Lundi Gras

Our family doesn’t have any special traditions for today. Shrove Monday, also known as Collop Monday, Rose Monday, Merry Monday or Hall Monday, is the Monday before Ash Wednesday every year. Shrovetide is a liturgical season of preparation. Officially Shrovetide spans three days, Sunday, Monday and Tuesday. Traditions vary, however, and there are many different way to observe the period of time of pondering Lent. The somber season of Lent is often accompanied by fasting and sacrifice, and shrove preparations usually involve eating foods that are given up during the six weeks before Easter.

Pancakes are the traditional food of Shrove Tuesday, as households used up the last bits of butter and other fat in preparation for a lean season to follow. In some places, Shrove Monday is the day to eat up leftover portions of meat that may remain in the family larder. In Northern Germany, local tradition states that if “sausages and sauerkraut are eaten at Shrovetide, good luck will follow.” My wife, Susan, isn’t a big fan of sauerkraut, so I don’t think we’ll go in for that particular practice. In Denmark, people eat sweet buns covered with icing and filled with jam or cream. Children dress up and collect money or sweets from people. Small gifts for children are a part of the shrove season in many countries.

In Aruba, Carnival Monday is a national holiday. The purpose of the holiday is a day of rest following the Carnival festivities of the preceding weekend. There are all kinds of celebrations, marked by feasting and drinking over the weekend prior to Ash Wednesday and after all of that activity, Monday is an official day of rest.

In the United States, New Orleans is often seen as the location where the season before Lent is celebrated with carnival and parades and festivities. Mardi Gras is technically Fat Tuesday, or Shrove Tuesday, but the term has been expanded to refer to a few festival days preceding Ash Wednesday. Multiple parades and activities span the entire season of Epiphany from the twelfth night after Christmas to the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday.

The word shrove is the past tense of the verb shrive, which means to obtain absolution. The rite of the church begins with confession of one’s sins. Forgiveness is offered by the officiant. Although the process of confession and forgiveness is a part of each week’s Christian worship, a special emphasis is placed on receiving absolution or forgiveness just prior to the beginning of Lent.

In our household, Mondays have often been a day of rest following the activities of Sundays. For much of our careers, we have taken Mondays as a day off since we work on weekends. Yesterday was a fairly busy Sunday. Our church was able to return to hybrid worship after many weeks of online only worship. It was good to see people back in the church building for worship. Susan and I both had meetings following the worship service and I had a bell choir rehearsal at noon. We had time for a walk in the afternoon before returning to the church for an in-person meeting with confirmands and mentors in the early evening. By the time we got home and relaxed for a little while we were ready for bed and we don’t have much planned for today’s activities. It is, however, a day off before returning to work at the church on Tuesday. We might eat some of the leftovers in our kitchen in preparation for another busy week ahead. No parades or feasts are on the schedule for the day at our household.

Sometimes when I visit with people who are less familiar with the routines of the church, I am struck by how many folks have what seems to me to be misinformation about the nature of the church and those of us who make the church the center of our lives. There are many people who think of the church as a judgmental institution where folks are berated for their sins. In my experience, being the church has little to do with judging others. We trust God to handle the judgment. We focus on building community together. Being the church, from my perspective, involves forgiving often. We need not only to forgive others for the hurts of the past, but we need to learn to forgive ourselves so that we can go forward without the burden of guilt. Of course forgiveness is one of those things that is easier said than done. It can be hard work to forgive, especially when the hurt remains. The phrase “forgive and forget” doesn’t quite fit. We don’t easily forget being hurt and there are some pains which cannot be forgotten. The memory of loss and pain remains. But we can forgive. We can open the door to new relationship and healing. Even when we remember, we are capable of releasing the pain. Love is stronger than harsh words or thoughtless actions. It makes sense to have a special time each year to think a bit about forgiveness and absolution.

Since I retired from full-time ministry, I have not had the weekly task of writing prayers of confession and words of forgiveness for worship services. In fact the congregation where we now participate does not have confession and forgiveness as a part of regular weekly worship. A pastoral prayer often includes words of confession and forgiveness, but there is no formal act of reconciliation in the usual liturgy of this particular congregation. After decades of preparing prayers of confession, I do miss those prayers. I miss the regular opportunity to admit that our actions have caused pain for others and an accompanying reminder that forgiveness is possible as we commit to making changes in our thoughts, words and behavior.

Today as I pause to reflect, it is easy to see how my own actions and decisions have had an impact on others. I have enjoyed great privilege while others have lacked basic necessities. I have not always shared when I was able. I have consumed more than my fair share of the world’s resources. Whether or not there is a formal ritual of confession in our weekly services, a prayer of confession is in order for me. That will be a good investment of my time as I consider the opportunities for change that Lent offers.

May your Shrove Monday be a day of joy. May you feel the power of forgiveness in your life today.

Transfiguration 2022

There is a story that we always read on this Sunday. It is the last Sunday before Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent. The story that we read is called the transfiguration and it is a report of a walk to a mountain that Jesus took with some of his friends. It is reported in Matthew, Mark, and Luke with very similar accounts. Even though we read this story every year, you can tell from the story that words are simply inadequate to describe what happened. The story tellers resort to simile in an attempt to report the events. They report that Jesus’ appearance changed, that his clothes became dazzling white. One version says that his clothes were more white than any laundry could make them.

Whiter than white. Dazzling white. Shining like the sun. It is so apparent that they struggled to find the words to describe what had been reported to them. The experience was unlike anything that they had ever before seen, and even though we read the story every year, we know that reading the story is not the same thing as having witnessed the events reported. Something very important happened, but after thousands of years of telling the story, we aren’t quite sure exactly what happened.

And there is more to the story than just a change in Jesus appearance. The story records historic events, but they are all out of order - as if time were suspended - as if past, present and future were occurring simultaneously. What the storytellers report is that suddenly Moses and Elijah were talking with Jesus.

But we know that Moses lived and died a very long time before Jesus was born. Our people had been telling the stories of Moses and of the Exodus from slavery in Egypt for generations before Jesus came. Moses stories must have been common in Jesus’ time. They were, after all, recorded in the sacred scrolls and teaching the stories of Moses and the escape from slavery was something that every parent was supposed to teach to their children over and over again. But it was an event from history - a story of the past. Something that happened a long time ago.

And Elijah, the great prophet who was swept up into heaven while his student Elisha watched, was said to have gone directly to heaven without going through death. Part of telling the story of Moses and the Exodus was setting an extra pate at the table just in case the prophet were to come back. Some people believed that Elijah would one day reappear - returned from heaven. There were a lot of Elijah stories in the sacred scriptures as well. Elijah standing up to the prophets of Baal. Elijah enduring earthquake, wind, and fire in a cave in the wilderness. Elijah speaking with God. But like the stories of Moses, Elijah stories were stories of the past long before Jesus was born.

Our transfiguration story is like a cartoon that depicts humans and dinosaurs living together. We know that the age of dinosaurs was long before humans appeared on earth. We know that no humans ever saw living dinosaurs. What we know about the dinosaurs is from the fossil record. It is a bit of ancient history. And we know that when people imagine dinosaurs and people interacting - both alive at the same time in the same place - it is a story that reports something that is impossible. Our minds rush to correct the story.

And yet, every year we tell a story of history being all jumbled up and three people, Moses, Elijah and Jesus, who lived in three different times and occupy different generations of our people, all appear in the story having conversation with each other. Our minds rebel at the notion and we want to correct the story: “No Moses died before Elijah was born, Elijah died before Jesus was born. They are people of different generations. They never met face to face.

Every year, however, we tell the story of three great leaders of three great epochs in the history of our people, engaged in conversation. It is a bit like the great reunion that we imagine occurs after we die from this life. But this story is told about Jesus before he died, when he was still living and breathing, and walking with his disciples. One of the versions of the story, the one we read this year, from the Gospel of Luke, reports that Jesus’ friends were sleepy. It is as if what they saw was part of a dream, only in the story they are not asleep. They try to hold on to the feeling. They suggest that they build shelters and stay on the mountain, but in our story no shelters are actually built and they do not remain on the mountain.

In our story, Jesus’ friends hear a voice from heaven. One version reports that it frightened them so much that they fell to the ground. The voice says “This is my beloved Son; listen to him!” When we read the version recorded in the Gospel of Matthew, we read that Jesus came to his friends and told them not to be afraid.

By this point in the story, the action is all over. Jesus’ clothes and appearance have returned to normal. Moses and Elijah are nowhere to be seen. Time has reverted to its usual pace. Only the memory remains, and the memory is so incredible that it is impossible to find words to tell the story of what happened.

In some versions of the story, Jesus tells his friends not to tell anyone what happened on the mountain. In the version from Luke, it simply reports that Jesus’ friends were silent and they didn’t tell the story to anyone.

But how can you keep a story like that to yourself? How do you tell no one what you saw? They must have told someone, because we tell the story every year, even though we know that words can’t describe the experience of Jesus’ friends.

Some stories become easier to understand when we tell them over and over again. This one remains a mystery and a surprise even though we tell it every year. Sometimes we simply have to question our normal way of thinking. Sometimes we need to consider another way to understand time than the line of past, present, and future with witch we normally speak of events.

Maybe if we keep telling the story we will understand it in new and different ways. Maybe there are still surprises to come from the old, old, stories of our people.

Alongside the bay


In 1792, two ships of the Vancouver expedition used Birch Bay as an anchorage for several days. The headland bay has been created by the reaction of incoming waves that run into headlands on either side of the bay. Between Birch Point and Point Whitehorn the waves bend as they enter the bay and lose energy in the process. What is left is a half-moon-shaped bay with a gentle sloping beach. The beach is mostly gravel and small stones that are separated from the finer sand and mud that remains below the water at high tide. Terrell Creek runs into the bay, but flows parallel to the shoreline for about three miles between a swampy area in what is not Birch Bay State Park and the outlet. Tidal water flows up the creek at high tide, carrying saltwater as far as the marsh.

Archibald Menzies, a member of the Vancouver Expedition, notes a number of species of birch growing very near the water along the bay and gave the name to the bay which has stuck for over 200 years.

We have house guests who are from the San Francisco Bay staying with us, so we are careful to use the name of the bay when talking about our point of access to the sea because to them “the bay” means San Francisco Bay, but when we are in a group of locals and say we were walking alongside the bay they know exactly what we mean.

Having lived most of my life more than a thousand miles from the seacoast, there is much for me to learn about this new place we call home. There are species of birds that are new to me, plants that I had not previously noticed, Furthermore, the waters of the Salish Sea are filled with life. People have harvested shellfish along the bay for millennia. I have not yet learned about how to dig for clams, harvest oysters, or fish for the many species that inhabit the bay. Nearly a decade ago, we took a boat ride on the Salish Sea and observed orcas and a minke whale. At the time the trip seemed pretty exotic to me. I didn’t realize that I would one day make this area my home and that there would be many opportunities to observe the creatures of the sea.

In the time since the Vancouver expedition first saw the land and observed the indigenous coastal people from afar, a lot of things have changed around the bay. Many of the trees that they observed have been cut, though one can still walk among verdant stands of birch trees in Birch Bay State Park.

Our explorations of the bay began in the late fall and we have only begun to learn about its winter personality. Spring is on the way and we are looking forward to learning more and more about the bay and the creatures that live here.

The west coast is sunset country. There is always a dramatic interplay of sky and sea that is visible from the shore. Some days the colors are all gray, other days we see shades of blue. The water can appear green. The islands outside of the bay can seem very close some days and very distant on other days. There are many days when we can’t even see the islands hidden in the clouds that reach down to the water. Sunset adds all kinds of different colors to the vista, with oranges and golds and pinks and purples.

Spring comes quickly up here. The days are lengthening. Sunset is already more than an hour later than it was back in December. Our daily walks more and more are taken when the sun is higher in the sky. It is still winter and there is a bit of snow on the ground from an overnight snowfall a couple of days ago. We bundle up with hats and gloves when we go for our daily walk. But we can sense the change in the seasons. Longer days are with us and are just a sign of how dramatic the shift from winter to summer is going to be. Folks are planning their gardens and talking as if summer is just around the corner. We have noticed that the Canadian Geese and the Snow Geese are more active and we see them flying more and more as they seek out additional food to prepare them for their annual trip north. We, being semi-retired, are willing to be patient and wait. We are in no rush for the seasons to pass. We know they will fly by as they have been doing for us.

Like the members of the Vancouver Expedition, our sojourn in this place is temporary. We do not know how many years we will live in this place. For now, however, it is a fascinating place to call home and we are learning more and more about the history, geology and culture of our area.

