst storm of the century,” without being clear whether we are indicating the worst storm in 100 years or the worst storm in the last 21 years. There is a big difference, but mostly what we are trying to say is that the event is dramatic and that for some people things are pretty bad.

After a major weather event, we continue to tell the story for a long time. I’m still telling the stories of Atlas eight years later. I’ll tell about the floods of November 2021 for the rest of my life, I suppose. Our people have been telling great flood stories and tales of Noah’s ark for millennia. Memory researchers tell us that the stories that we tell most often are usually the ones that we exaggerate the most. Absolute historical accuracy isn’t the only value in good storytelling. It is hard to tell a story with the emotions involved because we don’t remember emotions with complete accuracy. When we tell the story, our emotions are muted from what we experienced in the actual event.

Susan and I like to say that we are intrepid. It comes from our dedication to walking whatever the weather. We walk every day and sometimes we walk in the rain or in heavy winds or in the snow, though less so now that we have moved. It is our way of saying that we have survived some major weather events. We are intrepid.

As far as i know they haven’t given a name to the storm that has passed after dumping all of that rain. I guess we’ll just call it the flood of ’21 and get on with our lives.

Rain Day

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I guess it is still officially autumn, but the last few days have made it feel a bit like we are entering our second winter in the northwest. One of the things about our first winter was that our snow shovel didn’t get much exercise. We did get one snowfall and I went right out and shoveled our walk and driveway, though it wasn’t much of a chore. I also noticed that I was the only one to shovel in our neighborhood. People around here pretty much just wait for the snow to melt and, as it turns out, it was pretty much melted by the end of the day. I’ve kept the snow shovel, however, and have it handy in our garage in preparation for this winter. After all, we’ve moved farther north, and one might expect it to snow a bit more here than it did in Mount Vernon, where we lived last winter.

It seems a bit of a shame that the kids don’t get snow days as bonus vacation from school, but we’ll see. It probably doesn’t take much snow to get them to cancel school around here. And, yesterday, we found out that they get something that never happened in South Dakota and never happened when I was a school child in Montana. They got a rain day! Schools were cancelled in our district yesterday due to flooding roads, and there will be no school at the school our grandkids attend today, either. Bruce Road, on the route that they take to go to and from school, is under water too deep to drive through. There also is no school in Bellingham today, which means that the church where we work is officially closed for the day. We can, of course, still get to the church and might go in to do some of our work today, but there are streets closed in Bellingham and we’ll have to see. Our regular staff meeting is held on Zoom, so we can participate in that from home.

The good part of a rain day from school is that we got some bonus time with our grandchildren yesterday. Their mother had a mid-day appointment that she was able to keep and Monday is her usual grocery shopping day, so the kids came to our house while she took care of those chores. She didn’t run into any trouble getting around except that the entrance to the parking lot at the grocery store was flooded, so she had to go around a different way to get to the store and she ended up doing part of her shopping in a less familiar grocery store.

Meanwhile, we had grilled cheese sandwiches and played Uno and the grandkids helped Susan bake chocolate chip cookies which was a pretty good bonus for us. I remember one day, when our son was pre-teen, I was at home when the kids got home from school and put out the usual snack. School lunches are fast - they are over in 20 minutes - and our kids came home from school hungry, so we always had a snack. On this particular day, I set out the jug of milk because our son was old enough to pour a glass for himself. Then I just watched as he drank 5 glasses of milk. I was amazed that he could hold that much! Well, yesterday was a bit of deja vu for me because our 10-year-old grandson sat down at lunch and proceeded to eat two grilled cheese sandwiches and two peanut butter sandwiches. Sandwiches for the three kids and two adults consumed an entire loaf of bread. That was no problem because we have another loaf and because I like the heels and i got a sandwich with two heels. The ten year old lasted an hour after lunch before asking for a snack and not long after that there were freshly-baked cookies and his mother was trying to get him into the car to go home. It is a good thing she got to do her weekly grocery shopping.

While all of this was going on at our house, our son was dealing with the flooding at his work. the library is safe from flooding and dry, protected by Mount Vernon’s flood walls, but the west side of town, across the river, was experiencing evacuations due to flooding. As a city employee, Isaac is a member of their crisis response team, assigned to communications when unusual events occur. Library staff collated evacuation notices and sealed them in plastic bags for the police department to deliver. At one point in the day, he was able to go up to see the action at the flood walls and took some pictures of the riverwalk, where Susan and I walked a couple of times each week when we lived in Mount Vernon, which is on the river side of the flood walls and under water.

After the children left our home, we drove up to Blaine and got our Covid booster shots. We saw a couple of places where there was some standing water on the roadways, but had no trouble at all getting around. We tried to take a walk out to the pier, to look at the waves and rough seas, but the wind and rain drove us back into a more sheltered area to walk.

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While we were out and about, we received a text message from our son that he was unable to get back to the farm from work. Multiple mud slides had caused an overnight closure of Interstate 5 south of Bellingham. At least 5 cars had been stranded and one person was seriously injured when a tree fell onto their car on the highway. Isaac made a point of telling us that his motel room is on the third floor of the motel, so he is safe from flood waters. He did have to run to a local store to get a shirt and a few things for the unexpected stay overnight.

It has stopped raining for now here. The water is expected to go down today. Crews should have the Interstate re-opened before noon. The kids get one more flood day off from school. And life will go on. It may not be as exciting as a South Dakota blizzard, but it seems like sufficient drama for this week.

Rising waters

As rivers go, the Nooksack isn’t one of the biggest or longest. It flows for about 75 miles, beginning up near Mount Baker and emptying into Bellingham Bay south of the town of Ferndale. Along the way it wanders through fields and farmland. We cross the river every time we go into the church, usually on the Interstate 5 bridge just east of Ferndale, sometimes on the bridge that is right in the town of Ferndale. We’ve also crossed it at the Slater Bridge south of town. One of the places where we like to walk is a trail that runs from a river access point at Ferndale, past the Hovander Farm, and down to the Slater Bridge. The trail runs right alongside the river and it is a good place to observe the river. However, we haven’t walked there for a week or so, partly because we have been exploring other walks in our neighborhood, but also because it has been raining quite a bit.

It is the rainy season in Western Washington, part of the type of winter weather that this region experiences. This is only our second winter in the area, and we are not yet used to the weather, so all of this rain with no snow is not at all what we are used to experiencing. Most of the time the rain comes in showers and lets up for part of the day allowing us to walk when it isn’t raining, but the last couple of days have been pretty much nonstop rain. The forecast is for it to rain all day today as well, with a pretty good chance for a break in the showers overnight tonight.

All of that rain has resulted in the flooding of the rivers that empty into the Salish Sea, including the Nooksack. Floods are part of the natural cycle of the coastal rivers and the silt that has been deposited over millennia during flood seasons has resulted in rich agricultural land that produces a lot of crops. We aren’t used to fields that flood, sometimes with a couple of feet of water on them from late November until late February and then dry out and are farmed during the summer. That kind of field is fairly common along the Nooksack and other rivers in the area.

Flood stage of the Nooksack River is 8 ft at the Saxon Bridge. Last night when I was getting ready for bed, the National Weather Service was reporting that the water was at 9.54 feet in that location. Based on the forecast for the river, the weather and other conditions, the prediction is for the current flood to crest at nearly 11 feet tonight. For comparison, most of the time when we were walking alongside the river this fall, the flow was about 3 feet. The river is flowing at more than three times the usual amount of water and will reach levels nearly four times. It is a lot of water.

