December 2022

The Year is Complete

2022 is over and I have completed all of my journal entries for the year. This page contains my 2022 journal. If you want to read my posts for 2023, follow this link. If you bookmark my journal, you will need to change your bookmark to the 2023 journal. Thanks for reading and thanks for your understanding.

New Year's Eve

For those who read yesterday’s journal entry, the rest of the story is that our luggage was delivered in the middle of the night, arriving at 2:30 am, so the bags that traveled on a different airplane than we did turned out to not be a problem at all. We went to sleep, and we had our luggage in the morning.

When we moved from a small town in southwest North Dakota to Boise, Idaho, I was surprised that there were a few people in our neighborhood who would shoot off fireworks to celebrate New Year’s Eve. We had associated fireworks with the celebration of Independence Day in July, but hadn’t lived where it was a part of New Year’s Eve celebrations. Of course fireworks on New Year’s Eve are a big part of celebrations in many parts of the world. I’m aware of that now and I enjoy watching the displays from several places around the world on my computer on New Year’s Day. In those days, I did know that fireworks were part of the celebration of the Chinese New Year and I assumed that perhaps the fireworks we observed in our neighborhood were being used by Chinese-American folk. There are Chinese communities in many places around the West. The building of the US railroad system was heavily dependent upon the importing of workers from China. Even though those workers, their children, and grandchildren experienced severe racism and oppression, many remained. Boise has a small Chinese section in its city cemetery and there were descendants of those who had immigrated in the 19th century in the city. I suspect, now, that my assumptions about those of Chinese descent being responsible for the use of fireworks, was not correct. At any rate, it was a small number of people.

As the years passed and we moved to other places, we continued to notice fireworks on New Year’s Eve, with the amount of fireworks increasing each year. Last year, in our new home in Birch Bay, there were quite a few neighbors who used fireworks as part of their observance of the coming of the new year.

Where we are in South Carolina, however, promises to take that practice to a new level. There are open fireworks stands on many corners around the town. If the number of places that are selling fireworks is an indication, fireworks at New Year’s is a big deal around here. I guess we’ll see this evening.

We have always noted New Years with muted celebrations. We aren’t much for big, wild parties in the first place and New Years has been a time to enjoy our family more than a time for social gatherings for us. After the busy days of Christmas in the church, there is a more relaxed time after Christmas Day and we have often traveled to spend time with our extended family after Christmas. When our children were in school, we looked forward to the Christmas break and additional time to enjoy one another.

Last night we had a wonderful time touring a local park that has extensive lights for Christmas. Tonight will be the last night for that park’s display. I’m glad that our daughter’s family waited until we came to visit to tour the lights. They were spectacular. The park is large and there are many pools and ponds in the park that provided reflections for the displays. There were lots of colored lights and some of the displays had well-timed displays that changed color and made it look like there was motion.

The lights reminded us of a Rapid City tradition that we have enjoyed many times. In Rapid City volunteers string thousands and thousands of lights around a children’s storybook park. The displays are all lit up and the walk through the park is really enjoyable and part of the observance of the holiday. As far as we know, there isn’t a similar display near where we now live. It would be fun for us to tour such lights with our Washington grandchildren, but we haven’t yet found a place for that activity.

It makes sense to have displays of light as part of winter celebrations. Although I suspect that many of the fireworks this evening will be used near midnight, it certainly would be easy to have a family fireworks display as soon as it gets dark. Since it gets dark earlier in the winter than in the summer, little ones might not have to wait up so late to see the bright lights.

We do notice, however, that we’ve come down south, where the days are longer in the winter. It doesn’t get dark so early here. I’m sure that there is more than an hour of additional daylight here compared to our northern home. Of course, we are not fully adjusted to the change in time zones, so we are less aware of what time it is than usual. We do think, however, that sitting down to dinner when it is still light outside is a big change from our usual winter schedule. It got dark during our dinner and we were able to go out and enjoy the lights in the park shortly after dinner before the three-year-old’s bedtime.

I’m not expecting any wild parties for our celebrations this evening. We’ll be happy to watch a bowl game on television and enjoy family time celebrating the holiday season in general.

In 2000, when there were people around the world wondering how big a problem would be caused by the Y2k computer programming error, I checked out the New Year’s Eve fireworks in Sydney, Australia on the Internet. I figured that even though it was many hours earlier where we were living, I’d get some warning if there were Y2k problems in other places. It turned out that there were no big issues, but I did start a tradition for myself of checking out what is going on around the world on New Year’s Eve. I’ll probably do something similar today as well.

Of course, I also will be working on making changes to my web site in preparation for the new year. For those who are regular readers of my journal, this will be the last entry for 2022. Tomorrow there will be a new page on my website for the 2023 journal. If you read regularly and use a bookmark to find my journal, you’ll need to set a new bookmark to view my 2023 journal entries. Here is a link to that page. It doesn’t have anything on it today, but will have my journal entires starting tomorrow. Happy New Year to all!

Flying to South Carolina

The 1996 National Youth Event of the United Church of Christ was a record setting event in many ways. Although the pattern of Regional and National Youth events had been well established, prior National Youth Events hadn’t been truly “national” because there had been a youth gathering of United Black Christians that meant that many youth attended that event rather than the National Youth Event. In 1996, the United Black Christian youth event and the National Youth Event came to gather to make the gathering the largest gathering of the United Church of Christ in several decades. In order to make the combined event work for all participants, the planning team intentionally chose a venue in a southern state to make travel easier for the UBC participants.

As had been the case in prior National Youth Events members of the planning team were selected at the Regional Youth Events two years prior. One adult and one youth was selected to represent each of the UCC’s regions. I had been very active in the Western Regional Youth Events, serving on the planning teams for the 1992 and 1994 events. The 1994 Western Regional Youth Event was also a record setting event, hosted by the Hawaii Conference. That meant that we had to arrange for the 38 youth and their adult advisors from our Conference to fly to Hawaii. We negotiated a group travel purchase that included rental vans for the event. My only trip to Hawaii (so far) was made without the other members of our family. Susan and my 21st wedding anniversary occurred during the event. I took a bit of razzing about going to Hawaii for our 21st wedding anniversary and not bringing my wife with me. At that event I was selected to serve on the planning team for the 1996 National Youth Event.

The planning team met face-to-face several times. We chose the theme, created the logo, planned the workshops and break out events, selected keynote speakers and planned worship. I served on the worship planning team as well as participating in other aspects of general planning. To make matters more complex, I moved from the Western Region to the West Central Region midway through the planning process, so I assumed responsibilities for representing two regions.

The venue selected for that National Youth Event was the campus of the University of South Carolina at Columbia. We made a site visit, toured all of the facilities and held one of our planning sessions on the campus about six months before the event. By then I was living in Rapid City, South Dakota, so I flew from Rapid City to Denver, where I met the youth representative from the Western Region and we traveled together to Atlanta and then on to Columbia. During the process of planning and conducting the event, I also made a trip to Columbia through Salt Lake City, connecting to a flight to Atlanta.

These trips were before TSA. Cell phones existed, but I didn’t have one. I remember using my credit card so that the youth delegate could use a pay phone to telephone parents to tell them of a safe arrival at Columbia. The actual National Youth Event occurred at the same time as the 1994 Summer Olympics, hosted in Atlanta, so the Atlanta airport was very busy. In place of the usual airplanes, the major airlines were all operating wide body jumbo jets to carry the traffic into the city. The olympic park terrorist bombing took place during the National Youth Event and so we experienced heightened airport security, but nothing like what we have become accustomed to in our post-911 world. In those days anyone could go to any gate at the airport without having to pass through any security screening or even show proof of identity. IDs were needed only to board the airplanes.

Yesterday was a day to remember those earlier trips to Columbia, South Carolina. We got up in the wee hours of the morning and drove to Bellingham International Airport, where we caught a short shuttle flight to Seattle-Tacoma International. From there we flew to Atlanta, a trip that took nearly 5 hours, and then we caught a commuter flight to Columbia, arriving at the airport that looked much the same as it did over a quarter of a century ago.

Instead of flying on one of Delta’s L-1011 wide bodies, which were fairly old at the time, or one of United’s newer 757 aircraft, we flew from Seattle to Atlanta on a brand new 737-Max 9 plane, filled with technology, including onboard wifi. The trip from Atlanta to Columbia was on an older CRJ. I think that in 1996, we flew on Dash 8 aircraft between Columbia and Atlanta, but I don’t remember for sure.

A lot has happened in the world since 1996. We have become elders. Our children have become adults. Our grandchildren can remember no travel before there were TSA screenings at every airport. There are a lot of other things that haven’t changed. I still enjoy the rich southern accent of the airport employees when I visit Georgia and South Carolina. I even notice a regular “y’all” in our daughter’s speaking. A couple of years in South Carolina has reinforced the bits of southern speech she picked up from living for 5 years in Missouri.

Most importantly, this trip was not a trip in which I traveled away from my family for work. Rather it is a trip away from my work for my family. Our daughter and her family live about 45 minutes from Columbia, South Carolina. There is no feeling better than having your grandson run full bore to you with a great big hug when you arrive at the baggage claim.

Of course, we didn’t really need to stop at the baggage claim. Our suitcases have yet to catch up with us. They arrived from Atlanta on a later flight and should be delivered to our daughter’s home sometime this morning. No worries. These things happen when you travel. We are safe. We arrived on time. We are with family. It is even more exciting than the first trip I made to this area years ago.


I don’t know if my retirement is turning out the way I imagined it. I’m not sure I spent much time imagining what retirement would be like. I don’t mean that I somehow thought that I would just be able to keep working until the end of my life, or that I didn’t plan for the future. My working career was a wonderful time for me. I enjoyed the work that I did. I was busy with family life. I didn’t spent much time imagining what the future would be like. Then, somehow, the time came for us to move on from our church in Rapid City and we wanted to live closer to our grandchildren. So we announced our retirement and made plans to move. Then the Covid pandemic hit and we had to re-think all kinds of things about ministry and how we would pursue our job. The date of our retirement came and we said our farewells to the church. We spent some time sorting and preparing to move, made a trip west with some of our belongings and put our house on the market. The market was good and our house sold. We found a place to rent in the town where our son works and loaded up the U-haul. More precisely, friends helped us load up the U-haul. The trip west was uneventful and we unloaded the truck for a quick return to Rapid City for the final load and closing on our house.

In the process, we put some of our belongings into storage at our son’s farm. Now, after living in the rental home for a year and finding a home to purchase where we have lived for a year, we still don’t have all of the things in storage unpacked and dealt with. We have our job cut out for us for the year to come. Along the way, an opportunity to serve in an interim ministry came up and we went back to work half time. It has turned out to be just the right match for us. We loved our work. We are happy working. We know that the interim arrangement will come to an end during the next year, but we aren’t worried. Perhaps something else will come up. We know that we can live without working for a year. We’ve already experienced that. 42 years of the congregations we served paying into the United Church of Christ Tax Sheltered Annuity gives us income that we can rely on. The churches always paid a percentage of our pay, and we have never worked for high wages, so the income is modest, but so are our needs.

I guess if I imagined retirement, I thought that I would have more flexibility to my schedule, more time to pursue personal projects and hobbies, and more opportunities to travel. There definitely is more flexibility to our schedule. Working half time gives us days to be with our grandchildren, time for home projects, and some time to just sit and think. I’m not as sure about personal projects. I have a boat that is half done that I haven’t worked on in the two years since we retired. I have everything I need to finish it, but I haven’t figured out how to carve out the time. I haven’t sorted through all of our photographs. I thought I’d get that project done. I’ve made progress, but I have a long way to go. I’ve accomplished a few projects at the farm and I’ve enjoyed building fence, repairing a wood shed, milling baseboard, making new steps, and other projects, but a farm by its very nature has an unending list of projects to pursue. Part of the reason I haven’t gotten farther on my boat projects is that I have undone projects to get the farm shop set up. Part of the reason is that I haven’t set deadlines for myself.

And then there is travel. Covid has affected nearly everyone’s travel plans and we are no exception. We did have a marvelous road trip with our camper during the summer of 2021, driving from Washington to South Carolina to visit our daughter and her family, stopping to visit with friends along the way. And we leave today for another trip to South Carolina. This time we’re plunging into the holiday airline travel with high hopes that our plans won’t be as disrupted as is the case for a lot of holiday travelers. Our tickets don’t involve flying on Southwest Airlines, which is good for starters.

When I was growing up, I simply believed that flying would be common everyday experiences for everyone in my adult years. I earned my pilot’s license and we had a partnership in an airplane for a few years, but I couldn’t figure out the balance between the expense of private aviation, my salary as a minister, and my desire to provide for my family. Not keeping an airplane was a good decision for our family and allowed us to do other things that we might not have been able to do had we tried to keep up with the expenses of airplane ownership. But I haven’t traveled by airlines as much as I thought might be the case. When I was working, I served on national boards and committees and traveled frequently. I didn’t think much of a three day meeting in Baltimore or Cleveland, returning to home in South Dakota for Sunday worship. In addition to business travel, we managed to have family vacations, often traveling a couple of thousand miles with our family, camping along the way and seeing all kinds of wonderful sights. I found ways to take time from work to drive my mother back and forth between her summer and winter residences when she lived in Portland, OR in the winter and in Big Timber, MT in the summer.

Retirement has meant traveling less for us. I don’t think I expected it, but I’m not complaining about it, either. Most of the people I know are examining their travel habits and choosing to travel less. It is a way to have less impact on the environment and to be responsible when it comes to illness and time.

So today is exciting for us. We’re packed and ready to go. It will be a long day, but we’re headed three time zones to the east so we’ll get to bed earlier than we would were we staying on the west coast. South Carolina should be a fun place to be for a week. And our grandson is nearly as excited about us coming to visit as we are to see him. Everyone wins. It may not be the way I imagined it, but life is good and I count myself among the most fortunate of people.

High Water

Yesterday, we went down to the beach to look at the king tide. The water was so high that the bay was full to the breakwaters and berms. The tidal creek was overflowing its banks, flooding streets and, in one place, flowing over a bridge. There were a few cars that had been stranded in water too deep to drive. Some of the beach cottages had water in them, as well as some of the buildings near the creek. We also saw standing water in low places, flooding buildings that were a couple of blocks back from the beach. The winds were nearly calm in the morning, so the waves weren’t splashing that high. Because we remember the king tides from last winter, we were not surprised by the water levels. Still, it was very interesting to see what was happening, and we took a second walk later at the day, near low tide, just to see the difference. A lot of logs were floated around the bay. There were lots of new shells washed up onto the beach, including clams, oysters, and crabs.

In the morning, however, we were simply looking at the high water and seeing all that was happening. While we were down by the shore, we struck up a conversation with a woman whom we had not previously met. She informed us that she lived in a beachfront house a short distance from where we were standing. We asked if she had water in her house, and she said “not yet,” but she was sure that if it were windy and the waves were higher they might. They have a rock breakwater in front of their house and she thought the water was the highest she had seen. I commented that the measured tide was a bit lower than the highest tide during last year’s king tide. She was skeptical about that. She said they had lived in their house for two and a half years and this was the highest that they have seen. During our brief conversation, she commented over and over, “This is insane!”

I don’t think she was referring to her present state of mind. In fact, I don’t think that she was using the word “insane” in its technical definition, but rather in the informal sense of “shocking or outrageous.” At least I don’t know how one could attribute human characteristics to the movement of the tides. If so, saying that the natural world is “in a state of mind which prevents normal perception, behavior, or social interaction” seems out of place when the tides can be forecast in advance and charts predict the flows accurately. I’m going with the interpretation that she meant “outrageous.”

The tides, however, are not outrageous. They are not insane. When we retired two and a half years ago and moved to Northwest Washington, we were aware of global warming, sea level rise, and the risks of coastal flooding. Surely they must have known, when they purchased their oceanfront property that sea level rise and flooding were an issue. Is it possible that they purchased their home not knowing about king tides? Since we moved, we have been careful to look at the flood ratings of each property we considered, including the home we rented. Last spring my family’s recreational property on a river in Montana experienced a 500 year flood without getting water inside the buildings. It seems hard for me to believe that people are shocked and surprised by the natural cycles of tides, weather, and water.

This world may be changed by the processes of human over population and over consumption. Global weather changes may be in part the result of human decisions and behavior. But the world is not insane. Nature does not have a severely disordered state of mind. All around the globe people are experiencing the instability of changing sea levels. Beachfront properties may not be the wisest of investments in such conditions.