Birch Bay isn’t incorporated as a city, though there are thousands of people who live here. We have our own chamber of commerce, that refers to us as “Washington’s premier retirement community.” This is despite the fact that nearly a third of the households in the area are homes with children. Our neighborhood is mostly younger families and we are grateful that we don’t live in one of the gated spaces designated as senior communities. An ordinance allows golf carts to drive on county roads alongside the bay. The chamber has a map showing the golf cart areas and information on the safety and technical requirements of permitted golf carts. We won’t be shopping for a golf cart any time soon. We’re happy to walk. Our house is a 15-minute walk from the bay and there is more than a mile of walkway alongside the bay to explore. The state park offers a short interpretive hiking trail as well as additional waterfront walking.

Like the Vancouver Expedition, we are just exploring. We have much to learn as the seasons pass. For now, we feel fortunate to have landed in this place for a while. And, for now, I feel especially lucky to have a job so that I can speak of “those retired folks and their golf carts” from a bit of distance.

A beginning beekeeper

Domesticating bees is a very ancient art. There is significant archaeological evidence of beekeeping that go back to the Bronze and Iron ages. Hives were made of straw and unbaked clay and colonies of bees were installed. The hives were destroyed to harvest honey and new swarms of bees were captured each year. Domesticated bees were part of very diverse cultures including Greece, China and the Americas, where the ancient Maya domesticated bees. In addition to the harvesting of honey for use as human food, pollen and nectar were harvested and fermented to make mead and wax was used to make candles.

The harvesting of wax may have been the reason that there is a long-standing connection between the church and beekeeping. In medieval times, abbeys and monasteries were centers of beekeeping. The beeswax was highly prized for the making of candles for religious ceremonies. The abbeys and monasteries were also centers of learning and education and became sites for early scientific studies of bee behavior and discoveries of bee anatomy and the recognition of the colony as a super organism that reproduces not only individual bees, but entire colonies.

One of the most enduring discoveries about the nature of bees that has influenced modern beekeeping was made by Lorenzo L. Langstroth, a congregational minister who lived from 1810 to 1895. Langstroth was born in Philadelphia, graduated from Yale University and served Congregational churches in Massachusetts, including South Church in Andover. Langstroth is credited with the discovery of “bee space” though there is evidence that earlier apiarists had knowledge that bees need a specific amount of space within the hive. If the spaces in an artificial hive are too great, the bees fill the space with propolis and wax. If the space is too small, the bees won’t use that area. Bee space is between 1/4 and 3/8 inch. Langstroth used his understanding of bee space to create a simple wooden hive with a removable top and frames to hold the wax, brood and honey that could be lifted individually from the hive. His frames were precisely 3/8 of an inch apart. The Langstroth hive is the most common hive used in the United States to this day.

I have been interested in bee keeping for years, in part because of my love of honey. When I was a young man, I was taught about the use of small amounts of local honey to help desensitize myself to seasonal allergies. The allergist who treated me with a long series of injections, recommended that I continue the practice of eating local honey to keep myself symptom free. That practice has served me well and I have enjoyed many healthy years with few allergies. I have also had good friends who were bee keepers and who taught me about the basics of keeping domestic bees and honey production as a hobby.

Interested in the practice as I have been, however, I have not had a place where it was practical for me to become a beekeeper. Keeping bees requires a bit of space near pollen producing plants and a water source. Hives need a degree of separation from other human activity. People who don’t understand bees can agitate the insects and become stung. Some people have severe allergies to bee sting and can become quite ill as a result of a single sting. So, I have maintained an interest without any practical experience.

Moving near to our son’s farm, however, has given me access to a suitable space for keeping bees. Our son has an orchard with apples, pears, and plums as well as several different berry plants and nut trees. They also raise flowers including dahlias which are pollinated by honey bees. And they have several acres of hay land that sprouts dandelions and other plants favored by bees in the spring and early summer. The farm is well suited to a few hives and a good location for an amateur bee keeper.

I am proceeding slowly, wanting to learn before I start with my first hives. I have connected with active bee keepers through the Mount Baker Beekeepers Association and am learning from experienced apiarists. Last night I completed and passed the test for certification as a beginning beekeeper by the Washington State Beekeepers Association. Here in Washington, there are four levels for beekeepers: Beginner, Apprentice, Journeyman, and Master. After certification as a beginner, which allows one to keep active hives and register them with the state department of agriculture, a beekeeper needs to acquire at least one year’s experience with keeping bees before taking the apprentice course and receiving that level of certification. Although I could obtain bees in April and begin keeping bees this year, I have decided to take things slowly. I will apprentice and assist with beekeeping with others’ hives this year and aim to start two colonies in the spring of 2023. That means that I won’t have any honey to harvest before the summer of 2024, more than two years from now.

Since my primary reason for becoming a beekeeper is my interest in bees and the pursuit of the practice as a hobby, taking things slowly makes sense to me. I’ll have to discover my comfort level with the risk of stings and the amount of protective gear that is right for me. I want to learn about pests and diseases that affect colonies, about swarming and the recovery of swarms, and about the process of inspecting and tending hives. Of course, like any other type of animal husbandry, there are risks associated with raising domesticated animals. There is no guarantee that I will be successful. However, I am willing to assume that risk provided that I have obtained sufficient education in advance to mitigate the risk. Taking things slowly is one of the advantages of being semi-retired. I have time.

Our new home happens to be in the only county in the United States where the presence of Asian giant hornets has been confirmed. I’ll be participating in setting traps provided by the Washington Department of agriculture this spring and summer to assist with the study and work towards the elimination of this invasive species from our area.

It should be a year of learning a lot more about insects and insect behavior. I’ve taken the first step by completing the class and taking the examination. Perhaps I’ll become yet another Congregational minister who learns about keeping bees. If so, I’ll be taking my place in a long tradition.

Thoughts about dying

One of the joys of our semi-retirement is that I have been reading books for the pure pleasure of reading. I’ve always been an avid reader, but for much of my adult life I have focused my reading on books that had some relationship to my work. I’ve read lots of books that have informed my work, helped me develop as a teacher, taught me about developments in philosophy and theology, pastoral care, and administration. I feel no need at this phase of my career to be as focused in my reading. I find myself simply walking through the shelves in the library and choosing books that interest me without need of connecting the books to my work or even to other books that I have read. It reminds me of my childhood, when I had a brand new library card and would go to the library and choose books by their covers. I’d pick up a book, read the author’s profile and the synopsis on the slip jacket and check it out. If I ended up with a book that wasn’t very interesting, I’d simply return it and check out another. I’m doing a bit of that type of reading.

I picked up a novel by Jess Walter on my last trip to the library. Some people consider Jess to be a local author, though he is from Spokane, at the other end of our state. I first encountered Jess by listening to a podcast he shares with Sherman Alexie. His sense of humor strikes me as familiar, and his poetic use of language intrigues me. This book, “The Cold Millions” is a novel set in the American northwest during the early years of the 20th century. Walter does a great job of character development and introduces several generations of characters in the early pages of the novel.

One of the techniques he has employed several times in the few pages that I have read is to tell the story of the very end of a person’s life. One person dies when a ferry is swept over a waterfall after having been cut loose from its moorings. One person dies from a gunshot. Another dies as the result of a beating the left him with broken ribs and pneumonia. In both cases, Walter speculates on the thoughts that might go through a person’s mind at the point of dying.

Of course none of us knows for sure what the experience of dying is like. As they say, “None have lived to tell the tale.” There is a whole genre of books about near death experiences. I’ve read several accounts written by our about people who have experienced heart failure and been revived. There are some common experiences and similarities in the stories of people who have gone through similar experiences. However, I’m unconvinced that going through a near-death experience is the same thing as actually dying. I suspect that what we have is data about what it feels to have your heart stop and be re-started. Furthermore, there are many, many people who have experienced similar circumstances without having had the experiences described by those who have written books about their experiences. My wife experienced two cardiac arrests in one day. She has no memory of the experience at all. Her experience may be far more common than that of people who see bright lights and have out of body experiences.

A study, published in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience this week caught my eye. A team of scientists were measuring the brain waves of an 87-year-old patient who had developed epilepsy. However, while they were recording his brain waves, the patient suffered a fatal heart attack. The recording of brain waves continued during the entire episode, providing a recording of a dying brain. Of note were the 30 seconds before and 30 seconds after the cardiac arrest, the man’s brainwaves followed the same patterns as dreaming or recalling memories.

By total chance, in a study of one person, scientists observed a phenomenon that was something like a flashback. For years, people have speculated that as a person dies their life story might play through their memory. Something like that may have happened for the man in the study. 30 seconds before the patient’s heart stopped supplying blood to the brain his brainwaves followed the same patterns as when a person is carrying out high-cognitive demanding tasks, like concentrating, dreaming or recalling memories. It continued 30 seconds after the patient’s heart stopped beating - the point at which a patient is typically declared dead. Dr. Zemmar, a neurosurgeon, commented, “This could possibly be a last recall of memories that we’ve experienced in life, and they replay through our brain in the last seconds before we die.”

Of course broad conclusions can’t be drawn from a study of one. And opportunities to observe human brain waves at the point of death won’t come often enough to have a large scale study. There is a 2013 study in which researchers reported high levels of brainwaves in laboratory rats at the point of death that continued 30 seconds after the rats’ hearts stopped beating.

Whether it be the speculations of a creative writer or the accidental results of a scientific study, there is a deep sense of mystery about the process of dying. I’ve been with enough people as they have died to be absolutely convinced that dying is a spiritual experience. Each opportunity to share such a moment has been unique and I have no direct knowledge of the experience of others, but the phrase “peace that passes all understanding,” comes to my mind as individuals make the transition from life to death. So far, I am very comfortable with not knowing exactly what the experience is. Each of us will one day die and when we do we will go through something that is singular and unlike any other experience. I believe we will draw close to God while remaining part of the wonder of creation. I’m comfortable with the uncertainty. I don’t need to know in advance. I read novels and reports of scientific studies with interest and I am entertained my what is not known as much as by what is known. Life is a mystery and how it ends is a mystery. Thinking about it inspires awe and that is enough for me.

Bear trouble

When I was growing up, there was a cafe located in a log cabin on the west side of town. It was popular with truckers in the days before the Interstate highway provided a way to go around the town. After slowing to 25 mph to get through the town, the large parking area gave drivers an easy place to park and go inside for a hearty meal. We didn’t eat in cafes very often, but occasionally there might be a chance to have a meal there. On the wall of the cafe there were several impressive animal mounts, including the head of a large bear with a significant scar across its face.

There were nearly as many stories about that bear as there were stories about how the Crazy mountains got their name. Looking back, I realize that we had no way of knowing which stories were true and which were fictional.

My home town is directly north of Yellowstone National Park. However, there is no road that goes directly into the park from our town. You have to go either east or west to get to a highway that enters the park at its northeast or northwest corner. Bears, however, don’t bother with the highways, and it was common for bears that had been seen in Yellowstone to show up in the Boulder valley south of town.

Watching bears used to be part of a visit to Yellowstone National Park. I remember when there were bleachers set up at the garbage dump near Old Faithful Lodge. People would head to the bleachers just before sundown to watch the bears come in to eat from the human garbage dumped there. Old scarface was a regular at the dump and became large from eating the human food scraps. If you compare the amount of work of collecting wild berries and scraping ants out of a log with the relative ease of picking human food waste from a garbage dump, you can understand how the bears at the dump grew heavier than those left to their natural food sources. The bears would fight and scrape over desirable scraps and I suspect that the big bear got its face slashed open by the sharp claws of another bear at some point.

After several incidents where tourists were injured trying to capture pictures of themselves with bears, it was decided to stop the bear feeding at the dump and haul the garbage far away to a landfill where it was buried. The bears were trapped and hauled up near the top of the Slew Creek Divide. From there, most of the bears returned to the Old Faithful area in time. And when a bear is captured in a culvert trap it learns not to go into culverts again, so some of the bears avoided future trapping. They also became more naturally shy around humans and returned to foraging in the forest for their food. A few of those bears, however, made their way over the divide and worked their way down the Boulder valley towards our town.

According to legend, Old Scarface, a lover of human food, learned to break into cabins and homes in the valley in search of human food. A bear can break through a door or window without injury and the bear got good at raiding cupboards and freezers for food. A hunt for the bear ensued and there are plenty of stories of the adventures and misadventures of the people, including a Forest Service ranger who got scared at dusk, shot at what he thought was a bear, killed a horse and was re-assigned to duty in the Florida Everglades. At some point, however, the bear was killed and ended up as a stuffed mount on the wall of the cafe.