The Nooksack is just one of the rivers that carry water from the Cascades to the ocean. There are lots of other flooding rivers. At Mount Vernon, where we lived most of last year, the Skagit River is also running above flood stage. The Skagit County Sheriff is assisting with the evacuation of the town of Hamilton, just upstream from Mount Vernon. The Army Corps of Engineers is preparing to shore up flood walls along the river. In Mount Vernon, the city has its emergency flood walls raised. The National Weather Service is predicting the River to reach 37 feet at Mount Vernon, almost to the record level recorded in 1990 before the flood wall was in place. Again, for comparison, we have walked alongside the river in Mount Vernon when the water was flowing about about 9 feet. The highest we observed in our year of living there was about 22 feet. Another 15 feet of water in that wide river is a dramatic amount. It doesn’t appear that this particular crest will threaten Mount Vernon very much as the city is very well prepared for floods, but the river flows are dramatically high and officials are keeping an eye on conditions. Emergency management teams have been activated. Our son, as director of the library for Mount Vernon, is part of the city’s emergency management team and has participated in meetings where various options and possible scenarios have been discussed in preparation.

For us there is no real inconvenience except that we aren’t used to the rain falling day after day. Our home is high and dry and we are comfortable. We don’t need to drive in any of the places where there is water over the road. The bridges we cross are high and safe from dangerous erosion.

Six months ago, we were reading the news of towns evacuated because of wild fire and now we are reading of towns evacuated due to flooding. Of course the two conditions are related. When the number of trees is reduced by fire, the danger of flooding increases. The forest is key to the land’s ability to absorb all of the rainfall.

As a newcomer, I'm tempted to go and look at the high rivers. I’m trying to imagine what it looks like to see all of that water flowing by. I’m curious about how it looks when the flood walls are erected. I’m tempted to hop in the car and go take a look. However, as a newcomer, I also know that too many gawkers can create problems and that officials don’t need us to get in the way with emergency operations. For now the plan is to stay at home, listening to the rain on the skylights in our kitchen, as the waters rise. I know several web sites where I can check the latest news of the flooding and see pictures of familiar places with lots of high water.

In the winter in South Dakota we used to say to our friends, “Stay warm!” I guess now that we live in a different place with different weather, we’ll have to change our parting words to, “Stay dry!”

I might go shopping

I’m not sure exactly how old my rain coat is. We’ve been in Washington a little over a year and I owned it when we still lived in South Dakota, so it is at least a year old. When we lived in South Dakota, I didn’t wear it very often. Out here, at this time of the year, I wear it nearly every day. it is, however, wearing out. I noticed a few places, around the collar, where the lining was wearing thin. Then I noticed a few more inside the sleeves. I’m hard on the lining of jackets for some reason. I’ve had suits and sport coats that looked just fine from the outside, but the lining was worn out. At any rate, I’ve been wearing my rain coat, which has started to end up with me getting wet. The problem is mostly with the sleeves. I went for a short walk yesterday and ended up with wet sleeves on my shirt on both arms from the elbows down. I suppose I could just wear short sleeve shirts and dry off my arms after a walk, but I’ve been thinking of going shopping for a new rain coat.

Although pandemic restrictions have eased, I have really gotten out of the habit of shopping. I really don’t need many clothes. I have what I need and what I like to wear and when I do occasionally need something, I’ve gotten used to doing a bit of shopping online and ordering the item. Not having to go to stores suits me well. I’m not much of a shopper in the first place. I have a few stores I frequent, however. I go to the grocery store and I go to the hardware store. We have several family jokes about me and hardware stores. A real home repair requires at least two trips to the hardware store. The term “hardware store” has a fairly broad meaning in our family, however. It might mean a local hardware store. It also might mean a big box store. Bellingham has two of the big box stores. I call them the blue store and the orange store, referring the colors used on their signs and decorations. Then there are the stores that have the name “farm” or “tractor” in their name. Those are really my favorites.

My first job for which I earned a paycheck was sweeping my father’s feed warehouse. I spent a couple of hours each Saturday at the chore and received a dollar each time I completed the job. There is a certain smell to a store that sells animal feed that triggers memories for me. I love cruising up and down the aisles of harnesses and tack and feed supplements. I like looking at the machines for sale. I love the springtime when they have chicks and ducklings for sale. I threaten to take our grandchildren to a feed store and bring them home with baby rabbits. These days, however, there are big box farm supply stores that sell a whole lot more than just feed and animal supplies. They sell clothing. About half of the total square feet of the nearest tractor supply store is dedicated to clothing.

My family is used to my rants about clothing. I’ve belonged to REI, an outdoors gear cooperative for longer than our children have been alive. When I first joined, it was a single retail store, located in Seattle, that had a large mail order catalogue. It was a source for technical climbing gear such as ropes and carabiners. They also carried cross country skis, boots and bindings. You could get crampons and sleeping bags and tents. In recent years, however, the catalogue is mostly clothing. There are pages and pages of jackets and caps and shirts and slacks. I complain nearly every time a catalogue comes to our home, which over the course of the lives of our children, has been a lot of complaining.

There wasn't a lot of specialized clothing for outdoor recreation when I was growing up. We wore jeans for backpacking and we wore jeans for skiing. When it was super cold, we wore coveralls. When we went downhill skiing, we were proud of our jeans and jackets patched with duct tape the duct tape came only in silver. We used to say we could tell who really knew how to ski by what they wore. The tourists who were beginners had matched ski clothing. The locals, who knew the mountain and how to ski, were the duct tape crowd. Only we weren’t ever a crowd, just a few of us who wore our mis-matched clothes as a badge of honor.

So, naturally, I’m thinking to going to tractor supply to find a new rain jacket. My reasoning is simple. Farmers work outdoors. People who work outdoors in this country need good rain gear. The place to get a rain coat that works and that will last is probably where farmers shop. Of course me being the person that I am, I’m likely to talk about going shopping for a new rain jacket for quite a while before actually doing it. After all, I haven’t even tried repairing the one I have with duct tape. And I have duct tape in several colors. I might be able to make a fashion statement in line with the jackets I used to wear for skiing a long time ago. Duct tape is pretty much waterproof as long as the surface to which you are attaching it is dry when it is applied. Actually, I’ve pretty much given up on duct tape, and yes, I know they sell a brand that is called duck tape. The good stuff is called gorilla tape now. It’s pretty good stuff - an appropriate replacement for baling wire in a lot of situations. And that is a good deal because you can’t find wire-tied bales anywhere these days. In fact the twine tied bales are tied with a synthetic plastic twine that is a lot stronger than the old stuff, but which has to be picked up because it will never compost. And a lot of farmers have switched to giant bales which can be moved only by machines. You won’t find me tossing 800 pound bales into the back of the pickup.

You can tell by this journal entry why my children aren’t eager to go shopping with me. It isn’t just that there are too many stories. It is that they’ve heard all of the stories hundreds of times already.

The story of trauma

A few years ago I read the book “The Body Keeps the Score” by Bessel van der Kolk. Dr. van der Kolk is a psychiatrist who has been a leading researcher in traumatic stress disorder since it first became a diagnosis. He began his work treating soldiers in the wake of the War in Vietnam. His insights into the human brain and body and understanding of how trauma affects people on so many different levels have been helpful to a lot of people. I read the book in conjunction with a small emerging church group that was meeting in our church building and I got to know some of the other members of the group more closely through their reactions to and the things they were learning from the book.

