Return to the paddle


It is a simple thing, really. Yesterday I got out of bed around 6 am, dressed, and took my kayak to Birch Bay State Park, a short distance from our home. I carried the boat down to the water and launched at nearly high tide on a clear, calm day with no surf. I paddled around the edge of the bay, never very far from shore. The water in the bay is shallow, even at high tide. It was a safe place to paddle even for someone who is not experienced with the tides. I paddled for a short time, taking a few breaks to take a few pictures.

It was pure joy to be alone with nature for a while.

There was a time when I paddled nearly every day. In those days it took even more effort to paddle. I had to drive about ten miles to get to the lake. The lake froze every winter, so I couldn’t paddle until the ice melted. Some years, I would have my boat in the water in late November before freeze-up and I would be paddling in the open water with ice still covering most of the lake by February. Paddling is how I refreshed my soul, kept my contact with nature, and kept balance in my life. I built a series of canoes and kayaks to journey on the water.

I fully expected that retirement would be filled with paddling. I bundled up a trailer full of boats when we moved. But I haven’t paddled much in the past two years. I took a canoe with us when we drove to South Carolina last year and paddled only a couple of mornings when we were camped at Canyon Lake in Rapid City. I put a canoe into Clear Lake once last year. Other than that my boats have been gathering dust in the back of the barn. I missed paddling, but my life was full of a lot of other activities. There were chores at the farm. We moved and then moved again. There are still boxes to sort and items to give away and recycle. I took a new job. I am trying to settle in a new place. During all of this Susan and I have been faithful to our daily walking. I have remained active. But I took a break from paddling. I can’t explain it.

At the beginning of Lent, I decided that it was time for a change. I put one of my kayaks that needs a bit of repair into my cradles and began sanding. I patched a small crack in the cockpit coaming. I sanded away the old varnish. I didn’t do the work all at once. When I made epoxy repairs, I had to let the epoxy cure for 24 hours. When I finally got to varnishing, it was a slow process of putting one coat on either the top or bottom of the boat, waiting at least 24 hours, then sanding and repeating the process. Three coats of varnish, top and bottom. I finished earlier this week. Thursday I loaded the boat on top of the car and got ready.

To the boats I say, “I’m back!”

I have a place for this kayak in our garage at home, so I don’t have to go to the farm to pick it up. I have another boat in the slings so that I can begin working on it. Working on the boats is a series of small jobs, so it is best to get in motion and work a little bit as many days as possible. That kind of work suits my schedule, leaving time for other projects as well.

More importantly, I have the fresh memory of yesterday’s paddle to inspire me. The boat is already loaded up for another paddle this morning.

I live in a perfect place for a solo recreational paddler. While there are plenty of big waters where one should paddle only with partners, and there are conditions that would keep me off of even the protected waters of the bay, most days afford an opportunity to safely paddle alone. Time alone with the water and the creatures of the water is what I need. It is what I have missed.

Yesterday’s paddle was an opportunity to get acquainted with the loons. Birch Bay is filled with a lot of different kinds of waterfowl. There are ducks, brants, geese, coots, and loons. Loons are a treat of northern waters, with their distinctive cries, the crook of their necks, and their shy nature. As I approach with my kayak, they disappear beneath the surface of the water to re-emerge elsewhere. Unlike the ducks and geese that fly away when I get too close, the loons, quietly slip beneath the surface of the water. Then, a few minutes later, I will hear their cry that seems to echo even in a place where there is no echo. It reminds me of the ululation that I have heard at funerals and other occasions. Lakota women cry lilililili! in a high pitched voice as an act of praise. The loons can sound like those sounds, but it isn’t quite the same.

The loons gather on the water in groups, but they like a little more space than some other species of birds. They tend to drift away from the groups as individuals on the surface of the water. They are excellent companions for an early morning paddle.

As I sift and sort through my past journal entries organizing my archives, I am aware of how often in the past I wrote of paddling. When my life was so busy with my work as a pastor, my role as a father, my care of parents as they aged, responding to suicide calls, meetings of many different boards and committees, serving on community boards and raising funds for the arts and for the church and for other charitable causes, I continued to find moments, often in the wee hours of the morning, to paddle. And with the paddle in my hands, I found peace.

My hand-carved Greenland style paddle fits naturally in my hands. It is waiting in the car. The boat is ready for a short carry to the beach from where I will park. I’ll wait a few more hours, but once again today is a paddling day. It feels so good to be back on the water. I don’t know why I waited so long.

At home

Along the banks of the Missouri River, not far from Fort Benton, Montana, is the land where my mother’s parents homesteaded. The place is not far from where their parents settled after moving west. The farm has seen five generations of our family live on and work the land. It is a home place, but it is not my home place. My family came from that place. My mother was one of five daughters. Four of those daughters lived their lives win Montana. One moved away, lived in Washington, DC for much of her life and retired to Florida, where her son and his family still live.

On my father’s side, if you follow my family tree, it is hard to find any place where our people stayed for more than a couple of generations. My father was born on the farm where his father was born, but neither of them stayed on the place. Both drifted west and my father’s siblings continued to move farther west.

For much of my life I considered the town where I was born to be my hometown, but I only lived in that place until I was 17 years old. We raised our children in three different states, moving from place to place as the spirt and the church called us. The longest I lived in any single place was 25 years in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Those hills still feel like home to me and I have many friends and many fond memories of our time there. But we no longer live in that place. This home where we find ourselves, tucked into the corner of the country, almost on the Pacific Ocean and almost to Canada, has been ours for less than a year. I enjoy this place. I am delighted to live close to our grandchildren. I call it home. But I know that I am a newcomer and not a native.

Years ago, we were assigned the task of making photographs of home place for a class. Our teacher, Archie Lieberman, had been photographing the same farm home for much of his career. Though he traveled as a professional photographer for Life Magazine, he kept returning to the same family on the same farm to make more photographs. I struggled with the assignment. I was living temporarily as a student in Chicago, and I was homesick for Montana, where I had grown up. At that time I did not know that I would never again live in Montana. I thought that I would return to Montana upon graduation to live the rest of my life. When I thought of home place, I thought of the Crazy Mountains and the Boulder River and the high country of the Absaroka-Beartooth. I wanted to take pictures of waterfalls and pine trees and sunsets. But I was living in a tiny efficiency apartment on the south side of Chicago and I had only a week to complete my assignment. I ended up taking pictures of our apartment and feeling disappointed with my work. Each week we would prepare a gallery of our assignments, hanging our matted photographs next to those of other students in the class. One photograph stood out in that week’s display. It was made by another teacher and friend of mine, Ross Snyder. His photograph of “home place” was a stark black and white photograph of a pair of well-worn shoes.

I have thought ever since that being at home in my own shoes is one of the goals of my life.

The stories of our people are stories of leaving home and setting forth to new places. Abraham and Sarah left behind the country of their forebears to journey to the place God would show them. They did not realize that their journey would require that generations of our people become wanderers. Three generations later, our people were still wandering and found themselves enslaved in Egypt, a place where they lived that never became home. Leaving Egypt did not mean getting to their home. Another generation passed as our people wandered. And even when they did enter the promised land, it was theirs for only a little while. Our stories are stories of exile and diaspora.

Along the way, some of our people have learned to be at home in their own shoes.

Down by the bay, where we often walk, there is an eagle nest high in a tree. We love to watch the eagles as they bring more sticks and material to enhance their nest this year. We are anticipating seeing eaglets become fledglings this spring and summer. Eagles return to the same nest year after year, but not to the nest where they were hatched. Part of the process of reproduction is a process of seeking new nests - new homes.

We have come to a new nest, in a new place. It is not new to everyone. The Coast Salish people have lived here since time immemorial. And they have welcomed, with more or less tension, newcomers who have drifted to this place. Those who are indigenous are a minority. Most of us are more nomadic. Like the eagles, we have made a home in this place. The eagles will return to the nest year after year until it is one day taken over by a new generation. And years from then the tree will become old and the winds will break its branches and a new place will need to be found. Our homes are ours for only a little while. We are their stewards for a brief amount of time.

Many of my teachers have now come to the ends of their lives. We have become the old folks and have seen the birth of new generations. Yesterday I spent most of an hour rocking our infant grandson. He has no sense of the passage of time or of different places. He is secure in the house where he was born for now. I wonder what places he will travel and what he will see in his life.

Wherever life takes him, I hope he will learn to be at home in his own shoes.

Inspired by great teachers

Many Christian pastors and thinkers of my generation have been deeply influenced by the teaching and writing of Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann. When I was a theological student, Brueggemann was a professor at Eden Theological Seminary and I graduated from Chicago Theological Seminary, a sister institution. The study of the Hebrew Scriptures in Seminary was a powerful experience for me. My principal teacher of Hebrew Scripture, Dr. André LaCocque, dedicated his life to the study of Hebrew Scripture partly in response to the actions of his Reformed Church pastor father inspired the family to offer safe haven for a Jewish family during World War II. Among the families of their parish was The Tournay family. Tournay was a local leader in the Resistance. Their son, Jean, was arrested and later died in a concentration camp. Their daughter, Claire became André’s close friend. Their shared grief over the death of Jean was part of a budding relationship that became a life partnership. I attended seminary 30 years after the war, but the stories of courage, sacrifice, and heroism combined with solid biblical research to shape a teacher who was an inspiration to me. After the retirement of my Christian Education Professor, Ross Snyder midway through my seminary career, Dr. LaCocque became my academic advisor. Among the lessons he stirred in my was a lifelong interest in the teachings of his colleague, Walter Brueggemann.

It is interesting to me that I continue to be shaped by both teachers throughout my life and career as a pastor. LaCocque’s passion for what he called the Prime Testament and his use of Hebrew law and tradition to teach of God’s love inspired countless sermons. Brueggemann’s passion for the prophets as expressions of the deepest moral demands of religion kept me reading his prolific offering of books.

I brought up Brueggemann once again in a conversation last evening. A group of us were discussing the moral imperative of speaking and acting in response to climate crisis and the devastating effects of global warming, environmental destruction, and overconsumption. While science can provide humanity with the harsh truth and information that is needed to invoke an immediate response, many people with good intentions find themselves immobilized by the problems of creation care. The issues are simply too big and too complex for individual response. While we know the truth of what we must do and the radical changes that are required, we find ourselves sinking into despair and inaction because of the scale of the problems we face.

Brueggemann offers a different perspective and an invitation for us to take the truth seriously, but not stop with speaking the truth. In a small volume, “Reality, Grief, Hope: Three Urgent Prophetic Tasks,” Brueggemann calls faithful people to follow the example of the Biblical prophets by naming reality in a culture of ideology. Speaking the truth is a challenge in a social and political climate of ideologies. It is, however, a necessary task. Applied to the climate crisis, the truth of scientific discoveries must be proclaimed over and over again in the face of ideologies driven by profit and short term gain.

Proclaiming reality amid ideology is only one task amid others, however. For we live in a world where even when reality is proclaimed, denial exists. Brueggemann argues that the prophetic response to denial is genuine grief. We meet the denial of those who seek to overlook the scientific evidence of global warming by expressing our grief over the melting of the glaciers, the dying of the coral reefs, and the extinction of species. Reading the prophets with the insights about grief gained from Brueggemann’s teachings has opened my eyes to their grief over the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile of her people.

The prophets do not stop with proclaiming grief amid denial. They carry a powerful message of hope amid despair. Speaking honestly of grief, we are called to move through that grief to discover a hope that is more than just a set of happy thoughts, but rather a living reality that calls us from despair.

Each of these tasks - proclaiming reality amid ideology, grief amid denial, and hope amid despair - is critical to a faithful response to the reality in which we find ourselves. While science provides the information to proclaim reality and experience provides the emotional energy to proclaim grief, hope demands faith. Hope will not come from science or experience alone.

The proclamation of hope is an essential task of the church in our time. It is why it is important for us to have these difficult conversations in our houses of faith. The energy and wisdom of a small group of faithful persons inspires me to continue the ministry of teaching and faith formation. Inspired by powerful teachers, I find myself striving to carry forward their legacy in my teaching of others.

And so we continue to speak of faith together. Our thoughts are incomplete and our conversations unfinished, but we return again and again to the difficult subjects and difficult tasks of our time. Together we form a vision of the future and together we work toward the vocation to which we are being called. Sometimes our emotions are strong and threaten to overwhelm. Sometimes the work is hard and our exhaustion is real. Sometimes it feels like we are stuck in the same place for a long period of time. Yet we continue. We meet. We share. We learn together.

Of all of the tasks of the ministry, I find teaching and leading faith formation to be the most critical and the most engaging. I feel truly blessed that my career has brought me to this point where I can focus my ministry on faith formation. In a way it reminds me of how my ministry began decades ago - with a passion for learning and speaking the truth in a sometimes hostile world. Fortunately for me, there are truly great teachers who have helped me discover my life’s work. With joy, I continue to share their lessons with others.


About 15 years ago I served a year as the Moderator of the South Dakota Conference of the United Church of Christ. In that conference, the role of the moderator is to chair the business session of the annual meeting. There are a few other duties, such as attending all of the meetings of the Board of Directors, serving on the Annual Meeting Planning Committee, and representing the Conference at a few national meetings. These days, I assume that it means a lot of Zoom meetings, but back then it meant a lot of driving across the state for meetings. I remember one time when I drove from Rapid City to Yankton, attended a meeting, and then drove back to Rapid City that afternoon and evening. That’s a six-hour drive, a two-hour meeting and another six-hour drive in a 14-hour day. It wasn’t very efficient being moderator of the conference.

I’ve attended a lot of meetings and a lot of them have been what we call annual meetings, the once-a-year ritual of electing officers, adopting budgets, and discussing policies that mark all kinds of church organizations. I have some distinct feelings about how a meeting should be run. As moderator, I tried to minimize routine business, showing the Conference how groups of agenda items, such as establishing rules of order, adopting minutes, and receiving reports can be accomplished through consent without the need for extensive debate. I ruled that motions brought by groups of people did not require a second, as a second was assured and saved time. The meetings I moderated were a bit shorter than some I have attended.

I don’t think I was a memorable moderator. If you were to ask the people of South Dakota what was memorable about the annual meeting I moderated, I doubt that they would mention my role in the meeting. They might remember that the preacher for the first night’s worship had to cancel at the last minute. They might remember that the meeting elected an interim Conference Minister in the wake of the resignation of the previous Conference Minister. But they are unlikely to remember my role.

Nonetheless, moderating is a challenging and essential task. It is required wherever people gather to meet, speak, discern and decide. A week ago, I had a conversation with the immediate past moderator of our congregation and heard once again about how exhausting it was for him to serve in that role, and how pleased he is that we now have a new moderator. That is often how it feels to have finished a term of service as a moderator.

In order for a group of people to engage in civil conversation there need to be rules to govern their speech. Unrestrained free speech without any rules is simply a shouting match in which no one listens, no opinions are changed, and no agreement can be reached. Even meetings of the Libertarian Party require rules.

Henry Martyn Robert was an engineering officer in the Army. When he was asked to preside over a public meeting in a church he discovered that he did not know how to do the job. His attempt embarrassed him greatly. His experience at the church meeting led him to research the subject of how to preside over public meetings. What he discovered was virtual parliamentary anarchy, with different members having differing ideas of correct procedure. To bring order out of that chaos, he wrote “Robert’s Rules of Order.” Eventually the book, now in its twelfth edition, has become the standard for moderating public meetings. The rules have been adopted by state legislatures and congress and are the official rules of order for countless public meetings. It seems that if you can bring order to a church meeting, you can bring order to anything, including a deeply divided partisan legislature.

With my experience and a smattering of knowledge about how meetings are organized, I wonder if Elon Musk has any idea what it means to be the head of Twitter. I’m no expert in Twitter. I do have an account, but I use it to read the tweets of others and rarely post any tweets myself. I’m not much for spewing aphorisms, and I am suspicious of how much misinformation is communicated through the site. It is clear, however, that the platform does require rules.

Mr. Musk says he is a “free speech absolutist.” Nonetheless, the site will still need to be moderated, as was demonstrated by his need yesterday to clarify what he meant when he tweeted about free speech. “By ‘free speech’, I simply mean that which matches the law” he said. Of course Twitter is an international platform, which means that the law is not a singular entity but a complex network of different laws in different countries. With all of the different posts in all of the different languages, it is difficult to know what it means for a tweet to “match the law.”