I thought of Old Scarface recently when I read about Hank the Tank. Hank the Tank is a 500 pound black bear that has been raiding homes in the Lake Tahoe area this year. He has grown so comfortable around humans and so adept at breaking through garage doors, patio doors and other entrances to human homes that he has skipped hibernation entirely this winter and continues to eat his way through vacation homes. Police have used non-lethal methods in an attempt to scare the bear away. Other bears will run at the sound of sirens, or when pelted with bean bags, or when tasers are dry fired, making a noise that bears don’t like. Hank, however, seems to ignore those insults and goes about in his search for high caloric food. He likes leftover pizza, ice cream and eats a lot of trash. His burglary record has now topped more than 40 homes entered and officials have received over 150 calls reporting troubles with the bear.

I’ve seen quite a few bears in my time, but I’ve never seen one as big as Hank the Tank. 500 pounds is a lot of bear. I know that a 500-pound bear wouldn’t fit in the kind of bear traps that they used to use in Yellowstone to trap the bears there, even if it was baited with pizza and ice cream. I’ve seen a couple of pictures of the bear with the dark coat and light muzzle. Hank the Tank is a good name for such a large creature. He didn’t get that way by eating grubs and going on a winter-long diet every year.

Lake Tahoe is a lucrative place for a bear burglar. There are a lot of homes in the area that are not occupied every day. Vacation homes and rental properties are good targets for the bear burger. Since the bear is not deterred by locks and burglar alarms, any house is a target and, since bears really don’t like people, houses that are temporarily unoccupied are preferred by the bear.

Animal rights advocates are calling for Hank the Tank to be relocated to a sanctuary. I’m not sure how that might be accomplished. It isn’t as if you can just go up to the bear and ask him to get in the back of a truck. I suspect that estimating the correct amount of tranquilizer would be a significant challenge and once the bear is tranquilized, just getting it into a vehicle would take a large crew. Then the sanctuary would need some significant barriers to restrain a bear that could easily walk through most fences.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out. I’m just hoping that Hank’s head doesn’t end up mounted over the fireplace in a cafe somewhere.

Other drivers

I like to tell jokes about the differences in driving habits of the residents of the different states in which I have lived. I usually begin by commenting on the lack of ability to merge into moving traffic exhibited by some North Dakota drivers. I’ve seen drivers come to a complete stop on a freeway ramp to wait until there is an opening before proceeding. I joke that if those same people found themselves on a freeway ramp in a more populous place, say, Chicago, they might starve to death before they got onto the freeway. I don’t mean it as a literal truth, just a description of how some people don’t seem to have the skills required to drive in urban traffic.

My description of Idaho drivers often includes a bit of political commentary. I’ve been known to comment that in Idaho there are quite a few people who are basically anarchists. They don’t believe in the authority of the government to tell them what to do. They drive as if they don’t submit to the authority of painted lines to tell them where to drive. “Half the road is mine, and I’ll take the half I want, even if it means taking the half in the middle!” This also applies to drivers traveling on roads that have more than one lane going in the same direction. Idaho drivers seem to be particularly poor at lane control.

In Rapid City, South Dakota, drivers seem to think that a yellow light means “accelerate” and a red light means “only three or four more cars can go before the traffic from the other direction forces them to stop.” I’ve felt guilty for going through an intersection as the light turned yellow and observed that several cars followed me through the intersection, long after the light turned red.

I lived in South Dakota for 25 years, so there was time to observe other quirks in the way people drive there. There are a lot of Dakotans who are what I call “flatlanders.” They are not used to winding mountain roads. When they get to the Black Hills in the western end of the state, they drive as if they are afraid of curves. I’ve followed people on curves that I have no trouble taking at the speed limit with my pickup pulling a trailer, yet they seem to need to slow to a crawl just to get around the corner. Flatlanders also cross the center line to avoid driving too close to a drop off at the edge of the road. Their logic seems to be, “I’d rather die in a head-on collision than risk sliding off the edge of the road.”

Whatever biases I used to have about the lack of skill at merging into traffic when I lived in North Dakota, it seems to be equally true that Washington drivers are not especially skilled in that area. It isn’t that they slow on the ramp like North Dakotans, it is that they seem to drive on the ramp as if they expect the flow of traffic on the freeway to adjust to their presence. I’ve seen people come very close to colliding with the traffic on the freeway by simply driving down the ramp without choosing a space between cars. It is like they need to be reminded that they aren’t the only car on the highway.

Another thing that I observe a great deal in Washington is that people seem to have a very liberal definition of “right turn on red after stop.” I’m pretty sure that the law requires the complete cessation of forward motion and observation of the cross traffic, including pedestrians, before proceeding. If we are walking around here, however, we can’t assume that a car will stop for us in the crosswalk if that car is turning. I’ve seen many drivers who simply slow a bit to make the turn, including those who have pulled out in front of me causing me to apply the brakes when I’ve had the green light and they had the red.

It isn’t just red lights, Washington drivers seem to believe that it isn’t necessary to stop at a stop sign when turning right.

I’ve been told that there are many intersections in the State of Washington where there are cameras installed that capture pictures of cars, including their license numbers, when cars fail to stop at an intersection before turning right. The video is then reviewed by an officer who issues a ticket that is mailed to the registered owner of the car. I’ve never received such a ticket, but it seems like it might teach another lesson: be careful who you allow to drive your car. It seems like it would be easy for a family member or friend to cause a fine to be administered to the person from whom they borrowed the car.

I don’t know if they install such cameras at four way stops or just at intersections with lights, but I read an article in the Bellingham Herald that cited safety research that demonstrated a significant reduction in the number of fatalities in intersections where red light cameras are installed. Red light cameras reduce fatal red light running crashes by 21%. That is a lot and clearly justifies the practice of installing the cameras. Furthermore, I’m pretty sure that the majority of the victims of accidents when a right turn on a red light is involved are pedestrians and bicycle riders.

And while I’m on the subject of four way stops, everywhere I have lived people seem to have confusion about which car should go first when two cars reach an open intersection or an intersection with a four way stop. It is my understanding that the driver on the right has the right of way and that a driver turning left should yield to through traffic. That should mean that If the other driver is on my left, I must be on that driver’s right and have the right of way. However, I know better than to count on that driver yielding. I also know not to trust the gestures of the other drivers. They might seem like they are being polite, but they are usually just confusing.

So be careful out there. There is some inconsistency in the observation of traffic rules and there are some drivers that have survived more by being lucky than by being skilled. Being safe is more important than being right. Watch out for other cars. It has been my experience that their behavior might not be completely predictable.

The church and media

Yesterday, our Bell Choir had its first rehearsal since Christmas. The choir took a short break following Christmas and then the church responded to rising covid infections and the crisis in health care delivery in our community by refraining from in-person gatherings. As the infection rate drops and the statistics improve, the congregation is anticipating a return to hybrid worship, with a combination of online and in-person worship beginning as soon as next week, if all goes as anticipated. Our bell choir is very small at present, ringing mostly pieces written for eight or 12 bells. It was good to gather for a few minutes to read through some music that might be rung for worship during Lent and Easter.

This is my first experience as a ringer in a bell choir. The congregation we served in South Dakota has a wonderful bell choir and I served for several years on the board of our community bell choir in Rapid City. I’ve been around bells and bell ringers enough to have learned a fair amount about the instruments and the process of ringing. Still, I am a beginner and I am grateful to be part of a small ensemble that is welcoming new ringers.

After rehearsal, three of us were talking about all of the changes that have occurred in church life over the span of the pandemic. Because we moved during the pandemic, I do not have any experience with this particular congregation’s pre-pandemic mode. We have been diligent about wearing face masks, keeping distance between individuals, and engaging in a lot of remote activities for all of the time that I have been a part of this congregation. I’ve watched as the congregation became more sophisticated about the use of the Internet. There has been new equipment purchased and volunteers and employees have grown more sophisticated about the use of media. The church’s livestream worship is much more polished than it was when we first started participating. It is easier to watch as the technicians switch from one camera to another and mix pre-recorded video with live. The sound track of the livestream has improved with a new mixing board and improved use of microphones.

It would not be accurate, however, to claim that we have come anywhere near professional when it comes to making and broadcasting videos. There are individuals making videos for YouTube that are more sophisticated and use more expensive technology than our church. There are churches with near professional quality video and audio that are capable of producing broadcasts that approach the quality of some of the programs that are produced for commercial television. Our focus as a congregation has not been on having the best show available.

The conversation between bell ringers yesterday focused on the improvements we have made in media production as a congregation, however. None of us who were chatting expect our church to suddenly produce the most sophisticated television programming we’ve ever seen. All of us prefer in-person worship and live music to the church’s media presence. However, we know that some online presence will continue for the foreseeable future.

Prior to the spring of 2020, just months before my retirement, I had little interest in media production. I was fortunate to serve almost all of my career in a setting that was focused on in-person relationships and live music and worship. I have joked that I never intended to become a televangelist. The joke, however, is essentially true. I have never aspired to have a media presence.

On the other hand, the church has a long tradition of using the tools that are available to share faith and work to build community in the many different settings in which it has found itself. And the church has always had elements of long-distance relationship. Much of the New Testament is a series of letters that were written by early Christian leaders. As the faith spread, and evangelists traveled from one place to another, relationships developed between people who were in different places. Letters were one way of remaining connected and sharing faith.

Throughout our lives, we have had significant relationships with other people of faith who live in distant locations. While there has been an in-person component to our relationships, we have continued to be close even when the distances between us are great.

Just a couple of days ago, we received an email message from a friend with whom we’ve shared the Christian Ministry since we were seminary classmates decades ago. Since completing our degrees, we have served in the United States and our friend has served in Australia. Our lives have allowed us the luxury of travel, and our friend has made trips to visit us in all of the places we have served as pastors and we were able to visit our friend in Australia in 2006. The email message was part of our friend’s planning for another visit to the United States that will allow us to be together face to face. We are thrilled and excited at the prospect of the visit.

Australia has had some of the strictest limits on travel during the pandemic. Families have been separated as the country has enacted policies to limit the spread of disease. For the first time in nearly two years, Australia has reopened its international border and lifted some of the world’s strictest travel bans. The travel bans have helped keep the infection and death rate lower in Australia than the United States. While the US has lost over 934,000 people to Covid-19, Australia has had about 4,900 Covid deaths.

We will never go back to the way things were before the pandemic, but I remain hopeful that the core of the church will be a live community. Like our anticipated reunion with our Australian friends, we are looking forward to getting together in person with other members of our faith family.

I am much less interested in developing more sophistication in manipulating media and technology than I am in developing long-term relationships that span the distances between us in ways that social media never can.

I’m grateful for Skype and low cost telephone calls, but there is no substitute for simply being together. The strength of the church will be measured by relationships not by the technology we master. As we have said over and over, “You can’t be the body of Christ all by yourself.”

Supply Chain Issues

The supply chain issues haven’t caused much distress for us. When a shortage of toilet tissue was the topic of nearly every conversation early in the pandemic, we didn’t go out and buy a huge supply of the product. We simply went on with our lives and when we needed to purchase toilet paper, we found that we could buy modest amounts from stores we regularly frequented. We talked about having the luxury of an extra supply in our camper. We also knew that the quarantines meant that the church suddenly stopped using its normal supply and that there were cases of the product in the store room at the church, should they be needed. We never had a problem. We have been used to having a few supplies in our pantry because we lived a lot of years in places where a sudden blizzard could keep us at home for a few days.

I have complained about the lack of ginger snaps on the shelves of the grocery store, and still am a bit unclear about why that shortage persists. After all, you can buy ginger root and pickled ginger in the store whenever you want. Still, most stores don’t have the cookies on their shelves. I have, however, found a store that seems to always have a supply, and I’m not sure what the difference between that one and other grocery stores might be. And the bottom line is that we have been able to obtain the ingredients to bake ginger snaps all along, so we never were forced to do without them.

I took our car into a dealership for routine service and noticed that the dealer had no new vehicles on the lot and only a few used ones for sale. I guess the shortage of new vehicles is real. However, we have no need of a new vehicle. Our car and pickup will last for many more years and many more miles if we take care of them. We have no plans of shopping for a vehicle anytime in the near future.

The supply chain problems just haven’t had much of an impact on our lives.

However, I read in the Washington Post that there are some people on the east coast of the United States who are distressed because of an interruption of the supply chain. The huge cargo ship, Felicity Ace, is adrift in the Atlantic, near the Azores. The ship departed Eden, Germany on February 10, and last Wednesday a fire broke out on the ship, forcing all 22 crew members to abandon ship. Crew members were rescued without injury by the Portuguese navy and taken to a hotel on Faial Island. The fire continues to destroy cargo and threaten the ship. According to one observer, it is burning from one end to the other with everything 5 meters above the water line on fire.