Dr. van der Kolk tells the story of the first person he treated after going to work for the Veterans Administration back in the 1970’s. This person was a Vietnam veteran who had terrible nightmares. Dr. van den Kolk had previously studied nightmares and had done sleep studies and knew about treating those who suffered from nightmares. He prescribed medicine for the veteran to help make the nightmares go away. A couple of weeks later, the veteran came back and Dr. van den Kolk asked him, “So, how did the medicines work?” He responded, “I didn’t take your medicines, because I realized I need to have my nightmares because I need to be a living memorial to my friends who died in Vietnam.”

Through this experience and many other experiences treating people who had gone through terrible experiences, Dr. van den Kolk learned how we humans carry with us trauma and memories of pain in our hearts and minds and bodies. We become living testimonials for the experiences of the past. The pain and trauma we have experienced are carried with us in a very real way and have physical manifestations long after the initial trauma.

Researchers now know that the effects of trauma can be transmitted to children and grandchildren. In the case of major traumas, for example the Holocaust, the traumatic stress can be even greater on the second generation than it was on the first.

The book offered to me important insights and began to open up a deeper understanding of how to relate to the victims of trauma. At the time I read the book, I had collected over a decade of experience of working as a suicide first responder and my work with suicide survivors had led me to becoming a law enforcement chaplain. I was touched by the reactions of coroners and their assistants to suicide cases. I would arrive at the scene of a suicide and before I was even able to meet the survivors and begin working with them, I would be given a description of what the coroner had experienced, often in graphic detail way beyond what was required to give me the essential information to work with the family. Often, when interviewing officers for follow-up work on the case, I would get a second or even a third dose of listening to descriptions of what had been witnessed. I became aware that the officers were holding in their reactions to what they had seen. They had learned to avoid taking their work home and sharing their stress with their families. Their social lives often were invested with other officers and when they let their hair down and talked about their work it was usually with others who had similar experiences. The descriptions of trauma invoked more descriptions of trauma in a cycle that gave them little release for the tension they were holding. My role as a chaplain often involved simply listening to those descriptions.

Over time, as I became more involved with law enforcement and began to assist with crime victims and officers as well as suicide cases, I gained a bit of a reputation in the department as one who would show up at an investigation, but who didn’t need and didn’t want to see the victim. I told the officers that I had seen enough bodies and experienced enough. Since my role didn’t require me to make direct observations, I left that work to others. The truth was that their descriptions of what they had seen were often even more graphic and upsetting than the actual scene.

My few years as a chaplain certainly didn’t make me any kind of an expert in trauma, but I did learn how dramatic its effect is on not only those who are the direct victims of traumatic events, but also on those who have witnessed trauma. You don’t have to be the victim of a violent crime to have that crime make a deep impression on you.

Now we find ourselves as a nation and and as a world in a situation where nearly everyone has been touched by trauma. The pandemic has left so many victims. Over five million deaths have occurred worldwide; 783,000 deaths in the United States. There were 69 deaths from Covid in Washington State yesterday. We all have lost friends.

The effects of this pandemic will play out for years, perhaps for generations. What we know is that even when we don’t speak openly about trauma, our bodies have an amazing capacity to remember. What is more, we develop an amazing loyalty to the victims. As survivors, we feel a deep need to keep their memory alive.

In this context, I have been thinking once again about the story of Dr. van den Kolk’s first Veterans Affairs patient. His loyalty to his comrades - to those who had died in Vietnam - was so deep that he voluntarily endured painful and distressing nightmares. As his book title reports, “The Body Keeps the Score.” We hold trauma in a physical way.

Friends, we are all in this together. We are learning from a set of circumstances that the world has not previously experienced. Past pandemics haven’t had the kind of real time reporting that we have known. All of us have witnessed a great deal of trauma and stress. But this isn’t the end of the story. As Dr. van der Kolk reports in his book, human beings are amazingly resilient. We will get through this experience together. And the first step of processing the trauma is telling the story.

We each need to find those with whom we can share the trauma and tell the story.

After Veterans Day

Yesterday we celebrated Veteran’s Day by having our grandchildren over for a little while to play and have lunch. Their mother, a mental health professional, was working and their father was catching up on a few errands for their home. Before the children came over, I ran to town to pick up a few groceries. As I drove down the main street of Ferndale, I thought of the care with which residents had displayed flags up and down both sides of main street and along the bridge over the Nooksack River. As I walked up to the grocery store, I noted that this year I didn’t run into anyone selling poppies. Paper poppies, obtained by a donation to veterans organizations, were such a part of Veterans Day for so many years, that I miss them. I’m sure that there are still groups that sell them every year. I just haven’t been in the places where they were. The poppies, like the date of Veteran’s Day, are reminders of the great sacrifices made by military personnel during the First World War. That was the war of my grandparents’ generation. The veterans of that war are now all gone and the memory of it becomes second or third generation.

As a member of the boomer generation, I remember the veterans of World War I as old men. They were the members of the American Legion who rode in cars in the Veterans Day and Memorial Day parades because they were too old to march any longer. As a teen, I played taps at many of the funerals of veterans in our town. I heard the tributes to their courage and service. I also heard of their many accomplishments after the war. My father, like many veterans of World War II, was quick to focus on what he had done after the war. His generation were very productive after they returned to civilian life, forming the backbone of churches, service clubs and civic organizations, as well as founding businesses and building homes and families.

The stories of today’s veterans are much different. Not all of them are living out their lives after their time in the service. In the United States an average of 16 veterans every day die by suicide. There is a touching and very sad story in the Washington Post about Kenneth Santiago, who posted a 1,116 word message on social media before going to the Lincoln Memorial Monday evening and shooting himself there on the steps. It was a very public death. I can’t help but think that he was trying to make a statement to those of us who had never met him.

What bothers me about Kenneth Santiago’s death, and the death of so many veterans by suicide, is that it represents a betrayal of a commitment we made. As a nation, when we accept the service of men and women in our military, we promised to care for their health. We have a system of special veterans hospitals and insurance to assure that they are provided with the health care that they need. But we are failing to provide adequate mental health care. There are too many suicides that could have been prevented with proper health care.

I understand that military culture makes it difficult for those who have served to show their weakness. Active duty personnel keep their mental health to themselves and don’t seek help because they fear that any sign of weakness can affect their careers. They fear the stigma that is attached to mental illness. They keep their symptoms to themselves. I also know a bit about the macho image of Hispanic culture, of which Santiago was a part. It too encourages young men to hide their weaknesses.

There is, however, another deep and true reality of the life of veterans in our country. When they do seek help for mental health issues, they often find that help is non existent or very, very difficult to obtain. Our hospitals are equipped with emergency rooms with every kind of technological device known to treat medical emergencies such as stroke, heart attack and injury. Almost none of them are equipped to deal with mental health crises. I’ve seen this first hand, sitting with families struggling to find care for a loved one, who have been told that there may be an appointment available in weeks or months, or that they should consider traveling hundreds of miles to an urban center where there is mental health care available. Neither option is adequate to deal with the crisis they face. And people are dying for a lack of care.