The conversation with the woman on the beach reminded me of a story I have been told about the history of the city of Seattle. I haven’t done research about the topic, but the story I was told is that when settlers arrived by ship to the area where the city of Seattle is located, they cut down trees and built wooden houses and businesses on the mostly soggy mudflats near the water. Some say that the indigenous coast Salish people advised them that this was not a good place to build, but the building persisted and a city was born. The streets in the new town would bloat with mud every time it rained. It rains a lot in Seattle. It is said the the mud was so bad that it would consume dogs and small children. Then in 1889, most of the city was consumed by the Great Seattle Fire. 25 blocks of the heart of the city were destroyed. It was decided that all new construction must be of stone or brick masonry. It was also decided to raise up the city from the muck of the original streets. The city built retaining walls, eight feet or higher, on either side of the old streets, filled in the space between the walls, and paved over the fill to effectively raise the streets, making them one story higher than the old streets and sidewalks. Building owners, experiencing an economic boom of the 1890’s, rebuilt unaware that their first story display windows and lobbies would soon become basements. When sidewalks were constructed to bridge the gaps between the raised streets and the new buildings, hollow tunnels were created beneath the new walks. You can now take tours of the underground tunnels and visit the basement levels of the old buildings that lie below the level of the streets in Old Seattle.

There are ways to engineer and build above the level where water and mud flow. Those solutions may be expensive, but they do exist. Over the summer we watched as a brand new beachfront cottage was built on an empty lot by the bay. In accord with the current building code, after concrete footers were poured, foundation walls rose above the ground six to eight feet. Then that space was filled with dirt and the dirt was compacted leaving a crawl space under the joists of the new building. It stands higher than its neighbors, with a set of steps taking people up from ground level to the first story of the new cottage. The day will come when the water rises, flooding the neighbors. Hopefully the new cottage will be above the flood.

We find the rising and falling of the tides and the flooding of king tide season, especially when the creeks and rivers are already at flood stage, to be interesting. I wouldn’t, however, call it “insane.”

REGULAR READERS PLEASE NOTE: For the next eight days, we will be traveling. Although I will write my journal daily and we will be going to a place where we have Internet access, I am uncertain of what time I will be publishing my journal over the next week or so. Since we are traveling from Pacific Time Zone to Eastern Time Zone, our sleep schedule will be disrupted. I may not publish every day. Don’t worry if you don’t find the journal posted at its typical time. Check back later and I’ll eventually catch up.

Watching the Tides

Living in a new place is an opportunity to learn a lot of new things. We are just beginning to learn about the tides in Birch Bay. We walk down to the bay several times each week. It provides us with constant fascination. We’ve never lived near an ocean before. In fact for all of our lives before we moved here we lived more than a thousand miles from the ocean, visiting only occasionally. Now we are a 15-minute walk away from a beach. The tides rise and fall with predictable regularity, but their cycle is different from other indicators of the passage of time. High and low tides come at different times of the day. The amount of variation between high and low tide is different, depending on the season of the year, the amount of wind, and other factors. The tides keep us mindful of the moon, which orbits the earth in an elliptical pattern, coming closer at some times and being farther away at others.

Last winter, In January, the king tides and a storm surge combined to send water crashing over the earthen berms and into houses along the shore. At its peak, the tide was 12 feet over the normal level of water in the bay. This year, the king tides are back a bit earlier, occurring over the next few days. Our weather is a bit calmer and high tides are predicted to be about 10.5 feet above normal. Over the year since last January a lot of private homes have invested in building up seawalls. Huge rocks are brought in from a quarry and piled near the high water mark to provide protection for the buildings that are built near to the shore. The result, among other things, is that there is a shrinking amount of space to walk on the beach between the water and the sea walls. During king tides, there is no place to walk without getting wet. We’ve lived here long enough, however, to know places where we can safely walk along the beach and observe the high water.

The king tide this year is coming at the same time as the rivers and creeks are running very full. A week ago we had two feet of snow on the ground and snow depths were much greater in the foothills of the mountains. That was followed by freezing rain last week and a rapid rise in temperatures on Christmas. We went from 12 degrees to 50 degrees in a couple of days. The snow is all melted. There are huge puddles in the fields. The storm sewers are funning full. When the rivers and streams meet the sea with higher flow levels and the sea greets them with higher tides, the risk of flooding rises.

On our way to the beach we walk alongside Tennant Creek. The creek is a title stream, which means that when the tide is rising, the creek flows from the sea for about three miles into a marshy inland area. When the tide is falling, the creek flows out to the sea, draining a large area of the surrounding countryside. When we are walking, we can tell whether the tide is high or low by the direction that the creek is flowing. Because the tide washes into the creek, the fresh water is greeted with salt water and there is rich marine life, including crabs and other creatures in the mouth of the creek, making it a gathering place for seagulls, ducks, and shorebirds feeding on the creatures and plants flowing back and forth in the creek.

Yesterday we walked midway between high and low tides. The creek was flowing out to sea on the falling tide, and it was full, nearly overflowing its banks in several places. Today we will walk close to high tide to observe the king tide and we expect to see places where the creek is flooding.

A bit south of where we live the Nooksack River flows into Bellingham Bay, the combination of floodwaters from the surrounding area and the high tides combined to flood several homes. County Search and Rescue had to use boats to rescue several people and pets from flooded homes. It is enough to make us very glad that we learned about flood charts and elevations before we purchased our home. n

I grew up alongside a mountain stream in Montana. I was used to the cycle of the river rising to its peak flow in late spring or early summer when the snow was melting in the mountains. There were a few times when the river spilled over its banks and flooded, but the change in the flow was less dramatic than is the case with the rivers and streams that drain the Cascade Mountains. Mount Baker, which is visible from our son’s farm receives the most amount of snow fall of any place in the lower 48 states. All of that snow is in a cycle of freezing and melting. At lower levels of the mountain, now falls and melts throughout the winter. So, instead of spring and early summer being the seasons of flooding, winter is the time when we see the most flooding in this area. Last year the floods came in November. This year, January seems to be the month of the most flooding following an unusually dry November.

County emergency officials literally went from a snow and blizzard warning to an ice storm warning to a flood warning in three days over Christmas weekend. So far, we have had the luxury of observing all of these changes from the safety and security of a warm home with reliable power and a full pantry. When the weather is too extreme, we just stay home, as we did for three days last week. Even when we are staying close to home, however, we can take our daily walks, except for a couple of the iciest days. We’re watching and learning and continue to be fascinated with the ways of the natural world in our new home.

Christmas joy

“On the second day of Christmas, my true love gave to me two turtledoves and a partridge in a pear tree.” We have a reasonable chance of seeing a couple of pigeons sometime today. I’m not sure that they would be true European turtle doves, but I think it would be close enough for me. The partridge, however, might be more of a challenge for us. I’ve seen chukars in eastern Washington, but not on this side of the cascades. We have two cherry trees in our back yard, and there was a lone robin that sat in the tree for part of the afternoon, but the branches aren’t big enough for partridges. Our son and his family have several pear trees in their yard, but no chukars were seen there, to my knowledge, either. We’ll keep our eyes pealed, and the birds around here have the ability to surprise me. Yesterday, before church, I went out and shoveled a bit of slush and ice from the driveway and I saw two seagulls sitting on the roof of our house. Seagulls around here are sort of the raccoons of the air. They go to work on any garbage cans that don’t have lids or whose lids are a bit ajar. If they succeed in getting a garbage bag out of the can, they’ll rip it apart and spread it around the street looking for edibles. Our garbage is safe. We don’t put it out until pickup day. There are no seagulls in the song about the 12 days of Christmas anyway.

Here is what I did see on the first day of Christmas: on our way home from church, there was a white car in the Enterprise cemetery parked near a new grave. We’ve had record snow fall, followed by an ice storm that melted into flood warnings and the creeks are still rising. So it was easy to spot the new grave in the cemetery because the snow and ice had been cleared for the burial. A single person had stepped out of the car and was bended over, arranging flowers on the grave. There was an entire Christmas sermon in a brief glance as we drove past at 35 mph on our way home.

Sometimes life is like that. It hands you a sermon that is more powerful than the preaching we hear in church. We had a lovely service at church. In place of the sermon, there were times of “joy sharing” in the service. The first was a video recording of a pastor interviewing a church member about her dog and the joy that having a dog has brought to her. The second was an interview with the family whose baby played the part of the Christ child in last year’s Christmas pageant. The baby is a year old and it was easy to see the joy in the child and the family as they shared. The third was an opportunity for those participating in the service to share brief descriptions of things that bring them joy. The stories were sweet and moving.

On the way home, however, we were talking about how the worship planners had sort of gone after the low hanging fruit. Puppies and babies are pretty sure to remind people of joy. The challenge of the season for many people is looking for a different, perhaps deeper, certainly more difficult joy - the joy that suffering cannot turn back. Romans 8:18 hints that that joy: “I consider the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.” I think that there is a deep need in our world for that kind of joy because there are clearly people who are suffering.

On Christmas Eve, Susan spent an hour or so on the phone talking to a friend who has been a widow for just a short time. The memories of that September funeral are fresh in her mind and mingle with the memories of Christmases past. There have been some days when depression seemed just around the corner and it seemed like the days of joy were all behind. She is a strong woman with a large and supportive community and she will find her way through these days of her journey of grief, but joy doesn’t come easily for her and it won’t for some time to come. Part of this Christmas for her has been going through the motions, but not feeling the joy.

Then we saw the lone figure in the cemetery. I hope that the person was making the visit on their way to some kind of Christmas gathering with friends and family. I hope that the person we saw there didn’t have to spend the rest of the day alone. I don’t know the story and it would have been out of place for us to stop and interrupt the quiet moments in the cemetery. A lot of the world’s suffering takes place when we aren’t looking with people we have never met. The fact that we don’t know the victims doesn’t change the suffering. Still, not every story is our story and sometimes we need to respect other people’s right to privacy.

It seems that the story of joy in this season is harder to discover for some folks. I hope that our church will continue to be a place for those who don’t find joy to be as close to the surface. I hope that we will always have a place for tears and the stories of those who grieve.

As retired pastors, we often do a bit of criticizing of worship after attending a service. It is a normal strain of conversation for us as we drive home. We try to keep our comments to ourselves. The leaders of the congregation have no need for criticism from a couple of retired pastors. Yesterday, we weren’t really looking for a partridge in a pear tree because we were discussing the benediction of the worship service. We felt that in place of the invitation to “go forth and share the joy of the season,” an acknowledgement of the slow coming of the joy that suffering cannot turn back might have been in place.

Then we rounded the corner by the cemetery and saw the real struggle of the season. The joy is coming, but it is not obvious in every place. Jesus spoke of grief with his disciples as he helped them understand his coming crucifixion. “So you have pain now, but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.” (John 16:22)

It is only the second day of Christmas. I’m willing to wait a bit for the joy that comes after pain.

A Christmas sermon

I believe in the power of story. For many years, I led worship on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day and I focused on telling the Biblical story of the birth of the Christ Child. I memorized large portions of that story. i wrote scripts for pageants to tell that story. I planned worship services that were filled with symbol and ritual centered around that story. A few years before I retired, the department of worship at the church I was serving in Rapid City, South Dakota, had a planning conversation about Christmas Eve worship. Members of the group told about their experiences with Christmas Eve worship and we made a list of the elements of those services that were most meaningful. Interesting to me out of that process was a request that I preach a Christmas Eve sermon. Our Christmas Eve services were already full, but we carefully crafted a service that retained the elements of pageant, candle lighting, and prayer while also allowing for a brief 5 to 7 minute sermon.

I spent quite a bit of time thinking through my sermon for that year. I considered simply telling another Christmas story - a story of love made present in the lives of everyday people. I had been telling Christmas stories at the late service on Christmas Even for many years. But I wanted to honor the request for a sermon - a reflection on the scripture that connected the ancient story with the lives of the people who came to worship. That year I read a number of Christmas sermons that had been preached by other pastors. I also looked at Christmas addresses delivered by world leaders. There is a tradition of the pope delivering an annual Christmas message. The Queen of England honored tradition with a Christmas message. Presidents sometimes issue special Christmas messages.

I don’t remember the sermon I delivered that year. I can remember several Christmas sermons, but I don’t know which was the one I gave in response to the request to deliver a Christmas sermon. I do remember that I honored that request for the remainder of my active career. My last Christmas sermon was Christmas 2019. I was so deeply grateful that Christmas after having gone through a health scare with my wife that fall that I preached about the gift of gratitude. Even though I have returned to working for a church since retiring, I have not returned to regular preaching. Now I listen to sermons. I attended two worship services last night and I’ll attend another one today, so I’ll get to hear a few Christmas sermons.

I’ve also checked out a few Christmas messages delivered by famous people. King Charles of the United Kingdom, pre-recorded his Christmas Message to the kingdom. He included a tribute to his mother, Queen Elizabeth II, who passed away this year. He also reflected on his views of the importance of faith and the importance of interfaith relationships.

Pope Francis lamented the damage caused by war in his address to worshippers at St Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City. “How many words we have seen!” he said, adding that war’s victims are “the weak and the vulnerable.” “I think above all of the children devoured by war, poverty and injustice,” he added. He condemned human “hunger for wealth and power,” rebuking those who are ravenous for those elements despite the suffering caused to others.

Ukrainian President Zelensky delivered a defiant Christmas message, urging his people to persevere as Russian attacks have left millions without power this Christmas.

I suppose that all of these messages are important, and it is probably a good idea to consider the messages delivered by others, but I suspect that I might issued a simpler message, were I to preach this Christmas. In the midst of a world torn by war, in a country divided by political extremism with radically different interpretations of the events of the past couple of years, in a time of pandemic where suffering from illness continues to rise and health care workers continue to struggle with increasing hospitalizations and severe illness, I think I might focus on the simple message of incarnation.

The prologue to the Gospel of John, one of the texts I memorized for Christmas worship, uses poetic language for the message. “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” At Christmas we celebrate that the creator of the universe is so passionate about relationship with humans that God came to us as a human infant to remind us that God is present in every human life. The Christmas miracle is as simple an holy as holding a baby because every child is a holy child.

The Christmas message is that God is not distant or far away or strange or unknown. God is close and present and part of every day. It doesn’t require a complex theology or the power of an eloquent speaker for the Christmas message to be heard. I remember one worship service, years ago, when a young mother brought her child to worship. I walked into the congregation and held the baby - mothers and fathers have been incredibly generous in allowing me to hold their precious little ones over the years. I held up that baby for the congregation to see and said, “This is what Christmas is all about.”

If I could deliver a Christmas sermon this season, I would remind the congregation of a truth they already know. God is here and now in the midst of everyday life. Every child is a holy child. Every person is an opportunity to witness the power of the Creator.

This is a season of incredibly complex emotions. Our memories of celebrations past and of losses present combine to challenge us to cry of joy or of grief and of both combined. In all of this the loss, the wars, the storms, the challenges, the divisions, the lust for power and wealth, and the suffering of innocents, God is present in this world. That indeed is good news. And it is enough sermon for this day and for many Christmases yet to come.


Today is my brother’s 67th birthday. I’ve been around for all of them, although I haven’t been in the same place as him for most of them. When we were growing up, however, it was different. We always devoted the day before Christmas to celebrating our brother’s special day. There would be a meal, with the menu usually chosen by him, a cake, and presents for him. The day, up until sundown, was devoted to celebrations for him. Only after the evening grew dark did we begin to celebrate Christmas. After dinner we’d have a time of singing carols and reading the story of Christmas from the bible. Then each child would be allowed to open one Christmas gift. We hung our stockings and then it was off to bed. When we grew older - into our teens - we were allowed to go to the late Christmas service at the church.

Christmas Eve contains a lot of traditions in my memory and we’ve established a lot for our family. Being pastors, the Christmas Eve services at the church were a big part of our celebrations. When our children were young, we served a congregation where we always had a Christmas Day service, regardless of which day of the week Christmas landed. Church was a big part of our Christmas observances. But we always also had a special family time for opening presents and enjoying one another. We started out as soon as our children were old enough to be excited about Christmas, a practice of opening gifts a little bit at a time rather than all at once in one big unwrapping session. We’d let the children open a couple of gifts and then pause for them to play with their new toys before going on with additional gifts. Sometimes we spread the opening of presents out into the afternoon. Christmas celebrations have taken many different shapes over the years.

Christmas also meant a big dinner at our house, a tradition that we have continued to observe. Since moving to the Pacific Northwest, we have hosted Christmas Dinner at our house. Our son and his family have the morning for their family, opening family gifts and enjoying the celebration. Then they come over to our house where there are more gifts and a celebration dinner. Some years we have roasted a turkey. Since moving to the coast we have splurged on a smoked salmon as part of our special holiday meal.

Today will be a day of preparations. Because we had an ice storm yesterday and we decided to stay home and not travel in the slippery conditions, yesterday was a good day to bake bread. Today we’ll do a bit more advance preparation for our big dinner tomorrow. The forecast calls for temperatures well above freezing, so if that occurs, we’ll head to church in the mid afternoon. Our bell choir is ringing for our church’s 5 pm service and for the 7 pm service of Garden Street United Methodist Church. There is an 11:30 service at our church, but we’ll probably catch that one online. Assuming that the weather will permit it, we’ll be back at church for the Sunday, Christmas Day service the next morning before returning home for a big family dinner and celebration.