Among the cargo on the ship are 1,100 Porsche automobiles, ranging in price from $101,000 to $174,000. There are also 189 Bentleys on the ship, valued at $166,000 to $348,000. Porsche has sent notices to customers tracking the status of the cars they have ordered. “We kindly ask for your patience while we work diligently on getting the Porsche of your dreams to you as quickly as possible,” the company wrote. One customer, interviewed by the Post, was left disappointed and stunned. He has been waiting since August for a 2022 Boxster Spyder made to his specifications.

Since I don’t dream of Porsches and Bentleys, I’m not losing sleep over this. Knowing that the crew has been safely rescued, my main concern over the fire is the potential for ocean pollution. A ship that big loaded with automobiles could potentially release a lot of oil and other contaminants into the ocean. Tugs are headed toward the ship in hopes of being able to tow it into a port where the fire can be extinguished.

I suppose another concern is finding the source of the fire. Initial reports point towards lithium-ion batteries that were in electric cars on the Felicity Ace. Lithium-ion batteries have been responsible for other fires and if they are found to be the source of this blaze, it could be a warning that those batteries pose a danger to people who use cars equipped with that type of battery.

I guess these are tough times for people in the luxury market. First it was a shortage of avocados for Super Bowl parties and now they might have to wait eight more months for a new Porsche or Bentley. Somehow I’m having a problem finding much sympathy for folks who are able to shell out more than $100,000 for a new car.

I have friends who live in rural and isolated areas on the Cheyenne River Reservation in South Dakota who are dependent upon cars to obtain basic necessities of life. They have to drive miles to get their children to school and to pick up essentials such as groceries and clothing. They have been surviving with a string of much-used vehicles. The ones they can afford generally have major maintenance problems. There are reasons they are on the market and other people were ready to get rid of them. But when it is all you can afford, you figure out some way to get by. I fit in pretty well with those folks. I had a car that I drove over 100,000 miles with the check engine light on. The sensor that triggered the light was corroded and not only the sensor but an entire wiring harness needed to be replaced for the light to go off. When you drive a $1,500 car you generally don’t opt for the $2,500 repair. The fact that people who have lots of vehicles at their disposal might have to wait months for their dream car doesn’t cause much distress among my friends.

It does, however, give us something to joke about while we are shopping for used tires or waiting for used parts to come from a salvage yard that we found online.

Child sacrifice

In the 22nd chapter of Genesis, there is a story that continues to haunt me. I’ve read it countless times. I’ve read commentaries and expositions of the text. I’ve preached sermons on the passage. I’ve tried to analyze it and examine it from a variety of different approaches. I’ve discussed it with teachers and peers. It continues to trouble me. I don’t really understand it.

The story is known by various titles: The Sacrifice of Isaac, The Command to Sacrifice Isaac, The Binding of Isaac. The basic story is that God directed Abraham to take his son, Isaac, to the mountains and offer him as a burnt offering. Abraham complied with God’s instructions. Isaac accompanied Abraham to the mountain. Abraham gathered the firewood, built an altar, tied up Isaac and laid him on the altar. He raised the knife to kill his son. At the very last minute, just before Abraham committed infanticide on his own son, he saw a ram caught in a thicket. He makes the substitution and sacrificed the ram. Isaac survived.

In the story, Abraham is praised for is actions and promised that his offspring will be as numerous as the stars of heaven and the sand that is on the seashore, because he obeyed God’s instructions.

The story is gut-wrenching. What kind of God demands the sacrifice of a child? What kind of parent agrees to carry out the sacrifice? How could Abraham have believed that God demands the murder of a child? How can we believe in a God who orders that murder?

As I said, I’ve read the commentaries. I know the line that the story is about obedience and God’s ability to provide the ram, not about human sacrifice. I’ve preached sermons that claimed that this is a pivotal moment in Israel’s history. Prior to that moment, Israel, like other peoples of the ancient mideast, practiced the sacrifice of children. After that moment, there were no more child sacrifices.

But this isn’t the last story of brutality against children in the Bible. We have stories of both Moses and Jesus narrowly escaping waves of infanticide. And we have a series of stories in the book of Second Kings that use a strange euphemism to talk about child sacrifice. Judgements are rendered about good kings and bad kings. The text says King Ahaz “even made his son to pass through fire, according to the abominable practices of the nations whom the Lord drove out before the people of Israel.’ (2 Kings 16:3) Later we read that the northern kings “made their sons and daughters pass through fire.” (2 Kings 17:17) Manasseh, judged to be the word of the kings of Judah, “made his son pass through fire.” (2 Kings 21:6) Finally, we hear of a good King, Josiah, who defied Topheth, “so that no one would make a son or a daughter pass through fire as an offering to Molech.” (2 Kings 23:10). Euphemism or not, it is clear that long after the time of Abraham and Isaac, the kings of Israel, at least the bad ones, continued to practice the sacrifice of children.

It is clear that these acts described in Kings are terrible and wrong. They are named as acts of bargaining with, persuading, bribing, and appeasing the gods. They are named as acts of idolatry to false gods.

Make no mistake about it. I condemn every act of child sacrifice. I condemn the notion that God would demand such from any human. God has no need that humans must satisfy. God doesn’t command humans to give anything. God is not concerned with wealth or any process of trading (you give your son, I give you the throne). God does not engage in commerce. Every notion that God works in such a manner, including the theology that God sacrificed Jesus on the cross, is idolatry and expresses a belief in a god that is not the God of the bible. As I have said over and over, God did not kill Jesus. God is not the cause of the brutality of the Roman empire. God, however, does know the pain of a parent who has lost a child.

As troubling as these passages of the Bible are, it seems that we continue to sacrifice our children. According to the most recent America’s Health Ranking Annual Report, the U.S. infant mortality rate is 5.9 deaths peer 1,000 live infant births, while the average rate among the OECD countries is 3.9 deaths per 1,000. Children die as the result of economic and policy decisions made at the highest levels of our government. 16% of all children in the United States are living in poverty. In 2020, 11.6 million children were impoverished, an increase of more than a million children over the previous year.

We continue to sacrifice our children.

Over the past twenty years my denomination, the United Church of Christ, has faced declines in membership that have resulted in financial shortfalls in the Conference and national settings of our church. In pursuit of balanced budgets, staff dedicated to Christian Education and faith formation have been decimated. There no longer is even one person working in the national setting of our church whose sole responsibility is programs for children. Conference staffs have laid off educators. The denomination is in the process of eliminating the status of Commissioned Minister, a credential held by many educators within the church. The entire Western Region of the United Church of Christ consists of our churches in California, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, Alaska and Hawaii. In that region there are currently only 5 members of the Association of United Church Educators. Three of them are in Washington. Two of them are my wife and I.

We continue to sacrifice our children.

It is the same idolatry that was named in the books of Kings. The pursuit of money and power has taken precedence over the care and nurture of children. Children are seen as commodities. When it comes to balancing budgets, programs for children are among the first items to be eliminated.

Not all of the stories in the Bible are there to make us feel good. Some are there to help us recognize the need for change. The story of the near sacrifice of Isaac continues to haunt me precisely because it informs the culture in which I live. With children going to bed hungry and without adequate shelter in my own community, I don’t need comfort from the Bible. I need challenge.

Of dogs and gulls

We had several different pet dogs when I was growing up. Susan’s family had a dog when I first met her as well. I am comfortable around dogs and enjoy their company. Somehow, however, we did not have dogs when our children were growing up. Our kids had a series of cats and there were years when we had multiple cats around our house, but we didn’t have a dog. I don’t remember our kids asking to have a dog, either. Not having a dog wasn’t a problem for us. I know that caring for a dog can involve considerable expense and time.

Both of our children have had pet dogs as adults and we have enjoyed their animals, so they didn’t grow up with negative feelings about dog ownership.

My sister, on the other hand, has had a pet dog for most of her adult life. We’ve known the series of dogs that have been her companions. On occasion she has brought her dogs to our house when visiting and they have been welcome in our home. Once, when we were living in South Dakota, we kept her dog in our home when she made a trip to visit a friend in Minnesota whose home was too small for entertaining a guest with a dog.

Now, we’ve been keeping her dog in our home for a couple of months as her daughter has a brand new baby at home and my sister is more focused on grandma duties than on care for her dog. The dog has been a good guest in our home. We take the dog for a walk every day and often take it over to our son’s farm to run in the open fields there. It has been healthy and seems content to be with us while its owner is not around.

I admit that I’m not an expert in dogs, but I’m no stranger to them, either.

Since our home is a temporary home to a dog, I have been interested in reading articles about dogs that show up in my news feed. This morning I read about Ziggy, a dog that lives in Sydney, Australia and is taken daily to a cafe near the Sydney Opera House that has outdoor dining Ziggy loves to chase the seagulls and that is his job at the cafe. He is allowed to chase any seagulls that he sees. the diners appreciate not having the gulls hanging around and stealing their food. That is how Ziggy got the job of chasing the gulls. The gulls had become a nuisance for diners and the operators of the cafe, swooping down to steal food and upsetting dishes and even tables in the process.

I took note in part because the dog living with us is an Australian Shepherd. I took note also, because our new home is in a place where the gulls can be a nuisance. You can tell when it is garbage day in our neighborhood because of the gulls that sweep down upon the garbage cans and try to steal whatever food they can. They will rip open plastic garbage bags and spread the contents around. Some places have problems with raccoons and other small mammals getting into the garbage. Our neighborhood attracts seagulls.

I know for a fact, however, that Cody, the dog who is living at our house, would be completely worthless when it comes to scaring away the gulls. We walk Cody along the beach several days a week and he completely ignores the gulls. When we walk him out to on the pier in Blaine, he will often be within three of four feet of a gull and he simply ignores the bird. He also ignores ducks, geese, crows and every other type of bird that we see on our walks.

Cody loves to chase things. He will chase a ball for as long as I continue to throw it. He can catch a frisbee from the air and will catch and retrieve it over and over again. It seems that chasing balls and frisbees is among his greatest joys. But he ignores birds.

Australian shepherds are bred as working dogs and they have been selected for their abilities to keep working even when they experience pain. They will go without food when working at times. This means that it doesn’t work to use food as a reward. If I give Cody a dog treat, he will ignore it. He would much rather chase a ball or frisbee than eat. In the summer, when we have been at our family’s place in Montana, Cody will chase sticks thrown into the river to the point of being chilled and exhausted.

But Cody doesn’t chase birds. He doesn’t even seem to notice them.

He does, however, bark at every garbage truck that comes into our neighborhood. On garbage day he is uncontrollable when there is a garbage truck anywhere near. He runs back and forth, trying to chase the truck and barks loudly. If we put him out into our back yard, he will run back and forth, barking wildly, jumping to peer over the top of our 5 foot board fence, even if the garbage truck is a block or more away.

If he sees a garbage truck when we are walking him, he will bark and lunge at his leash trying his best to chase the truck. I have to drag him down the path until the truck is out of sight in order to get him to continue his walk. Most of the time he is a very pleasant dog to walk, staying beside us and keeping the leash slack. But if he sees or hears a garbage truck, it is a real chore just to keep him from running off, and I haven’t found a way to stop him from barking at garbage trucks. He gives the same treatment to UPS and FedEx trucks.

Cody simply is not the right dog for the job of keeping seagulls out of the garbage cans.

The dog in the article about the Australian cafe appears to be a border collie. The “border” in border collie refers to the border between England and Scotland where the breed originated. Australian shepherds, on the other hand, weren’t first bred in Australia. The breed originated in the United States from a variety of herding dogs. They do bear some resemblance and perhaps share some genetics with dogs that were taken to Australia by sheep herders from the Basque region of Spain.

Cody’s genetics, however, don’t explain why he chases garbage trucks and ignores seagulls. That is a mystery that I’m probably never going to solve.

Holiday celebrations

We’ve never gotten too carried away with holiday celebrations in our household. We like to recognize birthdays and anniversaries and we enjoy the surprises of occasional gifts, but we’re not the house on the block that has the correct decorations for each season. We wished each other “Happy Valentine’s Day!” and had a nice dinner that evening, but there were no bouquets of flowers, boxes of chocolates or balloons. I did a bit of grocery shopping on Valentine’s Day and was entertained by the line of shoppers purchasing last minute gifts, flowers, balloons and chocolates. My cart, on the other hand, had bread, milk, and other staples.

As soon as Valentine’s Day was over, the St. Patrick’s Day decorations appeared. Store aisles went from red to green in a single day. I haven’t needed to go back to the grocery store, but I’m pretty sure that the inventory of Valentine’s Day flowers and candies have already been replaced by other displays.