Having our veterans die from a lack of care is no way to celebrate Veterans Day. It is no way to honor their service. It is a national tragedy that we could address. Our veterans deserve so much more than a free 10-piece order of boneless chicken wings or a free donut. I don’t know the actual count, but if the averages continued this week, 64 more veterans died of suicide between Kenneth Santiago’s death on Monday and the end of Veteran’s Day last night. 64 deaths of precious, dedicated, servants. 64 deaths of people we promised to provide with lifelong care. It is, however, more than a statistic. Each of these persons left behind a circle of family and friends who are plunged into grief, who have experienced trauma, and who themselves are at an increased risk of severe mental illness.

The Post reprinted some of the comments that appeared on Kenneth Santiago’s social media following his suicide note: “Kenny, you are loved. Do not do this!!” “Hey, you are not alone! Rob is trying to call you now.” “Santi for the love of god don’t do this.” By the time those posts were made, two nurses visiting the memorial at nigh were trying to give him CPR. A medevac helicopter flew in and landed next to the Reflecting Pool to take Santiago to the hospital where he was pronounced dead.

The paper poppies quickly fade after Veterans Day. The flags are put into storage until another holiday. We must not let our concern fade, we must not let our advocacy go into storage. In his final social media post, Kenneth Santiago wrote, “On my way out, I can’t help but wonder if I ever made a difference in the world.”

The answer to his question is up to us.

The calm before the storm

Another death to mourn

Here in Washington, there are only a few roads that cross the Cascade Mountains. The mountains run down the western side of the state and are spectacularly beautiful. There are several famous peaks including Mount Baker, Mount Rainier, Mount St. Helens, and Mount Adams. All of the highways that cross the Cascades are fun to drive. Many people who drive across the state know only Snoqualmie Pass on Interstate 90. Since our son has lived in Washington, first in Olympia, then in Mount Vernon and now in Ferndale, we have had the opportunity to drive many of those roads over the mountains and have enjoyed each trip. The most northern pass over the Cascades in Washington, Washington 2, is also known as the North Cascades Highway. It is a summer road that will close for the winter next week and remain snowbound until next May. US 2 crosses a bit farther to the south, over Stephens Pass. Going through the roads from north to south the next highway is Interstate 90. Washington 410 crosses north of Mount Rainier and has great views of the mighty mountain, running from Puyallup to Yakima. Just south of Mount Rainier, US 12 crosses the Cascades from Chehalis and also goes through Yakima. We used to drive US 12 often when coming from or returning to South Dakota when our son lived in Olympia.

Right near where Washington 410 and US 12 come together just northwest of Yakima the alpine climate and vistas give way to the beginning of the interior desert of eastern Washington. The country has for many years been known for its fruit production and there are several large fruit warehouses spread alongside the road. When we traveled that highway back to South Dakota, we knew to start looking for fruit stands in that area because we wouldn’t see many after Yakima. We tried to bring a case of east slope apples back to South Dakota with us each trip and, depending on the time of the year, we could also get cherries, apricots, plums and peaches. Fresh fruit was always a treat of our trips.

Some of those fruit stands are near the tiny town of Tieton, near where the two highways meet, before US 12 joins Interstate 82 from Yakima to the tri-cities of Pasco, Kennewick and Richland. Other than a quick stop at a fruit stand, we never spent any time in Tieton and know nothing about the town except for its fruit industry. The town is home to just over a thousand people.

One young man who grew up in the town, Axel Acosta, decided to go to college at Western Washington University in Bellingham, the town where our church is located. We never met Axel and don’t know his family, which is true of most of the students at the University. However, I can imagine the 21-year-old packing his things into his car and driving over the mountains, probably most of the time on US 12 as the quickest route, and getting on Interstate 5 to drive north through Seattle and on to Bellingham to school. I grew up in a small town and went to college in a bigger town in the same state and I remember those drives back and forth with the feeling of independence and the power of entry into adult life.

Axel was a fan of the music of Travis Scott and decided to travel to Houston this fall for a giant concert at Astroworld. It wasn’t the typical college spring break trip, but after a year and a half of pandemic restrictions, including two semesters of distance learning and not even being able to live on campus, he had been looking forward to the trip, the concert, and the chance to get away from Washington to see a bit of the wider world.

He arrived early at the concert and found a place near to the state to be right next to the music. And there, at Astroworld, in front of the stage, is where Axel died, crushed and deprived of oxygen as the crowd surged. Seven others died and hundreds were injured. The youngest to die so far was only 14. One nine-year-old is in a medically induced coma due to severe brain and organ trauma.

I never did anything quite like Axel’s trip when i was a college student, but I did make some decisions that were quite different than what I would choose these days. I can identify with Axel’s father, who might even have tried to encourage him not to go to the concert, to stay at school and keep studying, but who also understood the desire of a young man to take a big trip and attend a big concert. Edgar, Axel’s father, got worried when he heard of the disaster at Astroworld. He called his son’s cell phone but got no answer. Worried, he started calling police and local hospitals. He was initially told that Axel was not among the victims. That news, however, was wrong. It was simply that authorities were at first unable to identify Axel until they circulated a photo of him to get more information.

Being from a small town, I imagine that the news of Axel’s death is big news in Tieton. I imagine that most of the town will show up for the funeral and the lunch to follow. There will be interviews with teachers and coaches on the local news. It is also big news at Western Washington University. Even for students who didn’t know Axel, there is a sense of how close it seems to bring the tragedy that occurred so far away. All of a sudden the headlines on the news strike close to home. College students aren’t used to having death come to the campus.

For some, it is just another grief added to the layers and layers of grief that have been accumulating during the pandemic. Others can’t understand what attracted a young man to travel so far and to work so hard to be at the front of such a large crowd. People in small towns enjoy small towns and many aren’t attracted to crowds and loud concerts. Whether or not they can understand Axel’s choices, they can identify with his family’s grief.

There will be lawyers and law suits and more news to follow. For now, the sense of shock and sadness linger in a small town and on a university campus separated by beautiful mountains.

Teaching the Gospel

Gustav Niebuhr was a minister of the Evangelical Synod of North America, one of the four denominations that created the union that became the United Church of Christ. He served congregations in Missouri and Illinois. I don’t know much of his story, except that there was a wave of immigration that brought Evangelical Christians from Germany to the St. Louis Area in the second half of the 19th Century and these people of faith stressed education for their children and formed some important educational institutions. Gustav apparently stressed education for his children and encouraged them to attend church-related institutions. Two sons, born two years apart both graduated from Elmhurst College in Illinois and Eden Theological Seminary in Webster Groves, Missouri. There was a joke among United Church of Christ clergy when I was a young pastor that spoke of “the three E’s: Elmhurst, Eden and Eternity.” Ministers who had followed the educational path through Elmhurst College and Eden Theological Seminary were well-respected as highly educated and well qualified members of the profession.

Gustaf’s two sons, Karl Paul Reinhold Neibuhr, who went as Reinhold during his adult life, and Helmut Richard, who was known as H. Richard, both became respected theologians, teachers and ethicists. Reinhold served for more than 30 years as a professor at Union Theological Seminary and H. Richard taught for several decades at Yale Divinity School. Reinhold Neibuhr is perhaps best known as the creator of the Serenity Prayer, originally offered in 1932, but revised by Neibuhr and published in many different forms. The prayer spread widely and quickly with attribution and was adopted by Alcoholics Anonymous and other twelve-step programs.

Both men became important public theologians of the 20th century in a time before the term evangelical became associated with fundamentalism. They engaged with politics from the perspective of highly-educated thinkers whose faith informed all aspects of their lives. Living through the violence of two world wars inspired both to think about the theology of war and peace, mercy and justice.