The weather of the past week has taught us a few lessons about flexibility. We’ll try to keep being flexible while honoring as much of our traditions as possible.

I like the concept of Christmas Eve. In addition to the contemporary meaning of “evening,” the title reminds us of the Hebrew word for life - the name of the woman in one of the creation stories of our bible. Our daughter and one of our granddaughters have Eve for a middle name. Eve is a day for preparations. The day before the birth of a child is usually filled with signs of what is coming for the expectant parents. Things are stirring and the family is about to undergo a change, but no one yet knows exactly what that change will be like. Even with all of the ultrasound tests and advanced diagnostics, there are still plenty of mysteries about a baby before it is born. Our tradition teaches us that Mary and Joseph were traveling away from home when the time came for their firstborn to arrive. There were plenty of uncertainties.

In contrast, we have filled Christmas Eve with traditions. Not only can I tell you the scripture reading for the services this evening, I can recite it from memory. The carols will be familiar. The message will not surprise me. The one big unknown of the evening is the weather and, frankly, I’m grateful that we have a bit of surprise in the weather. We are not trapped by blizzard as are so many in other parts of the country. The reservations are in full crisis mode in South Dakota. Supplies, including propane for heating and essential groceries, have not been delivered due to impassable roads. Some people are stuck in their homes with no way to communicate with others or to ask for much-needed help. And there are many others, all across the country, who are struggling to survive in the midst of what has been called “a once-in-a-lifetime storm.” Our weather surprises are much less severe. We can test the slipperiness of the roads by walking down our street. We have reliable and comfortable vehicles. Our house is well stocked and other than a very brief “blip” in our electric service that lasted less than a minute, we have had dependable electricity and gas to power our furnace. We’ve been comfortable and cozy and have enjoyed the beauty of looking out from the inside during the days of the storm.

And now the temperature is above freezing. While the rain continues to freeze on some surfaces, there is plenty of liquid water and the temperature will continue to rise throughout the day. Emergency services will be switching from plowing snow and clearing ice to flood preparations today. It could be a busy time for them.

In the midst of it all, I hope we can remember to give energy to preparation and remember the anxious anticipation of the family awaiting the birth of the holy child and reminding ourselves that every child is a holy child. Merry, merry! For now, we wait.

Turbinado Kids

A plastic bottle of shampoo got dropped in a bathtub. I suspect it is a fairly common occurrence. In this particular case, however, the bottle had a pump on the top to dispense the shampoo and the top of the pump broke off. Of course the shampoo is still usable in the old bottle, but without the pump it is messy to dispense it. When you unscrew the top, you remove the entire pump that has been submerged in the shampoo and it drips as you pour from the bottle. So I found another pump bottle and transferred the shampoo into it. Problem solved.

Then, I thought, I should label the new bottle so that people would know what is in it. That is when I read the label on the old bottle. I guess I should mention that I didn’t buy the shampoo in the first place. I think our daughter bought it for her son when she was visiting our home last year. Here is some of what the old shampoo bottle has printed on it: “Raw Sugar Kids Shampoo + Conditioner Watermelon + Apple Infused with Dandelion Flower Clinically & Allergy Tested Made with plant-derived ingredients Free of sulfates & parabens/vegan”

Outside of the obvious lack of punctuation, the label left me scratching my head. I’m not sure what constitutes a raw sugar kid. Our grandchildren are sweet, but even their grandparents know not to feed them too much sugar. According to the web site food, “raw sugar, also known as turbinado sugar, is light brown in color and comes in crystalized form. It is primarily sucrose and a small amount of molasses.”

I like the word turbinado. It isn’t in the spell checker on my computer. But our grandson could be described as a turbinado. Sometimes he has the energy of a turbo charged tornado. Oxford online says turbinado is similar to demerara but with larger crystals. My spell checker doesn’t have demerara in it, either.

I know what shampoo is and I know what conditioner is and I know that they are sometimes combined in the same product. I do not know, however, what watermelon, apple, and dandelion flowers add to the cleansing properties of soap for washing one’s hair. Interestingly, on the back of the bottle is a list of ingredients. There are lots of fun chemical words. It turns out that the shampoo actually contains Citrullus Lanatus (Watermelon Seed Extract), as well as Pyrus Malus (Apple Fruit Extract), and Taraxcum Offinale (Danedelion Leaf Extract). It also contains Potassium Sorbate (not to be confused with sorbet), Tetrasodium Glutamate, and Disodium Laureate Sulfosuccinate. Like I said, fancy chemical words. I checked. The brand of shampoo I use also has a list of ingredients. I don’t think I’ve ever read them before. I don’t plan on ingesting any of it. I just rub it into my hair, rinse and repeat. OK I don’t repeat, but I don’t have that much hair really. My shampoo doesn’t have any fruit or flowers that I can discern from the ingredient list. I don’t know what sodium xylenesufonate comes from but it does seem that both types of shampoo contain a sodium and I know that in general I am supposed to be aware of and avoid too much sodium in my diet. Then again, I’m not going to eat it. My shampoo doesn’t say anything about being Vegan, like the kids’ shampoo.

I think I’ll make a label for the substitute shampoo bottle that says, “Kids Shampoo.” I thought about having it say “Turbinado Kids Shampoo” just because I like the word turbinado. I’m thinking that if the fact that it has watermelon and apple in it is important someone with a sensitive nose might detect the aromas in the shampoo. I think that the fruit is added to make it smell less like soap and more like food, but I’m not sure.

I’m glad that our daughter bought the shampoo for her son, because if she had asked me to pick up children’s shampoo from the store, I suspect I would have never come home with “Watermelon + Apple shampoo + conditioner infused with Dandelion Flower. “ I think that when our kids were little we used Johnson’s Baby Shampoo. I remember something about a “no tears formula.” I don’t remember, however, that regular use of the shampoo meant that there were no tears in our family. It seemed like there was always someone crying at our house. Once, when Susan’s sister and her family were visiting, we had all 5 kids crying at the same time. Sometimes when there was no kid crying, one of the mothers was crying. I still say when I’m around someone who apologizes for crying, “It’s OK, I’m waterproof.” Maybe I shouldn’t put too much weight on what it says on the bottle of shampoo. I bet, however, that shampoo is just like a whole lot of other products in the store. I go expecting to see one or maybe two brands and there is a whole section of the store devoted to dozens of brands of the product. When that happens to me, whether it is shampoo or snack crackers, I sometimes am immobilized by having too much choice and can’t make a decision at all.

I do like the idea of children’s shampoo being in a pump bottle. I know I dropped the cap of the shampoo bottle in the bathwater dozens of times trying to wash the hair of a wildly squirming child. Those little critters get really slippery when they are wet. Then again, we have at least one grandchild who can dispense a significant amount of hand soap onto the bathroom counter from a pump bottle. I sometimes wonder if she succeeded in getting any of it on her hands.

Mostly, I like living in a house where children visit regularly and where we have all kinds of kids products around. For the most part they don’t play with lego bricks in my bedroom, so I haven’t stepped on one with bare feet in quite a while. I don’t mind picking up toys after the kids have visited. And I don’t mind reading the ingredients of children’s shampoo. It is all part of the fun of being a grandpa, and that is fun that I certainly don’t want to miss.

They named the storm

One of the things I worry about when writing my journal is that I become too repetitive. I remember a time, years ago, when I decided that I would stop writing about cats. At the time I was trying to include a photograph with each journal entry and our cats were so photogenic that I often had new photographs of them. They also were entertaining to me, so I always had a few cat stories to tell. But I didn’t want my journal to be solely about the antics of a cat, so I disciplined myself to address other topics. When I went back to edit organize my journal archives, I discovered that I had not written that much about cats. It was mostly my perception and quite a bit away from the reality. During that time I was also traveling quite a bit and I would write an essay about returning home for every trip. Looking back at my early journal entries, the topic of home was one that is far more common than cats.

These days, I seem to be writing about the weather a lot. I remember a teacher who once said to me, “I’m getting older. I don’t have time left to waste talking about the weather.” While I appreciate his focus on the topics that mattered most to him, I later learned to talk about the weather during our seven year term as pastors in rural North Dakota. Nearly every day farmers would gather at the local cafe and the topic was always the weather. It seemed to me that the weather was always unusual - different than typical and different from what the farmers wanted. I quickly learned that if one was to serve the people of my parish, one had to become comfortable talking about the weather. After all, the entire life of a farm and ranch family hinges on the weather. They live so closely to the cycles of nature, that weather is an important part of their lives. For them it is not trivia.

So, at the risk of becoming too repetitious and perhaps boring, here is another journal entry about the weather.

Our weather remains cold. The high yesterday was only 15 degrees. The wind has been blowing 15 to 20 mph for several days. We had about two feet of light powder snow on the ground that fell Monday and Tuesday, but the snow has settled and the wind has rearranged it several times. There are drifts that are three or four feet deep, but there are also bare spots where the wind has blown the snow away. Today will be the third day of bitter cold, though the weather is forecast to start warming today and it could be above freezing by tomorrow. By Christmas Eve, our temperatures should be in the mid forties with rain quickly melting the snow.

We have dealt with the weather by staying home. We have plenty of supplies in the house, and we can do a lot of our work remotely over the Internet, so it seemed best for us not to get in the way of those who had to get out and about. It is pretty easy to break cabin fever during a blizzard by shoveling snow. Yesterday as I was shoveling the snow that had drifted back into the driveway overnight, I noticed that I was hot and sweating despite the cold temperatures outside. I have lots of warm winter clothing and we have been able to get out for walks every day, though we’ve been walking a shorter loop due to the biting wind.

By the third day of a blizzard, I’m usually ready to get a bit farther from home, however. I plan to head over to the farm this morning to help with chores. There will be more shoveling that needs to be done over there and I can use my pickup to pack down the snow in the driveway to make it easier for cars to come and go. For most of my life, I have have looked at three days as an important benchmark. I’ve often heard the phrase, “the first seventy-two are on you.” It means that in case of an emergency, individuals should have essential supplies such as food, water, and medicine, enough to last for seventy-two hours because rescue might be delayed. When heading out to travel in winter conditions in South Dakota, we would carry what we thought were enough survival supplies for 72 hours. I broke that rule a couple of times, and once we spent the night in our pickup and exhausted our food supply in one night. No harm came and we were happy and healthy when friends came to help us tow out our broken-down pickup the next day, but I didn’t make that mistake again. I have a pack with essential supplies, including freeze dried food and a small cookstove ready to go. I’ll toss it in the pickup today even though I’m not going farther than I can walk.

This storm, however, is becoming much more severe as it blows across the country. The temperatures are much colder at points east of here. Sub-zero temperatures are a serious matter. Frostbite can cause permanent damage and leave scars within very short amounts of exposure. Having essential survival supplies in a home for seventy-two hours means needing a supplemental heat source such as a wood stove or a backup generator. We have had no disruption of electricity or Internet during this storm so far. Although most of the time our primary heat source is an electric heat pump, our backup gas furnace has been running a lot during these cold days. Our emergency propane heater is at work at the farm, keeping the water flowing for the cows during the coldest days.

I’ve learned the term “bomb cyclone” in recent years and this storm is supposed to meat the criteria for such an event as it reaches the great lakes region. During such an event the barometric pressure can drop as much or more than during a hurricane. Forecasters say this storm will become a bomb cyclone and are calling this a “once in a generation” storm.

I knew it was serious when I saw the name they have given to this storm: Elliot. Winter storm Elliot. Elliot is not to be messed with. I know. I have an eleven-year-old grandson named Elliot. Naming the storm after him seems quite appropriate.

Digging out

The shortest day of the year has arrived. That means that from here on the days will be getting a little bit longer until June 21st when the process heads the other way for half a year. Here in the north we notice the long nights and short days, so the turn is welcome. Like last year, we have winter weather to remind us of the season, even though today is the first day of winter in the astronomical calendar.

I’m a bit stiff in my shoulders today. It isn’t painful stiff. It isn’t “Oh, I wish I hadn’t jumped (or fallen or lifted) stiff. It’s just plain, I did work that I used to do all the time, but haven’t done for a while stiff. We woke to about two feet of fresh powder yesterday and I spread out the chore of shoveling out the driveway into two or three sessions. It was the first time in three years that I have missed the snowblower that we sold before moving from South Dakota. Even so, the fact that I shoveled our driveway makes our house stand out in the neighborhood. Folks around here mostly subscribe to the “wait until it melts” theory of snow removal. That amount of snow pretty much had things shut down. Our church usually uses the public schools as a measurement of whether or not to close the office. The schools, however, are on Christmas break, so they didn’t have to make a decision. Someone at the church, however, decided that since the Public Libraries of the county were all closed due to snow, our church office should be closed for the day. Appropriate notices went out by email and on social media and we worked from home.

We never felt snowed in. We could have driven anywhere we wanted to go in our pickup, which is a 4-wheel-drive with plenty of ground clearance. Our car is all wheel drive, but pretty close to the ground and could have gotten hung up on drifts and places where the snow isn’t packed down. However, we had no place to go and so didn’t go anyplace. It was a pleasant day for us.

The wind has continued to blow during the night, so there will be some snow that has drifted back into the driveway, but it won’t be the challenge that shoveling out yesterday was.

After our afternoon meetings, Susan and I went for a walk. It was slow going. People in this neighborhood don’t shovel their sidewalks, so we walked in the street. There wasn’t much traffic and the few cars that had made their way on the streets had packed down tracks where it was much easier to walk than pushing a couple of feet of snow.

Susan remembers a time when we were dating or newly wed when we were visiting my home town during a winter snowstorm. We walked down the middle of the street because the going was easier there than where the sidewalks were. She remembers the walk as being romantic and special. She was from the city, though the definition of city is different in Montana than in more populated places. They wouldn’t consider walking down the middle of the street because there was too much car traffic to make it safe to do so. In a small town, however, there is no problem with walking in the street. We only had to step out of the street for one car during our walk yesterday and it was going very slow, so we had plenty of time. I don’t remember that walk with Susan. We’ve had lots of walks and I guess walking in the middle of the street wasn’t anything special or unusual for me. I’m sure romance was in the air, however. I’ve felt a special attraction to her and enjoyed walking hand in hand with her for a long time. It never gets old.

Even with the work of shoveling snow and the challenges of going for a walk when the streets are clogged with snow drifts, I realize that I am grateful for the change of seasons. Our daughter-in-law sent pictures of our grandchildren, who were enjoying the snow in many ways. One thing that entertained them was throwing seeds out of the sliding patio door onto the snow and watching the birds that gathered. They sent us a message asking to borrow our bird books and we’ll make sure that they have access to them. We’ve already completed our Christmas shopping, but a bird book for the family would have been a good choice had we thought of it earlier. There will be other occasions.

It wasn’t only a snow day in our county. The library in Mount Vernon was closed which meant that our son didn’t have to drive to work. They had a more laid back day without having the commute to take up its usual time. I watched the traffic cameras on the Internet and I am relieved that he didn’t have to drive. There were plenty of accidents and some had traffic backed up for long periods of time. In addition to his full-time job, he has been fighting the water system at the farm during this cold weather. Their house is functioning normally, but they occasionally have frozen valves or pipes in the barn and cows drink more water when it is cold than when the weather is warmer, so they need fresh water every day. On Monday, he was fighting a freeze up, but he discovered the location and was able to warm it with a torch and then install a lot more insulation, so yesterday there were no freeze-ups. Instead of taking hours to get the water to the cattle, it was accomplished as it should be in just a few minutes. He was celebrating the win, as the 15 degree weather was cold enough to test his fix for the problem.

As has been true since time immemorial, the weather impacts lives of real people. We have to make adjustments. We stay close to the home fires. We wait a bit more. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Last minute?

For most of our working lives, we observed Mondays as our day off. It isn’t the only option for clergy. I know several ministers who observe Friday and Saturday as their weekend. That never worked for us. There was just too much that needed to be done to prepare for Sunday worship and Saturdays were too filled with necessary church business. When others have the day off, it is a great time for pastors to work alongside volunteers on special projects. Anyway, Mondays worked for us and we continue to observe them as our usual day off. Of course, there are things that come up that mean that we change our usual schedule, but most Mondays are fairly calm at the church and we are able to relax and have a bit of time for rest and recreation on Mondays.

Yesterday, in anticipation of a busy week, we took the opportunity to do some Christmas shopping. We don’t make too big of a deal about Christmas shopping and presents. We’re happy to celebrate Christmas in other ways, but we also enjoy giving gifts and grandchildren present a special opportunity for us to think together about what gifts might add joy to their lives. Shopping didn’t consume our whole day. We spent about two hours visiting four stores and were successful in finding gifts in each store. It helps to talk to other grandparents, especially when we are relatively new to town. Two of the four stores were places we have never before been and discovering a new to us sporting goods store and another new to us parent-teacher store were fun visits.