Last night I was informally visiting with a friend before a church meeting and the conversation drifted from Valentine’s Day to St. Patrick’s Day. My friend asked me if our family had a tradition of giving St. Patrick’s Day Potatoes. I knew nothing of the tradition. I commented that we lived in Idaho for ten years and we made and endured a lot of different potato jokes. I’ll spare you the whole joke and just leave the punchline: After all, the license plates say “famous” potatoes, not “good” potatoes. That wasn’t what my friend had in mind. There is a confection available at certain chocolate shops that is called a St. Patrick’s Day Potato. It is divinity with nuts that is covered with milk chocolate. Then it is rolled in cocoa and cinnamon and topped with “eyes” made of pine nuts. I looked it up on the Internet and it doesn’t look very much like a potato to me, but I’m no expert in chocolates.

According to my friend, you can’t obtain St. Patrick’s Day Potatoes in our county. The nearest store that sells them is a 45-mile drive away. My friend described the store to me as if I were already familiar with it, but I’ve never been there and I’m unlikely to make the trip. I’m OK with an occasional taste of divinity, but it isn’t one of my passions. A piece of divinity the size of a potato doesn’t seem like a good idea at all to me. Then again, I have no idea what size the confection is. It isn’t a tradition in our house.

We did have Easter baskets in my house when I was growing up and we made up Easter baskets for our children when they were young. There were always a few candy eggs and a few of the eggs we had died. My favorite Easter candy is probably jelly beans, but they’ve become so popular as a year-round offering that no one has to wait until Easter to find them.

Becoming an expert in just the right candy gift for each holiday isn’t among my ambitions.

It is interesting, however, to observe couples as they navigate holiday expectations together. I remember knowing, before we were married, that my wife’s family had a tradition of opening Christmas gifts on Christmas Eve while my family opened gifts on Christmas day. Since our parents lived 80 miles apart, the difference in traditions served us well during the early years of our marriage. We’d celebrate Christmas Eve with her parents and then get up early the next morning and celebrate with my parents. In general, however, we grew up in homes that were similar in our celebrations. We carved pumpkins at Halloween and dyed eggs at Easter. We put up a Christmas Tree and purchased gifts for birthdays. Neither family got carried away with decorating, special sets of holiday china, or having just the right kind of candy for a particular occasion.

I have known couples that had a much more challenging time managing expectations around how to celebrate occasions. There are some who expect gifts for lots of different holidays. There are expectations of special meals and expectations about which partner should take responsibility for making sure that the right traditions are observed. Each couple has to work through those expectations and there can be a few missteps along the way. My friend was laughing about not having a St. Patrick’s Day Potato as a gift in the early days of their marriage, but I have the impression that it wasn’t really a laughing matter at the time. Expecting a gift that doesn’t come can be a disappointment.

On the other hand, one of the joys of a new relationship is forming new traditions. Making the move from our home in South Dakota to Washington has given us the possibility of forging a few new traditions. In South Dakota we always went into the hills with a tree permit to cut our Christmas tree. Here we have purchased live trees and planted them at our son’s farm after the holiday. We are developing new traditions about which holiday meals are served at which house now that we live just a couple of miles from our son and his family. I’m sure our holiday traditions will continue to evolve as time passes. Still I don’t expect that I’ll be lining up to purchase a cart full of chocolates, flowers and balloons on Valentine’s Day and I’m in no rush to get a St. Patrick’s Day Potato even though I know that it is a seasonal confection and available only in a limited supply at a particular candy shop. I’ll leave those traditions for others.

I’ve lived my adult life inside of the calendars of church life, so for me the next holiday isn’t one that is marked by advertisers. Transfiguration Sunday is coming up and after that Ash Wednesday. We’ll mark both with trips to the church for worship. I know that readings for both holidays. There is no need for special decorations or gifts. But the days are rich in meaning for our people. Perhaps the most important thing about celebrations is remembering.

The old home


A recent conversation with my sister spurred me to look at the real estate listings in our old home town. The house where we grew up is on the market and I decided to see what they were asking for it. There isn’t a lot of nostalgia involved for me. I haven’t been inside of the house for decades. After our father died, our mother painted all of the interior rooms yellow and I have cheerful memories of how the house looked in those days, but by the time she sold the house, I was ready to see her responsibilities decreased and it was time to invest the resources from that house in a new home for her. Subsequent owners of the home have made changes and additions to the place. It doesn’t look at all like it did when we owned it. To begin with the house now has black siding with white trim. I can remember when the siding was white and the trim was dark green. Secondly, they have added a back porch, which was much needed in windy country with cold winters. And there is an addition off of the family room that the real estate listing calls a “hot tub room.” There was no hot tub room in my childhood home.

I was also amused to read that it has a “One care garage.” I’m not sure that a garage is the proper place to store your cares, but I do have some concern about typographical errors since I am prone to making them myself.

The original small house was built in 1911 and my parents acquired it in the 1940’s. Our father hand dug a basement underneath the existing house and had concrete walls poured to replace the old foundation. In the 1950’s they changed the roof line and opened up what had been a small attic into a second story. They did a bathroom remodel at the same time. In the 1960’s they added a family room with a fireplace to the back of the house. Our father was always designing and building things. The interior of the house featured a lot of built-in cabinets and the kitchen featured custom cabinets with a lowered section of counter for kneading bread dough. The garage had been lengthened to accommodate a larger vehicle, but still was fairly small. In 1969 our family obtained a new station wagon that was longer than the garage. Dad opened up one end of the building and added a cantilevered section to allow the car to go into the garage until the front tired touched the original foundation wall, with the hood extended over the new section. It was just enough to allow the garage door to be closed with the car inside. The result left a section of finished roof inside the garage with a new roof installed above it.

Over the years, the garage has seen more than just one care.

In front of the house is a huge Colorado blue spruce tree that towers 30 or 40 feet above the roof of the house. Somewhere we have a picture of that tree when it was shorter than my sister when she was an elementary school student.

Our parents would be amazed that the house they lived in and added to as their family grew is now on the market for more than a half million dollars. When our family sold the house, the asking price was lower than $100,000. Times change. Values change.

I’m told that the real estate market in our home town is very tight with inventory being very low. This drives prices up. We have a niece who is shopping for a home in a nearby town and so far has not been able to find any place for sale that is suitable for their family with three children.

The house was a wonderful place to grow up, but frankly, I’m glad that we no longer are responsible for it. I’m guessing that there are plenty of maintenance needs and that the quirks of a house that has seen many additions and much remodeling provide challenges for the owners.

Just purchasing a hot tub for that hot tub room could cost a pretty penny in today’s market, probably more than my parents paid for the house when they bought it. I’m not sure what other uses you can make of a hot tub room. I’ve never had one. When it gets down to 30 degrees below zero, however, I guess having an outdoor hot tub isn’t really practical.

I belong to a Facebook group where people post old pictures of our home town. I rarely look at the posts these days because most of the “old pictures” are of events and activities that took place after I moved from that town. I’ve been gone for more than 50 years. There are just a few old timers left who lived there when I did. Not too many people remember the days when our family managed the airport and ran a successful business in that town.

Looking at the real estate listing, I couldn’t help but thinking how appropriate it is that we have moved on. All of the other houses on that block have been sold multiple times since we lived there. None of them are associated with the names of the families who lived in them when we were growing up, though I can still name those families. New generations have come and gone. I can remember being a teenager and the feeling of impatience until I was able to move away from that town. I’m not sorry that I did go away to college and never returned to live. I don’t mind not being recognized when I go back to visit. For me home is not a single address, but rather the significant relationships that shape my life.

It would be nice, however, if when the house is sold this time, the new owners would be people with children. That house doesn’t need a hot tub. It needs kids who are small enough to slide down the laundry chute and hide in the cupboards under the eaves. It needs bicycles in the back yard and popsicles on the front steps in the summer.

It was a good place to grow up.

On being human

Throughout the history of philosophy and theology, scholars and thinkers have reflected on he nature of humanity. What are the essential qualities that make us what we are? How are humans similar to and different from other creatures? For theologians a parallel problem has to do with the nature of God. What are the distinctions between the divine and the human? Reading the history of academic thought about these questions can pose a problem to contemporary thinkers because up until the middle of the twentieth century, it was common to use “man” as a generic term for all humans. There was at the same time a use of man that referred to the male gender and also the use of the same word to indicate all humans regardless of their gender. To understand the history and to wrestle with the problem of the nature of humanity requires an understanding of the conventions of speech that were employed in certain time periods.

If you can look beyond the gender issue, Reinhold Niebuhr’s book, “The Nature and Destiny of Man,” is a classic theological study of what it means to be human. Niebuhr begins with a powerful first line: “Man is his own most vexing problem.” The intellectual challenge of understanding human nature is among the most difficult problems of human thought. The very fact that we are able to entertain a degree of self-analysis is truly remarkable. I suspect that there is something uniquely human about our reflections. Other creatures don’t seem to carry concern about their nature and role in the universe. They simply are. We, however, question our identity and our role in the larger scheme of things.

We wonder about what of us remains after our death. We think of our legacy. We question the meaning of our lives.

Other thinkers have used different words to wrestle with the problem of human identity. The psychiatrist M. Scott Peck began his best-selling, and some would say pivotal, book about humans with the simple observation, “Life is difficult.” Just to be human is a challenge that requires effort and persistence and determination.

I am challenged by these very different thinkers and many other writers who have reflected on the nature of humanity. It seems to me that one might equally argue the opposite of their perspectives. Humans are not only our own most vexing problems. We also are our own greatest joys. Life is not just a problem to be solved. People have lived joyful and meaningful lives and participated in the great flow of history without spending all of their time trying to solve life as a problem. And just as it is true that life is difficult, it is also true that life is deeply rewarding and meaningful. Systematic theology did not come naturally to me and I don’t remember much of what I wrote for the required class when I was a student. I do know that I was expected to address the challenge of thinking about the nature of humans and our relationship with God. Looking back, I think that it might have been an opportunity to take a very different path than Niebuhr or Peck. Were I to attempt such a challenge at this stage of my life, I think my opening line might be less about the problems of humanity and more about the joy. Perhaps I could begin, “Being human is a delightful experience.”

As I age, I am more conscious of my gratitude for the experiences of this life. The simple pleasure of just being able to walk strikes me as a daily miracle. I am frequently overwhelmed by the beauty of the landscape, or seascape that greets me in my daily life. I am amazed at the love that is shared in family and in the community of the church. I am delighted to simply observe my children and grandchildren. More than a problem to be solved, life is a source of endless fascination and deep joy.

My perspective does not mean that life is without problems. There are times when I am deeply aware of the cruelty of some human interactions. Violence is a devastating reality and its victims are shaped by pain and sorrow. It is easy to despair when considering the enormous impact of human greed upon the world in which we live. It is possible that we humans have created irreversible damage to our environment that will lead to the end of human life as we know it. It is not difficult to become aware of the depth of evil present in this universe. On the other hand, the simple fact that we do not fall into complete despair is a testament to the incredible resilience of the human spirit. We humans have a capacity for hope that is as real and as powerful as our capacity for evil. And, beyond all of that, we are capable of giving and receiving love.

I am struck by the words of the Irish poet and philosopher John O’Donohue, who began his book, “Anam Cara” with these words: “It’s strange to be here. The mystery never leaves you.” Those words capture much of my sense of the experience of being human. To be human is to be immersed in mystery. It is not so much that human life is a problem to be solved, but rather a mystery to be explored. The exploration of that mystery, including the many opportunities for reflection about the nature of life and our place in the vastness of the universe, is the task of each person who is allowed the luxury of time for thought. Being human is having the capacity to go beyond mere survival. We not only survive, we are aware that we are surviving and we think about what it means to survive.

Equally amazing and mysterious to me are the ways in which we are shaped by the thinking of others. My reflections on the nature of humanity are shaped by the books I have read and the thinking of other humans, some of whom lived long before I was born. I am who I am because of the lives that others lived before me.

It seems possible that I will never complete a book about the nature of humanity. I’m still working on that first sentence. “Life is awesome” might be the kind of beginning I am seeking.

Valentine's Day 2022

Please forgive me for beginning with a bit of the history of philosophy, but the study intrigues me and part of my perspective on life comes from my studies. The Greek philosopher Plato wrote Symposium in 385 BCE. In that document, he wrote that humans once had four arms, four legs and two faces. We humans, however, were filled with excessive pride. Zeus, chief of the gods in the Greek pantheon, decided that humans needed punishment and so, according to Plato, ordered that all humans were to be split in half. The destiny of humans ever since has been to walk the Earth searching for our other half.

The idea of having an “other half” has persisted in human culture and mythology ever since Plato in many different forms in different cultures. Faithful Hindu believers hold that people have a karmic connection with another soul. In Yiddish, the term is “bashert” which can be translated “destiny.” The thirteenth-century Persian poet and Islamic scholar Rumi speculated that lovers do not meet, but rather have been in each other all along.