Reinhold Neibuhr once wrote, “Love is the motive, but justice is the instrument.” I have pondered that seemingly simple quotation as I have worked with the congregation I am now serving as an interim minister of faith formation. First Congregational United Church of Christ of Bellingham is a wonderfully engaged and socially active congregation. Its mission and justice board is engaged with many different coalitions and collaborations promoting justice and seeking solutions to important social problems including homelessness, poverty, and other issues. It is a congregation with many hard workers who are passionate about their causes. It is an exciting place to serve and witness the power of faith in action in the service of the community.

One of the challenges of serving in this congregation, however, is that of reminding the congregation of the theological foundations of social action. While I admire the dedication of the passionate workers for justice, I am aware of our need to be as passionate about the biblical and theological basis for our action in the world. A church is more than a community of people who work for causes together. It is a community of followers of Jesus who are motivated by faith. At FCCB, we are passionate about what we do, but sometimes all of our action seems a bit disconnected from the motivation. We understand the instrument of justice, but sometimes are less clear about he motive of love.

As I seek to work with the congregation to provide experiences and opportunities to connect faith practices of prayer, hospitality, and faithful study with the call to direct social action, I continue to grow in respect for the theologians and teachers like the Niebuhrs who challenged conventional thinking with great academic integrity and prayerful study. The concepts and ideas with which they wrestled nearly a century ago have been developed through careful and thorough academic work. They were teachers and there is much we can continue to learn from them.

The term “Christian Education” has fallen out of common use in many parts of the church. FCCB isn’t the only place in the church where the words “Faith Formation” have practically replaced the language of education, school, teaching and learning. While I understand some of the reasons for the shift in our language, I find value in reclaiming some of the traditional language.

In the United Church of Christ, ordination is ordination to a teaching ministry. When we are ordained, we promise to “teach and preach the Gospel.” One of the critical factors in my growth into the ministry is the long line of ordained ministers who were also college and seminary professors. They were ordained ministers who, like the Neibuhr brothers, took the call to teaching seriously.

Throughout my career, I have had a strong identification with the teaching ministry. Although I did not serve as a professor in an educational institution, I considered teaching to be central to my role as a pastor. I was and remain active in the Association of United Church Educators and I have held high respect and deep regard for Commissioned Ministers of Education. They have been trusted colleagues for decades. Times, however, change the language and titles that we use. In the United Church of Christ, commissioned and licensed ministers are being phased out in an attempt to create a single category of ministry. It sometimes feels, however, as if what is being eliminated is the respect for teaching as a legitimate calling. Ministers must be administrators of sacraments. Those who function as gate keepers seem eager to control who can officiate at a communion table or baptistry, but often are less aware of the great power and impact of those who teach.

It is a fortunate turn of events that has brought me to this place in my career. I am relishing my role as a minister of faith formation. I’ve stepped back from the role as an officiant at worship and ceremony and taken up the mantle of a teacher. As such, I have the opportunity to remind others of teachers who have gone before. More importantly, I can work with those passionate about justice so that they remember the motivation that is the foundation of their action. Love never dies is a truth that still deserves the best of our thought and teaching.

Saints and suicide

Yesterday’s All Saints recognition in our church was a carefully crafted and well executed worship. There were pictures of the members of the congregation who had died in the previous year and a reading of names with the ringing of a bell for each and an additional tone from the bell to acknowledge the grief of other families who have lost loved ones. In a very fitting meditation on Isaiah 25:6-9, our lead pastor gently acknowledged the overwhelming grief of this time in a year when we couldn’t have the usual funeral lunches and opportunities to embrace each other in our grief. She named the loss of so many, citing the numbers of death in our county, our state, our nation and the world from Covid-19. She also read a short list of other types of deaths that have occurred from disease and from accidents and from age-related causes. She evoked a powerful image of God gently wiping each tear from the cheeks of each grieving person as another falls. And she spoke of so many tears.

Normally, when we worship and when I listen to our pastors preach, I find it easy to get into the flow and follow along with the spirit and the mood of worship. Yesterday, however, I found my mind wandering just a bit. It wasn’t as if I had been excluded from the service. I, too have grieved the loss of those who have died from Covid during the pandemic. I could name the names of friends who have died. I, too, have know those who have died of illness and accidents. I have lost loved ones to the normal process of aging.

Yet there was a slight “hitch” in my ability to stay with the flow of worship because I was focusing on the grief of many I have known whose tears weren’t directly named by our pastor. I know the lack of direct mention was not intentional. I know our pastor shares their grief. But there was something about the cause of death being missing from the list of “all of the grief, all of the tears,” that gave me pause.

Suicide grief is unique for many reasons. One of the reasons it is unique, is that it is so often not included in the list of causes of grief. When a loved one dies of suicide there are sometimes attempts to cover up the cause of death. People hesitate to speak out loud of suicide. There is a stigma that comes from fear and a lack of understanding. I’ve read obituaries of people who have died of suicide that said, “died at home of natural causes.” For a grieving person who has lost a loved one to suicide, however, it is anything but natural. It is a shock and a trauma so significant that those who have lost a loved one to suicide are themselves twice as likely to die of suicide.

As a result of our reluctance to talk about suicide and to name it in our list of the causes of death and grief, those who have lost a loved one to suicide have the mistaken feeling that they are alone - that their grief is different from the grief of those whose loved ones died from accidents or cancer or heart disease. That feeling of isolation and uniqueness, however, masks the reality that suicide is devastatingly common in our society.

Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States. It is the second leading cause of death in 15-29-year-olds and the leading cause of death among college students. It is the leading cause of death of police officers. It is the leading cause of death of persons serving in the U.S. Military. Think about that statistic for just a minute. The people we send into battle, who are prepared to give the ultimate sacrifice for others, are dying of suicide at a greater rate than war injuries, at a greater rate than accidents - by suicide.

Perhaps I am more aware of the weight of suicide loss because of 20 years serving as a suicide first responder. Perhaps I was more aware yesterday because the chilly weather of the Pacific Northwest dictated that I chose a warm hooded sweatshirt to wear to church and the sweatshirt I chose is one that was designed for suicide awareness and prevention. On the back of the black sweatshirt are the words:

“Suicide Prevention Awareness
Supporting the fighters,
Admiring the survivors,
Honoring the taken, and . . .
Never giving up hope.”

The final seven years of my career, I added the duties of law enforcement chaplain to the long list of other responsibilities. I did so because I became aware of how the deputies of our local Sheriff’s Department were themselves survivors of suicide. As I sought to bring hope and comfort to those traumatized by suicide loss, I heard the stories of deputies and understood how they are affected by the work that they do. Suicide is so common in our society that it is a leading cause of trauma for those who serve as first responders. I sought to address their pain in my ministry. I felt a calling from God to be among those who “wipe away tears” of grief and loss.

As part of my responsibilities as a chaplain, I was asked to provide a brief time of training for law enforcement spouses and families in conjunction with the swearing in ceremonies for new officers. In those sessions, I tried to address the fear that is common in law enforcement families. We often think of law enforcement as a dangerous profession. We know the stories of officers who are slain in the line of duty. We know the stories of officers who die in automobile accidents. Statistically, however, law enforcement is safer than a whole host of occupations, including roofing, logging, truck-driving, and commercial fishing to name just a few. I would have been remiss in my instruction, however, if I didn’t name the fact that police officers are far more likely to die by suicide than in the line of duty deaths. It was important for the risk of mental illness and suicide to be named, for resources for prevention to be outlined, and for hope to be given not only to officers, but also to their families.