Congressional committees and judges are trying to determine whether or not tweets encouraging the storming of Capitol hill in Washington crossed the line into insurrection. Lawsuits have been filed in an attempt to clarify the line between criticism and libel. Parents, schools, and youth organizations know all too well that hate speech quickly becomes abuse and harassment. Twitter is known as a platform for bullying.

However he sees his role, however much he calls himself a “free speech absolutist,” his $44 billion dollar investment has bought him the need to spend a lot of time thinking about and resourcing the policing of Twitter. The man already is the titular head of five different companies. It is my hunch that this new company will take him deeply into the weeds when it comes to moderation rules and policies. He must either provide leadership and direction for the company or allow it to devolve into continuous lawsuit and charges of illegal behavior. The January 6 insurrection is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the need for the platform to provide structure so that users are able to express themselves.

I hope that another of Mr. Musk’s companies, Tesla, is successful in advancing the technology of driverless cars. Because Mr. Musk is going to lose a lot of sleep over this new role and a lack of sleep makes one a very dangerous driver.

Speaking of food

I stopped by the farmhouse last night just in time to hold our infant grandson while his parents sat down to eat dinner together. I remember well the days of having a baby who woke at mealtimes and needed to be held. Sometimes, one of us could hold the baby in one hand and eat with another. Often, we couldn’t really eat at the same time as one held the baby while the other ate and then we switched. We had only two children, spaced 2 1/2 years apart, so that phase of our life was very short. Our son’s household has four children and there is generally a bit of chaos at the dinner table. Nonetheless, they are pursuing family traditions and working hard to make mealtimes meaningful.

As I held the little one, I was privileged to listen to the dinner conversations of the rest of the family. They have a tradition of going around the table and each person expressing gratitude. The kids call it “thankful fors.” “I’m thankful for . . .” they say in turn. It is a delightful tradition and we try to honor it whenever we share a meal with them. Topics at the dinner table ranged from tales of things that happened at school to learning to braid hair. There was a bit of conversation about events of the weekend and what happened as the family returned to work and school.

And, as has been the case frequently recently, there was a bit of talk about sweet treats. The children all have a bit of a sweet tooth. They had pie as a special treat over the weekend and there was pie left for an after dinner treat. It was clear, however, that the children were required to eat some of the nutritious food that had been prepared for their dinner before they could have a piece of pie. The conversation brought a smile to my face because it is so familiar. I can remember my own parents talking to us kids about the need to eat our vegetables and clean our plates before dessert could be served. I remember having similar conversations with our children. Just a couple of days ago, I had a conversation with our daughter about her struggle with her two-year-old who seems to prefer chips and sweets over all other foods.

Teaching children to eat nutritious food and make wise food choices is a challenge for parents. Patterns set in childhood can persist well into adult life. I still struggle to make wise choices about snacking and portion control as I am overweight and each passing year makes losing weight a bigger challenge. Unlike the children, however, I really am not in need of much instruction on the subject. As I commented to a doctor once, “I am not overweight because of a lack of information.” I invested a few years of my life struggling with menus and food planning and preparation for my mother at the end of her life when she was a brittle diabetic and balancing protein and carbohydrates was a special challenge. It was a good education for me about my own eating patterns.

While I was smiling at our grandchildren’s hankering for pie, I had to remind myself that I myself brought treats from a local bakery to the church to share with volunteers helping to clean out Faith Formation supply closets and classrooms earlier the same day. I had already had my sweet treat for the day.

The struggles we have with food are, however, really the product of abundance and affluence. Our grocery budgets are generous compared with many people in our community and even more people around the globe. Living in crushing poverty limits the choices one has when it comes to purchasing groceries. Having to eat food that is provided by others means not having as much control over what is eaten. In the most extreme cases, programs aimed at providing food for children can take away the power of deciding what children are fed from the parents. Fresh vegetables are in short supply at food pantries.

We enjoy a great deal of food luxury in our lives. The commute from our jobs to our house takes us through the Lummi Reservation so it is convenient for us to stop at the seafood market run by the tribe to pick up fresh local fish, and shellfish. Our grocery store has an abundance of fresh vegetables all year around. We live in an area where fruit trees abound and we have access to apples, cherries, plums, peaches and many different kinds of berries. We get fresh eggs from the chickens on the farm and it won’t be long before the garden is yielding abundant greens and other vegetables for our table. Furthermore we have a large freezer to store food, a food dryer, and other ways to preserve food. We eat well and we have access to abundant local food. I am well aware that it is a luxury that not all families enjoy.

The conversations we have with our children and grandchildren about food choices illustrate the simple fact that we have choices. We have options and alternatives. Those choices are not present for families living in refugee camps. They are not present for families taking their evening meal at local shelters and service centers. They are not present for homeless youth stopping by the day shelter. They don’t exist for those living in food deserts. We are surrounded by people who face food insufficiency every day. And the hungry ones in our communities are disproportionately young. Too many children lack sufficient nutrition.

And, as our children are struggling to teach their children, patterns about eating and nutrition are often set early in life. A lack of food in childhood can have dramatic effects that last for the rest of the lives of those victims.

Like our grandchildren, I need to be aware of, careful with, and grateful for the choices I have. It is a good conversation to return to again and again.

Cleaning the closet

On the list of chores for today is cleaning out a closet in the church basement. A bit of background is in order:

First of all it is important to know that for decades, Christian Education programs in churches across the world have been run on shoestring budgets. Although there is plenty of lip service given to the importance of Faith Formation and Christian Education, the programs have comprised a surprisingly small amount of the annual budgets of their churches. This has resulted in a concentration of creative ideas and programs that are planned to employ used equipment, create crafts out of discarded items, and teach with minimal resources. Limited budgets result in decreasing waste and, in many cases, a reluctance to discard items just in case they might later be needed. Churches that had large numbers of children and youth in the baby boom years of the 1950s and 1960s and have fewer children and youth today have used some of their educational space as storage for items that might otherwise have been discarded.

Our church building is the result of several major additions and renovations over the years and some of the basement rooms have seen different functions in different times. For more than four decades the church school shared space with a day care and preschool operated by Bellingham Technical College. Furniture and equipment were shared, but curriculum and resources were distinct. Adjacent to some of the rooms used by BTC is a large closet that was used for storage of church school curriculum and resources. Over the years it became a place to store boxes of old Sunday School Books and resources, boxes of potential craft items, and the like. At the end of Vacation Bible School, resources were sorted and some were discarded while others were retained just in case they might later be reused. A similar process occurred at the end of each church school year. Sample resources and extra copies of curricula were stored in boxes in the closet.

Then the Covid pandemic hit and BTC suspended the programs it was holding in our church. For nearly two years our congregation also moved its in-person faith formation programs to an online format. The result was empty and unused spaces in the church basement, and a need to re-envision the use of space. Single age classrooms from a graded system are in the process of becoming multi-use spaces. For all of that time, the closet in the basement was ignored, but occasionally boxes of materials were placed there when someone didn’t know where else to put them.

Early this spring Bellingham Technical College moved out of the building, consolidating its daycare and preschool programs to an on campus site.

In a new arrangement for our church, our building is now the temporary home of Garden Street Methodist Church, which has sold their building and is meeting in our building as they assess directions for their future. The arrangement is brand-new, but so far it seems to be a positive move for both congregations. They plan to move their church offices to our building this summer.

The closet is in the area where the Methodist Church will have its offices. Emptying the closet has become a priority and today is the day.

For more than four decades we have been pastors and teachers in the United Church of Christ. Although we are new to this congregation, we are no strangers to the collections and clutter that occur. This particular closet, moreover, has been collecting items during about the same span of time as our career. As we look over the contents of the closet, we can see a bit of an index of our careers. “Look, here are some resources from The Inviting Word.” We remember working on the development of those resources. “Wow! Remember the Storytellers Series?” I wrote for that project. “Hey, these are from Seasons of the Spirit.” We both wrote for that project. “This box is Faith Practices.” I both wrote and edited on that project. Let's just say it is a bit difficult for us to move entire boxes straight into the recycling bin. We feel compelled to sort and to save some of the items that are stored in the closet.

So, we won’t be tacking the closet alone. We are meeting volunteers from the Faith Formation Board at the church early this morning for a work day to empty the closet. Our goal, among other things, is to minimize the amount of items from the closet that end up in other rooms and resource areas. On the other hand, we’ve been around Faith Formation programs long enough to know that we might regret discarding some useful resources, so we know that some things will be preserved. Hopefully the items that our congregation no longer needs can be recycled in ways that limits the amount of waste that ends up in the landfill.

It occurs to me that sorting out the closet is a good metaphor for this phase of our professional lives. We have had a lot of wonderful experiences over the decades. We have participated in a host of different programs and projects. There are some memories that we will forever treasure. There are others that constituted learning experiences for us, but don’t rise to the level of “forever stories.” As we go through the physical sorting of the closet in the church basement, we will go through a parallel process of sorting our memories.

The volunteers from the church are likely to hear a few stories as we haul the boxes out of the closet and sort their contents. I hope that we don’t bore them with our tales. On the other hand, reviewing the decades of history formed by sharing space with Bellingham Technical College is a useful exercise for the congregation. As we envision which relationships and programs form the future of Faith Formation ministries in our congregation, there is value in looking back and remembering the programs and relationships of the past.

As we used to say on the ranch, “Hold on to your hats! It’s going to be an interesting ride.”

Sabbatical Journey

Our youngest grandchild is two months old. As I held the sleeping baby last evening, I once again had the opportunity to marvel at young life. The feeling of holding a baby is unlike anything else in the world. As I held him, I was thinking about how significant two months is in the life of a young one. Since he was born he has learned so much. He can hold up his own head now, a skill that was beyond him at birth. His hands still surprise him. Occasionally, however, a hand makes it to his mouth and he will suck on it for a moment and finds the sensation to be not unpleasant. He responds to familiar voices and can make what seems like a smile to those of us who watch his face as much as we are able.

From his point of view three months is more than a lifetime - a truly monumental span of time.

I am near 69 years old. Three months go by so quickly that I wonder what I have been doing. We are closing in on six months of living in our new home and it seems like just yesterday that we were moving in.

I remember being in elementary school when three months of vacation from school seemed to offer a world of possibilities. But I also remember going back to school in the fall feeling like the summer vacation was all too short for all of the adventures and activities I had planned.

I am trying to think about how three months feels to people of various ages because today we are sending off our lead pastor on a well-earned sabbatical. The three-month adventure for her and our congregation will be marked by travel and study and family for her. As she adventures, the congregation will experience an interim pastor, do some planning of our own, and continue the work of our mission and ministry. The sabbatical break does not quite line up with the academic summer break, so different members of the congregation will experience breaks for rest and renewal in their lives in different ways.

Over the course of our journey as pastors, we experienced several sabbatical breaks. Different congregations provide for sabbatical in different ways. The academic model, followed by many congregations is for a sabbatical every seven years of service. In academia, sabbatical breaks tend to be longer than those in the parish. Some universities offer six months at full salary or a year at half salary for sabbatical. The use of grants and other funding sources for sabbaticals is common. In the parish ministry, three months is the standard, with the opportunity for sabbatical coming at five, six, or seven year intervals, depending on the congregation. Our pastor has served seven years without a sabbatical and is excited and ready for the break. Like the sabbatical we were able to take in 2006, this one is funded in part by a generous grant from the Lily Foundation. This daily journal is a direct outgrowth of that sabbatical. It has become a discipline I have kept since that time.

As ministers of faith formation, part of our responsibility is helping the congregation to understand and learn about faith from the experience. Pilgrimage, or travel away from and return to the congregation is a long-standing spiritual discipline and there are many teachings about pilgrimage in the history of the church. Some of those teachings are relevant to the sabbatical journey of our pastor and congregation.

It seems easier, somehow, to interpret the sabbatical journey with adults than with children. I have been wondering if that challenge occurs in part because of the differences in our perception of time. Does the sabbatical seem like a bigger break to those in our congregation who are younger? One of the adventures of continuing in ministry after many years of experience is the discovery of new elements and new perspectives.

In a strange way, the on-again, off-again blog called “The Adventures of Edward Bear” on this web site has been a way for me to reflect on journey. I started the journal as a kind of report to our grandchildren of our travels. When I was working as a pastor, a few members of our congregation found out that it provided a daily travel journal when we took a vacation or were on sabbatical. I write a blog entry for each place that we visit, and my discipline for writing has varied over the years. The last entry in the journal was made at the end of a 6.000 mile journey last summer when we towed our camper to South Carolina for a visit with our daughter and her family.

I have been thinking about the blog because It is a discipline of trying to think about travel and journey from the perspective of our grandchildren, whose ages span from newborn to ten years old. The ten-year-old, of course, can read the blog posts himself. The parents help the other children check out the blog when we are traveling.

Of course, I do not expect our lead pastor to write to the children of the church for each place she visits in her sabbatical. The children won’t know too much about her adventures, studies, and family activities. They will mostly know that she is gone and that there is another pastor leading worship for a while. Still the relationship between pastor and congregation is a relationship that involves the entire congregation. The children are part of that relationship and some of them will change a great deal in the time that Pastor Sharon is on sabbatical.

I am thinking of trying to keep some sort of abbreviated journal about faith formation activities at our church to present to our pastor upon her return as a report of how we have been growing in faith while she has been growing in faith. When she returns we all will have changed and the precious bond of pastor and congregation will have shifted as well. In our experience as pastors, sabbaticals have strengthened the bond between us and our congregations. I expect this journey to do the same. I want it to be meaningful and understood by the children as well as the adults in the congregation.

Today that adventure begins. It seems like a good day for Edward the Bear to visit the church. Maybe he will make some notes in his blog about the adventure.

In the Little Free Library

Just down the street from our house is a little free library. If you pay attention, you will see them all around. They have become very popular. People build a small structure that will hold a dozen or so books and keep them safe from the weather. The concept is that anyone can take a book without charge. Users are encouraged to leave books as well as take them. The idea is that books will go into circulation. The libraries provide a place for the exchange of books and encourage reading. It works, but not perfectly.

If you look into the little libraries, which I often do, you will discover that after time they tend to become filled with books that no one wants. I have so rarely found a book that I am interested in reading that I might give up on little free libraries, despite occasionally donating books to them because I don’t expect to find anything worth reading.

However, the little free library in our neighborhood is exceptional. I know why it is usually filled with interesting titles for children and adults. Our son, who is a librarian, who has access to a lot of books through his library’s book sales program, and who is constantly promoting reading and the circulation of books, has adopted that little free library. He and his children check it out on a regular basis when they visit our home. One day not long ago, the children came with a stack of books that they had chosen to place in the library. They removed books that had been uncirculated for a long time and replaced them with their selected titles. Now, every time they visit our home, our grandchildren go to check the library. Only one book from the initial stocking remains and, in the words of our grandson, “It is a good one!” The book that has not been circulated is the first book in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Our son’s theory is that so many people have already read the book and so many copies are already in circulation that no one wants it right now.

Our grandchildren are keeping their eyes out for other good books to bring to that little free library. Our son is paying attention to circulation - to what comes and what goes and which books just sit without circulating. It is a fun pet project. They’ve gotten me interested and involved as well. As we continue to sort through our personal library, shifting which books we want to keep and which we want to pass on to others, we keep out an eye for books that we think will circulate in a little free library. We know where to place them.

We are a family of book lovers. We carry cards for two library systems and usually have books checked out from both at the same time. The front room of our house - the first that guests enter - is filled with bookshelves and books. My favorite chair is right next to the books where I can sit and read. That love for books is evident in our children and grandchildren as well. Our grandchildren love to crawl up into that same chair with a book and we make sure that there are plenty of children’s books available in our home. The three oldest grandchildren all know how much I love reading Go Dog Go! and There’s a Mouse in the House and a host of other titles. They can’t wait until their two-month-old brother is old enough for read aloud - partly because they still enjoy read aloud. The poems of Shel Silverstein are meant to be read aloud. It is far more satisfying than reading them silently.