I suspect that the sense that there is one and only one partner for each person - that somewhere out there exists the perfect mate - has been responsible for a lot of misery and sadness. Believing that there is a perfect partner may lead couples to be disappointed in the reality of the partner they have chosen. If there is a perfect match out there somewhere, a bit of disappointment or disagreement may drive some couples to split up and go searching for another partner. If you think about it logically, you can understand that there is no such thing as a perfect human being. It follows, then, that the search for a perfect partner will lead to disappointment, because all of the candidates are imperfect in some way. It may even be the case the couples are less likely to work through problems and solve them because they become convinced that searching elsewhere is the solution. “Maybe this just wasn’t the right person after all.”

The Middle East page of the BBC news website today has a story about Zechariah and Shama’a. They were both Jewish orphans in Yemen, where there was significant discrimination against Jews. At the time, Jewish leaders in their community often arranged marriages for very young orphans in order to keep them from marrying outside of the faith and leaving the community. Zechariah and Shama’a were 10 and 12 years old when they were married. They began their life together in extreme poverty. They were allowed to sleep in a donkey barn provided that first they cleaned it out. Their first child came quickly and ten more followed. In 1948, they fled poverty and emigrated to the new nation of Israel. Today they have 64 grand and great-grand children. They have been married for 91 years. Zechariah says that the secret to their long marriage is that God sent Shama’a to him.

Whether or not you believe in soul mates, it certainly seems that their long marriage is due, in no small part, to the commitment to staying together even when things are difficult. Perhaps because they started their marriage in such extreme poverty they developed a set of skills for facing trials and troubles together. Perhaps it is just luck. But on this Valentine’s Day, I have to believe that they forged their life together out of love.

Susan and I still have 42 years to go before we match Zechariah and Shama’a’s record. And we started out a decade older than they, so that would require us living to very old ages. But at the ages we have now reached it seems obvious to us that one marriage to one person is just the right thing for us. We have no right to judge other couples and we know that there are many people who have found happiness in second and third marriages, but we feel lucky and blessed to have found each other. Actually, we didn’t have to go too far to find each other. We lived in the same state. Our parents participated in the same church denomination. We went to the same church camp. We attended the same college.

Despite my enjoyment of studying Greek philosophers, we didn’t spend our lives wandering the earth looking for each other. We found each other on the normal paths of our lives. What we did have going for us was that we inherited a legacy of love. We both grew up in families with parents who were in love with each other and who lived out that love in deep commitment. Our grandparents, too, were successful in love, finding partners for their lives’ journeys.

We won’t be nearing Shama’a and Zechariah’s record when it comes to children. We have two and that is the right number for us. And we have five grandchildren - again the right number for us. We have, however, been blessed with children who have found love in their lives and married partners who have not only carried forward the legacy of love, but who have become beloved children of ours as well.

According to Christian tradition, today is the day of celebrating love because of the sacrifice of St. Valentine. The exact historical story is difficult to discern. There may be multiple persons who carried the name Valentine who were martyred for their faith. But tradition has delivered the story of a priest who in the early Church, before Christianity became a legal religion on Rome, was executed because he broke the law banning marriage between two persons who practiced religions that were not recognized. Believing in love, Valentine officiated at illegal weddings before the marriage of two Christians became legal in the Roman system. Like other saints, the day celebrated is the day of death because of the Christian belief that death is the entry into eternal life.

So I will be wishing my partner “Happy Valentine’s Day!” And I will do so with the anticipation of many more happy days of living in love together. Whether we were destined to be together before we met I do not know, but it seems to me logical that we now are destined to be together for the years that lie ahead, whatever may come. And that is a very good thing.

The advertisements

I’ve never been a very big sports fan. I enjoy watching games when I personally know the players. High school basketball and football can be very entertaining when you know and care about the kids who are playing. And I’ve enjoyed watching a few professional baseball games from time to time. Baseball’s suspension of time, with no clock in the game, has a certain appeal to me. But when a friend starts to recite player statistics and tell me their love of the game, I feel a bit lost. I simply don’t follow sports enough to share their passion. Having said that, I remember that as a seminary student we borrowed a portable television from a friend so that we could watch the super bowl. I watched the entire game on that small black and white screen. And when I was an active pastor, serving congregations face-to-face in pre-covid times, I kept up on football enough to know which teams made it to the playoffs and which teams were competing in the super bowl. After all, I am older than the super bowl. I can remember the first time the big game was played and all of the hype that has surrounded the game over the years.

Almost as interesting as the game itself are the advertisements. Super Bowl adds continue to be among the most expensive advertisements that can be bought. a 30-second ad in this year’s Super Bowl costs as much as $7 million. That is a hefty increase over last $6.5 million. To put that in perspective, using a rough cash equivalent, Habitat for Humanity could build 70,000 homes for the cost of one 30-second advertisement. $7 million is enough to create a perpetual endowment that would produce sufficient income to completely fund the operating budgets of every congregation that I have served in my career. The cost of one thirty second advertisement could do so much good in the world. That money, however, will not be available because the companies who are purchasing the advertisements believe that it is a good investment. And most companies that purchase Super Bowl ads buy more than one.

Of course any investment involves risk. The high cost of super bowl advertising means high risk. The company may not receive the anticipated benefits of their ads. In 2,000, ran a series of very popular Super Bowl advertisements featuring a hand puppet interacting with delivery drivers and actual pets. The company filed for bankruptcy the same year. If you enter their URL into your browser today, you’ll find yourself at the website of a competitor, Petsmart, who was able to obtain their Internet Address after the company folded. It turned out that Super Bowl advertising was not a good investment for that company.

There will be plenty of ads for cars, beer and chips during this year’s game, but new to the field of advertisers for the event are several cryptocurrency companies. While around 85% of US adults have heard of cryptocurrency, only about 16% have actually invested in them. Cryptocurrency investment is generally seen as highly risky and something to be avoided. By purchasing the advertisements for the big game, companies are trying to create a new image that such investments are mainstream. By purchasing the expensive advertisements, they are also participating in a high risk adventure. They are betting that the emotions and energy that surround the big game might inspire a few folks to bold actions and big risks. They might be right. There could be quite a few people who go online during or after the game to explore the investments promoted by the advertisements.

Of course what pays off big for an investment company may not always pay off big for the investors. The cryptocurrency market, like other investment markets, produces losers as well as winners. And, unlike traditional investments in companies that can be researched and understood, investing in cryptocurrency is investing in an idea more than it is investing in a company. And ideas can be ethereal and fade quickly.

However, I’ve never been a big customer for the companies that advertise during the Super Bowl. I don’t drink Budweiser and I rarely purchase a bag of Doritos. I occasionally purchase a used car, but that decision isn’t based on which brands advertise during football games. Television advertisements for cars don’t give any information about how the car will perform when it is over ten years old and has over 100,000 miles on it. That’s pretty important information for someone who likes to keep cars for decades and drive them multiple hundreds of thousands of miles. Even Consumer Reports doesn’t give me the information I’m seeking when I make a vehicle purchase.

I have been entertained by listening to others talk about television advertisements. There have been a lot of times when someone has described a particularly interesting advertisement to me without including the name of the product that was advertised. They might name the celebrity who appeared in the ad, or describe the emotions they felt watching it. Sometimes people don’t even remember what was advertised at all after the ad.

In the end, Super Bowl ads are, in part, displays of wealth. Meta, the parent company of FaceBook will undoubtedly run ads during this year’s Super Bowl. This is not particularly a good year for that company. Their share prices have been plunging as the company has been losing subscribers and ad revenue. But they are still making a lot of money and they can afford to place expensive advertisements in an effort to boost their prospects. Cryptocurrency companies are purchasing the advertisements in part simply to display their wealth. They are saying “Look as us, we can afford these really expensive advertisements.”

There is a joke that you should never take financial advice from your minister. Spiritual advice yes, but financial advice, no. I’m thinking that it might also be a good thing not to take investment advise from a Super Bowl commercial. Then again, I may not be their target audience. I probably am not even going to watch the game today.

Many moods


I suppose that every place has a thousand moods. I remember the sunrises and sunsets of my childhood home. We lived on the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains, north of Yellowstone National Park and south of the Crazy Mountains. It was a place of a lot of wind. We could get winter days when the weather was absolutely brutal with temperatures well below zero and the wind biting. Ice crystals would sting your cheeks and we would turn with our backs to the wind. Some days we would walk home from school backwards. It wasn’t a long walk, just one block, but the icy wind was cruel. On the other hand, we could get a chinook wind in the middle of the winter and the weather would warm up and we might have a week of balmy days in February when all of the snow melted and we began to think of kites and other outdoor games.

When we lived in North Dakota, I was always amazed at how we could see the weather coming. The clouds were so dramatic over the rolling landscape. A cold front looked like a wall of clouds. A thunderstorm could be seen approaching for miles. Hail clouds went from dark blue to black to a greenish color.

The Black Hills of South Dakota were filled with weather surprises. A spring blizzard could dump a foot or more of wet snow and shut down all travel. A summer thunderstorm could send all of the creeks over their banks.

Every place seems to have many different moods.

In our new home here in Washington, we are aware of the many moods of the seashore. There is a path along the shore where we walk at least a couple of times each week. We’ll walk a little over a mile alongside of the town of Birch Bay and then turn around and walk back. Some days we are walking into the wind heading out and other days into the wind heading back. The sea might be blue or green or gray. There are days when the islands seem close and easy to see. There are other days when we can’t see the islands at all, only the gray of fog and clouds. We joke about our disappearing islands, and remember how the mountains seemed some days to be closer and other days to be far away in my home town in Montana.

The water in the bay can be completely calm and glassy smooth on some days. There are other days when the water is choppy with whitecaps. Sometimes there are big waves crashing on the shore and other days no surf at all. Yesterday felt like spring with bright sunshine and a blue sea. We walked with our jackets unzipped and I took off my gloves. I commented that it must be about time to trade my watch cap for a summer cap. But we remember clearly this second week of February a year ago, when our daughter and grandson were visiting on their way from Japan to South Carolina and we had to bundle up in our winter coats to play in the snow. We’d have to drive up into the mountains to find snow this February. I’ll probably mow my lawn on Monday. The mood is different this year.

The grocery stores around here have large covered entryways and the produce and flower departments spill out of the stores. It is common for a grocery store to have the front doors open all day long. Right now there are plants and flowers and displays of strawberries ready for Valentine’s Day giving. We’ve lived most of our lives in places where such displays would result in frozen flowers and fruits, so it is still a bit surprising to me to find so much of the store’s produce outside in February.

We have lived most of our lives a thousand miles from any ocean. But as a child, before I had ever visited a seashore, I learned the Spike Milligan poem:

I must go down to the sea again,
to the lonely sea and the sky;
I left my shoes and socks there -
I wonder if they’re dry?

I didn’t know at the time why a person would need to go to the sea or why one would leave their shoes and socks there. I now understand the desire to wet one’s feet in the ocean, even though were we live the beach is more gravel than sand. It’s still a bit cold for barefoot wandering and we are more likely to put on our boots for a trip to the beach, but I now have a sense of how one could forget one’s shoes and socks.

Moreover, I now understand the attraction of the shore that results in the imperative “must” in the opening line of the poem. There is a strong attraction to visit the seashore for those of us who live near enough to visit. Like the mountains, the sea gives a sense of the vastness of creation. Walking along the shore one feels a bit of the scale of this world. We are but two small creatures on the edge of the vastness of an ocean that stretches to Japan and a thousand faraway places.

The many moods of the seashore are incredibly attractive. We could walk through the woods or across the fields, but there are a lot of days when we feel the desire to go down to the beach just to see the mood of the sea and sky.

Yesterday when we walked, Terrell Creek was flowing away from the shore as the tide was rising. There aren’t any creeks in the mountains where the direction of the current changes, so this phenomenon fascinates me. If you understood the ebb and flow of the tide, you could launch a canoe or kayak and travel one direction with the flow and later return with the water carrying your boat in the opposite direction.

I’m sure I’ll never tire of looking at the moods of the sea.

Seeing the doctor

Today I will be seeing a doctor to establish care and receive my annual medicare wellness exam. One of the challenges of moving in 2020 and again in 2021 has been that of establishing care with doctors. The primary care physician is the key to the other doctors I will eventually need to see, including a dermatologist. I asked around and took care in selecting a medical practice because the primary care physician is so important in the overall process of obtaining health care.

I spent about 45 minutes on hold in my initial contact with the practice, when I called to make an appointment. The soonest appointment I could obtain was three months in the future. Then I spent another half hour on hold when I called back because the paperwork they sent me to fill out contained an error in the time and date of my appointment. That paperwork had ten pages of forms to fill out. One of those forms contained two pages of general financial policies of the medical practice. In essence what they said is that I would be asked to authorize them to provide any medical services they deemed necessary and that I understood that if my insurance company refused to pay for those services, I would be personally responsible for all charges.