So I shed a few more tears for the survivors who have lost loved ones to suicide yesterday. I shed a few tears for the continuing silence in the face of overwhelming grief. And once again, I renew my commitment to speak openly of suicide and to do what I am able to keep it from being silent and hidden.

For all the saints who are taken by suicide, and for all the survivors whose lives are forever shaped by grief, I humbly offer my prayers.

Fall Back

The size of things

Throughout my career, I have observed that moving from one home to another has become a feature of retirement for our generation in a way that was less so for our parents and even more dramatically less so for our grandparents. These days, it is fairly common for people to move to a new home at or near retirement, move again to downsize to a condominium or townhouse, move a third time to an apartment, followed by a move to assisted living and sometimes a move to a care center. Although we don’t have specific plans, it seems possible that we are fitting into this pattern. We moved at retirement, but we did a two-stage move, renting for a new year in our new location to size up the market and see where we wanted to purchase. Now we have moved into a home that we are purchasing. We hope to stay in this home for a long time, and should be able to do just that.

We’ve moved quite a few times in our married life, shifting from apartment to apartment during our student years. After graduate school, we settled for seven years in a parsonage owned by the congregation we were serving, followed by 10 years in a home we were purchasing and another 25 years in our South Dakota home. We upsized fairly quickly, moving from a one-bedroom efficiency student apartment into that parsonage. We owned almost no furniture at the time and the three-bedroom home with a fully finished basement seemed huge to us. The next two moves involved modest increases in the size of our home and the acquisition of more furniture and possessions.

Now we are at a life phase of down-sizing. Our rental home was smaller than the home we owned in South Dakota. We gave away, sold and otherwise disposed of some of our possessions in the move. Now we have further downsized in our move to this home. It is comfortable, but we are aware that we have too much stuff. We’ll take months to sort and dispose of some more of our possessions as we settle into this home. It is a good process for us, but it does require energy. There is a level of grief involved in saying good bye to treasured possessions and grief is work that requires an investment of emotional energy.

In the midst of this trend, however, I am aware that we are not downsizing in every aspect of our lives. While our home is smaller, our appliances are bigger. The refrigerator in this house is HUGE! It is overkill for two people, even if we live a bit farther from the grocery store than was the case in our Mount Vernon rental. We got it with the house. When I think of the under counter refrigerator in our student apartment, this refrigerator must be six or eight times the size. The ice maker on this machine is bigger than the freezer compartment on our apartment refrigerator.

Back in 1995, when we moved to South Dakota, we had never owned new appliances except for a dishwasher and a clothes dryer that replaced worn out ones during our time in Idaho. The house we purchased came with only a dish washer. We had the task of shopping for new appliances and we enjoyed a larger side-by-side refrigerator and a new glass-top range. Of course, 25 years later, we had 25-year-old appliances. The person who bought our home, however, wanted all of the appliances, including the washing machine and clothes dryer, so we included them in the sale of the home.

In contrast, this home we just purchased came with all appliances, including a washing machine and a dryer. We have a brand-new washing machine and dryer in reserve, because we purchased a new pair for use in our rental home. We got just what we wanted, so our plan is to put the ones we bought last year into this home and move the ones we bought with the home to our son’s house where they will replace an older pair. With three children and another one the way, they need good laundry appliances. I’m pleased to carry out the switch in appliances in part because the ones that came with this house are HUGE. I’m not a tall person, but these machines are only a few inches shorter than I am. The width of the machines is the same as the ones we bought, but they are about six inches deeper. The combination means that the cabinets that are over the machines are so tall that I can barely open the doors standing on my tiptoes. I need a stool to put anything into one of those cabinets.

It isn’t literally true, but it feels like part of the reason we have less space in our new home is that the appliances are so much bigger that they are taking up all of the space. For what it is worth, the bathtub is bigger, too. I was joking that perhaps I no longer need a recliner. Just toss a couple of pillows in the bathtub and I can sit there to read and relax.

This house, of course, is not designed for senior citizens. We weren’t interested in living in retirement housing at this phase of our lives. We’re happy to live on a street that has lots of families with children and a median age of homeowners that is a couple of decades younger that we. Many of the houses in this particular development are owned by people in their twenties and thirties, which makes it a very desirable place for us to live. Those folks are on the up-sizing side of their housing adventure. We just crossed paths as we are downsizing. Apparently they are eager to get to bigger and one way to do that is with HUGE appliances.

It’s a good thing we brought our own toaster and rice cooker with us. We’ve no need for ones that are any bigger.

What makes your heart sing?

In 2006, we were fortunate to receive a Clergy Renewal Grant from the Lilly Endowment. These grants are awarded to clergy and congregations who have developed a strong relationship with each other. The grants fund sabbatical leave for the clergy person to pursue continuing education, rest and renewal. It has been a very successful program, extending the length of service for clergy and strengthening the bonds between pastor and congregation. One of the questions that was asked on the application for that grant has stuck with me through the rest of my life so far: “What makes your heart sing?”

Now, as was the case back then, one of the things that makes my heart sing is family. The children who grew up in our home have turned into creative and fascinating adults with whom I enjoy sharing time. Just being with them gives me joy. Now, however, their families have grown and we have become grandparents. The children of our children definitely make my heart sing.

Another thing that I wrote about in my essay was the joy of travel. In 2006, we spent a month in Alberta and British Columbia, camping and exploring. We also went to Australia with our adult children for a month of visiting friends and exploring that country. It should be no surprise to me that we raised children who also love to travel. As an adult our daughter has lived in Wyoming, Montana, New Jersey, England, Missouri, Japan and South Carolina. Our son has settled in the Pacific Northwest, country that we have enjoyed exploring for decades. South Carolina and Washington, however, are not close to each other. Making my heart sing will continue to involve travel.

Fortunately, we have Skype and FaceTime and phone plans with unlimited long distance. We can talk to our children whenever our schedules allow. Our children send us videos of their children that give us great joy. It isn’t, of course, the same as being together, but it is a wonderful way to maintain relationships over time and distance. I didn’t know it back in 2006, but hearing our 2-year-old grandson shout “Papa” definitely makes my heart sing even if it is over the digital device that I carry in my pocket.

Being semi-retired is a different pace of life than when we were both full-time working clergy. We have more time to pursue personal projects and more time to spend at home enjoying each other and our books. We are learning to use our leisure time creatively. Fortunately for us, we have found part-time ministry to ease that transition so that our lives have a balance of generativity and reflection.

I was thinking of that grant application again yesterday as we hopped in the car to head home after having run some errands for our house, taken a walk, and stopped at the grocery store for a couple of things. The day had been rainy and there were still plenty of dark clouds around, but we had found an hour without rain to take a good walk. In the late afternoon, the clouds began thinning to the west and the sun crept down below the cloud line. Usually those conditions make for brilliant rainbows, so we were scanning the sky, but had not yet seen a rainbow. As I drove, however, we were noting how the seagulls stood out against the dark sky, illuminated by the sunlight behind us. They were brilliant white. Then, we noticed a pair of birds that weren’t seagulls. I watched and sure enough the distinctive long-necked shape of a pair of trumpeter swans became clear. They are coming back. The swans live in this region for about half of the year and spend the other half of the year far north in Canada and Alaska. Each winter swans come by the tens of thousands: Trumpeters, Mutes, Tundras. Not long after the swans appear in the fall, the snow geese also begin to arrive. Last year the birds beat us to the Skagit Valley. We were still moving from South Dakota when the first birds arrived. However our first winter in Washington offered many opportunities to look at the magnificent birds and seeing and hearing trumpeter swans became a part of our daily routine. We missed them when they left for the north country. Now they are coming back. Seeing them yesterday made my heart sing.