As a lover of books in a family that loves books, I simply cannot understand the fear that is displayed by those who want to ban books from circulation. It seems that almost every day I read an article about another book that has been removed from school libraries by people who think that banning books is the way to keep people from reading them. Somehow they see ideas in books that threaten them and they go to considerable effort to try to keep others from seeing the books.

Of course banning books doesn’t work. It brings attention to the books and often results in increased circulation. Tell a middle school student not to read a book and you increase the likelihood that the student will read it. So it surprises me when people think that the solution to information they don’t like is to make less information available. Still, I have read enough articles in recent years about school banning books that I know it is a reality.

I was really surprised to read recently, however, to read in the Washington Post that the book Everywhere Babies by Susan Meyers, with delightful illustrations by Marla Frazee has been removed from public school libraries in Walton County, Florida. It joins a long list of award-winning books that have been placed on banned lists in Texas, Montana, Louisiana, and other states. The news really makes me want to rush down to our local bookstore and buy a few copies to put in little free libraries around our neighborhood.

It is really hard to figure out what has offended those who sought to have the book banned. The author, Susan Meyers, believes that the reason the book has been banned is that it has been included on several LGBtQ children’s book sites. The book is simply a celebration of babies, described by the Post as a “whimsical, lyrical ode to infancy.” My theory is that those who seek to have books banned are not themselves readers of books. They go through the web sites of groups who have ideas with which they disagree looking for titles those web sites review positively and then seek to have those titles banned.

So I’ll keep looking in little free libraries. I’ll take books from them that interest me and I’ll donate books that I think others might like to read. And don’t be surprised if you happen to be walking through our neighborhood and spot a little free library with a copy of Everywhere Babies or Maus or other books that have been banned. If you haven’t ever read a banned book, you might want to check out one of those copies.

Sisters retreat

Our house was full of laughter last night. Susan has two sisters, and they try to get together at least once a year for what we have lovingly begun to call “sisters retreat.” With Covid, they were not able to gather in 2020 or 2021, so it has been for them a long times since the three were together. The three husbands aren’t the focus of this occasional gathering of sisters. Sometimes they meet in a place where none of us are present. This time, it was practical for them to meet at our house and I am able to give them time to go on adventures and have time as sisters together without my active participation.

Having the gathering in our home, however, gives me an opportunity to be on the edge of a wonderful event. I get to overhear snippets of family stories and enjoy the laughter and joy of them being together.

I’ve been a part of this family for a long time, now. Susan and I began dating the spring before I went off to college and our college was in the town where her family lived. I was young and homesick and frightened about my abilities as a college student. Their home was a place of peace, refuge and home-cooked meals for me. As I spent more and more time with Susan, the family opened itself to my presence and welcomed me with warmth and love. From my point of view, Susan’s sisters became my sisters as well. I have over 50 years of experience and memories with them. I look forward to seeing them with the same joy that my wife has.

Despite the fact that in-laws are often the subject of jokes, my experience with in-laws is very positive. I don’t think it is possible to imagine a more thoughtful and loving mother- and father-in-law than those whose daughter I married. Because my father died when I was relatively young, I had more years with my father-in-law as a father than I did with the father of my family of origin. He was a beloved guide, mentor, teacher, and friend.

Their family and mind had many differences. To begin with, there was the matter of volume. I grew up with six brothers and sisters. Our house was often filled with loud voices. Sometimes when we were talking, we would just raise our voices more and more to be heard over all of the other voices. Dinner in our family involved lively debate about any number of subjects, including religion, politics, and a host of different topics.

I don’t remember ever hearing Susan’s parents raise their voices. Their home was calm and their dinner table quiet and polite. They discussed important topics, but they spoke one at a time and no one raised their voices. Susan’s mother could accomplish more with a single raised eyebrow than others accomplish with shouted commands.

Somehow, we blended those two styles of family. When our children were growing up, we had a lively dinner table with plenty of discussion, but we also were careful to keep things a bit more calm and quiet. On the other hand, we would sing and joke at the table and voices did get raised from time to time.

I am aware of that difference in volume because Susan and I now live together in our “empty nest” home. There are just two of us for dinner most nights. We can converse without the need to raise our voices. But just down the road is our son’s farmhouse with four children. Spilled water glasses, tears and even a bit of shouting are routine at the dinner table. It seems a bit chaotic compared to our home when they are not visiting, but I find that I come alive with the chaos and even crave it. I really love going to their home or having their family over to our house. I don’t mind cleaning up after a glass gets tipped over. I am fairly competent at consoling a crying child. I know how to pick up a fussy baby and provide a bit of calm.

Having the three sisters together isn’t a particularly noisy event. We aren’t going to receive complaints from our neighbors about raucous parties. But there is a warmth and humor to their conversations that spills out of the room where they have gathered. Last evening, I found myself so attracted to their conversation that I left the quiet of my study and books to just sit in the same room where they were visiting. I tried not to invade their “retreat” too much, but I really enjoyed sitting and listening to them, and I couldn’t help but share a story from time to time.

One of the deep pleasures of this life is being with people you love. You cannot judge the warmth or love of a family by the volume at the dinner table.

For many of us the isolation of the pandemic has meant less being together with those we love. We know that the pandemic is not over. We understand that there are real risks of contacting illness. We do what we can to prevent the spread of the illness. We are vaccinated and boosted. We keep our face masks near by. We follow protocols of frequent hand washing and keeping surfaces clean. But we know that the illness is still present in our communities. We also know how much our quality of life is dependent upon getting together with others. Living close to our son’s home and having our grandchildren in our lives is a blessing beyond measure. The return of the sisters retreat is a deep joy that fills our home and our hearts.

As I drifted off to sleep last night, the sisters were still enjoying their conversation. Somehow the small jar of jalapeño strawberry-jam in the refrigerator came to my mind. It is incredibly sweet and powerfully spicy at the same time. I’ve experienced jalapeño family life as well as strawberry family life. I’m a big fan of both and both together when the opportunity presents itself.

If you see me walking around with a smile on my face, it is one more sign that I am a person of incredibly good fortune surrounded by a wonderfully complex and exciting family. I’m filled with joy that the sisters retreat has returned.

Choosing words with care

When we were first forming our marriage it was important to us that we avoided some of the traditional trappings of marriage relationships. We wanted to form an equal partnership that wasn’t limited by traditional roles. Women can have meaningful careers. Men can take responsibility for domestic chores. It was the early years of the 1970’s. We were aware of a shift in language. No longer did it make sense to use male gender pronouns to refer to all people. “Mankind” no longer worked when referring to men and women. A committee is lead by a chairperson, not a chairman. The use of inclusive language became an important topic of conversation and debate in the church. The early years of our ministry coincided with the groundbreaking UCC Book of Worship, a collection of liturgies that carefully employed inclusive language and did not refer to God exclusively as male. That was followed by the New Century Hymnal, which took the concept into the arena of hymns. Lyrics were changed to reflect shifts in language usage.

We were careful in our choices of words, and when we began writing professionally, we poured over pages and pages of inclusive language guidelines to make sure that the documents we produced conformed to new rules of inclusiveness.

Over the span of our careers we noticed some erosion in the commitment of our denomination to inclusive language. Persons employed in the national setting of our denomination would occasionally use less inclusive language when leading public worship. Documents appeared, carrying the imprint of the denomination that had not been carefully edited for inclusive language. Hymns were sung at church events that used more male pronouns and projected a male gender identity on God. It reminded us of how difficult it is to alter language use.

Fairly late in our careers as pastors, we began to receive new education about persons who have non-binary gender identities. Often our first encounters left us scratching our heads, not always understanding the concerns that were being raised. A dear friend helped me immensely by saying, simply, “I’m not asking you to understand. I’m asking you to accept.” Of course I can accept things that I don’t understand. That doesn’t prevent me from seeking fuller understanding. It doesn’t eliminate my questions, but it does provide a way for a positive relationship to continue to grow as I continue to learn.

I still struggle with the use of plural pronouns to refer to individuals. I have heard the request of persons who experience themselves as not conforming to a rigid dualism of only two possible gender identities, and I try to use the pronouns they suggest, but I occasionally slip up, make mistakes, and use inappropriate language. I think I am getting better and more practiced and then I find that I have used words in a different manner than intended. I suppose a shift in language is a good mental exercise for my aging years. In order to keep my mind sharp, I need to think carefully before speaking and use words precisely.

I am not a person who rejects the use of plural pronouns with singular subjects. As a writer, there is a bit of a grammarian in me and I know some of the formal rules of grammar that we were taught about agreement of nouns and pronouns. But I also have found the use of the plurals “they, them, and theirs” to be useful when referring to individuals. Among other places, the pronouns seem to work much better when speaking of God than the traditional male pronouns of he, him, and his. My image of God is not one of a male being. God transcends gender.

Still, there are areas of language use that I don’t fully understand. For example some non-binary friends are uncomfortable with the gendered titles for parents, preferring not to be referred to as father or mother and using parent as a non-gendered term. Other friends, including at least one transgender person, use those terms when referring to themselves. I doubt that it is a major concern, because we use titles far less than did the generation of our grandparents. Children often use their parents’ first names instead of a title. There are many different names applied to grandparents. I enjoy it when our grandchildren call me grandpa, but I don’t mind it when they call me Ted. I also respond to papa with affection. For me the relationship with my grandchildren is far more important that the particular choice of words. In conversation with others, I take no offense when I am referred to as a parent or grandparent. I don’t need the title father.

Sometimes, I find myself feeling just a little bit awkward with my own choice of words. I got used to using sir and mam when I served as a Sheriff’s chaplain. Paramilitary organizations such as law enforcement agencies often use language common in military settings. I formed a habit of addressing others with the titles. Those titles, however, are very binary and not appropriate when addressing persons who find themselves not fitting into the dualism of male and female as the only gender options. In most cases, there is no need for a title at all. I can address individuals by using their names.

With five decades of working to use inclusive language, especially when talking about God, I confess that our language feels a bit slow to change. I still find myself in settings where male titles and pronouns are used to refer to God. The trinitarian formula, “Father, Son and Holy Spirit” persists in certain areas of liturgy, including baptism. It is pronounced by male and female clergy. I don’t think that a transformation of the language we use can fully take place in a single generation. We still fall back into old patterns from time to time. Still, being aware of language and careful in its use is a discipline worthy of our time and attention.

So, if I make a mistake in my choice of words, I pray that you will be patient with me and offer correction when needed. I am still learning and I hope I can continue to learn for as long as I am able to speak.

Wearing a mask

We have two birthdays coming up in our family. Our two granddaughters will turn 2 and 5 in the next couple of weeks. Since their birthdays are close to each other, their parents planned a joint birthday party which was held yesterday. Through the gift of modern technology, we were able to see pictures of the party as it was in progress. The older sister has had a love for turtles for several years, having seen and touched a pet tortoise when she was a toddler and enjoying seeing turtles and tortoises many times since. We’ve picked up toy turtles for her when we have traveled and other family members have given her stuffed animals and other turtle items. It came as no surprise to me that the party for the two girls had a turtle theme. There wee turtle cookies and stuffed turtles and a homemade turtle piñata. The weather was cooperative for the party and the children were able to play outside and share the piñata on the back deck. Later they all went down to the lake, which is near their house, to wade in the water and play in the sand at the beach. The pictures showed a group of happy children having a good time. It was one of many occasions when I wished I could have been there to enjoy the fun and perhaps to help the parents just a little bit, though the prints seem to do a wonderful job of planning and carrying out parties for their children without our help.

One of the pictures that we received shows a line of about 10 children waiting for their turn to take a swing with a plastic bat at the piñata. Our eight-year-old grandson is swinging the bat and the piñata is swinging wildly, In the background, a younger girl is holding her hands over her ears as if she is expecting a loud explosion when the piñata is broken. I laughed at the picture when I first saw it, but something invited me to take a second look and what I discovered is that the children weren’t wearing a blindfold. Looking back at the pictures, I see that they didn’t blindfold the children when it was their turn to swing the bat.

The images reminded me of something that I hadn’t remembered for many years. When I was a child, I didn’t like any of the games that were played by putting a blindfold on the child and spinning the child around and around. I don’t remember having a piñata when I was a young child. I think we made one for a Mexican-themed study unit in school, but I was an older elementary student at the time. But pin the tail on the donkey was a very popular birthday party game when I was a child. I hated that game. I don’t remember any instances of a child being hurt with a thumbtack, though we were warned about the dangers of that part of the game. Mostly I remember being incredibly bad at the game and not even being able to pin my tail even at the right height, let alone the right end of the donkey. Most of all I hated the sensation of being blindfolded and spun around.

As a teenager, as part of my ground school flight training, we each took turns in an exercise with a vertigo simulator. The device was very primitive. These days they have virtual reality goggles that can be programed to induce vertigo very quickly. No such devices existed in our time. We used a simple office chair that could be spun around. One by one, we were given a piece of broomstick to hold between our knees and move as if it were a control stick in an airplane. We sat on the chair, had a blindfold placed over our eyes, and then the chair was rotated slowly. Our job, as we rode the chair was to keep the stick centered. If we felt that we were leaning in one direction or the other, we were to move the stick as if correcting the attitude of the plane. One by one we watched our classmates become confused and unable to tell which direction is up. When it was my turn, I did no better than my classmates. The point of the exercise was for us to understand how quickly a pilot could become disorientated when flying in clouds without outside visual reference. Once disoriented, a pilot could input incorrect flight control actions with fatal results. A doctor explained how the fluid in the inner ear cause nerves to send signals to the brain about head and body movements relative to gravity. Those signals help us keep our balance in normal circumstances.

In cases of severe vertigo, the victim can become nauseated and vomit. In the case of our simulation with an office chair and a blindfold, it took just a few seconds after the blindfold was removed to regain our orientation and our balance.

I’m relieved that at least some parents have come to the conclusion that inducing vertigo as a party game isn’t all that much fun for children. Add to that the benefit of having the child with the bat swinging at the piñata instead of another child and I suspect that the birthday party was more fun for everyone.

As my flight training continued, I learned exercises to decrease the effects of vertigo. Being careful about head movements, developing a consistent instrument scan, learning to trust the instruments available to the pilot and other practices can lessen the sensation of vertigo. Well-trained pilots can fly for hours without visual references outside of the cockpit and without the sensations of vertigo. Learning to recognize vertigo is also important in learning to fly safely. Understanding vertigo probably would hav made me slightly more skilled at the games from my childhood. Short of that training, however, I simply disliked the exercises.

Knowing that my grandchildren were escaping the experience brought a smile to my face as I looked at the pictures. It is amazing to me how brilliant their parents are.

Copyright (c) 2019 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!


I am not sure exactly when I was first introduced to the practice of centering prayer. I think it probably was sometime during my college years. I can remember specific times of practicing centering prayer during my seminary years, and I have encountered opportunities to practice with others on many occasions over the years. There are many traditions of centering prayer and many different ways of pursuing the practice. What works for me is to find a comfortable and quiet place where my body can relax while my mind remains alert. I begin by focusing my attention on my breathing. Each thought that comes to my mind is released. I think about it for a bit and then allow it to depart to be dealt with at another time.

After many sessions in structured settings such as workshops or classes, I began to observe the practice on my own. Most days I suppose I devote 5 to 10 minutes to the practice. After years of practice, I have learned to be able to use it in places that aren’t quiet, such as when I am sitting waiting for an appointment or catching my breath after a run through a busy airline terminal.

There have been many times when the practice has improved my life. I use the practice to help me deal with pain. I need to preface that by saying that for whatever reason, pain medications really work for me - perhaps even better than intended. When I was much younger, I experienced painful spasms in my back. I phoned my physician, who prescribed an opioid pain medication and a muscle relaxant. I took a single dose of the medication and slept for 22 hours, after which I was afraid to take any more. The same pain medicine was later prescribed by a dentist after a root canal procedure. Again, I took a single pill and decided i needed no more. In fact, I had to “train” my dentist to used less medication in general for dentistry. After seeing the same dentist for more than a decade, I convinced him to reduce the dose of Novocain to half of what he would normally use. That way my face didn’t remain numb for a whole day following a procedure. Now that we have moved, I made the same request of a new dentist, but he obviously did not comply.