I know that medical practices are serious about that financial policy. For example, I know a person who was transported to a hospital unconscious after an accident. That hospital transferred the patient to a trauma center while the patient was still unconscious. After successful treatment the patient was released to complete recovery at home. While at home the patient was informed that a lien had been placed on their home by the trauma center because the insurance company had refused to pay for the treatment at the specialty hospital because it was not pre-authorized. It is impossible to obtain a pre-authorization when you are unconscious.

Inability to pay for medical services is a leading cause of personal bankruptcy in the United States. It is a leading cause of homelessness in our country.

Imagine for a moment that you are searching for a repair shop to change the oil on your car. Now imagine that when you get to the shop they ask you to sign a form that says you authorize them to make any repairs they want to your vehicle. Furthermore the form informs you that they will not provide you with any estimate of what the cost will be or any explanation of the reason for the charges. The charges will have no relationship to the amount of time required to make the repairs and no relationship to the cost of the parts provided. Then imagine that you are informed that if the company provides any repairs not covered by warranty, you will have to pay and that they can not only seize the vehicle for payment, but also all of your assets, including your bank accounts, your retirement savings, and your home. And to add insult to injury, know that we intend to charge your warranty provider a price that is a fraction of what we will charge you if they don’t pay. We negotiate with warranty providers, but not with individuals.

You’d probably refuse to sign the form, find another repair shop, and tell all of your friends about the scam. You might even report the scam repair shop to the better business bureau.

Then, imagine that there was no other way to get the oil changed in your car.

And, just to make matters more fun, I have received a text message, a voice mail and an email from the medical practice where I will be seen today that state, “If you have fever & cough or suspected coronavirus exposure please reschedule your appointment.” In other words, if you have any actual symptoms, or suspect that you might have been exposed to an illness, the practice does not want to see you. Sick people are not welcome at a doctor’s office.

Imagine if you got a call from the oil change shop that said, “If your car is making any unusual noises or has any warning lights on the dashboard, please reschedule your appointment.”

When we lived in South Dakota we had long-standing relationships with excellent health care providers. We had received care from the same dental practice for 25 years. Our family physician had treated our parents. Still, when Susan was in the hospital for treatment of atrial fibrillation, she was administered a medication that caused her heart to stop. Fortunately, the rapid response team was able to revive her and she was able to fully recover. But there was a 24-hour period during which her care was charged at a rate approaching $10,000 per hour. That’s right: a quarter of a million dollars for an overnight in the intensive care unit. Fortunately for us, the insurance company negotiated a settlement at a greatly reduced price. She is healthy and has had no lasting health issues from the experience.

Because of that experience, however, we already know that it will take more than six months after this move before we can get her cardiology and monitoring services transferred to the county where we live. And if one of us had been exposed to Covid, the process would take a lot longer.

Not long ago, in an informal conversation, a person asked rhetorically, “Why don’t people trust doctors and hospitals for information about vaccines? Instead they turn to the most obscure sources of false information and believe untrue things about the disease and the vaccines.” I didn’t say much at the time, but I wonder how many people there are who are convinced that medical practices are financial scam operators who cannot be trusted. I wonder how many people have given up trying to obtain basic medical services from recognized providers and have turned to a combination of self care and alternative medicine.

Fortunately, I’m not sick. I have good insurance. I have few financial assets. I am patient. As a result, I get to see a doctor today. I’ll take in all of the papers so that they can set up my “paperless” medical records. Prospects are fairly good that I will get to see a dermatologist sometime in the next year. And I’ll still have to allow a minimum of a half hour each time I need to place a phone call to the doctor’s office. I sure hope I don't get sick.

Eero True Huffman


Dear Eero,

Like your brother and sisters, you will hear about this letter a long time after it is written. As I write, you are too young to have learned how to read. You are too young to have learned any words at all. In time, however, words will become important to you. Some words you will learn from your parents, others from your siblings, and others from a much wider circle of people who love you.

It is my practice to write a letter to each of our grandchildren on the day after they are born. The letters are read by other members of our community as announcements of birth. They are also a legacy that you will one day inherit. This big, wonderful family into which you have been born is full of people who loved language and words for generations before you came into this life.

Before you read this letter, you will learn you name. Your parents gave a lot of thought to their choice. Eero is not a common name in the place where you were born. You are a special individual and it is important that you have a special name. Like all of the children in your family, your name begins with the letter E. Your parents wanted to continue that pattern with you, so that you would always remember your connection to your brother and sisters. Family is very important to our people. When you are older you will learn that your name is more common in Finland and Estonia. Two famous designers have your name. Eero Aarnio designed the interiors of buildings and furniture. Eero Saarinen designed many famous buildings and monuments. The huge Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Missouri was designed by Eero Saarinen. You will have opportunities to design new ideas in your life as well.

Your middle name, True, was also chosen with great care. It is a value that we share in our family. Truth is important to us and something that cannot be compromised. Someday, you will probably read or attend a performance of a famous play by William Shakespeare called Hamlet. In that play, Polonius says, “This above all: to thine own self be true.” To do that you will need to discover your own identity and always be yourself in each situation of your life.

Names are blessings and challenges for us all. Your name is just one part of who you are, but it is an important part.

You are the fourth child in your family. There were three other children to greet you on the first day of your life. I had the blessing to be with you when they came home from school and ran upstairs for their first glimpse at the new baby. All of my grandchildren have special places in my heart. One of the things that is unique and wonderful about you is that you are the fourth child. I am a fourth child, too. In the family into which I was born there were already three children before I came to the family. Four is a very special number with important meanings to a lot of people. There are four directions: north, south, east, and west. There are four seasons: winter, spring, summer, and fall. Many things come in four. Being fourth means that there will be many places you will go in life where another member of your family has already been. You will meet teachers who met your siblings before they met you. That is just one of the places where you will need to be true to yourself. You are related to your brother and sisters. You are like your brother and sisters. But you are also unique. You are your own person and when you are true to yourself, you will have much to offer to the world.

Along with all of us in this family, you were born into a long legacy of love. The love of your father and mother and brother and sisters is just part of the great circle of aunts and uncles and cousins and grandparents who were eagerly awaiting your birth and who will share love with you for all of your life. That love is not just a gift that you receive, but it is yours to give to others as well. As you grow and learn you will have many opportunities to share love with other people. There will always be an abundance of love. The more you give away, the more you will discover. I know this because of my experience of loving you and your siblings and parents. Each person in the family has love to give and the more love that is given, the more love there is to share.

On the day that you were born, I got to read stories to your sisters before they were tucked into bed. Your brother was reading his own book at the time. All three slept at your grandmother’s and my house, just a little way down the road from the house where you were born on that first night. You had time to rest with your mother and father. As I tucked each of your siblings into their beds, we spoke of the things for which we give thanks. You were the first thing on everyone’s list that day. We are so grateful that you have come into our lives. We will always remember the day that you were born and how precious you are to each of us.

I am eager to read stories to you. Before you learn to read this letter, you will need to have many stories read to you. Reading stories is one of the great joys of being a grandpa. Some of the books will remind me of the times I read them to your brother and sisters. Some will remind me of the times I read them to your father and aunt. There are many stories to be shared.

Now you have come to us and brought another wonderful chapter to our story. How precious you are! How amazing the story is!

Welcome. May you always remember how much you are loved.


Being grandpa

Today is the 11th anniversary of our becoming grandparents. We were older than some of our peers when our first child was born and our children were older than some of their peers when they became parents. While we are celebrating the 11th birthday of our oldest grandchild today, I have high school classmates who have attended the weddings of their grandchildren and some of them have become great grandparents. All of that is OK with me. It seems like the timing of us becoming grandparents was just right for our family. Our first grandchild came the same year that we became the oldest generation in our family. Both my mother and Susan’s father, who were previously widowed, died the year our grandson was born. It seemed to us like the natural passing of generations.

2011 was a full and hectic year for us. In addition to the memorial services for two parents and the birth of a grandchild, we had the wedding of our daughter. The church we were serving added a pastor that year, so there was more than a little bit going on in our lives.

Today is worthy of celebration for a lot of reasons. Eleven years later we now have four grandchildren. And it is looking like we will receive news of one more today, which means that in our son’s’ family the oldest and youngest will share the same birthday - 11 years apart. It also means that we will have 5 grands.

I’ve been keeping my phone close at hand, and so far, there is no news, but at bedtime last night, the contractions were regular and strong. Three of our grandchildren had supper at our home and are sleeping over with us to give their parents the space needed to deal with the arrival of the new one.

I’m not sure how I imagined being a grandfather would be, but for a long time before I became a grandfather, I thought that I would like to be one. The experience has not disappointed me in any way. I think I imagined that I would be retired and spending my days in the shop making toys while my grandchildren played with home made wooden blocks and I had the leisure to read as many stories to them as they wanted every day.

It isn’t exactly like that. I have to be up early this morning because I promised the kids they could have both pancakes and waffles for breakfast. It is, after all, the prerogative of a grandpa to spoil the kids just a little bit. And we need to have birthday candles on one waffle because, after all, it is a special day. But there won’t be time to linger over breakfast because we’ve got to get three kids ready and off to school on time with lunches in their backpacks and energy to get through a day at school. Less than an hour after they are off to school we have a meeting at work followed by a variety of different church events that last through the day ending with a Zoom adult class that will end around 8 pm. Somewhere in the day we’ll need to find time to go for a walk with the dog, feed dinner to everyone, have cake for the birthday party and allow some time for opening presents, and, of course, we’ll want to see that new baby as soon as possible. It could be a full day.

We have been talking about downsizing, and our home is roughly 1,000 square feet smaller than the home we had in Rapid City, but right now it feels pretty full. We’ve got people in all of the beds and a dog bed in our bedroom. Fortunately the dog is a pretty good sleeper. The kids are, too.

It is busy and it is a bit wild and it is really, really wonderful. I was right when I thought that I would enjoy being a grandfather. I really do. It makes sense because I enjoyed every stage of being a father. Except for one year when we had an exchange student living in our home, we only had two children and they were 2 1/2 years apart, so we never had the wider span of ages that we have with our grandchildren. The toys, books, and activities that entertain the 11-year-old are not the same as the ones that appeal to the 4-year-old. Next year there will be one middle-schooler, one elementary schooler, a kindergartener, and an infant. And our grandson in South Carolina will be a preschooler, so there will be five different personalities at five different stages of development, five different sets of interests, and probably five different favorite foods. I’m pretty sure that if we had all five at the same time, I could make grandpa’s pancakes go quite a long ways in making folks happy and ice cream for dessert is always a winner.

I grew up in a large family and having the beds full and the dog underfoot feels wonderfully familiar. To add to my sense of nostalgia, there is a local dairy where we get our milk in real, glass bottles that we return and our eggs come straight from the farm. I know it isn’t the same, but it makes me feel close to my parents, who juggled jobs and kids and house in a wonderful balancing act. So far, I have avoided dropping a bottle of milk and breaking the glass. I’m hoping to keep that record, but I can remember the time a bottle was shattered on the kitchen floor when I was a child. We are, all the same, pretty used to spilled beverages at dinner. I think I may be picking up speed with my rush to pick up the glass and toss in my napkin to stem the rush of liquid across the table.

Retirement is not what I expected, but I have to say it has been incredibly good to us. I’m healthy and happy and excited about getting up every day. And there is no way that February 9 won’t always be a special day in my life.

God is good all the time.
All the time, God is good!

Trains, planes and birthdays

There has been a bit of excited chatter in our neck of the woods in the last couple of days. People have seen the Amtrak Cascades train making its way through Bellingham heading in both directions. It used to be a familiar sight, but those trains haven’t been on the tracks since March of 2020. The train service was shut down because of the Covid pandemic. The Cascades train follows a beautiful course between the mountains and the sea stretching from Eugene, Oregon to Vancouver, British Columbia. During the pandemic, however, the border between the United States and Canada was closed for nonessential travel. Added to that were fears about the transmission of the virus in the enclosed spaces of the train. As a result, service was suspended.

Prior to the suspension, the service was carrying about 800,000 people each year. About 54,000 people got on or off at Bellingham station. The train provided a convenient way to travel between Bellingham and Seattle and between Seattle and Portland. People missed being able to ride the train.

Seeing the trains traveling on their old route, however, does not mean that you can buy a ticket and board the train - at least not yet. Amtrak has informed the public that the trains are making trial runs. Train crews, who have been idled by the pandemic, need to re-qualify and demonstrate their skill and recent experience before the trains are allowed to carry passengers.