It was fairly cold outside yesterday. The high at our house was about 15 degrees. It was about 5 degrees warmer at the farm, which is a bit farther from the coast. There was a bit of light, fluffy snow falling, though the roads were clear and there were no problems with driving. It seemed very normal to us.

This morning, however, there is an article in the local newspaper that proclaims, “Snowfall is not stopping last-minute shoppers.” It is accompanied by a photograph of people walking down a city street. There is no snow in the picture. The people don’t seem to be in a rush. A few have paused for conversation. I had a couple of reactions to the news report. First of all, my typical, South Dakota reaction to the skiff of snow on the ground. There isn’t enough snow to stop anything, in my opinion. Do these people know how much snow fell in South Dakota last week? Would they even be able to function if such a storm came here? I do know some people who stayed home from church on Sunday because of the snowfall, even though there wasn’t enough snow that fell during church to require a snow brush on the car afterward.

So, no the snow wasn’t stopping us from doing a bit of shopping.

I do, however, take minor offense at the description “last minute.” Yesterday was December 19. In the language that used to be used - six shopping days until Christmas. It was hardly the last minute. We could have found a couple of hours to shop after work today. Wednesday wouldn’t be good for shopping for us because we have a Blue Christmas service at the church and I have a small group that will be meeting in addition to plenty of office work to complete. But we could shop on Thursday, or Friday. In fact we’ll probably make a grocery store run on one of those days to pick up some last minute items for our Christmas dinner.

I was feeling proud of our accomplishments at shopping. I’m pretty sure that we had a gift to pick up on Christmas Eve last year. Even with two services on Christmas Eve, there is enough time to make a quick trip to a store if necessary.

Monday was hardly “last minute” in my opinion.

Then again, I’m not in the retail trades. I am not watching daily sales with anxiety about the bottom line. I don’t compare the number of folks who are shopping from year to year.

I think the article reflected the relative boredom of reporters trying to come up with something before deadline. It makes sense that way. After all, I landed on the idea of Christmas shopping as a topic for today’s journal entry. A reporter might come up with the same topic during the week before Christmas.

I wonder if the busiest shopping days in the week before Christmas are affected by which day of the week Christmas occurs. I think a lot of people do their shopping on the weekends when they are off from work. Of course there are a lot of people who staff the shops who don’t have weekends off. Someone has to work in order for the shops to be open on Sunday. Maybe those people will appreciate the bonus day off with the holiday landing on Sunday. Some will also have Monday off because the holiday landed on a Sunday.

I like it when Christmas lands on a Sunday. We had a tradition of Christmas day worship at some of the churches we served. Since it wasn’t a tradition in Rapid City, where we served the longest call of our careers, we sort of missed it. When Christmas was on a Sunday, we went ahead with a Christmas day service and although it was lightly attended, we enjoyed it very much. When Christmas falls on a Monday, Christmas Eve is a very busy day with a service in the morning and a couple more in the evening. They are, however, joyful services and I look forward to them each year.

The pace of our lives now that we have smaller responsibilities in the church is very pleasant. We have enough time to go shopping from time to time. We have time for our home projects. We have time for each other. And, despite what I read in the newspaper, we are prepared for Christmas with days left to spare.

Merry, merry!

I wrote this

I started publishing my essays on the Internet in 2007. Since I started, I haven’t missed a single day, though there have been plenty of days when my entry was completed and published late for a wide variety of reasons. I confess that I have also, on occasion, pre-written my essay the night before and published it after midnight to have it “date stamped” on the appropriate day. More often, I have been uninspired and struggled with a topic for a journal entry and ended up writing on a topic that is repetitive or boring. I sometimes fear that too many of my entries sound exactly like too many other entries.

The discipline has been very good for me. Since there is no income generated by my web site and it costs to maintain the web site, it should be obvious that I don’t do this for money. I’m not making any from the activity. My motivation is mainly emotional and spiritual. I began keeping a journal as a spiritual discipline. Publishing the journal has created just the right amount of discipline for me. I could simply stop publishing. I could change my publication schedule. I’ve noticed that there are plenty of successful bloggers who don’t write daily. Some only write one or two entries per month. I choose to write and publish the way i do because it is meaningful for me.

It is possible, however, that my way of writing will one day become as obsolete as the typewriter is today. Expanding research into artificial intelligence (AI) has produced a number of commercially available products that write essays for you. One product, Jasper, calls itself “an AI writing tool with the power to write essays for you.” One version of the program includes a blog post creator that writes and publishes blog posts with just a few questions or words to indicate topic and tone.

These programs are obviously marketed to students. Several specifically mention the program’s ability to write research papers for students. They “help you decide on your thesis, collect your research, and help you through the paper writing process. They also are designed to specifically avoid any charges of plagiarism. Some of these programs have names that show their intent to replace hard work and discipline for students. “My Assignment Help Essay Typer,” and “Paper Typer” are names of some of the programs.

When I was in college, I knew that there were some students who hired others to type papers for them. The service was, I believe, mostly limited to simply typing. The student would do the research and hand write the paper. The typist would format and type the paper for submission. I have since learned that there are essay writing services that charge a hefty fee to write essays for students. Since financial issues are a leading cause of dropping out of higher education, it seems that there is a class distinction between those who can hire others to do the work for them and those who cannot. In the long run, those who do not will gain more from their college experience than those who hire others to do the work.

Yesterday I had a conversation with a University Professor who had tried out one of the essay writing programs. He reported it as “frightening.” He said that within 5 minutes the program had produced an essay that he would give an “A” grade had it been submitted by a student. Unlike software designed to detect plagiarism, there is no way to detect the use of these AI-based tools. It is easy to imagine students who are awarded good grades without doing the work required to actually learn a useful skill.

Computers have already fundamentally changed higher education. During my career as a student, we conducted research in libraries land were, for the most part, limited to the collections of university libraries. Of course we also designed surveys, studies, and other ways of gathering information from the field, but our primary research into the literature on our topic was conducted at the library. Then we typed a draft of our thesis, edited and revised it, and re-typed it. It was submitted to peer review, revised and retyped before being submitted as a final project. It wasn’t unusual for a student to have typed the same paper multiple times before it was finally submitted. On some of my projects, I did a literal “cut and paste,” cutting up typed pages to rearrange the paragraphs before retyping the paper. As a result, when theses were submitted for degrees, students knew the content of their papers thoroughly. If you type a paper over and over, you become familiar with its contents. When they defended their theses, they knew exactly what they were defending. Computers eliminated the need to retype anything. Theses are still reviewed, edited, and revised, but the process eliminates repeated entry of the material.

There is a problem in this. Repetition is a very effective teacher. Eliminating repetition removes part of the learning process. Examining committees began to notice that students were coming in to defend theses and were surprisingly unfamiliar with what they had written. The writing process occurred in phases and stages spread out over several months and students literally lost sight of the content of the entire project. Sometimes examiners were more familiar with the thesis than the student simply because they had read it more recently.

My professor friend and I agreed that we are less than enthusiastic about the new AI writing assistants. However, it seems inevitable that students will continue to have increasing access to such tools. There might be some way to craft assignments that require students to go through a learning process just to start the essays or ask the right questions of the AI software, and I admit that I am intrigued by the challenge of trying to come up with assignments that challenge the software. In my imagination, I think it is possible to thwart the software and come up with an assignment that requires the student to learn new concepts and skills rather than simply manipulate a device. But the truth is that students who have grown up with computers and screened devices will always be more technologically competent than I. They will stay several steps ahead of me.

I just hope they learn something in the process.

In the meantime, I’m writing these essays the old fashioned way. I feel no need for an AI essay writer.

Camels on the loose

Advent is a time when a lot of churches have “living nativity” scenes that use live animals. The story of the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem has been told in so many different ways over so many years that different people have different pictures in their imaginations about what it must have been like. For a lot of people, animals are important in their image of the birth in Bethlehem. The Bible doesn’t directly mention animals being present. Luke’s gospel does report that the infant was laid in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn. From that, people have created an entire scene that involves a stable, sheep, cattle, camels, and lots of other animals.

When I was young, perhaps a kindergartener, we had a Christmas pageant at our church based on the song “The Friendly Beasts.” We had homemade stuffed animals for each of the verses. My verse was about the cow:

I, said the cow, all white and red
I gave my manger for his bed
I gave him my hay to pillow his head
I, said the cow, all white and red.

There were verses about a donkey, sheep, and a dove. We still have that homemade red and white cow around our house. It doesn’t look like any real cow that I’ve seen. It is a bright red animal with white spots, reminiscent of the pattern of colors of a holstein cow.

The gospels don’t say anything about there being a cow. It has been added based on the fact that there was a manger present. It is highly unlikely that an impoverished family in 1st Century Palestine under Roman Rule could have afforded to own a cow. Cattle bones have been found in archaeological excavations of the region. The Romans had cattle. They weren’t red and white, like a holstein or Hereford. They were likely zebu-like cattle, used primarily for pulling heavy objects. They would have been a status symbol. Someone with one or more cows would have been a wealthy person.

Then again, the bible doesn’t mention donkeys or doves at Jesus’ birth. The donkey is inferred from the fact that Joseph and Mary had to travel and that she was pregnant and very close to the time of giving birth. It is possible that they might have had a domestic ass of some kind, but it is equally possible that they did not. As to sheep, Luke does mention sheep, but they weren’t in the home where Mary and Joseph were visiting relatives. They were out in the fields. One presumes that the weather was good enough that the shepherds were grazing the sheep far enough away from town that they didn’t bring them back to their owners at night. This was a common occurrence. Shepherds gathered sheep from various homes into flocks land kept watch over them as they grazed in fields away from the town. If the family was fortunate, they might have had one or more goats that also were herded by the shepherds.

I prefer to imagine the animals were away. The “inn” or guest area of the home was full because of many relatives coming to town for the registration. The lower level common living area, where animals were also kept on stormy nights, was clean because the animals were away. The manger might have had fresh straw or hay, prepared for when a single lamb or a perhaps a couple of ewes with lambs would return when the shepherds brought them back.

Then there are the camels. We have several nativity sets with camels, some with multiple camels. The camels are envisioned because of the report of visitors from the east that appears in Matthew’s Gospel. Camels were used to carry people and goods in caravans in the ancient near east. The magi might have had a camel. Then again, the size of their caravan isn’t known. We don’t even know how many there were. What we do know is that they had three gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh.

Gathering animals for a living nativity can be a challenge. Most of the living nativity scenes I have seen have had have come up with one or more adult sheep. There are a few ranchers who will breed a few ewes early in order to have lambs for church pageants, but it isn’t really the usual time for lambing. A few scenes have managed a Spanish burro or a miniature donkey. I’ve seen several that have a single cow, usually angus, Hereford, or Charolais, or a mixed breed cow. Camels are hard to come by in the places where I have lived. I think they are pretty hard to come by in a lot of places.

The folks at Bridgeman Baptist Community Church in Brisbane, Australia, arranged to have three camels for their living nativity this year. It was a full-fledged production, but as sometimes happens with such events, they ran into a bit of a problem. Camels are fairly intelligent and resourceful animals and these three managed to open the gate of their pen at the church. They went for a stroll about the city causing chaos among commuters by going the wrong way on the street. They were eventually returned to the church’s yard without injury. The church posted on Facebook, “Our camels got a bit lost on the way to Bethlehem!”

It is a good thing that Brisbane drivers slowed down and avoided contact with the camels. A collision with a camel might cause a lot of damage and even injury.

I’m comfortable with toy camels in our nativity scenes. I don’t feel a need for live animals in our Christmas pageants. But I do find stories of the problems encountered by other churches with animals in their scenes to be entertaining. Almost every year I find one or more articles about animals escaping from church nativity scenes. In general churches don’t have the kind of fences that are most effective.

And when I feel a need to see some live animals, I can always go to the farm. They also have had experience with sheep and cows that get on the wrong side of the fence, and they have stories to tell about herding animals back home. That is part of the process of keeping animals, I guess. I’ve done a bit of fence mending myself - enough to feel no desire to set up temporary corrals at the church.

However you imagine the scene of the birth of Jesus, may the images in your mind bring you peace and good will.



One of the dramatic parts of the place we live is that during the winter, the area where we live has more trumpeter swans than any other area on the mainland. There are at least and estimated 15,000 trumpeters, most of them in Skagit and Whatcom counties. There are plenty of other birds who are part-time and full-time residents. This is the only place we have ever lived where hummingbirds are present in the winter. We don’t see them as often as we do in the spring when the trees and shrubs are blooming, but we will occasionally spot a hummingbird in one of our bushes that retains its leaves over the winter. When it dips below freezing, this seems like a pretty cold place for a bird that requires so many calories to keep going, but here they are.

We are also fascinated by the shore birds. We’ve never had much opportunity to watch oyster catchers or cormorants or scoters. The bay is often full of brants and loons and grebes and guillemots. We are learning to spot auklets and murrelets and occasionally get the treat of seeing tufted puffins and goldeneyes. We like to watch the sandpipers on the shore

There are plenty of birds that we see here that we also saw in South Dakota, at least part of the year. Seagulls seem to appear everywhere, but there are lot more of them here. They are the raiders of garbage cans on garbage day. Crows are abundant and entertaining to watch. They are intelligent and clever. We live very close to a Great blue heron rookery. The large birds that are often seen standing in shallow water fishing nest in trees and make rather awkward landings when they are up in the trees. Having grown up in a place and a time when sightings of bald eagles was rare, we loved every sighting we made when we lived in South Dakota and took note of the nesting places. We love to watch the bald eagles here as well. We have heard of a place where as many as 200 eagles gather during the salmon run and hope to get up to see them next year.

Of course there are plenty of Canadian geese. The field just to the south of our neighborhood is often full of the geese raising their usual ruckus. Being so close to the border we joke about them having snuck across the border and, possessing no green cards, spending their days being unemployed. Of course they are employed in feeding and preparing for spring’s journey farther north to their breeding grounds. And birds never have acknowledged the borders of which we humans make such a big deal. Others might disagree, but I like the sound of the geese and I can’t help looking up whenever they fly over.

But the sound that always gets my attention whenever I hear it is the call of the trumpeter swans. The first pair that I spot each autumn is extra special. We almost always see them in pairs and often in much larger groups. I’m not completely convinced that their call sounds much like the instrument that shares their name, but it is distinctive. I don’t confuse them with geese or other noisy flyers. Their long necks make them appear sleek and aerodynamic as they glide and their large wings spread broadly for landing. They are magnificent birds and we are so fortunate to have them for neighbors.

I don’t think that the call of the trumpeters is a “sawn song,” but it does make me think of the phrase. The phrase swan song is ancient and permeates our culture. It seems to be everywhere. It can be found in the works of Plato, Aristotle, Euripides and Cicero. It appears in several of Shakespeare plays. The metaphor referring to a final gesture before retirement came up several times as we announced our retirement from our jobs in South Dakota and prepared to move out west. I didn’t get much chance at what I might have called a swan song because covid changed the life of the church so dramatically, so sometimes I think of our current job as Interim Ministers of Faith Formation as our swan song. Instead of a song, I’m enjoying telling ancient faith stories to children.

The folklore that gave rise to the myth appears to be based in fantasy and imagination more than in reality. Swans don’t sing more beautifully or at more length just before they die. Their calls function to keep the pair or family together. Both males and females issue similar sounds that aren’t too much different from the calls of Canadian geese. I’ve heard that juvenile swans have a higher pitched call, but I don’t know that I have ever heard it. By the time they get back here to spend the winter, most of the year’s hatchlings are old enough to have developed the deeper calls of their parents.

I know that the communication patterns of migrating birds are more complex that can be discussed in a brief journal entry, but I like to think of the function of the calls to keep couples or families together. It seems endearing to think that they recognize the distinctions between individuals and know the sound of their mate when flying or when alarmed and taking off from a feeding place.

The sight and sound of the swans returning to the field for the night or departing in the morning are so spectacular that we try to make a trip to some fields in Skagit county where we can see and hear them each year. We like to watch them as the sun sets. The beauty of the scene is beyond description. As the sun sets in the west, it gives special light to the snow covered mountains to the east, forming a dramatic background for the birds whose white color makes them stand out in the green field. They are large birds and fascinating to watch as they feed as well as when they fly.

We have much to learn about the birds of our area, and there is much enjoyment to be gained from watching them while we are learning.

Challenging Times

When we lived in North Dakota, I would often hear people say, “30 below keeps the riff-raff out. When we lived there, North Dakota didn’t have much of a social class system. We were there during part of the farm crisis of the 1980’s. Lots of people were facing financial struggles. Their neighbors understood for the most part. I’m not sure about the technical definition of riff-raff, but I think that they meant “folks with a bad reputation,” or perhaps “petty criminals.” I was hoping that they didn’t mean, “People who grew up in Montana and who tell a lot of North Dakota jokes even after spending 7 winters there.” I don’t think I was riff-raff, but then again, I moved after living there for seven years, so I’m not exactly native. Maybe the extreme cold was a factor in our decision to move, though we weren’t aware of it as a major reason.