So, it is possible that I have some way been granted mercy when it comes to pain. However, centering prayer seems to be a very effective way for me to deal with pain. In 2001, when burning a large slash pile at my mother’s summer place, I stepped too close to the pile as the accelerant flashed. I was burned on my face, chest and arms. After a bit of a wild adventure that included an 80-mile ambulance ride, what I now know was a morpheme overdose, a couple of hours of having my burns cleaned in the ER, and a few more adventures, I was receiving follow-up care in the office of a dermatologist. When my dressings were being changed, I focused my attention on my prayer. Later, when I was completely healed the dermatologist commented on how I would go into a “Zen-like” state when he was treating me. Not being a practitioner of Buddhism, I wasn’t sure what he meant, but I decided that he was referring to my centering prayer practice.

Again, the practice was a huge benefit to me a little over two years ago when I experienced the trauma of my wife having a cardiac arrest. She was in the hospital at the time and the arrest was the result of a reaction to medication she was receiving. The response was very quick and she was revived with CPR. After being transported to the ICU, she arrested a second time. I was witness to the initial arrest, and heard of the second one over the hospital pa when they called the second code blue. Later that night, after she had been stabilized, and while she was on a ventilator in the ICU, I sat with her and dozed in a chair next to her bed. During the night there was a code blue elsewhere in the ICU. I heard the call over the pa system and I could hear the team moving carts and responding to the crisis. I experienced what I believe is a panic attack. My heart rate became rapid, my breathing short and shallow, and I worried that I was somehow experiencing my own heart attack. However, I was able to shift into my centering prayer and within a few minutes my breathing was regulated and had slowed. My heart also had returned to a normal pulse. Knowing a bit about post traumatic stress and realizing that I was exhausted as well as experiencing stress, I was able to defer seeking help with my condition. After a few more panic attacks, I sought and received treatment from an excellent trauma psychologist and the panic attacks ceased.

In both my experience with burn pain and with panic attacks, I experienced real benefits of centering prayer.

The purpose of prayer, however, is not seeking personal benefit. We don’t pray in order to escape suffering or pain. And I have had the good fortune of witnessing the response of others to prayers. It is not magic, and I do not have the power to change the course of history, but I have witnessed others’ medical conditions improve as many of us prayed. I have know of problems that seemed insurmountable fading through the power of prayer. Having a prayer discipline seems like a simple thing, but we live in a complex world and there are many different perspectives on the events of our lives. There are plenty of prayers I have offered that seem to have been unanswered. There continue to be so many innocent victims in this world whose needs far exceed anything I have every known. I don’t pretend to know what to ask for. I simply allow the quiet to enter my life. It is a discipline. I do it every day. May I somehow contribute to the healing of the world.


When our son was two years old, we paid a visit to to beloved teachers of ours. The couple, retired after decades of service had been very influential in our lives. Ross was the professor of Christian Education at our Seminary. Martha was the director of the Chicago Theological Seminary Preschool. We were fortunate to go to seminary in the waning days of traditional Christian Education in Theological Seminaries. At that time, seminaries had laboratory schools, which were real schools with real children where students could learn first-hand the skills of teaching and learning faith with children. Ross and Martha were instrumental in our graduate education, teaching us many skills that we have used all of our lives.

For two years of the time we lived in Chicago, Susan had worked daily with Martha as the assistant director of the preschool. Martha was working on her book, “The Young Child as Person,” at that time. I was assisting by taking pictures in the preschool for illustrations in the book. It was the practice for students who were working and learning in the school to join the Snyders for lunch each day to discuss what had occurred in the school. Those lunches became places of deep learning for us, and it continues to amaze us how much about the ministry we learned from our conversations about the lives of three- and four-year-old children.

We were eager, now five years out of seminary, to visit Ross and Martha. We were equally eager to introduce them to our two-year-old son, and to have him meet our teachers. It was a wonderful visit and a reminder both of how much we had learned from our teachers and how much we had yet to learn in the adventure of being parents and pastors.

Martha, always the teacher, had prepared gifts for our son. We came away from that visit with copies of two books by A. A. Milne. One was a combination of two books of poetry: “When We Were Very Young” and “Now We are Six.”

I suppose, were you to ask our son today what poems his father read to him, he might mention the poems of Shel Silverstein. We did so enjoy those poems and the delightful drawings that accompanied them. I’m pretty sure “Where the Sidewalk Ends,” would come to his mind as one of the poems we read as he was growing up. I think, however, if we were to ask him to identify a single poem that we read the most in his growing up years, he might come up with one, whose lines I quote often when I am around him and our grandchildren: The A. A. Milne poem Sand-Between-The-Toes.

“I went down to the shouting sea,
Taking Christopher down with me,
For Nurse had given us sixpence each-
And down we went to the beach.

“We had sand in the eyes and the ears and the nose,
And sand in the hair, and sand-between-the-toes.
Whenever a good nor'wester blows,
Christopher is certain of

The thing is, although I loved that poem and read it often, we didn’t raise our children anywhere near the sea. They were born in North Dakota, went to elementary school in Idaho, and moved back to South Dakota with us where they graduated from High School. We did visit the ocean as often as we were able. Many a family vacation found us heading to the coasts of Oregon or Washington. And each time our children went to the beach well through their teenage years they had to bear with a father who recited the refrain of that poem:

“We had sand in the eyes and the ears and the nose,
And sand in the hair, and sand-between-the-toes.
Whenever a good nor'wester blows,
Christopher is certain of

Now I have retired, well mostly, from my career as a pastor, and we have moved from South Dakota to our new home here in Northwest Washington. We are in this place because the luxury we most wanted in our retirement was to be able to live near our family. That, however, proved to be an enormous challenge because we have two children who are educated and creative and adventurous. At the time we retired, our son and his family lived here in Washington and our Daughter and her family lived in Japan. Since we retired our daughter has moved from Japan to South Carolina. She’s on the same continent as we these days, but it isn’t exactly close.

Our son and his children, however, live just down the road from our new home. And, for the first times in our lives, we have found ourselves living where we live close enough to go “down to the shouting sea.” The beach is a fifteen minute walk from our house. Yesterday, when we went down to the sea, it wasn’t shouting. The tide was out and the clam diggers were splashing about in their boots. The sun was bright and our jackets were unzipped, and we didn’t have time to walk very far along the shore before it was time to head back to our house. After all, there was a ham in the oven and our family were coming for Easter dinner at our house.

We’ve learned to take a short walk to the beach and return without sand in our eyes and ears and nose. We didn’t have sand in our hair or sand-between-the-toes. And yesterday, the sea wasn’t “galloping grey and white.” All the same the poem came to my mind. I guess I will always make the association between that poem and our teachers and their amazing capacity to make gifts of wisdom that endures for generations.

I know there are thousands of ways to talk about resurrection in this Easter Season, but one sign that life and love are eternal comes to me in the gift of poems we received from teachers who were 50 years older than we. Those poems, and the spirit of those teachers is one of the gifts we make to our grandchildren. They have already traveled more than the span of our lives.

As I walk along the beach, one of the gifts of this phase of my life is knowing that when our grandchildren have become grandparents, they might take them to the beach and recite the poem-become-family-legacy:

“We had sand in the eyes and the ears and the nose,
And sand in the hair, and sand-between-the-toes.
Whenever a good nor'wester blows,
Christopher is certain of


Easter has come. The time of celebration is at hand. Alleluia! Let the hymns ring from the churches! Let the people rejoice!

But remember, Easter dawns slowly for so many. Resurrection is a difficult concept to understand - a holy mystery that requires struggle to accept. Look at the stories we tell on this day and the weeks to come. Mary met the resurrected Christ and thought at first that he was the gardener. Disciples talked with the resurrected Christ for the day’s walk to Emmaus, but only when they ate together did they recognize him. Thomas refused to believe the stories of his friends until he touched the resurrected Christ. Those closest to Jesus struggled to understand the resurrection.

We should not be surprised that we struggle to understand.

Landslides and floods have killed at least 167 people in the Philippines. Homes are gone, washed out to sea. Families are devastated, their loved ones buried under the mud of hillsides that have fallen. Shelters are full of grieving and displaced people, soaked in the muddy water. It doesn’t feel like Easter to so many of them.

More than 150 Palestinians have been injured in clashes with Israeli police at the al-Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem, according to medics helping to treat the injured. Protestors have gathered at the flashpoint site, also known as Temple Mount, at the heart of competing historical claims after more than 20 Palestinians have been killed by stepped up Israeli sweeps in the West Bank in what is the deadliest period of attacks in Israel for more than 15 years. The country is on edge. It doesn’t feel like Easter.

The people of Ukraine brace for more deadly attacks even as they struggle to rebuild after weeks of war with Russia. As the human cost of the war begins to be revealed in Russia with the release of pictures of the crew of the sunken warship are shown for the first time, Russian leaders speak boldly of their new attack on Mariupol. Ukraine continues to beat the odds in the remarkably uneven conflict. The sanctions of western countries are hitting hard at Russia, but have yet to bring talks of peace to the region. It doesn’t feel like Easter as the people hunker down for yet another attack.

Our friends at South Park United Church of Christ will be singing their Easter hymns with tears in their eyes this morning. Their beloved pastor Bruce, suddenly died and was taken from them this Lent. After decades of shared ministry and so many stories that have intertwined, it doesn’t feel right. They will come together. They will celebrate resurrection, but it just won’t be the same. It won’t be at all like Easter to them.

Torrential rains have killed more than 400 people in South Africa, where about 40,000 people are affected by unprecedented flooding. There are fears of more deaths as search and rescue operations continue. Scores of people are still unaccounted for. With more rain on its way, emergency teams face further peril as they search for survivors. It doesn’t feel like Easter to people who lack clean drinking water a week after the first floods swept through the region.

Despite the lifting of mask mandates and the easing of travel restrictions, new infections of Covid and new deaths remind us that the pandemic is anything but over. Health officials warn that this is not the time to ease efforts at preventing illness. New variants will certainly arise and spread with alarming speed. New victims will be found. After more than two years of living with the global pandemic, health officials warn that not only is this pandemic not over, but new pandemics are on their way. It doesn’t feel like Easter for those suffering illness and those grieving the deaths of loved ones.

Easter dawns slowly. We should not be surprised that we struggle to understand.

In our time with children during worship this morning, we will tell the children and remind the congregation about the many different symbols we use when we talk of the mystery of resurrection. Ideas of life beyond death and of love that never dies are hard to understand and hard to explain, so we do what people have long done. We use images and poems and metaphors and symbolic language. We speak of butterflies emerging from chrysalis. Sometimes we teach our children big words like eclosion. A chrysalis appears to be something that is dead and dried, but it is far from so. In the midst of that dried shell hormones are flowing, a central nervous system is triggering movement, emergence is beginning. Things are not always the way they seem and we teach this to our children that they might remember such lessons when they face hard times, when grief enters their lives, when they come to a place where they think that all is lost.

In the church, we never expect the true message of Easter to come through in a single worship service. We’ll bring the best of our music and the most dramatic of our skills, but we know that Easter is more than a moment - more than a single worship service. In our calendar, Easter is a season that is even longer than Lent. We spend 40 days struggling with the concept of death. It takes 50 to begin to understand the mystery of life beyond death.

So we don’t pretend to come to worship with all of the answers. We don’t pretend that we gather in a world without suffering. We don’t forget the victims, so numerous, of the wars, of the weather, of the frailties of human existence. We gather in the midst of this imperfect world with its victims, far too numerous, and grief far too deep, and challenges that seem to be unsurmountable. It is not hard to look at this world and see that it is a place in need of resurrection. And even if Easter dawns slowly, even if we struggle to understand, Easter has indeed come.

Christ is risen! Alleluia!

Sabbath Rest

There are different ways to talking about a day. Sometimes, when we mention a day, we are thinking of the time between sunrise and sunset, the portion of time when it it light outside, as opposed to night. Sometimes we use the same word, “day” to refer to a period of 24 hours - the span between midnight and midnight. Our calendars register the new day beginning at midnight.

The tradition for many years among faithful Jews, is to begin the recognition of Sabbath with sunset on the evening before the Sabbath. Often there is a special dinner. Synagogue series are usually held on Friday evenings. The entire next day is available for rest and recreation.

In the Gospel of Luke, there is just one sentence devoted to the day between the time Jesus was laid in the tomb and when his resurrection was discovered: “On the sabbath they rested according to the commandment.”

Holy Week, with all of its intensity, special services, and preparations comes down to a day of rest, with just one sentence about the activities of Jesus followers.

Of course, they were overcome with shock and grief. I’ve often visited families on the day after the news of the death of a loved one was received. It seems like that “next day” is frequently a time for the first visit from the pastor. We might talk a bit about arrangements. I might learn of family members who are traveling to be with those I am visiting. We might talk about the one who has died. Sometimes the family is ready to begin planning a funeral. Sometimes we need to just share some space first. Sometimes no one needs to talk very much. Just being together is enough for a while.

It is that kind of shocked silence, with an occasional remembrance of Jesus that I imagine the disciples shared on that sabbath day when they rested.

In the Christian Church, since Roman times, there has been a tradition of a Great Easter Vigil that begins at sundown the night before Easter. That service is long and complex and requires a lot of planning. It is not, however, a popular service in mainline protestant congregations. I had never heard of the service until the revised United Church of Christ Book of Worship was published early in my career as a pastor. I didn’t attempt to lead such a service until fairly late in my career. When I did, only a handful of people attended the service.

For many Christians Holy Saturday is a day for rest and family and preparation. There are plenty of Easter Egg Hunts scheduled around the area for the day. The worship leaders in our congregation will probably be getting extra rest, sleeping in after an evening Good Friday service, resting up for a 6 am Easter Sunrise service.

My day of preparation will involve at least an hour of stringing origami butterflies onto fish line. I have a box of them, folded by members of the church, destined to be part of the time with children in worship and later a transformation of the “desert” bulletin board that has been up to display Lenten themes.

Another day of preparation task at our house will be preparing prayer beads, sculpted out of special clay by the children, that will later be strung to make prayer beads as a gift for our lead pastor when she departs for sabbatical.

It is fitting that the “old” pastors - the ones who are semi-retired - are focusing their attention on projects of the children. We enjoy man different faith formation activities with people of all ages, but the children’s ministries are especially meaningful to us. And children’s ministry involves quite a bit of craft activity. We get to play with paint and tape and clay and string and beads. We get to prepare coloring pictures and quiet activities. We get to read and tell stories. It is a fun assignment for us at this phase of our life and ministry.

There have been days over the years when I led Easter worship services so tired that my emotions were raw and on edge. I cried easily, partly at the intensity of the Easter experience, and partly out of sheer exhaustion. I used to say that I could give a sermon for every day of Holy Week and then for the Monday that followed there was just one sentence: “The pastor took a nap.”

However, those days are behind me now. Through the grace of God the church is giving us a different kind of sabbath rest at the ends of our careers. We work fewer hours each week. We have less responsibility. We have time for personal projects, time to reflect, and time to rest. We have time for grandchildren and gardening and games.

So today will be for me a special day of prayer. As I string the butterflies, I can reflect on the people who folded them. I can picture the fingers creasing the thin paper and making the precise folds to shape the figures. I can remember the concentration on the faces. I can think of the many gifts of those who gave a bit of their busy lives to fold a square of colored paper in a precise pattern. I can give thanks for their generosity of spirit and their gifts of time and talent.

I can also pray for the learners in our faith formation programs - for children who are just learning the stories of our faith - for confirmands who are asking questions that demonstrate a wisdom beyond their years - for adults who are making new discoveries about the interconnected nature of faith and life. I can picture the people with whom I share a book study in my mind and think of the questions they raise this week that left me pondering. I can recall the eagerness of the children as they carried Palms around the church last Sunday. My prayers will bring smiles to my face and joy to my heart.

So today, I will rest, according to the commandment. And tomorrow, we celebrate.

Good Friday

I have walked the early steps of grief with many people. As a pastor, I was called in to be with people near the end of their lives and I was often present at the point of death to provide care for those who survived. As a suicide first responder, I took my turn at “on call” duties ready to be dispatched at any hour of the day or night when a suicide occurred to provide support services to family members as law enforcement officers conducted their investigations. As a law enforcement chaplain, I was part of the official process of death notification for those who had lost family members to crime, accidents and other sudden and traumatic events. Other than funeral directors, there are few career paths that lead one to the place of death as often as I took that journey with others.