Then, as we drove up the street to our home, the rainbow did appear. It wasn’t a full arch, which we had become used to in our years of living in the Black Hills, but there was a double base, extending up into the clouds and the brightest section of the rainbow appeared right behind our house. We drove into the garage, got out of our car and went upstairs to look out of our north-facing second-story window and there is was in all of its glory. The colors in the sky made my heart sing.

With a few exceptions, a Lily Clergy Renewal Grant is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Like many other things in life, it is precious in part because it is rare. One of the surprises of that gift is that there are many ways in which the experience has shaped our lives well beyond the close of the activities funded by the grant. The language of the application continues to resonate with me. The memories of our travels linger. More importantly, the connections between pastor and congregation have continued to be strong and meaningful.

The lead pastor of our congregation is the recipient of a 2022 Clergy Renewal Grant. She is now in the active phase of planning a sabbatical for next summer. When we have opportunities to talk about her plans, the anticipation and excitement are contagious. I already know that this will be an important experience not just for her and for her family, but also for our congregation. The grant will make more than one heart sing.

More importantly, I have discovered that I don’t need a gift of money to make my heart sing. I’m not applying for a grant; yet a pair of swans, a rainbow, and time with our children and grandchildren fill my heart with song.

Heart and Hands

Allhallowtide

We have been thinking of All Saints this week at church. Although Monday was the official day to recognize “all of the saints of the church, both known and unknown, who have attained heaven,” like many other congregations, we are recognizing All Saints Sunday on the first Sunday of November. So thinking about those who have died has been part of our preparation for Sunday. We have been especially thinking of those who have died during the Covid-19 pandemic when we couldn’t have the kind of in-person funerals and public opportunities for grief that are our tradition.

I learned in my time of serving as a pastor in North Dakota that the public grief extended beyond the benediction at the graveside. The next step for our church in those days was the invitation to “come and have a little lunch.” Funeral lunches, held in the church social hall, were as much a part of the process of grief as were the worship services of the church. I heard one of the grandmothers of the church once say, “We eat when we grieve.”

Funeral meals are part of many different traditions. Though we have different cultures, different religions, and different beliefs about what happens after a person dies, we all eat. We all need nutritious food to survive. We all are drawn closer to others when we share a meal with them. Our Christian tradition includes the sacrament of communion as a reminder of Jesus’ last supper with his disciples.

The interesting thing to me as I prepare to recognize all saints with our new congregation, is that I have been thinking a lot of the saints of our congregation in South Dakota. Although it has been more than a year since we retired and moved to Washington, our relationships with those in South Dakota remain strong and our memories of those who have recently died in that congregation are rich and meaningful to us. Meanwhile, we don’t really know many of the people in our new congregation. Covid-19 protocols, designed to keep people safe from infection, mean that we have only gotten to know a few of the folks in our congregation. We know and support some of the families left behind, but the people who have died in this congregation in the past year are people that we never met face-to-face.

There are various kinds of memorial holidays. Memorial Day in May is usually focused on those who have died in war, or at least those who have served in the military, but the roots of that holiday are much deeper. There is an ancient tradition of a feast of all martyrs being held in May and for hundreds of years the church recognized all saints in the spring. It was during the time of Pope Gregory III (731-741) that the chapel at St. Peter’s in Rome was dedicated on November 1 in honor of all saints. The general observance of the November festival was officially initiated in 837 by Pope Gregory IV.

In some parts of the church, All Saints focuses on those who have been officially venerated by the church. In our Protestant Tradition, All Saints is more personal, focusing on those we have loved who have died. With the advent of video production and projection as part of worship in the late 20th Century, many congregations started a tradition of producing a slide show of church members who had died the previous year as a part of the observance. As we move into the 21st Century, the meaning of church membership has shifted and congregations have difficulty knowing exactly who is and who is not an official member. That shift has often meant that the list of those who have died includes friends of the church as well as those who had participated in a formal reception of members.

The designation of All Saints, however, includes the phrase, “both known and unknown,” acknowledging that our lives are shaped by the faith of those we have not known. That phrase has become important to me as I imagine how worship might unfold in our church this week. Some weeks I have official worship leadership responsibilities. I do not this week. As a member of the church staff, I participate in worship planning sessions and I see the development of the worship bulletin as it goes through several drafts each week. And I am privileged to be present in the sanctuary as the worship leadership team broadcasts the “live” feed of worship. Our congregation will be fully online this week. Hybrid worship with in-person and live stream begins once again the following Sunday, November 14.

My decreased responsibility for leadership has allowed me a bit more time to reflect on the processes of the church and the dynamics of worship. The annual recognition of All Saints gives expression to the simple fact that we do not forget those who have gone before us. We treasure their memories after they have died. And grief is not something you “get over.” It remains and is layered with the grief of other losses. As we age, we collect more and more grief and we lose our expectation that things will go back to normal. Instead we accept grief as a companion and learn to live with it. We get through the immediate rush of emotions knowing that our lives have been permanently changed. An annual occasion to acknowledge that grief, and to publicly remember those who have died becomes a very meaningful event as we treasure our memories and give thanks for having know the remarkable people who have graced our lives.

Once again, there will be no congregational hymns in our worship this week, but in my heart, I will be singing, “For All the Saints,” and “I Sing a Song of the Saints of God.” And as I remember the old hymns, I will also remember the elders who have shaped my life and give thanks for the gift of their presence in my life. I have been privileged to have known a great many saints. And there are so many more who are unknown to me.

In some traditions, the recognition of All Saints stretches into a season, called Allhallowtide. This week is an Allhallowtide for me. Thanks be to God.

The price of ginger

Decades ago I worked briefly as a radio DJ at a small market radio station in rural North Dakota. My on air shift was at the beginning of the broadcast day. Our station signed off at 10 pm and returned to the air at 6 am. My job included turning on the transmitter and preparing to go live and then hosting the morning “get up and go” show from 6 to 9 am. That schedule worked well with my day job of being a pastor. I was finished with my radio work by the time my colleagues were getting to work. I didn’t work at the radio station on weekends, so I had no conflict with my duties as pastor. One of the things I did every day was to read the commodity market prices. In those days, the prices came to the radio station over a teletype machine and I would read them live on the air. I’d read the prices for cattle and hogs and corn and soybeans, for wheat and sunflowers and other agricultural products that were produced in our area. Most of the time I read those prices without much comprehension about their meaning other than a general sense that rising prices were good and falling prices were bad for our local economy.

Over the years, I have known a few professional traders who speculate on commodity prices and who have earned their living by trying to anticipate changes in the markets. Their work has always seemed to me to be a pretty risky business and I’ve been grateful that it isn’t my job to study the markets and take the kind of risks required in that venture.