It is true that certain categories of crime decreased during periods of extreme cold in North Dakota. Where we lived wasn’t exactly crime ridden. We didn’t lock the doors of our house unless we were planning to be gone for several days. We often left the keys in our car, just like all of our neighbors. Certainly if it was below zero we wouldn’t drive past a broken down or stuck car if we were out and about. We knew that other drivers would stop to help us if we were to experience trouble. I once slid into a ditch taking a corner too fast on an icy road. The car was undamaged, but it was really stuck. It only took a few minutes for a farmer to bring his tractor and pull us out. He refused payment for the service.

If cold winters contribute to lower crime rates, perhaps the Dakotas are experiencing a lower than usual crime rate this week. The blizzard pretty much shut things down. In Rapid City, where we lived, the schools were closed on Wednesday and Thursday and they are having a two-hour late start today as people continue to dig out. At one point around 320 miles of the Interstate highway were closed due to blizzard conditions. A lot of secondary roads were also closed. The state highway department is reporting icy and slippery roads all across the state.

Out here, where slippery roads are likely to cause snow days at school even when we don’t think there is any problem getting around, we are having a dryer than normal winter. Even though it is currently cold enough for snow, the roads are clear and dry.

Our attention hasn’t been focused on the weather as much as it has been on illness - a theme that has been resonating in this part of the world and in a lot of other places since we moved here in 2020. Area urgent care facilities and hospitals are overwhelmed with what they are calling a “tridemic.” Covid, RSV, and the flu are bringing in a lot of patients, especially those who are young. Cases of strep are on the rise as well. Families with school children are reporting that their kids are missing a lot of school due to illnesses this year. It seems like one or more of our grandchildren are missing a day or more of school almost every other week. County officials are once again recommending that people wear masks when in public indoor spaces.

We are among the decreasing number of people who have so far avoided Covid protection. We’ve had more colds this fall and winter than usual, but so far the Covid tests have all come back negative. More and more we are hearing of friends who had avoided infection contacting the virus. It seems like each week there is news of another person. Although we have had all of the Covid vaccinations and boosters available and we also received the high dose flu shot, there is some evidence that those who have been infected with the virus have a slightly increased resistance to reinfection. That means that we are still vulnerable. We try to engage in safe practices. We wear our masks when we are in crowded places. And the reality is that we are far less likely to be where there are crowds than was the case when we were working full time. Our work at the church means that often when we are with folks indoors we are masked. Our congregation is still requiring masks in the sanctuary, but we are where others and ourselves have removed our masks during the fellowship time and some small group meetings.

So far, however, we have been fortunate. And now we’re trying to be especially careful because we have a trip planned to visit our daughter and her family in South Carolina. We’re accepting the risk of airline travel because it simply has been too long since we’ve been together. I know that my overall health is dependent in part on being with family. I suppose that we might have avoided a few colds if we had isolated ourselves from our grandchildren who live near us, but we would not be happy doing so. I don’t know how other grandparents feel, but we feel honored to be able to care for our grandchildren. Yesterday the 10-month-old baby was at our house for a couple of hours while his siblings were at school, his father at work, and his mother catching up on a list of chores that are difficult or impossible to do while caring for a baby. I wouldn’t trade those times for a guarantee that I’d never get sick. And, from what I can tell from my friends, even rigid isolation isn’t a complete guarantee. The virus seeks in when not expected. Plenty of people have been very careful and still have fallen ill.

I wonder if 30 below slows the infection rate of Covid. It sure would be good if it did. Folks riding out the blizzard don’t need any additional challenges this week.

Be careful out there. It is a dangerous world. But it is also a world full of interesting and wonderful folks. Don’t stay away from all of them. There are a lot who are worth getting to know.

A little tree

For most of our married life, we have gone into the hills and harvested a Christmas tree from national forest lands with a permit. In the earliest years of our marriage, when we were students, we didn’t have our own Christmas tree. Our Christmas observances were based on going home to the houses of our parents and participating in their Christmas traditions. After we graduated, however, and started to settle into our own home, we began the tradition of cutting a tree. In our first parish, in Southwestern North Dakota, the process involved a bit of driving. We would go down to the Slim Buttes to cut our tree, a drive of about 60 miles each way. We often made a church event out of the trip, taking with us members of the youth group and cutting trees for the church buildings as well as ones for ourselves.

The trees in the Slim Buttes were mostly Ponderosa Pines, which aren’t always shaped like the fir and spruce trees that come from Christmas Tree farms. That didn’t bother us. We enjoyed the trees and had fun decorating them.

We continued the tradition of cutting our own tree when we moved to Boise, Idaho, which is close to the national forest. There were years during our decade in Idaho when we purchased trees from vendors. Those trees had come from tree farms. Tree farms generally harvest trees at or around 10 years of age, which means that they harvest and replant about 10% of their crop each year.

When we moved to South Dakota, however, the forest was so close and the joy of moving out of the city into a more rural location lured us to the forest each year. We have some stories of adventures of tree cutting, including spending the night in our pickup once when the starter failed. Our last year in the Black Hills, Susan was recovering from a hospitalization, and we considered buying a tree from a lot, but we found a day when she was feeling well and headed out into the hills to collect our last Black Hills Christmas tree. It was a wonderful adventure and the tree added to the delight of having each other and having Susan’s health return.

When we moved out here, we started a new tradition. We purchased live trees with root balls from a nursery and planted the trees at our son’s farm, where they are trying to increase the number of trees in certain areas to help with water absorption and retention. It was an amazing experience last year to plant a Douglas Fir tree and to watch it grow throughout the year. Thinking that the tree that was part of our first Christmas in our new house will one day grow to a height of 100 feet or more and will outlive us by many decades is a humbling, yet exciting proposition. I check on that tree every trip I make to the farm.

One of the things about having a tree you intend to plant as a Christmas tree is that you have to be responsible about caring for the tree. Trees grow best outdoors in the natural weather. Bringing one inside in the middle of winter can cause it to need extra water and resources when few are available in the natural setting. Last year we brought our tree indoors for a few days and then moved it to our front porch where it stayed for a while before it was time to plant it.

This year is different. We will be traveling a few days after Christmas, so the tree will move out of the house right after Christmas. The winter has been especially mild this year, and some nurseries are recommending planting the trees right away after they are part of the celebrations.

We decided to purchase a dwarf tree that is small enough to be part of the landscaping at our home, rather than a larger tree to plant at the farm this year. The result is that we have a much smaller tree than usual. It is a delightful little dwarf Alberta spruce and we have just the right spot for it at the edge of our yard. The mature tree will be only about 6 feet tall with a 4 foot circumference.

For many years we have had more ornaments than we have room on our Christmas tree. This is our 50th Christmas since we were married. We’ve had time to collect a lot of ornaments. In addition to the tree, we string lights on the top of our bookshelves and hang ornaments there. We put ribbons on the bannisters and sometimes display a few ornaments in other places around our house. We have a modest collection of nativity sets that get put out around the house while other knick knacks are put in temporary storage for the holiday. Having a small tree means that we might not take every ornament out of storage this year, but as usual, we got out all of our boxes and went through the ornaments one by one, remembering and enjoying the many stories that surround the decorations.

Compared with many of our neighbors our decorations are modest. We’ve never been into displays of outdoor lights. We’re content with a few meaningful decorations inside our home.

I recently read an article about the debate between advocates of artificial trees and real trees. In the United States, an estimated 25 - 30 million real trees are sold annually. Since most of them come from tree farms, most of the trees have other trees planted in their place. When we cut trees from the national forest, we were careful to observe guidelines and to harvest trees from places where there were plenty of seedlings growing. Often we cut our tree from a cluster where not all of the trees could survive to maturity because they were growing too close to one another. I don’t have much to offer to the debate, but we have never owned an artificial tree and have no intention of obtaining one. We like the idea of planting our tree after enjoying it inside our home. Nurturing living things and inviting them into our home gives us joy. Storing a plastic object in a box except for a few weeks each year just isn’t our style.

This year, we are very happy with a little tree. It seems just right for us and our style of celebrating.

An old pair of pants

Susan knew how to sew before I met her. She made the dress she wore when we went to my junior prom for our first date. She made the dress she wore for our wedding - as well as the shirt that I wore. When we were in our first parish, she tailored a suit for me. She has sewn clothes for our children and clothes for their toys. In addition to making new things, her talent at making clothing alterations and repairs has saved us a lot of money over the years. Most of the time the only way I can have pants that fit is to have her adjust the length for me. Most clothing manufacturers don’t make things in my size.

When we were first married she used the sewing machine at her parents’ house for her sewing projects. When we graduated from college they bought her a sewing machine as a graduation gift. That sewing machine has traveled with us many places since. It moved with us to Chicago, and came with us to the church camp we managed high in the mountains of Montana. It was set up in our tiny one-bedroom apartments and the folding table on which she set it up was one of the first pieces of furniture that we owned. That table is still serving us today.

Unfortunately, however, the machine did not last forever. It was a quality machine and could be cleaned and serviced for years and years, but finally after we moved out here to Washington, it went into the shop for repairs and adjustments and the shop said that the internal parts had been adjusted and used so many times that they no longer would stay in adjustment. They could make a temporary repair that would exceed the value of the machine, but they couldn’t guarantee that it would work properly.

The search is on for a new machine. We may be getting close to making a decision. At least we had our choice narrowed to four possible candidates last week. It isn’t the kind of decision one wants to rush. Chances are that even if the new machine doesn’t last as long as the one we received nearly 50 years ago it will last beyond the span of our lifetimes. We’d like to purchase one that has a few modern features, such as assistance with threading the needle, but we aren’t looking for the fanciest computer-driven embroidery machine that costs more than a used car.

In the meantime, Susan is using a machine borrowed from my sister to make repairs to our clothing when needed. I have a good pair of work pants that will serve for many more adventures, but there is a hole in a pocket that is large enough for my wallet to pass through. No worries, she’s on it and it will be repaired before I next wear the pants.

I’ve been thinking that perhaps keeping my old work pants is a good investment. I noticed that recently an auction was held in Reno, Nevada at which a pair of work pants with a 5 button fly sold for $114,000. That’s a pretty good price for a pair of used pants. The jeans belonged to the California Gold Marketing Group, which claims that they are the oldest pair of five-button fly jeans in existence. Even though the jeans are not made of denim. And even though the company historian at Levi Strauss said that there is “no connection between Levi Strauss & Co and the Reno auction pants,” they commanded a high price at auction. Tracey Panek of the Strauss company said that five button-fly pants were common in the 19th century.

I guess she was being defensive because the highest price paid for a pair of Levis to date is $76,000 for a pair found in an abandoned mineshaft. Those pants sold at auction in New Mexico.

I own several pairs of work pants that I would be willing to sell for considerably less.

Of course none of them happen to be Levis. I used to wear Levis all the time. They used to make pants with an inseam that was the right length for me before they abandoned odd numbered inseams and now sell jeans in 2 inch increments. It wasn’t the length of the jeans that convinced me to switch brands, however. The last pair I bought were torn through the knees the first day I wore them. The cloth simply wasn’t heavy enough for work pants. I wore them with patches on the knees, but one doesn’t expect to have to do that when the pants are new. On the other hand, I see people wearing jeans with rips that are far worse. I once suggested to Susan that I offer to buy a new pair of jeans for a young person whose jeans were all torn to shreds, but she said I’d better not get involved. She didn’t offer to patch them, either.

Still, I have several pairs of pants from other companies that are pretty nice. I even have two pair of felt-lined work pants that are great for winter outdoor projects. I can do chores at the farm on cold days in those pants without needing to put on coveralls. Heck, I own two pairs of coveralls, one insulated, the other plain. I’d part with either pair for half of what was paid for the jeans from the old mineshaft. They don’t have any mine tailings on them. There’s no chance of gold dust in the pockets. But they’ve been worn feeding cows and chickens and working in the shop. I think they have grease from a John Deere mower on them as well as a bit of oil from changing the oil in a Ford pickup truck. They’ve likely got sawdust in the pockets. And the sawdust might be cedar, which is known to preserve clothing from moth attacks. I think they are very valuable. My price is negotiable. If they would bring the price of a reasonable basic sewing machine, I’d sell them for sure.

I guess I’m not a good customer for vintage clothing auctions - or for any other kind of antique auction. The same auction at which the pants sold for $114,000 sold a brass bell for $18,000. I’ve got a cow bell that I’ll sell for $1,800.

There also was an ash tray that sold for $1,500. I don’t have any ashtrays. I guess I’ll have to think of another way to get money.

Winter storms

I don’t know when they started naming winter storms, but I remember the first named winter storm that I knowingly experienced. The storm was fairly early for Rapid City, South Dakota, where we lived in 2016. It started snowing on Thursday and it kept snowing until Saturday. The schools closed on Friday as 40 mph winds drifted the snow to close roads. Two to three feet of snow fell in the area, with the northern hills getting up to four feet. Power lines fell, the electricity was cut for many. The heavy snow and winds caused a lot of trees to fall. We lost trees in our yard, but were lucky that none fell onto our house or shed. Others weren’t so lucky. Tree branches pierced roofs and walls. Some were stranded in their cars before being rescued.

I also remember the mountains of tree branches that piled up in the parking lot of Fitzgerald Stadium. I hauled two loads with my pickup and trailer and crews were very organized. They helped me unload and then used front end loaders to push the piles higher and higher as load after load of storm damaged trees were brought to the stadium. We salvaged the trunks of the trees we lost and later processed them into firewood. Others were bringing in whole trees to dispose.

The storm was dramatic enough that it seemed appropriate to name it. The named storms of which I have been aware since weren’t quite as dramatic as Atlas, but it looks like the current storm, named Diaz, might be one to watch. It has already produced a lot of snow in the rockies. The Sierra Nevada got slammed with snow over the weekend. There are reports of snowfall amounts as much as 5 feet in the Tahoe region and parts of Utah got over a foot of snow.

When we lived in South Dakota, we paid attention to the public schools for information about whether or not to cancel church activities. We had a heavy duty 4 wheel drive pickup and tire chains for all four wheels, so we usually could get around even when blizzard conditions persisted, but the members of our church, especially those who were older, could be endangered by going out in stormy weather, so we tried to be careful when making decisions about whether or not to postpone a meeting, choir rehearsal, or other activity. Of course, we couldn’t consult the schools about Sunday worship, and I hate to cancel worship, so our policy was to hold worship unless the Rapid City police were asking that people stay off of the city streets due to storm conditions. That got the decision off of my desk in a way.

All of this was pre-pandemic. We didn’t have an online worship presence. We didn’t have the capacity for Zoom meetings. Things are very different now.

Still, as the storm bears down on my friends in South Dakota, I checked the schools by habit. They are closed today. This storm appears to be a serious threat. A blizzard warning is out for most of western South Dakota. In the eastern end of the state an ice storm warning is out. Ice storms quickly render roads impassible. Storm warnings are out in Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Minnesota and parts of Wisconsin and Iowa. Snow and high winds could continue through tomorrow and even last into Thursday.

Storm Diaz is projected to bring snow and ice to parts of the East towards the end of the week. Southern states face the possibility of severe thunderstorms, hail, flash floods, and tornadoes, according to the Storm Prediction Center.

Much of the effects of this particular storm missed us. We had a bit of rain over the weekend, and the Cascades got more snow, but our lives weren’t disrupted. The children in our local school haven’t had a snow day yet this year. And we, who have lived in places where there is a lot more snow, have a tendency to ignore school closings around here. For the most part they don’t present much of a challenge for us to get around. We have an all-wheel drive car and plenty of winter driving experience and are surprised when others cancel events and activities for what seems to us to be a skiff of snow and a few slippery roads. I don’t think this storm had a name when it blew over us, or if it did, I wasn’t aware of it until I noticed it in the news from our old home town.

Winter storms taught us to keep our pantry stocked. They reminded us to have emergency supplies on hand. We knew how to use the freezing temperatures outside to keep perishable food safe when we didn’t have electricity to run the refrigerator. Our deep freeze usually kept things cold for several days, especially if we had some already frozen supplies in there. We could heat our house with a wood stove if the electricity was out for days, and even then our house held its heat pretty well. We had lots of blankets and lots of flashlights and lanterns for nights without power. We never suffered.

I think we have let our guard down a bit now that we have moved to a place with gentler winters. I did check the batteries in our backup lanterns a while back when I used them as an illustration for a time with children in church. But that was last spring. Time travels quickly and I haven’t even opened the case with the lanterns since.