Often I walked with strangers: people whom I had just met and who didn’t know me before tragedy entered their lives.

There are no hard and fast rules for those situations. Some people handle the news in near silence, unable to find words to express their emotions. Others cry and wail. A few fall to the floor. I learned years ago that the floor is your friend in some situations of grief. A person won’t fall further down than the floor. If they can be lowered to the floor gently, they are less likely to be injured. I also learned that there are a lot of situations in this world where the appropriate response is to do nothing, to say nothing, to simply be present and witness the moments. A person who is struck down by grief needs some time to process the overwhelming circumstances in which they find themself.

Many people, however, are not good at waiting. I found it to be especially true of the cops with whom I worked. They are people of action. They are doers. They want to have a task to perform. Some of them are so uncomfortable with 15 or 20 minutes of silence that I learned to give them small chores to perform so that they didn’t rush the process: “Officer, could you please find some water for this person?” “Could you bring around your car so we have a warm place to sit?”

We are not practiced at waiting. We want to act. We want to do things. I used to say that in the church, we grieve by feeding people. Dinners brought to the home, funeral luncheons prepared, groceries brought to the home of grief - a lot of food just shows up when people are grieving. It is something that witnesses to grief can do when they don’t know what else to do.

Sometimes, however, people just need time to sit with grief. They don’t need food, or water, or words for a little while. They need to cry and think. They do not need to be alone.

Holy Week offers many gifts to faithful followers of Jesus. One of those gifts is the possibility of practicing grief. One thing I learned through years of experience is that none of us is immune from grief. l remember so clearly the night when my phone rang and I expected the person on the other end of the line to be asking me to go out and help carry news of tragedy to yet another grieving family. Instead it was my cousin telling me that my brother was dead. It turned out that a massive heart attack ended his life, but at the time, we did not know any details. We just knew that his body had been recovered from his work van which had slid into the Missouri River. As I lay in bed, trying to process the news, I was acutely aware that just across the hallway from our bedroom was the bedroom where my mother was sleeping and that among the tasks of the time to come would be telling her that her son had died. She outlived two of her children. The world isn’t supposed to work that way. A mother’s grief is unique.

Today, Good Friday, our primary task is to wait. To sit with the grief of the world. We have time to ponder how the simple man Jesus threatened the powers of his day. Empire always has the power to crush innocents with impunity. Rome was particularly cruel in the methods of execution employed. We can talk about resurrection, but there will be time for that later. Right now, today, it is time to simply sit with the grief and horror and the enormity of loss. God become human has shared every part of human existence, has experienced grief, has cried tears, and even experienced the cruelty of an unjust execution. Death is real. We call the day Good Friday not because of some expectation of pleasure, but because we find ourselves with nowhere to turn but to God. It is God Friday.

Of course, most Christians don’t allow time to sit with grief. When a death occurs, we drop everything. We don’t go to work. We stay home from school. We gather together and allow grief to run its course. Holy Week, however, is generally a week of business as usual, full steam ahead. We might cram in one or two special Holy Week services, but that is it. We have other things to occupy our minds and our energies.

And so we take up the observance as a discipline. It is one of the oldest rituals of Christianity - the observance of the death of Jesus. We do this every year. We read the verses of the tennebrae service. We extinguish the candles. We sit in the dark for a few minutes. And we know we will do it again next year. Over and over again. It is practice for the realities of this life. One day the theme will be the death of another person we love. One day the theme will be our own death.

But that isn’t today. Today is a day to simply wait and watch and sit with grief. It is enough.

Maundy Thursday, 2022

It is Maundy Thursday. The name of the Christian holiday comes from Jesus instructions to his followers about how they are to live with each other and with their neighbors. The name Maundy Thursday, more specifically, comes from the Latin word for Jesus mandate: “mandatum.” The new mandate, delivered by Jesus to his followers on the night of his arrest and the eve of his crucifixion, is to love one another. In the Church, we often tell the story of another detail of that night, the words of institution for the sacrament of Holy Communion: “This is my body . . . remember me.” “This is my blood . . . remember me.” However, for some reason, we don’t always tell the story of Jesus instructions to the disciples about loving one another. Specifically, we have been invited to love one another as Jesus has loved us.

Jesus love for his disciples was complex, to say the least. He showed little interest in the biases of the prevailing culture. He demonstrated love to people who were often marginalized by popular society. He demonstrated love to those who were politically unpopular. He demonstrated love beyond the traditional definition of his own religion of birth. Then he invited his followers to love as he loved.

Very quickly after Jesus’ death and resurrection, the church interpreted this love as being multi-generational. Jesus’s mandate applies not only to the first generation of those who follow him, but to every generation. Jesus love is not restricted to those who were alive when he was carrying out his earthy ministry, but apples to every generation. At a bare minimum, Christians who practice the observances of the church in our time must understand that Jesus’ love has no end and that the mandate is to love not only those with whom we share the same time on this earth, but with all people in every generation.

The mandate is to love the children of the future - those who will inherit the earth after our time has passed - with the same love that we apply to those of our own generation. We often don’t seem to take this mandate seriously. We continue to use the precious resources of this planet at an alarming rate - as if a single generation has the right to all of the resources without sharing. We have used fossil fuels to keep us warm, to light our nights, and to travel across the globe. And yet, we also know that our rate of consumption of these resources threatens to destroy all human life. Cities and farms are plagued by hot, unstable weather, coast lands and islands are inundated. Famine creeps across the land with increased desertification. All of this is the result of choices we are making in our generation.

Already there are those who suffer. Already there are wars fought over who has the right to control the limited resources of this planet. Already millions have become refugees in the struggle.

Maundy Thursday is often seen by Christians as a day of lament and grief. We connect with the grief experienced by Jesus’ first disciples as they went through a farewell meal and final instructions before witnessing the arrest of Jesus. We express our own grief over the losses of loved ones and changes in the way we understand the world. We lament the injustice of this world even as we confess that we have participated in creating that injustice.

Today we must add to that grief and lament, our grief over the rapid changes in our planet. We mourn the loss of the glaciers in the high country and the ice at the polar caps. We grieve over the devastating effects of flooding in so many low-lying areas of the planet. We cry with the refugees of violence and glimpse how that violence is connected to our own over consumption of the resources of this earth.

When we are honest with ourselves, we grieve our own failure to be faithful to the mandate to love one another - we have not loved the future days of our children and their children and their children. We have not loved as Jesus loved.

It is a holy day in the midst of a holy week. It is an invitation to repentance - to turning in a new direction - toward demonstrating our love for one another in ways we have so far failed to do.

Today as we go about our solemn services, may we remember the depth of the mandate to love one another. When we witness the washing of feet and the holiness of every drop of water, may we remember the dry lake beds and empty streams and rivers of global drought caused by our greed. When we read the sacred texts may we hear the commandment to love as Jesus loved. When we light the candles and walk the labyrinth, may our footsteps remind us of the fleeing footsteps of refugees. When we taste the bread and cup of Holy Communion may we be reminded of the shortages of food and drink that plague too many of the people whom we were commanded to love.

May this day be about the beginnings of change for us. May we join our sisters and brothers to pray together the words of Archbishop Oscar Romero:

“It helps, now and then, to step back and take the long view. The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision. We accomplish in our lifetimes only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God's work. Nothing we do is complete, which is another way of saying that the kingdom always lies beyond us. No statement says all that could be said. No prayer fully expresses our faith. No confession brings perfection. No pastoral visit brings wholeness. No program accomplishes the church's mission. No set of goals and objectives includes everything.

“This is what we are about: We plant seeds that one day will grow. We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise. We lay foundations that will need further development. We provide yeast that produces effects far beyond our capabilities. We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and do it well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord's grace to enter and do the rest.

“We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker. We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs. We are prophets of a future not our own. Amen.”

Not Ginkgo

Here is a lesson you should learn: Don’t believe everything you read on the Internet. And here is a prime example: Yesterday, I wrote in my journal about the Ginkgo tree in my back yard. The problem with that entire journal entry is that I don’t have a Ginkgo tree in my back yard. The tree pictured in yesterday’s entry is a Cherry plum tree. “Cherry plum is super easy to take care of, with resistance to almost all pests and diseases. It is a perfect option for gardeners with brown thumbs.” that is according to the application on my phone that I use to identify plants. That is the same application that originally misidentified the tree. For several weeks - more than a month - I have believed that it was a Ginkgo tree. Alas, I was misled. Worse, I passed on the misinformation to my readers.

Granted, the impact of this misinformation isn’t very severe. There aren’t that many people who read my journal. And for those who regularly read my journal, you have the correction just a day later. I confess that I am no expert in plant identification. The leaves on the tree should have been an easy giveaway, but somehow, I wasn’t looking at the leaves when the tree was covered in beautiful blossoms. The bottom line is that I was wrong, and I apologize for any misunderstandings this may have caused.

It is interesting to me that correcting my mistakes and apologizing for having been wrong comes easier to me than it did when I was younger. I used to say that I reached the peak of my intelligence at age 25. When I was 25 years old I was filled with confidence. The freshly-earned diploma with “Doctor” on it was placed on my wall and I assumed that I was an expert in at least one small corner of the world. I knew a little bit about academic theology, but in small town North Dakota, it was a bit more than some of the other folks. I was fairly to assert my authority, to argue fine points of theology, and to make assumptions about what was right and wrong when it came to running a church. Of course, I found myself in all kinds of situations where I didn’t know what to do and I didn’t have the knowledge and experience for the circumstances. I boldly forged ahead anyway.

What I was at age 25 wasn’t the peak of my intelligence, but I might have been near the peak of my bravado. I thought I was intelligent. I was full of myself. It took years of being a minister and serving congregations for me to soften my approach and to lighten up. Fortunately for me, the people I served were gentle and understanding and gave me room to figure out my way.

One of the real treats of being semi-retired and working in a church where I am not the lead pastor and I am not in charge is that I don’t have to be the expert. I still carry a sizable load of self-confidence. I know how to do my job and I understand the dynamics of the church I am serving. There are plenty of times when I can see things that the pastors are not seeing. But I don’t have to be the expert. The buck doesn’t stop at my desk, for what it is worth.

I have been thinking a bit about the bravado and rush to be the expert that was a part of my younger years as we work our way through various levels of pandemic protocols. Clearly the Covid pandemic is still with us. We can’t just go back to the way things were. We carry responsibility for protecting those we serve. In our church we have a Covid advisory committee that has among its members genuine experts. There is an infectious disease specialist and a nurse. They have access to the latest scientific studies land they are acting with the best interests of the church in mind. As the pandemic slides toward becoming endemic, however, I am hearing more and more grumbling in the church about their recommendations. While mask mandates have fallen away in many places, we still must wear masks in the church except when we are in our offices with the door closed. That means that we have a tendency to stay in our offices with the doors closed, something I never did as a pastor. We have staff meetings over Zoom when we are all in a cluster of offices at the end of one hallway.

People ask me when we will be able to attend church without masks. I do not know the answer. The mask mandate means that we do not serve food at the church. Recently we found out that simple snacks are OK, if the group is less than 10 persons, if everyone present is fully vaccinated and boosted, and if everyone agrees about removing masks to eat. We have only been allowed to sing in church for the past two weeks. Wind instruments have been banned from our services. We checked with the advisory group about having brass for Easter and were told that these were the requirements: 1) All players must be vaccinated, boosted and symptom-free. 2) All instruments must have covers over the bells 3) The horns must be played facing the open exits of the building with the exits on the opposite side of the building open as well. 4) Horns must face downwind with the wind at the backs of the players.

I’m pretty sure we are safe from spreading the virus under those conditions. We are also pretty safe from having the effect of brass music heard by the majority of the congregation.

The issue in the church, and in the community, however goes far beyond protocols and procedures. It isn’t about whether or not we wear masks or what kind of instruments make music for our worship. It is about the erosion of trust in the experts. Medical experts in our society are not good about admitting mistakes. There are plenty of good people who have followed all of the protocols and still were infected. Furthermore, the system has been distrusted because of the inability of the US medical system to offer fair health care at a reasonable cost. To put it simply, too many people have left emergency rooms and hospitals and clinics feeling that they have been scammed. They are not inclined to trust the experts.

It is a good time to not be in charge. I’m glad I can defer to others in these issues. I hear the frustration of the people, but I can always say, “I can’t even identify a tree in my back yard correctly, you don’t want to turn to me for medical advice.”


Decades ago when we lived in Chicago, there was a Ginkgo tree that we would walk pas on our way to and from the library. At the time, I didn’t know much about that type of tree. I had never seen one growing in the mountains of my native Montana. Someone told me that the Ginkgo was the oldest tree used in ornamental landscaping. The Ginkgo is literally a living fossil. Fossils of the leaves have been dated in the range of 270 million years old.

The trees that appear in landscaping in the United States draw their heritage from the rediscovery of the Ginkgo in 1691 in China. Ginkgo seeds and trees were brought to the United States in the late 1700s. The trees are revered in China as a source of medicine. Ginkgo biloba is a popular dietary supplement and one of the top=selling herbal medicines. Ginkgo biloba extract is collected from the dried green leaves of the plant and is available as a liquid extracts, capsules, and tablets.

We bought our house out here in October, when the leaves of the trees were turning and falling from the plants. I noticed brilliant yellow leaves on one of the trees in the back yard, but didn’t think much about it. I guess I was in a hurry when I raked up the leaves and not paying attention. I would think I would have noticed the distinctive fan shape of the Ginkgo leaves, but somehow I didn’t. It wasn’t until this spring that I began to investigate the various plants that are growing in our yard and I was surprised to find that the tree growing in the northeast corner of our lot is indeed a Ginkgo tree.

It is covered in beautiful white blossoms at the present - a real visual treat each time I look out the north windows of our house or step out onto our back deck.

I know that the tree in our back yard is very young. It hasn’t been long since this area was a forest of black birch trees - the trees for which Birch Bay its named. The birch trees grow quickly and have shallow root systems. While they tolerate the moist ground, they often fall in high winds and we get plenty of wind around here. New trees are constantly springing from the rich soil. Within our subdivision, however, the plants are carefully selected by people who know something about landscaping. And, walking around the neighborhood, I have discovered that the landscapers had a thing for Ginkgo trees. There are several of them on our street and on neighboring streets as well. The blossoms add to the beauty of the cherry and crab apple trees growing in the neighborhood, but the distinctive shape of the trees and the leaves that will soon emerge, make the Ginkgo trees stand out.

It is yet another reminder that we have migrated to a new place. For 25 years the only trees in our yard were ponderosa pine trees plus a few spruce trees that we planted. The spruce trees need a bit of water and we failed to properly establish some of them in our early years of home ownership in the Black Hills. The neighbor to the west had aspen planted in their yard and the trees quickly were thriving with their brilliant yellow color in the fall. There are also a few birch in the hills, but far and away the most common tree in the forest is the ponderosa pine. We loved living adjacent to a pine forest. I loved the sound of the wind in the trees, the crunch of needles underfoot during the dry parts of the year, and the smell of the pines. I was less enamored with the annual spring pollen dump when pollen coated everything including the house, the car and the yard. Clouds of pollen would be raised by the lawn mover the first few times I mowed in the spring.

My nose is teaching me that there are different kinds of pollen around here. Our back deck is covered in pollen, but there are no nearby pine trees. The pollen must be coming from the ornamental trees in our neighborhood - perhaps from the Ginkgo as well as from other plants in the area. I know that after I have lived in this area for a few years, my body will adjust to the plants that grow here and I will be less affected by seasonal allergies. I’m not suffering, but I am aware that things have changed in my life.

The Ginkgo tree is an unexpected bonus of this house we have selected to live in for a few years. I don’t know if the harsh winters in South Dakota or the lack of soil moisture is the reason we didn’t see Ginkgo trees in Rapid City. I know that the trees don’t grow well in hot, dry climates, but the Black Hills are hardly a desert, so I’m going with the below zero temperatures in the winter, without really knowing what I’m talking about.

Trees have an additional value because they live longer than the humans who plant them. Planting a tree is an investment in a future that extends beyond the life span of the one who plants it. That makes it a noble task, whether it is a common tree, replacing one that had previously grown in the area, or something more exotic, like the Ginkgo tree that previous homeowners planted in our back yard.