That being said, I’ve been doing a bit of studying recently about the worldwide ginger market. I’ve noticed the effects of the shortage of ginger on the cookies I enjoy. I had thought previously that China must be a big player in the ginger market because of the size of their economy, the number of people living there, and the amount of ginger used in Chinese cooking. It is true that China produces and consumes a significant amount of ginger, but the world ginger market is much more complex than the effects of a single country.

Ginger can be grown in sub-tropical climates around the world. It doesn’t require a lot of water, so semi-arid conditions can produce lots of ginger. It does require some moisture, however, and extremely dry conditions can affect yields. There are some soil-born diseases that attack the rhizomes, but growers who exhibit reasonable caution can control the spread of disease.

Australia is a major producer of ginger. Being south of the equator with the seasons opposite those of northern countries means that Australian ginger can help to moderate the annual rises and falls of the market caused by the seasonal ebb and flow of production.

I’m keeping my eyes on Australia because it is spring there and their ginger harvest next February is going to have a major effect on the worldwide price and supply of ginger. If the harvest is good, supplies should go up and prices should fall. With the northern hemisphere ginger harvest largely completed, ginger lovers have to wait to see what happens south of the equator.

The Covid-19 pandemic and global warming both have had a major impact on the market. Covid-19 dramatically increased the demand for ginger. Ginger has many health benefits and the pandemic resulted in people around the world paying attention to their health and investing in products that have some association with the prevention of disease. Although ginger is not effective for the prevention or for the treatment of Covid-19, the focus on health resulted in a dramatic increase in demand for the spice.

Global warming produced hot and dry conditions that significantly affected the size of the ginger harvest.

Like other commodities, it takes time for the changes in prices and for shortages to show up on grocery store shelves. Ginger passes through a lot of hands before it shoes up on the spice rack in the supermarket. The retail price of Ginger is well in excess of double the price paid to producers. Factors beyond simple supply and demand can have a dramatic effect on how much ginger is available at what price. One of those factors is shipping. Those of us who live in places where little ginger is produced are willing to pay for ginger to be imported to our area.

So far, I have not been doing without ginger. There is a jar of ground ginger in our spice cabinet and I’ve found numerous sources of ginger snap cookies despite the fact that local grocery stores except for Trader Joes seem to simply not be able to keep them in stock. I guess I should be grateful that there is a Trader Joes near the church where I work. I am also aware that the cookies are available for home delivery from Amazon. You can even subscribe for repeated regular delivery if you are that addicted.

Of course there is no substitute for home baked ginger snaps. They are far better than any commercial bakery product.

I’m still not very interested in the commodity markets. I’m perfectly willing to leave the trading and risk taking to others. I don’t intend to keep up with the day to day price of ginger or any other commodity. But I can’t keep from looking, each time I’m in the store, at the cookie aisle. I keep hoping that one of these days I’ll see plenty of boxes of ginger snaps on the shelves. And no, I’m not fooled by the fact that several local grocery stores have filled up their shelves with vanilla wafers. You can have twice as many of those boxes on display, but they won’d distract me from the fact that there is a shortage of ginger snaps. I’ve got enough focus to keep my eye on that market at least.

Street party!

As we sat down to dinner last night the first trickle of trick or treaters started to ring our doorbell. The first few were very young children, with one or both of their parents in tow. We were having dinner early so that our grandchildren would have plenty of time to go out seeking treats. Sunrise was around six thirty and by then, the stream of children was steady enough that one or more of us would sit on the front porch handing out treats. The parade of costumes was amazing. We saw a dinosaur costume that extended a couple of feet above the head of the child, a home-made hand sanitizer pump that was amazing, several dragons with wings, and a host of superheroes, first responders, princesses and Disney characters.

I sat on the front porch for a couple of hours, mesmerized by the transformation of our neighborhood. Our street is relatively narrow and it filled with celebrating children. Most were accompanied by a parent. Many were trick or treating as an entire family group. The sound as I sat on the porch was amazing. I could hear hundreds of excited children and happy people talking. There was a convertible, decorated with orange lights and blaring the sound track from the Ghostbusters movie slowly making its way down the street. A couple of drones flew overhead. A teen drove by slowly on a tiny motor scooter with a sputtering engine. Adults got into the fun wearing their costumes. One youngster rode up and down the street on a bicycle with a music machine strapped to his back, playing Halloween songs. He didn’t seem to be trick or treating, just enjoying the atmosphere and the crowd. It was an evening street party.

When we were shopping for a home, we became aware that there are several “seniors only” communities in this region. They offer quiet streets with little traffic, houses that are pretty uniform in appearance. Some even have gates to control visitors. One said, in an advertisement, “Welcome to the areas most exclusive gated and guarded golf course community.” We didn’t look at any houses in that neighborhood. I’m sure that they have no problem selling homes in those places. Last night, however, as I sat on my porch and listened to all of the happy sounds, I couldn’t understand any of the attraction to living in a place with no children. I said to my family, “I wouldn’t trade this place for any senior citizen’s home in thee country.”

The stream of children was so steady that I lost count. We started with a little over 500 treats and were giving them out two at a time. After our grandchildren returned from an hour or so of going door to door in the neighborhood, they started to replenish our treat bowl with excess from their adventure. We ended the evening with just a few treats in the bowl, less than our grandchildren had contributed. I’m guessing that around 250 children came up our driveway to the front porch.

Several things were wonderfully surprising. It was a real family event. There were lots and lots of parents out on the street supervising and making sure that the children were being safe. I didn’t see any cars that were going even 10 miles per hour. Everyone was being careful. And, perhaps the most interesting thing was that the event seemed to have a starting and an ending time. A neighbor across the street said good bye to their guests and turned off their lights around 8 pm. The street started to quiet down a bit. A few trick or treaters, mostly young teens, kept coming. Some of the groups were bigger clusters than before. By 8:30 we were inside and just a few more came. By 9:00 the street was empty and quiet once again. As I drifted off to sleep, the only sound I could hear was a train whistle in the distance and the wind in the trees.

Having celebrated Halloween in several different communities over the years and endured quite a bit of different weather, the evening was nearly perfect when it comes to weather. I sat on our front porch wearing a sweatshirt without being chilly until after 8 pm. Our grandchildren and their parents went out in their costumes and didn’t need hats and gloves. I remember the first year we tried taking our son trick or treating. It was below zero. We went to the first neighbor’s house where they invited us in out of the cold and he played on the floor while we adults visited. They gave him a small treat and we went back home. It was just right for a toddler who didn’t have any experience with Halloween. I can remember other Halloweens when we struggled to devise costumes that could be worn over the top of winter jackets. And there were a few times when the children simply wore their parkas over the top of their costumes. I’m pretty sure that there have been plenty of Halloweens in this place when the rains came. If we had celebrated a week earlier, the rain would have been non stop. Of course rain doesn’t keep people indoors in this country. Our granddaughter was a beautiful princess in bright pink rain boots, just in case. Children wear rain boots on sunny days in this area out of habit. Those are the shoes that they keep by the door.

I don’t know if the mood of celebration was enhanced by months of Covid-induced isolation, but I suspect that last year was much more muted and quiet even in this neighborhood. The outside venue where people could spread out and the gentle breeze certainly made the evening seem safe. Masks, of course, were common. It was, after all, Halloween.

Just remembering the sound of happy people in the street brings a smile to my face. We may have reached the sunset years of our lives but we feel especially lucky to have found a home in a neighborhood with lots of children.

I’m sure glad we asked a neighbor about how many treats to prepare. Next year I may even have a few more.