I trust my South Dakota friends are well prepared for the days of winter storm Diaz. There are always unpredictable circumstances, but we pray that they will stay warm and safe. They come from hardy stock and are resourceful folks.

Meanwhile, we don’t have to face any tough decisions about whether or not to postpone or cancel church programs here. We’ll be meeting as usual, which includes a number of meetings over Zoom and other conferencing platforms.

Be careful out there. Stay warm. Watch out for your neighbors and help when help is needed. Remember, we’re all in this together regardless of whether or not they give the storm a name.



Yesterday was the annual Christmas Pageant at our church. We are new to the church, so we don’t know all of the traditions, though we have heard a lot of stories in the past couple of years and have met a lot of people who are passionate about their memories. Like any congregation there are beloved songs and memories of pageants past. I don’t know how old the tradition of having the pageant as part of the Sunday morning worship service has been in place. I do know that last year the pageant was held after worship so that the children did not appear on the livestream. I also know that the previous year there had been no pageant due to Covid restrictions. And, I know that obtaining permission from parents for the children to appear on the livestream was not a problem.

In some ways it was a traditional pageant. We had a teen playing the part of the prophet announcing the coming of the messiah. We had other middle school and high school youth reading from the birth narrative as reported in the gospels of Luke and Matthew. We had children dressed up as shepherds and angels and magi. We had a few children dressed as sheep and one dressed as a star. We had songs and one of the youngest members of the congregation playing the role of the infant Jesus with his mother and father playing the roles of Mary and Joseph.

As Faith Formation leaders in the congregation, we kept track of a few statistics: 28 children and youth from 17 families participated. Add in the infant Jesus and the number is 29 from 18 families. Nine adult volunteers worked behind the scenes to provide music, help with costuming, shepherd children, and assist in a variety of ways. As has been typical of the congregations we have served, we found ways to include children who had not been able to attend the music rehearsals or the special Saturday “run through.” Some of the children didn’t know the words to the songs. Some of them didn’t have the stage directions in their minds and weren’t sure which way to face. A couple of younger participants wandered back and forth between parents and grandparents in the congregation and their place in the pageant.

And, in the typical manner of Christmas pageants, those who came to worship enjoyed the pageant immensely.

Our Faith Formation department at the church had a very busy morning. In addition to the pageant, we had arranged for a sale of stained glass art items made by a member of the congregation to support the Interfaith Coalition that provides housing assistance for those experiencing homelessness. We also had a local independent book store set up a sale with a portion of the proceeds supporting new acquisitions for our church library. And our usual “Going Deeper” adult class met after worship and people were signing up for other small groups that the Faith Formation department offers. New covenant groups will be starting in January, so we helped folks get more information and register for the groups.

It was a busy morning for us and we were tired by the time we made it home in the mid-afternoon. But we won’t remember the tiredness. There were other memories that will linger.

I’ll remember the toddler, dressed as a lamb who kept running back and forth between the manger scene and his grandmother and parents in the congregation. He was only loosely corralled and herded by the adults of the congregation - perhaps more sheep like than those who sat with the other children and sang songs. I’ll remember the people, some with tears in their eyes, who could remember when the mother of the infant was herself an infant playing the role of Jesus in a Christmas pageant. I knew that story was especially meaningful to the grandmother of the infant, who also participated in the pageant, leading songs with the children. I’ll remember the young participant who wept when the children sang “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” I don’t know what prompted the tears, but the crying ended when the song ended.

And, as a sentimental old fool, I will remember our grandson reading about the visit of the angel to the shepherds, a part of the story that his father read when he was a youth and a part of the story that I have recited dozens and dozens of times over the years. I’ll remember looking at our two granddaughters dressed as angels. They were quite peaceful and angelic, a quality that is only one of the many they are able to display. They also can show fierceness and intense competitiveness in certain situations. They aren’t always as quiet as they were yesterday.

After the pageant, someone asked me how many pageants I had participated in over the years. I don’t have an exact count. I do know that I can remember several from my childhood. I still have a hand-made stuffed red and white cow that was part of a pageant when I think I was a preschooler. We sang the friendly beasts, a song that showed up in this year’s pageant. I remember several years of being the third magi and singing “We Three Kings” as we processed - a song that was NOT included in this year’s pageant. I don’t miss that song, either. And I have all four verses memorized. I kept hoping I would grow tall enough to move up to the second or even the first verse, but I was always the shortest - and therefore the third king. Our pageant yesterday featured four magi.

For those of us who love the church and who love the traditions of this season, the pageant was a success. And we know that at least a part of the story that is so deeply meaningful to us has been shared with children in ways that create memories. They may come to a point in their lives when they look back at what we have done as silly and amateurish. That’s OK. Their memories will be as valid as mine. But they also might remember fondly the time when the whole congregation focused its attention on the children and was grateful to have done so.

A good story

Most of the time I shy away from telling other people’s stories in my journal. I tried to take a similar approach to my preaching, but there are some stories that are too good not to retell, and there are times when a preacher does have permission to tell another’s story. Today is one of those times when the story is too good not to share with others.

Our eleven-year-old grandson went to a birthday party yesterday. It is the beginning of a round of parties among his peers when they turn 12. His good friend was celebrating yesterday. Our grandson will celebrate in early February. The party took place at a skating rink. It is one of those timeless small town businesses that has been around, with nearly the same business plan, since the 1950’s. When roller blades became in fashion, they added the inline skates and opened up for speed skating during some of their hours. When electronic games became available they replaced some of the pinball machines and expanded their arcade. The core of their business is still the same. They have a smooth concrete floor and an open area where people can roller skate. They rent skates and around the skating arena are tables. They sell refreshments for the people to eat. In the words of our grandson, “It is party food. You know it is pizza. It isn’t good pizza. It tastes like cardboard, but it is pizza.”

The children attending the party were each given a $20 bill to play the games in the arcade. Our grandson doesn’t get to see a $20 bill very often. I’m thinking that it turned out to be a rather expensive party for the hosts. I’m not sure we would have chosen the same approach. Anyway, each kid had a bill. Apparently there were machines in the arcade where you could insert a $20 bill and receive 20 $1 bills to play 20 individual games. That was our grandson’s intention when he inserted his $20 bill in a slot. However, it was not a change machine. It was a game. And the game didn’t give change. Our son was stuck with 20 rounds of the same game on the same machine. The game awarded rubber duckies as prizes and after 20 rounds, our grandson had mastered the game. He even learned how to win more than one duckie in a single round of the game. After what seemed to him to be a very long time of playing the same game over and over again, he had 22 duckies.

Our grandson didn’t even want a single rubber duckie. They weren’t really rubber. They were plastic and they were pretty small.

With his arms literally full of duckies, he hatched a plan. He went up to every child in the skating rink and offered each a duckie. Most took him up on the offer. When one child said he didn’t want a duckie, our grandson asked the child’s grandmother. She accepted one. After a while our grandson was down to five duckies, which he brought home and gave to his sisters.

Of course he got much more for the $20 he was given than many of the other children at the party. He got a few trinkets to give to his sisters. And he got a wonderful story. He entertained our whole family with the story last night and I’m sure he will have a lot more opportunities to tell it. His mother was working late last night and she hasn’t heard it yet, but she will get to hear it this morning. And I’m thinking it is the kind of story that one tells over and over again. I have a few stories from my childhood that I’ve been telling all of my life. Almost everyone who knows me has heard stories about trying to manage baby donkeys for Palm Sunday at church. And there is the story of me singing the third verse of “We Three Kings” as a child, while my friends got to sing about Gold and Frankincense. I’ve got a whole lot of stories from before I was a teenager that I tell on a fairly regular basis, and now our grandson has a great story to tell.

For a long time - probably for the rest of my life - I’ll be able to bring a smile to his face just by singing the “Rubber Duckie” song.

$20 for a story you can tell for the rest of your life is a pretty good bargain in my opinion. He might remember his friend’s 12th birthday even longer than his friend does. I’m not inclined to select that kind of a venue for adventures with children, but I might make an exception for that particular skating rink. I think I might get a kick out of taking our grandson and some of his friends to that place. I might even fund a few games at the arcade for them, something that I don’t usually do. They have already had the experience of me taking them bowling and refusing to fund games in the arcade at the bowling alley. Perhaps I’m missing an opportunity. I’ve certainly spend a lot of money on books with stories over the span of my life. I’ve also given a considerable amount of money to strangers who have asked me for money. When I get a good story, I never bother to check it out. Since I am accustomed to paying for fiction, I don’t shy away from giving a few dollars to someone who tells me a good story. I’ve even done so when I know that the story can’t possibly be true.

Our grandson has a story that he knows is true. After a lifetime of telling the story, it might be a bit farther from the truth than the version we heard yesterday. Maybe when he is my age, his prowess at the game will be bigger and the venue will have attracted more children. But I’m pretty sure that he’ll always tell that he went up to every child in the place and offered each a duck.

You have to admit he’s got a pretty good story.

The pace of life

Yesterday was a lovely day for us. We drove down to Mount Vernon. We ran a few errands, did a little shopping, and met our son for lunch. Mount Vernon is a special place for us. We visited there after our son and his family moved there when he became director of the library. When we retired, we began the process of moving to Mount Vernon. Then, as we were thinking about where we would live in that town, our son and his family found a farm. They had been looking to find a place with more land for gardening, raising chickens, and living close to the land. The opportunity they found was farther north. I would mean a 45 mile commute for our son, a change of schools for the children, and a new look at where we would settle in our retirement. All of this was occurring during the pandemic when the schools were closed, masks were mandated in indoor spaces, and people were staying isolated from one another. The farm, however, seemed like the right decision for our son’s family and they decided to make the move.

Meanwhile, we rented a home in Mount Vernon and moved our belongings from Rapid City, South Dakota in our own pandemic adventure. We lived in that rental home for 13 months while we shopped and eventually purchased a home just a couple of miles from the farm. That meant that we got very familiar with the drive from Mount Vernon to the farm and back. Then we happened into a temporary position with our church, which is closer to our home and the farm than it is to Mount Vernon. The drive from Mount Vernon to Bellingham became a three day a week commute for us. Often we would come up to the farm two or three of the other days in the week. Finally we found and purchased our home here in Birch Bay and we moved up here. It was good to not be driving as much. The farm is just a couple of miles down the road and the commute to the church where we work is just a few minutes longer than the commute we had when we lived in Rapid City.

Along the way, we had grown attached to Mount Vernon. Even though we only lived there a bit over a year, we found the small town to be a very pleasant place. We learned our way around. We found places to get our hair cut, a place that repairs shoes, places to shop for groceries and other necessary items. We learned to love the walk along the Skagit River, where we could watch the birds and the changing moods of the river. And, of course, we became familiar with the library where our son works. We are very happy in our home here, but in some ways we miss Mount Vernon.

So yesterday was a fun day for us with errands to run and the special treat of having lunch with our son. One of the reasons we chose to move to this place was to have more time with our son and his family. They are a very busy family of six with four children, a farm with chickens and cows and huge gardens and an orchard. There are always activities going on at their home and chores that need to be done. Our son has his regular job, his commute, his family and the farm. He has a very busy life. So having lunch with him alone is a rare treat.

The weather was just right for a December walk along the river. A year ago the river had flooded in November and the water remained high in December. This year the water is almost as low as we have ever seen it. There were lots of things to look at and think about as we walked along.

On our way home, we took a 15-mile detour out to Fidalgo Island to Anacortes to purchase a bit of smoked salmon at a smokehouse we discovered when we were living in Mount Vernon. Smoked salmon was a very rare treat when we lived in South Dakota. It is much more readily available here. There are several places that smoke local salmon. Most of the time we purchase seafood from a small shop on the Lummi Reservation near our home, but we had already discovered this smokehouse before we found the other source, and there are some things they do that we like very much. Having a treat from the smokehouse to take home for Christmas plus a little more just to eat between now and Christmas seems like a big luxury for us.

It gets dark early here and we drove home in the dark. That isn’t a problem for us. The trip is familiar after a year of driving back and forth. We had food ready to prepare for supper so it didn’t take long after we arrived home to have a warm meal on the table.

One of the experiences of the day was dropping off a shoe for repair at the shop. The owner of the shop had started to fill out the slip on our shoe when another customer came in. She was obviously in a hurry and just needed to pick up her repaired item. She apologized for interrupting. Susan replied that it was no problem at all for us. We weren’t in a hurry. As we walked out of the shop, we talked about how nice it is to not be in a hurry. We see the hard work and busyness of a lot of people around us. We remember the days when we balanced kids and work and care of parents. And we are happy for the slightly slower pace of our lives now. We have plenty of things to do. We have deadlines and projects that we are eager to finish. But we also have time to wait for a moment when traffic is heavy, or to let someone slip in line ahead of us when we wait. There was a time when we would have added yesterday’s errands to a full day of work rather than taking a day for a leisurely adventure.

How grateful we are for the gift of a different pace of life.

Sea and sky

It doesn’t surprise me that our lives have become very busy. The pace of our lives and the list of activities has always gone up for us as Christmas approaches. Even when we were students and our school took a break for the holidays, there were many things that we had to do. We often traveled for the holidays, going from Chicago to Montana and back so that we could celebrate with family. There were gifts to purchase and prepare, a challenge on our students’ budget, and it seemed that there wasn’t quite enough time for all of the things on our list.

As pastors, the increase in special programs, concerts, pageants, and other activities during Advent is exciting and fun, but it takes a lot of behind the scenes work. This Sunday is the children’s pageant at our church. Although the actual event looks like a wonderful “come as you are” event, where people of all ages are welcome to show up, put on a costume, and participate in the pageant, there is a lot of advance work to be done. For many years, Susan has written fresh scripts for pageants and this year’s pageant was a challenge to write. There were a lot of people to please with their suggestions of songs and their memories of past pageants. Like other congregations, there are a lot of really good memories of past years, and those who remember often don’t fully understand the differences in the church today and the way the church was in their memories. In order to be fully inclusive, the script has to have room for those who have not invested time in rehearsals. In addition, the event is an opportunity to teach children about liturgy and worship leadership, so we work very hard to make sure that we respect tradition and create worship that is genuine.

That means a lot of behind the scenes work, sending extra emails, making individual invitations, writing and re-writing the script, recruiting readers for key parts, coordinating the work of musicians, checking in with parents, etc. Then there is the work of unpacking and arranging costumes, setting up displays, working with those who are promoting mission and special offerings of the season.

We love the excitement and we are grateful to be immersed in the joy of the season. We are fortunate to have the work that we do, but it is a busy time.

In the midst of the busyness, we have been a bit less creative in our daily walks. Instead of seeking out new paths and exploring new places, we often walk the same path from our home to the beach and back each day. Our commitment to daily exercise remains an important part of our lives, but we find ways to keep that commitment without investing too much mental energy deciding where to walk. We have done the same when we have lived other places as well. Although we appreciate special days when we have time to drive to a new location and explore a new place, we find it important to live in a “walkable” neighborhood where we can go a couple of miles by stepping out our front door.

Walking the same route, however, is far from boring. The view that we see as we walk along the beach is different each day. The birds that are on the surface of the bay change with the seasons. In the summer we watch herons and eagles. Now we watch ducks and loons and geese. Sometimes we see transient birds that are migrating and only stop for a few days. There are humming birds who winter in our neighborhood - something we did not see when we lived in South Dakota. And there are always gulls - sometimes a lot of gulls, sometimes just a few. The gulls are terribly noisy some days and nearly silent other days.

The view from the beach is constantly changing. Each tide brings in new seaweed and shells. The logs on the beach are rearranged by the changing water.

I grew up near the mountains and know how some days they seem incredibly close and other days far away. A similar phenomenon occurs with the islands in the waters off of the coast. Some days they appear to be very close. Other days they are completely obscured by clouds and we cannot see them at all. If a person were to visit the beach only once, that person might not even know that there are lots of nearby islands. Or that person might think that the bay is a lake, surrounded by land. The view changes each day. The change is part of the joy of living in this place.

I’ve tried to capture the things I see in photographs for all of my adult life. I’ve owned several very capable cameras and the camera in my cell phone has the advantage of being accessible. I have it with me nearly all the time. But cameras have limitations. They capture images that remind us of what we have seen, but they don’t capture all of the things we see. They don’t record all of the colors our eyes perceive. They have a limited depth perception compared to the combination of our eyes and brains. Even though I have access to good cameras, I don’t always take photographs. Sometimes I simply want to experience life without thinking about how to “capture” the moment.

When I was learning to fly, I was taught to think of the atmosphere as a fluid, like water. There are waves that form when wind blows over uneven terrain. Even when the land below is flat, air currents form waves and eddies, some of which can be seen in the shapes of clouds, others of which are invisible. Flying an airplane is a process of directing a moving object through a moving media. The air through which we fly is in motion, just like the current of a river or the waves of the sea. At the beach this become evident. Sometimes it is hard to tell where the sea ends and the sky begins. They are part of the same reality.