We are finally getting around to thinking of which plants we want to add to the landscaping. Certainly we will be planting plenty of flower bulbs in the fall. It is a shame not to have tulips, crocus, and grape hyacinth in an area where they grow so freely and beautifully. We don’t have deer in our immediate neighborhood, so I won’t have to fence them out of the bulb plants. We’ll also plant a few annuals this year simply because we enjoy the flowers. We’ll have to plant a few dahlias because our son is growing them. We’ll enjoy adding the color to our neighborhood.

In the meantime, we are enjoying a spectacular view of our Ginkgo tree and remembering the stories of the trees that we have learned along our life’s journey.

A chip under the skin?

As I was greeted by another church member yesterday, he was pleased to show off his new Apple watch. He knew that I wear one and he had previously asked me about mine. I’m not exactly sure what I said to him, but I suspect it was something about the durability of the device. My wife and I got ours at the same time, inspired by her electrophysiologist who recommended the device for its abilities to monitor heart rhythms and alert wearers to potentially dangerous heart conditions. When we got them, I was worried that I would break mine. I’ve been pretty hard on watches over the years and only the most durable ones seem to survive my rough and tumble lifestyle. I’ve never been a minister who only works in an office. I like to get out with my chainsaw and cut wood, mow my own lawn, trim my own bushes, and make lots of repairs. I’ve broken watches climbing on rocks, paddling boats, and taking unexpected dips in the water. I routinely forget to remove my watch for everyday activities like washing the dishes or taking a shower.

I have been pleased that the device has performed flawlessly and survived my everyday activities. I know that it gets shaken from time to time because the watch has a feature that detects if the wearer has fallen. When that occurs, it flashes a screen asking if I need help. If I say I don’t need help, it asks if I have fallen. If the wearer does not respond, the watch calls an emergency contact programmed into the wearer’s phone. I’ve activated the “fall” feature doing several different everyday activities. I doesn’t like it when I use a hammer with my left hand. I’m not very good with my left hand, but sometimes that is the only way to reach whatever it is I want to hit. It has been activated when I switched hands to pull the cord on a reluctant small motor. The watch, however, has remained intact.

One of the features of the watch that I use is its contactless payment system. It is connected to the feature in my phone and I can use my debt card by holding my watch near a contactless payment terminal in a restaurant or store. The feature isn’t yet quite reliable enough for me to leave my wallet behind. I have run into terminals that do not respond to the watch and there are still several shops, including a nearby hardware store that do not have contactless terminals. I’m sure that they are coming, but they aren’t yet in every place where I want to spend money. I still carry cash in my wallet because I don't fully trust that cards will work in every setting.

I was thinking about the convenience of that feature when I read an article on the BBC website about people who have had contactless payment microchips implanted in their hands. The chips are no bigger than a grain of rice and the procedure to inject one under the skin is nearly painless, just a small pinch. A similar chip has been very useful for people with certain mobility disorders. There are lock systems that respond to the chips and the person with the right chip implant can unlock doors by simply waving their hand in front of an electronic lock. We have a similar system at the church where we work. We have small fobs that can be carried on a key chain, when the fob is held near the lock, the door is unlocked for a few seconds. Like the payments chip in my watch, it works most of the time, but not all of the time. Our electronic locking system was down one day last week and none of the fobs worked. In fact none of us could get in that particular door and we had to enter the building by a different door and use a regular key. That wasn’t much of an inconvenience, but if I had been a person with a disability that made the use of a key difficult or impossible, I might have been locked out of the building until the system was repaired.

The fact that I can wear a device with the chip on my wrist and carry a fob in my pocket means that I have no reason to have a chip implanted. I would still wear my watch for other reasons, so why not have the device in the watch instead of under my skin.

I’m not afraid of implanted chips because of all of the dystopian threats some have suggested. They cannot be used to track you. If that technology existed, we’d already be using it with pets. When a pet has a chip implanted, it cannot be used to find a lost pet. the pet has to be found and scanned by someone who can get the reader close enough to the animal to touch it. In fact, my wife has a chip implanted that downloads heart monitor information to a device on our headboard each nigh as she sleeps. This allows her electrophysiologist to monitor her heart for any irregular rhythms. The device has performed flawlessly and has been no problem for to years now. Eventually the battery in the device will be depleted and the device will stop reporting. By then we believe that it will no longer be needed and can be removed. Since it is just under the skin, removal will be a very simple out patient procedure.

I’ve joked about having all of the members of the church get implants so that we could monitor attendance and receive payment pledges by people just passing near a scanner. It is meant only as a joke. I don’t really believe that such would be a good idea. There are far too many divisions between people to have to deal with those who have implants and those who do not. And attendance records and donations are not the heart of the church anyway. We’ve far more important connections that are our calling.

So for now, no chip implants for me. I plan to keep using the watch and that is good enough for the foreseeable future.

Palm Sunday, 2022

As parades go, it wasn’t much. There were no marching bands, no floats, and no giant balloons. They didn’t have clowns in costume, show horses, or a fleet of fire trucks. It was a people’s parade. Just the people who were around the neighborhood, using what they had easily at hand. They had their coats. They had branches from the nearby trees. They had a phrase from the liturgy of the temple. “Hosanna!” they cried. Some of them called out so loudly they grew horse. Some of them kept calling out even when the Roman authorities tried to get them to be quiet.

When we remember the event, we often exaggerate. That is often the case with people’s parades. And we don’t speak the languages of the day. Most of us don’t read the language of the New Testament. We know the story in translation, and the word Hosanna doesn’t mean much to us other than an ancient and generic word of praise. But those who gathered for that people’s parade knew the difference between “Hosanna” and “Halleluia.”

And the people who gathered for that people’s parade knew the difference between a donkey and a horse.

When we gather for worship on this Palm Sunday, a day set aside for remembering that people’s parade, things that were obvious to those who participated so long ago have become obscured by centuries of tradition, layers of language translation, and the exaggeration of generations of storytellers. There is more meaning in the story from the Bible than a big box of florist palms passed out and waved for a few moments while triumphant celebration songs are sung to the accompaniment of pipe organs and praise bands.

The Gospel of Luke starts with the donkey, and it is a good place for us to start thinking about that event. In Roman Times, military and political leaders rode to battle on horses. The Romans had a successful breeding program and raised some magnificent horses. Good Arabian stock was bred for strength, endurance and speed. And the animals were raised to intimidate those who were on foot. In a time before other military vehicles, horses provided a vantage point above the battle where the rider could see what was going on. Riding a horse into the center of a city was a sign of dominance and a display of power. Jesus didn’t send his disciples for a horse. He sent them for a donkey, and not just any donkey, but rather a colt - a young animal that had not been previously ridden. The animal was short and slow and probably confused by the crowd and the shouting.

Riding a donkey into a place of power was not a sign of war or triumph. It was a symbol of an appeal for peace. Jesus returned to Jerusalem, the city whose name literally contains the Hebrew word for peace - Shalom - riding on a donkey as a sign of peace. The parade was the entrance of a peacemaker, not a leader of a battle.

And the people cried “Pray, save us!” as he procession wandered through the streets of Jerusalem. It was a traditional part of the temple liturgy in which people humbly asked for forgiveness for past sins and wrongs. They asked Jesus to grant them salvation and favor with God - and escape from the harsh judgment some had predicted.

Palm Branches had many symbolic uses in the ancient world. In Egypt, palm branches were seen as a sign of immortality because of their green color. In Rome, it was a sign of victory, sometimes awarded to victors in athletic competitions. For the Jews of Jerusalem, it was a reminder of the festival of Sukkot - the holiday representing the gathering of the people of Israel, who had been spread out over many locations during the exile. It was a harvest festival, celebrated for a week. The tradition was seven days in Jerusalem and eight days in other places. People constructed simple shelters to remind themselves of the harvest shelters farmers made so that they could sleep in the fields during the busy season. The palm branches were used to provide temporary shelter. In the book of Leviticus, the shelters of Sukkot are to remind the people of the tents and other portable shelters that protected the people during 40 years of wandering in the desert after the Exodus from Egypt.

The people of Jerusalem in Jesus’ time would nave known all about donkeys and Hosannas and palm branches. They would have seen them quite differently than the way we use them in contemporary worship. We celebrate Jesus triumphal entry into Jerusalem. They could hear the desperation in the voices of those calling for salvation. “Pray, Save Us!” The Pharisees, leaders of a social movement in the time of the Second Temple, asked Jesus to quiet the crowds. They were worried that any failure to keep order among the Jews would bring down harsh reprisals from Roman authorities. Jesus understood that they couldn’t be silenced. He tells them that even if the people could be kept quiet, the stones themselves, would call out for the salvation of the people who had suffered injustices under Roman rulers and generations of oppressors who came before the Romans.

So the people’s parade wound its way through the streets of Jerusalem and Jesus made his way to the temple. It was the temple where he was presented as an infant. It was the temple he visited as a boy. It would be the scene of quite a bit of drama in the week to come. And even after the donkey was returned and the crows were quieted, the appeals for salvation continued to fill the streets and echo from the walls and ring in the memories of those who had been there for that people’s parade.

There are so many layers of meaning to the observance of Palm Sunday. It is much to teach to our children. We begin by asking them to lead the procession instead of the clergy in their vestments and the choir in their robes. The children calling out Hosanna remind us that we are all children of God. And when it comes to seeking peace, donkeys and little children make far better leaders than displays of weapons and power.

May this Palm Sunday invite us to return to the path of peace.

Anticipating Holy Week

It took me quite a few years to warm up to poetry. Of course, I read the poems that were required of us when I was an elementary and high school student, but I didn’t think much of them. When I went to college, I read a few poems, mostly romantic ones. I tried my hand at writing poems, but didn’t produce anything significant. For the most part, I simply didn’t take poetry seriously at that point of my education. College was, for me, a challenge. Keeping up required a lot more reading than I had been accustomed to accomplishing. I had to teach myself new study habits, including outlining reading assignments, ceasing to read in bed, and other practices. I started drinking coffee regularly as a college student because I found it enhanced my capacity to remain focused as I read. During that phase of my life, I did little recreational reading. I think that the only fiction I read during my college years were the books required for course called “Christian Faith and Contemporary Literature.” While I was in graduate school, I discovered the writings of Elie Wiesel, who wrote both significant fiction and poetry. I read everything I could find of his writings.

From Wiesel, I began to read more fiction, but I still wasn’t much of a reader of poetry. It is possible that I have read more poetry in the most recent decade of my life than I did in the nearly six decades that preceded it. Reading poetry requires a different pace, a different mindset, and a different style. I often will read a poem multiple times, sometimes reading out loud to grasp the rhythm and pace of the words.

There are some aspects of human experience that are better expressed in poetry than in other language forms. I think that reading poetry has brought me to a deeper understanding of metaphor. Symbolic language, of course, is part and parcel of theology. A graduate education in theology combined with a career as a pastor means that I have immersed myself in symbolic language. Metaphor is a particular form of symbolic language that on the surface appears to be talking about one thing, but on a deeper level is talking about something else.

“America is a melting pot” is not a description of a container for making soup. It is a metaphor for the blending of cultures that occurs in a large country of highly mobile people. “All the world is a stage,” is not a description of gigantic theatrical sets. It is a reminder that there are aspects of our lives that are witnessed by others. In a sense there is always an audience for our behavior. A metaphor is a remarkable feature of language because it both means what is says and what it doesn’t say. A metaphor stirs the imagination of the hearer or reader. It is not so much a process of figuring things out as a process of entering into the experiences of another and shifting perspective to a fresh point of view.

One of my seminary professors insisted that we write poems. He gave us assignments including writing lyrics for hymns. He designed exercises in sparse language. One of the first assignments I turned in to him was returned with the comment, “Say the same thing with half as many words.” He taught me to self-edit my work and one of the first steps involves going back and removing unnecessary words.

It is in my later years, however, that I have returned to the poets. I have read some of the classics that I didn’t read earlier in my life. I have read famous contemporary poets. I have taken note of the poet laureates of the United States and of the state in which I reside.

All of this is important to me because there is so much poetry in the Bible. It is not just the Psalms, which are poetry. All of the prophets were poets. And those who don’t realize that try to literalize their words and draw strange and unintended meanings from them. Biblical prophets don’t predict the future so much as they call people into deeper relationship with God.

People who don’t understand metaphor often miss the point of Jesus’ teachings. One of the common misinterpretations of the Bible has to do with Jesus’ frequent reference to the Kingdom of God. Some people assume that this is a reference to a future afterlife, when Jesus clearly is speaking about how to live in the present.

The legendary biblical interpreter, translator, and pastor Eugene Peterson wrote, “Poets tell us what our eyes, blurred with too much gawking, and our ears, dulled with too much chatter, miss around and within us. Poets use words to drag us into the depth of reality itself. . . Far from being cosmetic language, it is intestinal.”

A little more than a decade ago, near the end of my career as a pastor, after a year that was particularly shaped by personal loss and grief, I began to dive more deeply into Holy Week. Instead of simply adding a couple of services for Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, I took a look at the entire week as an opportunity to explore grief, loss, and to practice those emotions and experiences as preparation for the realities of life. We planned special worship events for every day of the week. We invited church members to set aside the usual, much as they would do if they experienced a death in the family - to deeply experience the reality of human grief in preparation for wrestling with the mystery of resurrection. It took a while, but the church shifted. Attendance at holy week services began to rise. After several years, the total attendance at Holy Week services began to exceed the Easter attendance. As the congregation took a dive into a deeper understanding, so did I. I gained in my ability to walk with families through grief, to prepare meaningful funeral services, and to sit with trauma, grief and loss with the people I served.

Once again tomorrow, we begin Holy Week. My perspective has shifted. I am no longer the pastor in charge. I am an education worker, shaping faith formation experiences for a congregation. Still, I know how important this week is. It is a week of poetry - a week of metaphor. I lean back on my seminary education and remember the advice to use fewer words to say things that are really important.

May I choose my words carefully this week.

Housing woes

I’ve taken to listening to CBC radio as I drive around the area. Sometimes I listen to CBC while working in the shop art our son’s far as well. I enjoy the somewhat laid back approach, at least when compared with most commercial radio in the US. So, I usually have a cursory awareness of what makes news in Canada. Yesterday was budget day in Canada. At 1 pm (in the Pacific Time Zone), the federal budget was released with a bit of ceremony and flair. Much of the contents of the budget has been discussed and released prior to the official release of the entire budget, but budget day is the day that the Parliament receives the official budget proposal from the office the Prime Minister and begins its work of debating, refining and finally passing the budget.

The Canadian federal budget has been a topic of conversation on CBC for at least a week. Expectations were high that there would be items in the budget to address the high cost of housing in Canada. Like the area where we live, prices of housing have jumped in Canada. There were some areas where housing costs increased by more than 20%. If you are a homeowner, such increases are good news - your equity grows at a very fast rate. If you are not a homeowner, the rapid increases threaten your ability to have a home at all. The average home in Canada is now nearly $817,000, which translates to about $650,000 in US dollars. Analysts say that Canada has some of the worst housing affordability issues in the world. As a result Canadians were eager to see if the federal budget would provide some means of addressing the issue.

I’m no budget analyst, and I don’t know much about how the Canadian economy works, but I was interested to hear that the Trudeau administration has proposed a two-year moratorium on foreigners purchasing family homes. There are exceptions and I suppose that the details are very important, but the theory is that foreign buyers compete with locals for limited housing and that the foreign buyers are not likely to make the Canadian home a permanent residence, and therefore not available for Canadians to purchase. More foreign buyers means more competition for houses and prices go up. It is arguable that the number of foreign buyers is fairly small and the impact on the availability of affordable housing will be negligible. At least that is what commentators were saying on the radio yesterday.

The idea of a limit on foreign ownership of homes struck me as interesting because the community where I live has a fairly large percentage of Canadian ownership. In the 1920s as roads improved and access became easier, seasonal residents began to come to Birch Bay. The area didn’t offer luxury accommodations, but rather a place to get away from the city. The closest city is Vancouver, British Columbia, so by the 1970s the majority of the owners of seasonal cabins and properties in Birch Bay were Canadian. If you look west from the bay, what you see are the Canadian gulf islands. Birch Bay is actually north of the city of Victoria on Vancouver Island, which is the capitol of British Columbia.

We didn’t notice it much when we first moved here, but now that the border is open to nonessential travel and Covid tests and quarantining are no longer required to cross the border, the number of cars with British Columbia license plates has definitely gone up. A walk along the beach path reveals a lot of Canadian cars. It is easy to hear a gentle Canadian accent in nearly any business place, but that might not mean much, as language dialects don’t rigidly follow political boundaries.

In the early days, most of the cottages and cabins in the area were small and inexpensively constructed. People would acquire a lot and build a small cabin. A local historian reports that one of the oldest resorts in the area, Birch Bay Resort, had 12 small cabins in the 1920s. Those 12 cabins shared a single outhouse. Businesses catering to tourists including restaurants, candy and ice cream shops, trailer courts and rental cabins were clustered along the shore. These days most of those small cabins and cottages have been purchased and remodeled. Many have been replaced with larger four-season homes. The few cabins that remain have been insulated and upgraded for year-round living.

Our area, however, remains a tourist destination. According to locals, the population more than doubles on summer weekends. We haven’t yet lived here during the summer, so we don’t have much experience, but it is hard to imagine the sleepy village we know having parking problems or long lines at the grocery store. “Just wait,” the locals tell us.

The high cost of housing is an issue in the United States as well as Canada. A shortage of affordable homes means that people who are employed often can’t find suitable housing. We ended up in this area precisely because the price of homes is a bit lower than neighboring cities such as Bellingham. That lower cost is also attracting Canadian buyers. Although a daily commute across the border isn’t convenient, Canadians can gain equity by purchasing a house at or below half of the cost of a house in Canada. That means more houses that are not occupied full time. Here in the US, those homes can be rented as bed and breakfasts or vacation rentals, providing income to the owners. Those homes, however, don’t provide solutions to workers here in the US who are scrambling to find affordable homes.

I doubt if the 2022 budget will solve Canada’s housing woes. Policy changes are needed, but they have to be more dramatic than the symbolism of a moratorium on foreign ownership. The ban, however, appears to be popular in Canada and is likely to be included in the budget once approved.

In the meantime, Canadians will continue to purchase homes in our neighborhood. The good news is that they make good neighbors. After all, Canadians and US citizens have been living as neighbors in this area for a long time.

Take care

In the confusion of the United States Medical system, a lot of time and money is invested in negotiating payments with insurance companies, billing, collections, and other matters. I am convinced that most medical practices and hospitals do not have an accurate cost/benefit analysis of their billing and collection practices. To begin with, there is no obvious connection between services rendered and charges made. No one that i’ve spoken to in the health care system can explain why things cost what they do. I will hear phrases such as “standard practice,” or “allowable billing,” but how they arrive at the wild numbers that appear on invoices is not understood by anyone. Those numbers, however, are quickly revised in negotiations with insurance companies. It is not at all uncommon to see the initial charges adjusted by more than 50% as insurance payments are made. I’ve tried to reconcile insurance company “explanation of benefits” statements with health care provider statements, and it is clear that often the two are using entirely different numbers.

I don’t know what it costs a medical practice to engage in all of those negotiations. I don’t know how much they pay for accountants and billing clerks to constantly adjust statements. But it can’t be without expense.

So I was struck as I examined a statement from a health care provider that we recently received to find the watermark on the paper to say “We take care.” “Take care” is an idiomatic phrase that is often used to express good wishes when parting or at the end of a message. I know I’ve said to folks, “take care” as they climb into their cars to depart from our home or head home from church. I think that it is offered as advice to exercise caution. The meaning is similar to “be careful.” But when used in that manner, it is offered to the other. Take care is something the speaker wishes for the hearer. But the statement doesn’t say, “You take care.” I says, “We take care.”

I guess it might mean “We are careful or watchful,” or “We give particular attention to something.” I assume that it is the slogan of the medical practice. It is printed beneath the name of the practice and next to their logo. Its generality, however, leaves me wondering what care they take. They don’t seem to be particularly concerned with timeliness in their billing practices. They don’t seem to even be overly careful about accuracy in accounting. A bill seems to be a strange place to make comments about the quality of care and even if it is, there is a certain arrogance to the fact that the judgment about the quality of care is made by the provider and not the patients.

Shouldn’t “We take care,” be something that is demonstrated by practices, not declared in an advertisement. If the quote were attributed to others it might make sense: “They take care.” As a self-proclaimed statement it is as meaningless as the numbers on the bill.

A recent academic study found that 66.5 percent of all bankruptcies were tied to medical issues. High costs for care combine with time lost from work to create a worst-case scenario for too many people in our communities. No other reason is cited as much as medical costs in bankruptcy filing. Similar studies have shown that the insurance that is available and affordable to most working people is not adequate protection from catastrophic medical costs.

Since it is their slogan, I guess we should take them up on it. Since they say, “We take care,” perhaps we should remind them of some areas where we’d like to see them take care.

Take care, medical providers, to be honest and upfront with explanations of the total costs of visiting your facility.

Take care to provide only the care that is necessary, avoiding the upsell of additional diagnostic tests that serve only to protect providers and do little to help patients.

Take care to base treatment decisions on compassion, not expectation of profit.

Take care to spend enough time with each patient to truly listen to their concerns.

Take care to look at the big picture and not just a set of symptoms.

Take care to have real people who answer your phone in real time instead of a series of automated messages with multiple menus to select.

Take care to make appointments available in a reasonable time frame. When patients come to the clinic, take care to avoid having them wait for care.

Instead of proclaiming what you take, think a bit about what you might give.

I suppose I could go on and on with my list, but you get the picture. There is very little trust in the US medical system in large part because the system has done little to earn trust. This does not mean that individual physicians and nurses can’t be trusted. It means that they are working in a system that consistently provides worse outcomes at a higher price than health care systems in all other developed countries.

The system won’t be fixed by changing slogans or revising billing practices. Major policy changes will be required and it is unclear whether or not Congress has the ability to make major policy changes in the hyper partisan political climate of Washington DC. I guess we should ask our representatives to take care.

Take care to remove excessive profit from health care. Insurance companies should exist to serve people in need of health care, not produce profits for investors.

Take care to invest in public health and preventive care so that people can afford to remain healthy.

Take care to offer every citizen the level of health insurance protection that members of congress enjoy.

Take care to regulate excessive profits from the sale of health care practices and facilities.

Take care to limit profits from government-funded research in the pharmaceutical industry.

No matter how I try to use the phrase, however, it seems to only work for me as a greeting or advice given to others, not a phrase one applies to oneself. I remain unconvinced that the slogan “We take care,” means anything when printed on the statement from the clinic. Of course, I don’t expect the clinic to listen to my advise anyway.

As for the readers of my journal, “You all take care now!”

Technical difficulties

We had a small series of technological glitches at the church in the past week. On Saturday, we noticed that we were unable to send or receive email on our church accounts. At first we thought it was a problem with one computer, but we checked and we were unable to connect to the church system, including our Microsoft Teams accounts. Upon arrival at the church on Sunday morning, we found out that we weren’t the only ones having problems. It soon became evident that the entire Microsoft Exchange system was down and that it was a problem that would require technicians to solve on Monday.

We usually don’t go into the church on Mondays, but others discovered upon their arrival that their electronic key fobs did not work. The office door is the only door with an electronic lock and there is no way to bypass that lock with a key, so those entering the building with their keys, had to use a different door and those working in the office could not open the door by pushing the usual remote.

By the time we arrived at the church on Tuesday morning, the email system was working once again and a technician was working on the electronic lock system.

The desktop computer in our office had to be rebooted to get it to work and then we discovered that although the print dialogues came up on the computer, it was not connecting to the printer.

None of these small troubles would have consumed a minute of my time in the first two parishes I served. We didn’t have computer networks. We didn’t use the office copier as our printer. We didn’t use Microsoft Exchange. We didn’t have electronic locks. Our first parish didn’t even have a computer. We used a typewriter and a mimeograph machine.

OK, I admit that a mimeograph machine consumed a bunch of time and energy and operating it was very messy. Life wasn’t perfect before all of the technology came to church.

Some of the technological problems may have had their origins in the weather. The coast was battered by high winds over the weekend. There were gusts that exceeded 60 mph. Many areas experienced power failures. Power failures can cause various components of a computer network to get out of sync and sometimes it requires a technical to get everything rebooted in the proper manner.

Meanwhile, we were able to connect for a virtual staff meeting using our computers. Our music director, who lives near the ski hill on Mount Baker, experienced a power failure during the meeting and disappeared from our screens for a few minutes. She reported that there were over two feet of fresh snow on the ski resort, that it was snowing at a rate of over 2 inches per hour, and that the ski area was packed and all of the parking lots were full. It is spring break for most of the area public schools this week and often spring break marks the end of the ski season on the mountain.

Down here next to the water it didn’t snow. It didn’t even get below 45 degrees. The wind blew and it rained a bit, but we are getting used to rain and it doesn’t seem to have much impact on our lives or activities. At home, we haven’t experienced any power failures and our home Internet service has continued without interruption. Besides, I am no longer the lead pastor of a congregation. The buck doesn’t stop at my desk. The problems of sorting out the technological glitches don’t fall on my shoulders. I teach a few classes, led a few book studies, prepare a few children’s moments for worship, and do a bit of planning. I go home from work and don’t spend much energy worrying or trying to fix things when there are problems. Life is pretty good.

There are a lot of things about a lifetime of ministry that I could not have anticipated when I was a seminary student. I thoroughly enjoyed the academic work of graduate school. I love libraries and books and I didn’t mind writing papers and studying for examinations. I immersed myself in the culture of the school, discussing ideas with colleagues at every turn. When I began serving a congregation, there was no problem with the quality of my exegesis. My academic skills were well-honed. The challenge was making connections between the lives of the people i served and the texts I had studied. People don’t go to church to hear academic lectures. They attend worship to have their spirits lifted and the meaning of their everyday lives celebrated. They connect with others and build community.

The years, however, have passed. The towns where we served during the first years of our ministry have continued to decline as farms grow in size and the number of families on the farms shrinks. Both of the two rural congregations of our first call have now closed as churches. They didn’t run out of money. They ran out of people. Too many funerals and too many people moving out of town left the churches without critical mass to continue. You can’t run a Sunday School without children.

Somehow the journey of our lives and our careers has led us to a congregation we probably would have never found earlier in our lives in a place we didn’t expect to be. And somehow that journey has found us in a very good place, despite occasional technological glitches. I have have a deeper understanding of the stories of Abram and Sarai leaving the place of their forebears to go to a place that God would show them than I possessed earlier in my life. The stories of the Bible connect with my story in ways I could not foresee.

Learning to relax is another skill I have acquired along the way. Technology has never been as important in the practice of ministry as relationship. The job that I love is about working with people. So if I missed a few emails, we’ll blame the computers or the software. If you can’t get in touch with me, stop by. I’d love to talk to you face to face.

Life along the border

Last evening at 9:52 pm, I received the following text message on my cell phone:

“Welcome to Canada. As talk, text and data is included in your domestic plan you’ll have no additional charges while roaming. High speed data is up to 1GB/day. If you need help visit [website] or call [phone number]. Enjoy your trip.”

Here is the deal: I was at home. My phone was on its charger at the end of the day. I was not using my phone, although my phone was probably connecting to cellular service to receive an email, text, or just check its clock. I suspect that the cell phone tower it usually connects with when we are at home was temporarily out of service and it connected with a tower just across the border.

Here is what I wonder: If someone was investigating my whereabouts at 9:52 pm on Monday, April 4, 2022, and using my cell phone for information, would they be misled by such a message? Theoretically, of course, the map function and location services on my phone would show my GPS location to still be in the United States.

There is a joke that we used to tell when we lived in North Dakota. When it was windy, which was common, we told people that the wind was necessary to hold the line between North and South Dakota in place. “When the wind lets up for a day,” we’d say, “the state line drifts up north of town and we are temporarily in South Dakota, which means that the sales tax goes down until the wind picks up again.”

It has been really windy here the last few days, with the prevailing wind direction being from the Southwest. Perhaps the wind let up at exactly 9:52 pm last night long enough for us to temporarily be in Canada. After all, we live about the same distance from the border with Canada as we lived from the boundary between North and South Dakota back then.

The geopolitical boundaries between countries are artificial. The particular place where we live has been claimed by several different countries including Spain, Great Britain and the United States. Prior to June 15, 1846, when the Oregon Treaty was signed, there wasn’t a completely defined boundary between the United States and Canada out here in the west. At that time neither the Polk Administration in Washington, D.C., nor the British government wanted a third Anglo-American war, though there was a bit of saber rattling and a few threats made on both sides. A compromise was made and the U.S./Canadian border was extended along the 49th parallel to the Straight of Georgia. The terms of the treaty retained the city of Victoria, on Vancouver island, as the capitol of British Columbia. All of that island was ceded to be Canadian. So where we live, the border is very close not just to our north, but also to our west.

Indigenous tribes had lived in the region for a very long time - since time immemorial according to tribal histories - and they had no concept of a political boundary drawn along some imaginary line. They had family on both sides of the border and considered themselves to be of the same region and nation. There was little or no enforcement of the boundary between the countries and people passed freely across the border to remain connected to family and friends. Although border stations were established on major roads, the countries did not require passports or other federally-approved ID for U.S. - Canada travel until June of 2009. It has just been the last 13 years of the 176 years since the Oregon Treaty that people have had to go through much of a process to cross the border.

Point Roberts, connected to the mainland south of the city of Vancouver, is part of the United States, but to travel by road to any other part of the US requires going through Canada. We have a neighbor, just down the road from our Son’s place, who delivers fuel oil to Point Roberts. He crosses the border multiple times each week and continued to do so even when the border was officially closed to non-essential travel during the Covid Pandemic. There was still quite a bit of traffic going back and forth. However, the free flow of people across the border has been interrupted for two years now. Families couldn’t get together in their usual ways. Funerals were disrupted. People were separated by the restrictions. But last Friday, the requirement of a pre-entry PCR test was dropped. The locals have been looking forward to the opening of the border. There are a lot of businesses that serve people from both sides of the border. Yesterday I was visiting with some long-term residents of the area who were telling me their expectations that traffic will soon increase on the Interstate, wait times to cross the border will increase, and we will be seeing a lot more Canadians who come across the border to shop at local businesses. In our town there are several mailbox services that receive deliveries for Canadians who make online purchases in the US, have the goods delivered to a mailbox, and then drive across the border to pick up their packages, avoiding import duties and fees. While they are in town they have lunch at a local cafe or pick up other supplies at local stores.

Since we moved during the pandemic, when the border was closed, we don’t know what to expect as commerce returns to normal. It seems to me that there are plenty of British Columbia license plates on the highway already and we are used to seeing folks from Canada here. Many local businesses fly both Canadian and U.S. Flags.

Similar events are taking place along borders all around the globe. For the people who have lived for generations in the region, the boundaries are not as important as the relationships they have with friends and family.

I expect that we will soon begin traveling to Vancouver for some goods and services. It is the nearest large city to our home. After all, if my cell phone doesn’t know which country I’m in, I doubt that it will matter much to anyone else. All the same, I think I’ll take my passport with me. I might need it to come home.

Facing the wind

Our house is well-insulated with good windows and doors, but I can hear the winds rattling outside. For much of my life I have lived in places where the wind blows and the sound of the winds outside don’t bother me. My sister’s dog, who is visiting us, seems to be unsettled by the winds, however. He is awake and wandering about the house in the middle of the night, something that he doesn’t usually do.

The marine forecast for inland waters shows a gale warning for today and tomorrow with winds from 30 to 40 knots. According to the National Weather Service strong winds will cause hazardous seas which could capsize or damage vessels and reduce visibility. “It is highly recommended that mariners without the proper experience seek safe harbor prior to the onset of gale conditions. “

I don’t have any desire to set out on the sea in a small boat, but I’m sure that when daylight comes I’ll find an excuse to go down by the beach to see how the wind is affecting the water in the bay. There is something exciting and attractive about the wildness of the weather.