This constantly moving relationship of sea and sky is endlessly fascinating. I’ll never get bored, even if I walk the same path each day for the rest of my life.


Back in 2015, we were excited to travel to Missouri right after Christmas to celebrate with our family. Our daughter and her husband were hosting us and our son’s family for a celebration at their home. We had two grandchildren at the time. One was three and the other a baby. A gift we received at that gathering was the book “Waiting” by Kevin Henkes. It is a delightful picture book and it has become a family favorite over the years. One of my happiest memories is that of our son reading it to three of our grandchildren last Advent as we were waiting for the birth of our youngest grandchild.

I chose the book for a small group discussion at our church. As part of an Advent series, we watched a short video of the author and illustrator reading the book to a small group of children. They, like our grandchildren, were really engaged in the story and enjoyed looking at the illustrations and noticing small details in the pictures. In the story, “The owl with spots was waiting for the moon. … When the moon came up the owl was happy. It happened a lot.”

One of the things we discussed in our group last night was something that Kevin Henkes said to the children: “I think that now that I am older it is easier to wait.” There were mixed feeling about that statement in our group. Some of our group still find it difficult to wait. Some aren’t sure that their patience has grown with their age and maturity. Others agreed with Henkes.

I don’t know if it is easier for me to wait these days than it was when I was a child. I do think that children have to wait a lot and I agree that it can be hard for them. I do think, however, that I understand the owl even better these days. I understand the owl better than I did when we first got the book because we now live farther north where the winter nights are longer. Of course we don’t live really far north. Above the arctic circle there are communities that won’t see a sunrise now until early January. They will have days next summer when the sun doesn’t set, but that is six months away. Right now they have to deal with days when the sun doesn’t rise. But we live far enough north for me to notice the long winter nights when the sun sets at 4 in the afternoon and doesn’t rise again until 8 the next morning.

On these long winter nights, we wait for the moon. We notice the phases of the moon. Last night was a night when the moon was our friend. It was light enough to see whatever I wanted in my yard last night. Last night was a full moon and the light bathed the land enough to brighten the world.

In the book, it happened a lot. Around here it doesn’t happen quite as often because we have a lot of nights when the clouds are too thick to see the moon and the benefit of its light is lost on those of use living below the clouds. Last night, however, there were no clouds and I was as happy as the owl in the book.

When we decided to move to this place, I worried a bit about the rain and the gray days. I am not particularly sensitive to seasonal affective disorder, but I have lived most of my life in places where there are a lot of sunny days each year. It rains a lot more here. Our first winter in the Pacific northwest we lived in a rental house that was very nice, but a bit dark for us. We noticed the clouds a lot. This winter, there has been less rain, but there are still a lot of overcast days. We have learned to look for and appreciate patches of blue sky whenever we are outdoors in the day. And we have learned to go for our daily walks as early as possible because it simply is more fun to walk in the daylight than after dark. Our work lives sometimes require us to walk after dark and we have learned to do so when necessary, but we prefer to walk in the day.

I still have to wait a lot. I wait in waiting rooms at the doctor’s office and even though I am in good health there seem to be more trips to the doctor these days. I have a family physician and a dermatologist and a dentist and an optometrist. We wait for injections at the pharmacy. We wait for others in line ahead of us at the post office. We wait for cars to move at busy intersections. We wait in line to check out at the grocery store. We wait for meetings to begin and we wait for them to end. It seems like there are lots of days when waiting is part of my life.

Most of the time I don’t mind all that much. A friend once heard me complain about waiting at the doctor’s office and challenged me to see those times of waiting as a gift. “You have a busy life. You complain that you don’t have enough time to just sit and think. Then, when someone gives you the gift of time to sit and think, you complain about waiting. Why not see it as a gift of prayer.” It really helps me to accept times of waiting as a gift of time for prayer. I have hard evidence from the difference in blood pressure when I finally get into the exam room. I no longer have that spike in blood pressure that used to some with arriving in the exam room. The nurse no longer has to wait to the end of the exam to check my blood pressure a second time.

It seems, however, that children still have things to teach me about waiting. Unlike the characters in the picture book, I wait for many things. I wait for the wind and the snow and the rain as well as for the moon. When those things arrive, I am happy. And sometimes, I am happy when I am waiting.

Understanding ambiguous loss

Back in the 1970s, I studied psychology as part of my preparation for ministry. I did an extended internship in a Wholistic Health Center, serving as a pastoral counselor. I thought that I would pursue counseling as a major focus of my ministry and was interested in pursuing health care ministry. However, one of my mentors suggested that experience as the pastor of a local congregation would be a good thing to pick up early in my career. He suggested that I go from my seminary education to serving a local church for “three or four” years before entering a specialized ministry. The advice seemed to make sense for me and Susan and I created and circulated ministerial profiles seeking a position that we could share as co-pastors. I very much wanted to move back to Montana, so we sent our profiles there as well as circulating them in states that neighbored Montana. The result of that search was the call to serve two small congregations in southwest North Dakota.

The advice of my friend proved to be just the right advice for me, except for the “three or four” years part. When I tell the story now, I simply say, “It took me more than 40 years to get that “three or four” years of experience. What occurred was that I fell in love with serving congregations. We served those congregations in North Dakota for seven years and when it was time for us to move on from that call, we served a congregation in Idaho for a decade. After that, we were pastors of a congregation in South Dakota for 25 years. I never returned to specialized ministry and I have not regretted that decision.

One of the gifts that I brought to my work in congregations was my background in counseling and health care ministry. Studying psychology and counseling gave me a depth of understanding the lives of those I served that was frequently helpful. It also gave me a perspective on my own life.

It was back in the late 1970’s when I was serving in my internship as a pastoral counselor that I encountered the work of psychologist Pauline Boss. She worked with the families of soldiers who had gone missing in action. She wrote about her search for a way to address the specific issues of grieving someone when you didn’t know whether or not they were dead. I paid special attention to Boss’ work because I was encountering clients in my counseling who were struggling with unresolved issues from their time serving in war. World War II veterans were achieving success in business and other ventures, but often came to counseling to be able to discuss issues related to their wartime experiences that they had never addressed. I learned that the words, “I’ve never told anyone before,” often preceded a traumatic and ambiguous story. At the same time the 1978 film, “The Deer Hunter” prompted veterans of the War in Vietnam, my age or slightly older, to take another look at their wartime service and I noticed that they had unique struggles dealing with traumatic experiences in their lives.

Boss came up with the concept of “ambiguous loss” to describe the complex emotions that surround a loss that doesn’t allow for complete closure. She described getting people to accept that they were dealing with a “both/and” situation. Someone could be both here and not here. Grief could involve both regret and relief. Most importantly, Boss taught that people could learn to live with duality and still lead a satisfying life.

I think that my background in counseling veterans was helpful in my work as a pastor as I began to deal with those who lost relatives to dementia. I know that it helped me as I began to do more and more work with those who lost loved ones to suicide. Before I knew much at all about Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (TF-CBT), I had gained significant experience in working with people who had experienced trauma and post-traumatic stress.

In my personal life, this background has been very helpful in my role as a parent. Our daughter was adopted as an infant. As such, she did not experience the attachment challenges faced by many adoptees who experienced trauma related to separation from birth parents. She has no conscious memories of her life before she came to live in our family. Most of the experience of being her parents were very similar to the experiences of being parents of a child born into our family. However, as our daughter became an adult, we learned to be honest about the simple fact that we had incomplete information about her birth family. Much of her health history was missing. Details about her origins were lost. She has been very mature in dealing with these ambiguities. I think this is in part due to the fact that we were able to discuss them openly with here. Understanding the concepts of ambiguous loss helped me to be fully present to her questions about her origins. She, and we as her parents, have learned to live with the lack of information about her birth family. Her questions were no threat to us as parents. When she became a mother, the deep bond she and her husband have formed with their son is a delight for all of us. Her husband was also adopted as an infant and together they are wonderfully natural parents who are deeply attached to their son.

Traumatic life events can become sources of strength and resilience when they are acknowledged and treated. Understanding that our emotions are complex and that our struggles are real, can help us to accept the “both/and” realities of our lives. Being a parent is both hard work and a source of deep joy. Children can experience unconditional love and still struggle with tough emotions. A pastor can be an effective counselor and still thrive on the general work of congregational ministry without becoming a specialized pastoral counselor.

Much of our lives are experiences of “both/and.” Learning to live with ambiguous loss is a valuable life skill.

Caught by surprise

As a pastor, I learned to expect the unexpected. There were events in the life of the church that I could predict. I learned to predict fairly accurately which items on an agenda would take time to resolve in a meeting. I learned which church members would step into leadership positions and which ones would decline when asked. I learned which members would be short and sweet when making an announcement and which ones would go on and on. But I never learned to anticipate which marriages would end in divorce. I never got good at predicting whose funeral would be the next one for our community.

After serving the same congregation for 25 years, I got used to officiating at funerals for friends. I didn’t enjoy every part of that task, but I did learn to serve grieving families even when my own grief was part of the process. When the time came for us to move on from that congregation, I knew that I would receive news of deaths in the congregation after I moved. I knew that I would continue to feel those losses even after I had become a member of a different congregation in a different community. But I couldn’t predict whose deaths would come first, or which ones would catch me by surprise.

Yesterday, a phone message from a young adult prompted Susan to make a phone call to South Dakota. She commented to me before making the call that she wondered what the call would be about. I guessed that it would be a request for a job reference. We still receive occasional requests for references even though we have now been gone from that community for more than two years. We knew the people in the congregation well. Some of these young adults we have know for all of their lives. We don’t mind writing letters of reference when we have the information to make honest references.

I was wrong about the reason for the phone call. It was to inform us of he sudden and unexpected death of the young man’s father as the result of a heart attack. I have known the deceased since he was in his thirties. He was nearly a decade younger than I. He seemed to be in good health. When Susan reported the news to me, I said, “I didn’t see that coming.”

I remember a lot of experiences with the young man who called to report his father’s death. It was a bit of a challenge to find the right mentor for him when he was in confirmation class. He made a couple of poor decisions just after he graduated from high school and I have a clear memory of siting down with his father to discuss his worries about his son. I’ve written a couple of important letters of reference for the young man over the years. Now, within the last six months that young man has seen the death and funeral of his confirmation mentor and now will be planning his father’s funeral with his brothers and his mother.

I didn’t see it coming. I didn’t anticipate that the widow would be suddenly plunged into grief at this age. I didn’t anticipate that the father wouldn’t live to see the birth of the next grandchild due in July. I didn’t anticipate that the young man would have to sort out a complex matrix of grief at such a young age.

When I was the age of the young man, I had just begun to serve as a pastor. I remember well my first funeral call. The man whose wife had died kept saying, over and over again, that he never expected her to die before him. He believe that he would be the first to go. He had never anticipated that he would have to make funeral plans for his wife or learn to live as a widower. I remember the first time I had to deliver the news of the death of a child to a mother. It happened when I was about the age of the young man who called yesterday. It was an experience that taught me that sometimes people literally fall to the floor in grief, and that it isn’t the worst thing that can happen. Lying on the floor is relatively safe and people don’t dissolve emotionally forever. A few minutes of simply sitting with the grieving person will begin to reveal the healing that is beginning to take place. It won’t be as dramatic as the shock of the news, but there will be signs of recovery.

I also have learned that I don’t know the exact path that the journey of grief will take for a person. I am familiar with the feeling of wanting to simply go to the person in grief and knowing that the limits of time and space don’t allow me to do so. I understand and respect the professional boundaries that mean that another pastor will officiate at the funeral of this faithful church member and will attend to the grief of his family.

I also understand and accept that my emotions are still bound up in the events of the life of the community where I lived and served for 25 years. I am grieving from a distance, but I share the grief of those who mourn. And I know from my own personal experience that having others share your grief is important. None of us wants to be alone in our grief. The young man needed to call us and hear our words of condolence. I know this in part because I was just a bit older than he when my father died. My wife was pregnant with our first born just like his is. I know a bit of the grief that comes from raising children who don’t get to know their grandpa in person. I know the importance of telling his story to those children. I have even lived long enough to hear our firstborn tell some of those stories to his children.

I knew that I would be walking the journey of grief from a distance with the folk in our congregation. But I will never learn to predict which events will lead us on the next steps. There is much that we do not know.

Dear friends

We spent the evening with dear friends last night. They are, for us, new friends - people we met just a couple of years ago - but we have become close. Last night was an evening of shared food, a bit of Christmas decorating, telling stories, and a lot of laughter. I don’t have much hair these days, so occasions when I let my hair down aren’t very dramatic. I’m pretty much a “what you see is what you get” kind of person. The public me is pretty much the private me. Still, there is a difference in the feeling of sharing an evening with folks at a meeting where we have an agenda and just sitting down with friends.

For all of our lives we have had dear friends who were active in the churches we have served. I recognize the importance of professional boundaries for ministers. I have taken a lot of boundary trainings over the years. On the other hand, I have never made a distinction between my friendships with those inside of the churches I have served and those who are not members of my congregation. There are people who become friends because we have shared interests and one of those shared interests is membership in the same church and a mutual love of the people who gather in church. Like any other organization, the church has some people that we get to know better than others and some people know a bit more of our story than others.

Over the span of my career as a pastor, I have had known several ministers who led fairly lonely lives. They felt a certain need to maintain a professional distance from the communities they served. I don’t think it was so much that the congregation placed them on a pedestal as they climbed up there themselves. I don’t fully understand those dynamics, but my experience has been different. I have not found the ministry to be a lonely occupation. It has been a career of making and treasuring dear friends. A couple of years ago, when Susan faced a health crisis, the support of my friends was immediate. Friends stepped in and officiated at services so I could be at the hospital. Friends called me on the phone from around the world to offer support and assistance. I received two phone calls with love and support from Australia at a time when I didn’t have the energy to be the one initiating the phone calls. All of those friendships sustained me at a time when I couldn’t even find words for my own prayers.

I know stories of pastors who have abused friendships with members of their congregations. I know stories of pastors who have been abused by the congregations they have served. But those are not my stories and they are not my experience. I have found that serving people is a process of loving people and when people love and are loved we become connected in important ways - ways the time and distance cannot sever.

The Covid pandemic changed the patterns of friendship for so many people. I have colleagues who gave up making home visits for the most part. They turned to technology for making contacts with other people, using phone calls, video conferences, and other methods of communication. A new type of ministry is emerging that is practiced from a greater physical distance. I’m old and semi-retired, so I don’t mind being called “old school.” Over the span of my career there were plenty of times when I felt that a phone call simply didn’t accomplish what I needed to do as a pastor. In my time, simply going to people’s homes and visiting them there was something that a pastor did. If there was a death in a family, I simply went to be with them. If there was someone in the hospital or nursing home, I went to the hospital or nursing home. The pandemic changed a lot of that. Nursing homes and hospitals banned visitors in an attempt to prevent the spread of illness. There were a few exceptions and I found ways to visit people even in the midst of the pandemic, but a lot of my colleagues focused on technological work arounds, becoming more proficient with social media, making appointments for video chats and practicing ministry over long distances.

There is something about being invited into another person’s home, however, that allows for a more immediate connection. I can look at the pictures on the wall and ask the names of those in the pictures. I can gain a sense of the lives that are lived in a home by being invited to sit down in a living room. I hear stories and learn things about people that simply wouldn’t come up in a phone call or video chat.

And I make friendships. My experience of being a pastor is one of loving the people I serve. Of course not every member of every congregation has become a close friend. I’ve spent time with a few very difficult folks over the years. There have been times that I felt I was visiting someone who was lonely because they were so hard to visit. I’ve heard my share of complaints and problems. But I have also heard some wonderful, heart-warming, funny, and very real stories of people’s lives. And I have met dear friends.
I think I was fortunate to be a pastor in the particular time that I served the church. I’m not sure that I’d be as effective in the world of social media, long distance, Zoom meeting, online pastoring. I gave it a strong effort. In the last year before I retired, I posted daily prayers on Facebook and YouTube. I learned to host Zoom meetings and formed online small groups. I still facilitate small groups over the Internet. I feel fortunate, however, to have served the church in a time when pastoral calls were expected to be home visits, where pastors were invited to dinner, and where we invited folks into our home.

I am blessed to have made dear friends. Besides, no online meeting, no matter how effective and well-run, will ever offer the sublime taste of pineapple upside down cake that I savored last night.

Pondering time

I can remember wanting to have an 8-track tape player for our car. We never got one. By the time I was old enough to have my own car, I had other priorities over having anything beyond the factory-installed AM radio. I was nearly 30 when I installed the first cassette player in a car. I think the device cost less than $40, but it was a purchase over which I struggled for some time before indulging myself. At the time, we had a fairly decent stereo in our home, with a turntable and a cassette deck that recorded as well as played back tapes. The quality of our home stereo equipment reflected the priorities of the youth in our youth group. I purchased used equipment from youth who were eager to upgrade.