I won’t see quite the spectacle that has engulfed the famous Bondi Beach in Sydney, Australia, where two massive tides have engulfed the beach, making the sands disappear and throwing waves up onto the promenade. The east coast of Australia is being pounded by huge waves. In the pictures of the phenomenon that I can see on the Internet, there are plenty of onlookers - people who are going out to places near the water just to have a look at the power of the storm. I don’t know how safe those people are, or whether or not they have been warned to stay away from where they are going, but I do understand the attraction of going outside to look at the wind and waves.

I am grateful to have shelter from the wind and rain, but I’m not the kind of person who longs to stay inside all day long. Even when I’ve got plenty of work to do and reasons to stay inside, I find myself looking for excuses to venture outside and feel the weather. When we lived in places with sub-zero temperatures, I found myself venturing out. I took a kind of pride in being able to dress for cold weather and even if my only chore was a walk of a few blocks to the post office, I enjoyed being able to face whatever the weather had to offer.

Recently, I have been working on reformatting the archives of my journal. I have nearly 15 years of entries that I have published on the Internet and the time has come to organize them and make them more accessible. Some of that work is repetitive and slow going. But I am fascinated to look at large blocks of journal entries. In the course of a year there are topics that come up over and over again - themes to my journals that are themes of my life. For example, I have written about home and the process of returning home after travel a lot. Of course faith and the work of being a pastor is a central theme as is family. Among other themes, the topic of weather is a regular feature of my journals.

Decades ago, when I was living in North Dakota, I used to think it a bit strange that the folks gathered in the local cafe for coffee each morning could always talk about the weather. In those days, there were lots of other topics that I wanted to explore. Weather, however, is life to a farmer and I was spending a lot of time with farmers. No matter what the weather, even if it is raining when the crops need moisture and sunny when it is time to harvest, a North Dakota farmer is capable of imagining a year with weather conditions that are just a bit better than what is being experienced. I used to think that they were complaining, and I don’t see much point in complaining about the weather. Now, I think that it was simply the power of imagination that continued to stir hope. No matter how difficult things were - and things were pretty difficult for farmers during the farm crisis of the 1980’s - those resilient people could imagine that better days might be coming. This storm is not as big as the one I remember from my childhood. These conditions won’t last forever. Some day the weather and the markets will cooperate for a banner year. Do you remember the year that was so good nearly every farm sported a new tractor or pickup? What might sound to outsiders as complaining about the weather was really an expression of hope. The future isn’t going to be quite as hard as the present.

In the years since I was a beginning pastor in North Dakota, I have become much more like those farmers. I pay attention to the weather even though my work and chores have little to do with the weather. I do most of my work inside in front of a computer screen these days. I can be productive regardless of the weather. I can even work from home if weather conditions make the roads slippery. But I am still drawn to going outside. I like to have a little challenge. I enjoy driving on snowy roads that keep others at home. I want to stand facing the wind and feel its power even when it is blowing rain in my face.

And I talk about the weather a lot. Somehow I find it comforting that there are forces that shape my life that are bigger and stronger than I am. Of course, I’ll be glad when the winds subside. The trees are blooming and I am eager to see the blossoms in the sunlight after the storm. I hope that the seemingly fragile blooms on the Yew tree in my backyard will hang on. I hope that the magnolia flowers outside my office window survive the blow. But today, I find comfort in the warmth of my home despite the sound of the winds outside. And I am eager, when daylight comes, to venture out and face the wind.

Watching videos

One of the indulgences of my semi-retired lifestyle is that I watch quite a few YouTube videos. We don’t have a television, although we are able to watch some television and movies on a television-sized computer monitor. I find, however, that I often don’t want to invest even the length of time a network television show takes. I prefer shorter videos, and there are plenty of 10- to 15-minute videos on the social media platform. I don’t bother with subscribing to videos. I have no fear of missing one of the videos, but I do follow several channels that provide regular content. I’m attracted to channels where people are helping others. There are a couple of channels about off road recovery, where the content providers operate specialty vehicles, mostly homemade ones, that can go to remote places and help those who are stuck or broken down in places where normal tow trucks cannot reach. I enjoy seeing how they rig up kinetic tow ropes or winch lines in order to get vehicles out of precarious situations.

One of the channels that I have been watching fairly regularly in recent weeks has really invested in video storytelling. They have multiple cameras, including one mounted on a drone, and employ video editors to put together the stories, including background music, time-lapse and other effects and special techniques. I’m pretty sure that this particular channel has about the same number of people who are involved in making videos as those involved in the rest of the work of the business. I don’t know, but I suspect that the business earns as much from YouTube as it does from being paid by those who become stuck or broken down.

I’ve also watched individual and families who appear to be pursuing their hobbies while making videos for income. I know that YouTube is an advertising platform, like commercial television, but with a little practice it is easy to fast forward through the advertisements. I don’t pay for any of the premium features, so I don’t see how the phenomenon produces income, but somehow people who have enough viewers do receive ad income.

My niece recently commented that all of the people who are pursuing social media as a career is part of the problem with the shortage of workers experienced by many businesses. It is a bit of a sore point with me, because I am a fan of free markets and I don’t see the situation as a shortage of workers at all. I see it as a shortage of jobs that pay reasonable salaries. Just the threat of a shortage recently caused a 40% increase in the cost of gasoline at the pump. However, over two years of shortages of workers has not produced even enough raises in wages to cover the cost of inflation. In a free market, a shortage of labor should result in more jobs that allow workers to earn enough for rent and groceries.

Anyway, my niece may have a valid point. If people enjoy making videos and telling stories with their art and if they are able to earn a living by pursuing their hobbies, they aren’t going to give up that lifestyle for a minimum wage job in the service sector. It isn’t just that there are too many people producing social media content, it is that at least some of them are earning enough that employers are not competing well in the market for their time and energy.

However I look at it, I don’t really understand the economy of social media. It surprises me that people can earn a living simply by documenting their daily lives. I understand that producing the kind of quality video that I watch is hard work. I can accept that those people don’t just spend their time pursuing their hobbies, but also invest a lot of hours editing video and preparing the clips to be uploaded to the Internet. I’m not practiced as a video editor, but I produced short videos, posted on YouTube of daily prayer during the last three months of my time as a full-time pastor before my retirement. I know that it takes a considerable amount of time and energy to produce a 5-minute video. Still it is hard for me to understand how there can be enough demand for amateur-created video that people are able to go with out income from typical jobs.

One channel that I have watched features a man who had a full-time job working for a utility company, but made videos about car repairs on the side. Now, a few months later, that person has quit his day job and is making videos and car repairs full-time. He even has added a cameraperson to his channel, meaning I assume, that he is paying wages to another person to help him make videos. It appears to me that there aren’t fewer people working, but that there are a lot of people working at jobs that didn’t exist until recently. Our economy is shifting from service to entertainment. Small businesses are struggling to make payroll and compete in a market that is short of labor. The competition for workers, however, isn’t coming from big companies, but rather from social media entrepreneurs. I can understand a bit of the problem. I just don’t understand how making videos for YouTube translates into living wages for people.

Frankly, it is easy for me to become bored with YouTube. I watch a particular creator for a while, but am easily distracted. There are channels with videos that I watched a few months ago that I don’t bother to watch any more. I feel like I’ve seen enough of those particular lives and that their stories are repetitive. I don’t miss them. I wonder if those creators have enough of an audience of loyal fans to keep the income coming. Is social media success as fleeting as it seems to be? If it is, you’d think that it would begin to regular contribute workers to the market as people leave social media for more predictable incomes.

Spring is here. There are plenty of things to do outside. I have a list of farm chores I’m planning to do at our son’s place. I think I’ll cut back on my watching videos on the computer. It frees up my time for more meaningful projects. Apparently, however, my viewing patterns don’t have enough impact to stop people from leaving their day jobs to pursue a career in making videos.

Good days for whale watchers

You have to be careful reading the news on a day like yesterday. For example, despite multiple Facebook posts, there was no unusual volcanic activity in the area of Devil’s Tower and there were no evacuations of the area around Bear Butte in South Dakota Yesterday. I wasn’t taken in by the Facebook posts first of all because of the source, secondly because of the date. There are plenty of people who are far more into April Fools pranks than I. I think of April Fools as a kind of amateur’s day and prefer to play pranks on other days.

There are many sources of the modern April Fool’s observances. One lies in the Christian tradition of Holy Humor Sunday. Usually observed during the season of Easter, Holy Humor is a celebration of the humor and creativity of the human spirit in response to what some have called the greatest prank of all time - the resurrection of Jesus. “You watched him die, but we have experienced him alive.” Depending on the location and local traditions Holy Humor observances range from telling jokes and stand up comedy during worship to making the priest or officiant the object of practical jokes such as dousing with water or a pie in the face. There are several stories of worship services being run in reverse, beginning with the benediction and ending with the call to worship. Choirs have processed and recessed facing the wrong direction and walking backwards. Pastors have saved up the kind of jokes that you can tell from the pulpit for use on the day.

There was, however, a story posted on the Bellingham Herald website yesterday that at first looked like it might be an April Fool’s joke. It turns out that it was not. I’ve checked multiple sources and seen enough pictures to believe that it was a simple reporting of actual events. On Thursday, March 31, there were at least 72 Bigg’s killer whales spotted in the Salish Sea, which experts say is a record number of sightings for a single day. Compare that number of sightings with a total of 790 sightings reported in 2021, which was a record-breaking year for sightings.

It means that amateur whale watchers and tourists have a better chance of spotting killer whales than ever before.

Almost nine years ago, in celebration of our 40th wedding anniversary, we took a whale watching cruise out of Anacortes around the San Juan Islands. We were fortunate to spot an active pod of killer whales and enjoyed the sight of their large dorsal fins and the splash of their flukes hitting the water as they dove. It was a marvelous and wonderful display of nature and we felt fortunate to have had the experience. At the time we did not imagine that we would one day move to the shores of the Salish Sea where we would have the opportunity of occasional sightings of killer whales from the shore. We’ve yet to see a pod of the creatures since our move, but we know that it is possible and we are trying to read up on the best ways and the best places to sight the great creatures.

Scientists use observations and photographs to identify individual whales. They give them names. Among the whales spotted on Thursday is an adult male whale over 40 years old whose dorsal fin is distinctly jagged. They call that creature “Chainsaw.” On Thursday, watchers spotted 10 distinct pods of whales in different locations across the region from as far south as Hood Canal and as far north as the Campbell River region of Vancouver Island. In the northern part of the San Juan Islands, where we took our cruise years ago, a pod of 18 whales was observed. I try to imagine what that might have been like. When we toured, we saw a pod of about 4 animals. Imagine watching such a beautiful display of nature and having an additional 14 show up!

The food of the whales, including seals and sea lions, have been increasing in recent years due to the efforts of a variety of organizations protecting marine mammals. Increased feeding possibilities and other factors have combined to yield record years for new infants in the pods. Last year was a bit of a baby boom for the Salish Sea killer whales with at least 11 new calves spotted and officially identified.

In recent years, observers have spotted other unusual sights among Orcas. Orca is the name preferred by many who point out that the animals are not really whales at all, but a species closer to dolphins and porpoises. Last April, King News in ‘Seattle published video of a rare white orca swimming in a pod of Bigg’s killer whales swimming off of Orcas Island. Another orca names “Tl’uk,” which translates to “moon” from the language of the Indigenous Coast Salish people. Tl’uk has a grayish-white color that makes him distinctive and easy to spot.

Since we have moved to the coast, there have been many newsworthy whale sightings, including the first documented sighting of a beluga whale in more than 80 years last summer and a record-breaking baby boom of humpback whales off the coast of western Washington in 2021. A total of 21 calves were photographed, compared to just 11 calves in 2020. It is too early to know the numbers for this year, but hopes are high that the trend will continue and more whales will be born as the population continues to increase.

It is no April Fool’s joke. These are good times for spotting orcas and whales in the waters near the coast of Washington, especially in the relative protected Salish Sea waters. Food supplies are abundant and the more adults seen means higher possibilities of spotting calves as well. Researchers know that population trends don’t follow straight lines and cannot continue upward forever, but it does appear that we are in a good time for increased sightings.

I’m eager to find a time to take another whale watching cruise - perhaps a guided kayak paddle near the places the pods frequent. And that, my friends, is no April Fool’s joke.


I have a joke that I sometimes tell about my own obituary. I say that I’ve already written it. Here it is: “Ted is dead.”

It is short and simple. All of my friends will know what it means when they read it. Those who don’t know me will appreciate not having to read a long story about someone they’ve never met.

I’m only half joking about the obituary, however. First of all, what is written and how people grieve after I die is not up to me. I don’t want to put any restrictions on my family in their grief. I’ve been pretty frank in telling them my opinions, likes and dislikes about funerals. And they know enough about me to choose scripture readings and hymns to sing. But whatever funeral or memorial takes place after I die will be for those who are left behind and for their processes of grieving. The community will gather to support them. The songs and scripture will be for them.

Another thing about obituaries is that there have been so many changes in how obituaries circulate and function in the community in recent years that it is difficult to predict what an obituary will be at the time that I die. In each of the places where we served as ministers, I subscribed to the print edition of the local newspaper because the local newspaper was the source of obituaries. Then there was a time when I didn’t need the print newspaper because I could access an electronic version earlier than the print version. Then newspapers started to charge ad rates for printing obituaries. These days, newspapers generally have shortened obituaries and the full stories are most easily found on the web sites of funeral homes. Families can use the words they want without having to pay additional money to the newspaper. They generally run some kind of obituary in the paper, but it is often a shortened version. Some churches have a custom of reading the obituary during the funeral. These days the obituary is often printed on the memorial folder for those attending the service to read.

I have been thinking of obituaries because today is the funeral of a long-time friend of mine who died suddenly last week. I am not able to attend the funeral, and I won’t be missed because it will be a very large funeral with no shortage of mourners. There will not be a shortage of clergy gathered.

His family have written a beautiful obituary. I’ve read it several times. I am aware that it has given me comfort in a way that a short one-liner would not. You can tell that family members are educated and articulate. They write beautifully. Their words are carefully chosen and expressive.

The last sentence of the first paragraph of the obituary says, “He died in a field near that same place working alongside his brothers and life-long friends, doing what he loved.” The words, like the other words in the obituary are true. But here is the thing. They could have been said had Bruce died at another point of his life. If he had died in the pulpit preaching it would have been true to say he died doing what he loved. If he had died volunteering at church camp he would have died doing what he loved. If he had been playing with his grandchildren, or attending a book group with his colleagues, or visiting folk in the hospital, or serving on a community board, or making home or car repairs, or chatting with folks on the reservation, it would have been equally true that he was doing what he loved.

He loved life and he loved his family and he loved his church. He was a man of love.

People often mistakenly think that the New Testament is about what happens after we die and that religion is focused on eternal salvation or eternal damnation. While it is true that some churches and other religious institutions focus significant energy talking about what happens when someone dies, the Gospels and Letters of the New Testament focus on the life of Jesus. Jesus is quoted as speaking frequently about “the kingdom of God” and reminding his disciples that the kingdom is not just a promise about the future, but a present reality. When one lives justice with one’s neighbors, God’s kingdom is revealed. When people care for God’s creation, they experience the kingdom. When they care for their neighbors and reach out to those who are on the margins of society, they live the kingdom.

I think Bruce understood that at the deepest level. He lived as an integrity. The Bruce we met at church was the same person who was a loving husband, father and grandfather. The faithful steward we worked alongside of at church camp was the same person who worked alongside his brothers and family friends on the family farm.

The Lebanese-American poet Kahlil Gibran wrote, “If you would indeed behold the spirit of death, open your heart wide unto the body life. For life land death are one, even as the river and the sea are one.” For my friend, and for his grieving family, church and community, a short and simple obituary would not do. What they have prepared is far better. Because as sad as those who gather today are, as deep as the grief is for his family and friends, as hard as this is for the congregation he served and loved, today is not about death. It is about life - a life lived joyously and fully and triumphantly. And Bruce lived life large.

You don’t have to understand the fullness of the gift of resurrection to appreciate his life. You don’t even have to believe in the resurrection to know that his passing is a momentous occasion. For those of us who grieve today, the lesson is clear and well-communicated in his obituary. “He died . . . doing what he loved.”

May we all find the grace to so live our lives that the same might be said of us.

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