The world of music and music distribution has changed dramatically from those days. I now own a watch that can remember my playlist and send music to a set of wireless headphones. I don’t use that particular feature, but I use my phone to look up and listen to songs and our computer is our home music system.

Another way of dating myself when it comes to music is that I am old enough to remember that the band Chicago started out with the name Chicago Transit Authority. I noticed for several reasons. One is that the band had a trumpet player, which wasn’t common for rock groups at the time. I played the trumpet, so I noticed the sound. Also, the band was organized in the late sixties, when I was in high school, but after college, we moved to Chicago. The band had shortened its name to Chicago by then, but I learned what the Chicago Transit Authority was all about in the four years that we lived in the city on students’ budgets.

One of the hit songs of the band that continues to be a part of my listening world goes like this in part:

As I was walking down the street one day
A man came up to me and asked me what
The time was that was on my watch, yeah … And I said

(I don’t) Does anybody really know what time it is
(Care) Does anybody really care (about time)
If so I can’t imagine why (Oh no, no)
We’ve all got time enough to cry

The season of Advent has got me to thinking about time this year. Maybe it is because I am aware of the vast difference between my perception of time as I approach my 70th birthday and the perception of our grandchildren, the oldest of which is 11. Our grandchildren were at our house yesterday and over dinner we were talking casually about Christmas. Susan will be volunteering in the classrooms of our granddaughters after Christmas. The news that she wouldn’t be coming to the classroom until after Christmas was a disappointment to our kindergartener. She thought that it seemed a long time before her grandma will be there to help the students with reading. Of course Christmas seems very close to us. We have a busy schedule planned with activities at church and then a week’s visit to South Carolina and our daughter’s family there. We will be back right after the new year and will get into the swing of things quickly after the holiday. There is a lot to do in the meantime, and it all seems to us to be happening rather quickly. Not so for the young ones. Christmas seems to be a long way away for them.

The length of three weeks time seems very different to the members of our family.

The ancients understood that there are different qualities of waiting for the passage of time. Biblical Hebrew has four words for waiting. This is a bit of a surprise in a language with a vocabulary that is relatively sparse compared to contemporary English. Normally translators have multiple English words for each word in Hebrew, but when it comes to waiting, they need to distinguish between merely waiting, hopeful waiting, desperate waiting and anxious waiting. Long before the development of modern calendars and dividing the globe into time zones, people were aware that time passes differently depending on a wide variety of factors.

In the song by the band Chicago, the “pretty lady” whose “diamond watch had stopped cold dead” got the same response as the man who asked what time was on the watch. But later in the song, people running everywhere who don’t know where to go provoke a chorus with a different last word. Instead of “time enough to cry,” it is “time enough to die.”

Our mortality is a reality of which we are aware when we take time to think of it. In a sense the important clock for each of us is one that we can’t read or know - the clock of our lifespan ticking down the remaining years, months, weeks, days and minutes until there is no more time for us. The concept of what one might change if one knew the timing of one’s own death has provided us with novels, movies, and lots of plot twists. Most of us don’t know until death comes much closer. And perhaps by the time that occurs, we have joined the band in not caring about time any more.

For the moment, however, I am one of those people who does care about time. I am aware that the time I have in this life is precious. I don’t want to waste it, though I often feel that I am doing just that. I seek out meaningful projects and try not to invest my time in things that don’t have an impact.

In the story of Esther, cousin Mordecai speculates that “perhaps it was for a time such as this” that Esther came to her present position in life. He begs her to intervene to save her people even though there is considerable risk involved. She does and her courage has been celebrated for millennia.

My question is not so much, “Does anybody really know what time it is?” but rather “What is my response to ‘a time such as this?’” I’m unlikely to compose a song, but it is a question worthy of pondering.

In the season of Advent

Last week, I made some generic cottages out of foam core to be used as part of a program where people make “gingerbread houses.” Actually the houses are made out of graham crackers attached to a building core such as the foam core cottages, a pint cream container, or other object. They are then decorated with frosting and candy to resemble tiny houses. Mostly the project involves families working together, kids eating a bit of candy, and a lot of intergenerational fun.

Somehow, after making the cottages for the project, I made a small mode of the house where we live out of scraps of foam. It isn’t to scale. I “eyeballed” the structure rather than measured. The second story is a bit taller than the one in reality. One of the roof lines is crooked because I didn’t get it quite straight. But it is a reasonable model that might be recognized by those familiar with the houses in our subdivision.

After I made the model, I realized that this house still seems new to me. We have lived here for just a little over one year, which is not much compared with the 25 years that we lived in our Rapid City home. On the other hand, a full year in the same house is longer than we lived in any of our college or graduate school apartments. And in a few days we will have lived in this house longer than we lived in the rental that we used as a temporary home while we shopped for houses after moving to Washington. So, I guess we are settling in a bit. However, after I made the model, I found myself wandering in the upstairs guest bedrooms to see their exact layout and how the closets were formed for those rooms. I didn’t go into that detail in the model I made, but I realized that I wasn’t quite sure that I could made an accurate floor plan from memory. Sure enough, I had forgotten a hallway linen closet that affects the location of the clothes closet in one of the bedrooms. It still seems new to me.

Of course, we have a great housing luxury. We have guest rooms. One doubles as a playroom for our grandchildren and has plenty of toys. The other gets used as a sewing room and a craft room part of the time, and often as a guest room, as we have been fortunate to have guests visit us in this home.

It is the third Advent since we retired and moved out here. Although there were some strange things about the timing of our retirement, and we have been very happy to have been able to return to part-time work in the last year, there have been some good things about the timing of all of the changes in our lives. Advent 2020 would have been a strange year, no matter what. Churches had to cancel and condense many programs. We probably would not have held our traditional Advent Fair that year, with people gathering in close quarters to do crafts. There just weren’t many gatherings that year. And Advent 2021 was also strained by the continuing pandemic. We made kits for families to make their gingerbread houses at home. The kits were delivered and we had a Zoom meeting for people to share their creations. It wasn’t at all like the intergenerational event where people were working together in the fellowship hall of the church.

Things are a bit more “normal” this year. We will have an in-person gathering in the fellowship hall. Folks will remove their masks to eat a snack. There will be carolers gathered around the piano singing. We are still observing a few pandemic protocols in our church and masks are being worn in the sanctuary during worship, but much has returned to a pre-pandemic state with the lifting of public sanctions and an easing of pandemic fear. Those who are experiencing infection of the virus are reporting milder cases and anti-viral medications are easing symptoms for many. The illness is still very real, but we have adjusted to its presence in many ways.

One of the blessings of having retired and having experienced the pandemic is that we have been able to have our own Advent recognitions with our grandchildren. I joked about that first Advent after we retired that Susan only scaled back. She designed stories and crafts for our grandchildren each week in much the same way that she used to when she was designing programs for the church. Our dining room table was filled with projects and our grandchildren gathered around coloring, painting, and crafting just like a mini Advent fair. Last year was a slightly scaled back version, but there were different crafts and stories for each week. This year is our third Advent with our grandchildren. For the five year old, the traditions are becoming established. Coming to our house for Advent activities is a “when we always” for her. Even the older grandchildren have added expectations for Advent based on the last couple of years of experience.

I’m not quite fully settled into the new routines and traditions. I’m still doing a bit of remembering from so many previous years. I can see the differences between the traditions at this church and those of the church we served in Rapid City.

Change is good and change is necessary. As hard as it has been for our Rapid City church to recruit new leadership, it was time for us to move on and for change to occur. And it was time for us to find a new church home and discover some new traditions. Of course, we sought out a congregation with many similarities to the one we served in South Dakota. I love the fact that a handful of members of the church gathered in the church on the first Christmas Eve of the pandemic to observe the tradition of ringing the church bell at midnight on Christmas Eve. I recognize the feeling. This year our late service will be a joint service with Garden Street Methodist Church, which has been sharing our building.

Change is good, but connection with traditions is also important. Advent is a season for connections with traditions, even if we aren’t doing things exactly the same as we always did before. A blessed Advent to you.


I didn’t pay much attention, but I think that our mother made Macaroni and Cheese by melting Velveeta Cheese over a bowl of freshly cooked elbow macaroni. I know that I liked macaroni and cheese as a child. By the time our children were at the phase where they were eating macaroni and cheese, it was simple and inexpensive to buy a package with the macaroni and a powdered cheese. You added milk and butter and stirred it all up. I know our daughter once had a day when macaroni and cheese was all she ate. The same menu for three meals. Responsible parents probably don’t give into their children’s requests, but it made her happy and she was a healthy child. I know I’ve made macaroni and cheese for some of our grandchildren for breakfast because I am usually the breakfast cook when they visit and I like to ask people what they want for breakfast. Making macaroni and cheese is a pretty simple cooking task. The kind we keep on hand at our house has a foil pouch with pre-mixed cheese sauce. Boil the pasta, drain, squeeze the sauce out of the packet and stir.

I know that there are lots of recipes out there for making fancy cheese sauce for macaroni. I’ve heard that cheddar, parmesan and gruyere is the best combination. Others say cheddar, gouda, and gruyere. I’ve been known to use the cheese from a bag of pre-shredded cheese sold as “Mexican blend,” melt it, add a bit of milk and call it good. I’m not one of the folks who spends a lot of money or a lot of time coming up with the perfect cheese sauce when it comes to mac and cheese. I don’t mind a few bread crumbs on top baked to crunchy perfection, but I don’t bother when the kids like the stuff from the box as their preferred version.

Here is the deal: It takes longer to cook pasta at high altitude. Anything that is prepared by boiling takes longer because water boils at a lower temperature at altitude than it does at sea level. So when the box says to boil the pasta for 7 - 9 minutes, seven will work here in our new home by the sea. It takes closer to nine in Rapid City and up at the church camp where we cooked for two summers, you’d better allow 10 or 11 minutes to boil pasta.

Cooking dried pasta has never been a problem for me.

That is one reason that I don’t think I’d be a very good judge. I read that a Florida woman has sued Kraft Heinz Foods Company for $5 million, claiming that the microwaveable cups marketed by the firm take too long to prepare. The law suit notes that the cup of Velveeta Shells and Cheese, says “ready in 3.5 minutes.” The plaintiff says it takes longer. The advertised time does not include the time it takes to open the lid and sauce pouch, adding water and stirring. If I were the judge in the case, I’d probably roll my eyes and say, “Seriously?” Someone who has time to file a lawsuit over the amount of time it takes to open the package, add water and stir probably has too much time on their hands. Otherwise they’d never come up with the idea of going to court over such a silly amount of time.

I’m sort of curious about the lawyer who helped the woman prepare the suit. How did they come up with $5 million? I know that the amount of money in a law suit is based on what is deemed to cause punishment to a large corporation not the amount of damage caused, but the amount seems to be driven at least as much by the greed of the lawyer as it is by the greed of the woman who has the complaint.

There are people who have serious complaints to bring before the courts. People have been injured by food poisoning caused by negligence in food preparation. Others have been injured in automobile accidents that they did not cause. There are people who have been damaged by landlords who didn’t honor rental agreements. There are companies who are trying to collect money that others agreed to pay. There are lots of reasons why courts need to exist and help bring justice. Do we really need to tie up our courts with a complaint about how long it takes to prepare microwave food?

I once testified in a custody dispute between parents who had divorced. My role in the case was very minor. An attorney asked me a few questions about church attendance that were easy to answer. There was no cross examination. My testimony was part of testimony that was spread over three days of hearings at the courthouse. Both parties had lawyers who had prepared their cases and who represented them in court. When the judgment was rendered, the change in the custody agreement was the shift of one day from one parent to the other and a change in the child support payments of $100 per year. If I had been the judge, I think I would have rolled my eyes and said, “Seriously?” Instead of a court hearing, the couple should have been ordered to go into a room without any lawyers and come to an agreement. If they were incapable of doing that task perhaps the court should reconsider whether or not shared custody was working.

I guess that the macaroni and cheese package could drop the words “ready in 3.5 minutes” from the package. In its place they might put, “ready quick enough that you aren’t tempted to eat it without cooking,” or “most people can prepare this in 5 minutes or so,” or “it might take you longer to read the instructions than to prepare the food.”

I’m pretty sure that in addition to not being a good judge, I wouldn’t be very good at creating marketing slogans, either.

Season of Elf surveillance?

Our children were born in the early 1980’s which means that they were adults before the book and tradition of The Elf on the Shelf came out. We never read the book to our children and we didn’t have a toy elf that moved around the house. I don’t know much about the tradition other than what I have found on the Internet, but I have heard a few folks talk about it enough to know that we wouldn’t have gotten into the practice at our house had it existed when our children were little.

I have yet to read the book, so I am no authority on the practice, but as i understand it, the story tells of “scout elves” who visit homes to check on whether the children are naughty or nice. The elf remains still and doesn’t move or talk during the day when the children are awake. It observes from a fixed position in the house. Then at night, when the children are sleeping, the elf travels back to the North Pole to report to Santa on the children’s behavior, returning the next day, but positioning itself in a different place each day. Then on Christmas Eve, when Santa visits, the elf returns with Santa to the North Pole to remain there until the following December when the process repeats.

In order for the game to work, parents have to tell the story to the children, purchase the elf and place it around the house, moving it each night when the children are asleep.

My dis-ease with the practice applies to some of the other things that are associated with the celebration of Christmas. I love surprises, and enjoy participating in making surprises for children, but I’m very rigid about honesty and try not to perpetrate traditions that involve lying. Santa Claus was never a big deal at our house. We had gifts for our children that were from “Santa,” but when they asked, we said that the gifts were given anonymously as a sign of love at Christmas. Santa was, for our household, the spirit of Christmas Giving. When our children became old enough to ask about Santa, they were given the opportunity to place small gifts in Christmas stockings and participate in the giving and surprises. We read the Clement Moore poem about the visit from St. Nicholas and we told some of the legends of St. Nicholas to our children, but when they asked specific questions, we tried to always be hones in our answers.

I’m not a grinch who is out to steal Christmas fun. We read that story to our children, too. Children understand stories and fiction. They also turn to their parents for the truth and parents need to be steadfast in their truthfulness in order for children to learn the value of the truth. There is something that seems very wrong to tell the story of a spy who reports to Santa on who is naughty or nice, while the parents break the rules of the game (no one is to touch the elf) and lie about the elf every day. Lying isn’t nice in my book.

When children are very young - as young as 3 or 4 years old - they begin the process of internalizing moral behavior. Information about what is good and bad behavior comes from sources outside of themselves at first, but as preschoolers they have the opportunity to begin to develop internal controls for their behavior. As they grow they become more and more responsible for controlling their behavior. A three year old can understand that another person might feel pain. Throwing a block, pitching sand in the sand box, or biting another could be cause of pain. Refraining from such behaviors to prevent pain for another child is an important part of learning moral behavior. When children don’t internalize moral behavior, but only rely on sources outside of themselves to determine what is acceptable and what is not, they can learn to live by rules and may even succeed in rigid structures with severe consequences for stepping out of line, but true maturity involves choosing good behavior even when there is no risk of getting caught. Doing the right thing simply because it is the right thing is a sign of true maturity.

The elf on the shelf game retains that sense of outside controls for behavior. While it is probably a harmless game in many households, parents need to think carefully about participating in such practices. Questions remain for those who do promote the game: Is “naughty or nice” behavior only important in the weeks leading up to Christmas? Does Santa only care about how children behave in December? If a busy and often tired parent forgets to move the elf, do they have to invent a back story to explain why the elf wasn’t moved? If a child discovers the elf in a box, packed away with Christmas decorations, are there more stories that need to be told to explain why the elf isn’t at the North Pole? How does global warming and the melting of polar ice affect Santa’s operation in the first place.

It seems to me that it is far easier to tell children the truth when they ask and to introduce stories and fiction into their world along with their imagination play. Children can appreciate imaginary stories and still accept the truth about what is real and what is not from their parents. Parents don’t need to have elaborate back stories and stack lie upon lie in order to tell children that some things are pretend and games that are fun.

Last year, a judge in Cobb County, Georgia issued a harsh ban on the elf on the shelf game saying, “This Court finds ‘The Elf on the Shelf,’ hereinafter ‘Elves’ represent a distraction to school students and risk to the emotional health and well being of Cobb’s young children.” The judge went on to forbid The Elf on the Shelf from his county.

I don’t think we need judges telling families which games to play and which to avoid. I think that families are capable of establishing their own traditions and figuring out how to talk with their own children. Giving such attention to the practice seems a bit out of place for a judge. Still I understand his sentiment. The judge said the ban was his gift to tired parents.

I’m just glad that the practice never came up for our family when our children were at home. We enjoyed Christmas surprises without inventing mythical creatures to explain our behavior.

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