While I’m reporting transportation news, I have noted that Frontier and Spirit Airlines have announced a merger that will make the combined airline the nation’s 5th largest. I wouldn’t normally pay much attention to airline mergers. The industry has become dominated by very few very large carriers, giving little or no choice to most travelers. They simply book a ride on an airline by cost and time and don’t pay much attention to the name on the outside of the plane. Frontier, however, really had nice paint jobs on their planes. The reason I notice is that the name Frontier used to belong to a different airline company. The original Frontier Airlines was built to serve routes over the Rocky Mountains in the days when most airlines flew at lower altitudes than the highest peaks. Mountain flying in those conditions was a specialized discipline, requiring an acute awareness of weather and winds. Frontier was founded by mountain pilots who had learned how to fly in those conditions. In the early days, they flew DC3 airplanes that weren’t pressurized and operated mostly at altitudes in that are one third of the routes taken by today’s jets. It amassed an amazing accident-free record before the company was forced out of business when airlines began contracting with regional carriers and operating their hub and spoke terminal plans. Later the name was acquired by the contemporary company that started out as a budget carrier with a fleet of modern 737 aircraft. I had the opportunity to fly on the new Frontier Airlines a couple of times. It was nice, but nowhere near as much fun as the old DC3’s flying low enough for you to see the terrain below.

Nostalgia prevents me from remembering the noise of those big radial engines, the vibration and the cold air leaking in around the windows. Although I love the smell of aviation gasoline, it is an acquired taste and breathing those fumes probably wasn’t the best idea.

Whether it is a ride on the train or a flight on an airline, our memories tend to romanticize the past. Still I’m pretty sure that I’ll ride on the train once the Amtrak Cascades resumes service and I wouldn’t mind stepping onto a Frontier/Spirit airliner one day, either.

Such are the reminiscences of an old man. Today is my wife’s birthday and each birthday brings a celebration with a different flavor than was the case when we were younger. I’ve always loved birthdays. An opportunity for a special meal and a bit of cake and ice cream is not to be missed. And coming up with gifts to offer to someone you love is an opportunity not to be missed. The last three birthdays, however, have brought an even deeper sense of gratitude and celebration for me. In the fall of 2019, a reaction to a drug administered in the hospital caused Susan to go into cardiac arrest. I’ve chronicled the details of that event in my journal and don’t want to dwell on it today. The good news is that she survived with no permanent damage to her heart or brain and a surgical procedure has left her without the need for any heart medication at all. Witnessing the code blue called in the hospital, the rapid response team with the crash cart and the rush to the intensive care unit was a stark and harsh reminder of the fragility of human life. We are all mortal. We don’t go on forever. Ever since that day, each day has seemed like a special bonus gift to me. If it weren’t for the skill and care of the hospital team I could have lost her that day. As it turned out, we’ve had so many wonderful days and the days have added up to years and our health is such that we anticipate many more. Each birthday is a celebration of her presence in my life and a reminder of how truly precious that presence is.

We have a string of February birthdays in our family. Yesterday was the birthday of a nephew. Today is Susan’ birthday. Tomorrow is the birth day of our oldest grandchild. And one of these days will be the birthday of our newest grandchild. Maybe they will be born on Susan’s Birthday, or Elliots, or perhaps add one more day to our string of February celebrations. However it turns out, it certainly appears that there is yet more cake and ice cream in my future and Februaries will remain high on my list of favorite times of the year.

It won’t take a trip on the train or a ride on an airline to make me happy.

I'm not bored

Two notes to regular readers of my journal: 1) We are still waiting for that baby. That’s the way that babies are. They may their appearances in their own way on their own time. There are plenty of signs that the event is coming soon, however. 2) Yesterday’s annual meeting was anything but boring. It was the longest annual meeting I’ve ever attended: 3 hours. In the end things turned out as expected. The congregation approved the budget that was recommended and elected the leaders who were nominated. Along the way there was a lot of discussion, including a proposal that, although not adopted, would have made a dramatic change in the ministries of the church going forward. There are a lot of discussions - and some more long meetings - in the future for this congregation. Life in the church is never dull.

Life in general is never dull.

There are moments of waiting, which can be viewed as boring, I suppose, but they also can be opportunities for calm and reflection in lives that are often so busy that we don’t take sufficient time for rest and renewal.

A quick scan of the headlines offer plenty of topics worthy of contemplation. They also deliver an image of a world where too few people are taking time for contemplation.

Sometimes - when I’m not attending three-hour long meetings - I try to understand things that are happening in the world. There are a lot of things that I don’t understand. I’m trying to make sense of the trucker protests in Ottawa. As an observer of Canada who, in the past, has enjoyed visits to our neighboring country, I’m trying to understand what it is all about and how the protests continue to disrupt life for the residents of the city. In my growing-up years, I did a very small amount of driving truck as a part of my father’s business. From that experience, I view the process of driving truck as one of dealing with a lot of rules and regulations. There are rules and regulations about height, length, and weight of trucks. The process of obtaining permits and operating within the limits of the law are complex. Truckers have to deal with weigh stations and the complexities of fuel taxes that need to be paid to appropriate jurisdictions. There are rules about keeping driving logs and taking enough time to sleep. Given all of the rules and regulations, I’m a bit surprised that the issue of vaccine requirements for crossing an international border has become the cause of the protests. I suspect that there is something much more going on.

Trucks and truckers don’t make money unless they are carrying freight up and down the highways. The Ottawa protests are expensive. The fact that the truckers can afford to go without income is surprising.

On the surface, however, the issue seems to be the vaccine mandate. There is nothing new about vaccine mandates. They’ve been around for a long time. And vaccines have been a part of international travel for decades.

I was not drafted. I registered when I reached the age. At that time there was a draft lottery and my birthdate earned me a low lottery number. I thought that I was facing induction. I received my notice and I appeared for my physical. I had been approved for alternative service by my local draft board. I don’t remember there being any option about the vaccines that were a part of the routine induction physical exam. I simply lined up with the others and received my shots. It was, as far as I know, a mandate.

I still have my “International Certificate of Vaccination” as approved by the World Health Organization and issued by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. All of the participants in our church’s mission trip received those certificates and the recommended vaccinations in advance of a mission trip that we took to Costa Rica. I can’t remember any conversations about the vaccines being optional.

Canada has a relatively high vaccination rate when it comes to Covid. About 80% of Canadians are vaccinated. And like the United States, where the vaccination rate is lower, there has been an increase in the number of people who are vaccinated.

From my point of view it certainly appears that there is more to the trucker protests than a large crowd of professional truck drivers who suddenly feel their freedom has been taken away because they have to show vaccination paperwork to cross the border.

Then again, I’m not sure I have figured out all of the motivations behind a three-hour church meeting. There is a lot in this world that I don’t understand.

I guess I’ll keep watching and reading and trying to understand. Obtaining accurate information is a challenge in a world where there is so much information available that it is a challenge to sort truth from lies. The critical thinking skills honed by three years of graduate study seem insufficient to the challenge of discerning which sources of information are reliable.

In the good news department, since today’s journal is already rambling from topic to topic, in just a few days, on February 21, Australia is set to reopen its borders to vaccinated tourists. For almost two years, since March 2020, Australia has implemented some of the world’s strictest border controls in response to the worldwide Covid pandemic. Since we have dear friends with children and grandchildren who live in Australia, this opening seems to be a blessing. I guess you could say it was a vaccine mandate, but I don’t think the requirement will deter our friends.

In preparation for the birth of our first grandchild, we obtained DPT vaccine for the safety of the newborn. We had those vaccinations boosted again before traveling to Japan to meet our youngest grandson when he was born. We have made sure that all of our vaccinations including three injections of Covid vaccine are up to date in preparation for the birth of the new one coming this week.

There are a lot of things that I don’t understand. But I am definitely not bored. Not even at church meetings.

Annual meeting

Today is the annual meeting of our congregation. It is my second annual meeting since I retired as a full-time pastor of a congregation. It is my second annual meeting that will take place entirely over Zoom. Our congregation is waiting for a drop in the number of cases of Covid-19 and a decrease in the pressure on local health care facilities before resuming hybrid worship. The numbers have started to decrease, so that return to limited in-person gatherings is probably not that far away. Still, our annual meeting probably would have been all online to facilitate participation by those who need to remain isolated.

The big difference is how it feels to not be the lead pastor who is in charge of the congregation. Throughout my career I had very few annual meetings that were dramatic. Much more stressful for a pastor are all of the things that lead up to an annual meeting. Forming the budget is one of the challenges each year. We can always imaging more ways to invest funds than the amount of funds that are available. There is always a bit of wrangling over priorities when it comes to making a spending plan. Generally, however, most of that wrangling has been done by the time the actual annual meeting rolls around.

Still, in a Congregational church anything can happen. Surprises can occur at annual meetings. We are, after all, congregations that are governed by the members and members are encouraged to participate in the decision-making process. As a pastor, one learns to read a congregation and has a sense of what to expect, but as we often commented, “Anything can happen!”

Early in my career as a pastor, one of my mentors commented to me that his favorite annual meeting was a boring annual meeting - one with a quick vote on the budget and a motion to elect a slate of nominees and that is about all. At the time, I wasn’t sure that I agreed with him. After all it can be exciting to experience dramatic changes and the congregation understanding and taking responsibility for change can be a way to bring forth new futures. As a youth and young adult, I often had ideas about changes that I would like to see in the congregations in which I participated and I looked forward to annual meetings as opportunities to discuss change. So I wasn’t sure that boring was the tone I wanted in a meeting.

By the time I reached the phase of my career where that mentor had been when we had the discussion, however, I understood what he meant. The real long-lasting and sustainable changes in the church require a lot of preparation and behind the scenes planning. While a vote on a change in the church constitution, for example, might take place at an annual meeting, the real work of bringing about the change requires a lot of hard work in crafting the language of the constitution and making sure that the proposed change can be put into place without unintended consequences. The exciting work of imagining the changes and developing the structure for the change occurs in other meetings and other conversations. The work of the annual meeting is really work that is done before the meeting. A similar process is part of the development of church budgets. If the budget is responsibly created, it is likely to be approved without amendment by the congregation at the meeting. However, it can be a difficult process to get the numbers to work out and to craft a spending plan. The key to a “boring” annual meeting is doing the hard work of securing pledges, accurately estimating income and planning expenses to match the realities of the congregation’s situation.

So, for the sake of our lead pastor, I’m hoping for and anticipating a boring annual meeting today. I suspect that I will not feel a need to speak at all, unless called upon by the moderator to explain one of the programs of our Faith Formation Board. I’m happy to not have the responsibility of speaking at the meeting. I’m happy to watch the lay leadership of the congregation as they do the hard work of conducting the meeting.

There are some real advantages to our position as semi-retired pastors. While we temporarily have interim positions and have real responsibilities for ministry and programs of the church, we don’t have the kind of “buck stops here” responsibility that comes with the administrative pastor’s position. Furthermore, we don’t have the kind of personal investment that a lead pastor has. If a particular program or project is not approved, we won’t be seeing it as a reflection on the quality of our leadership or our personal role in the church. For years I preached and tried to convince myself that it isn’t about me, but at the same time, took some of the things that happened or were said at annual meetings very personally. That wasn’t the fault of the congregations I served, it was just part of the process of pouring myself into the job. The congregation did reflect my personality, especially after I had served for decades as pastor.

I’m not worried about this annual meeting. I’m hoping for a boring meeting for the sake of the other members of the church staff, who are beloved colleagues. I’ve seen the proposed budget. I’ve read the annual reports. I’m prepared for a few quick motions and moving on with the business of the church.

And, since the annual meeting takes place in the after-worship time slot, a time when I frequently am responsible for programming, it is actually a bit less work for me this week than most weeks. I’m not expected to lead discussion or make program presentations. I don’t have a teaching role at the annual meeting. I can trust the lay leaders of the congregation to take those responsibilities.

Still, I know that our lead pastor will sleep better when the meeting is over. For her sake, I’m hoping for a boring meeting.


Othello is a board game. The playing board consists of 64 squares, eight by eight. There are 64 pieces, similar to checkers, that are light on one side and dark on the other. Two people play by placing their discs on the board with their assigned color facing up. If a player manages to place discs on both ends of a line of the opponent’s color, the line is turned to match the color of the current player.

We used to have an Othello board and discs and I used to play the game. I’ve never been much for board games, and often when the family sits down to play a game, I’m happy to just watch and not play. I’m trying to push myself to play more games, and can be found with Uno cards in my hands on occasion. Uno is the favorite game of our granddaughter at present. I have such pleasant memories of my mother playing games with our children, that it is part of my image of what a grandparent does, so I push myself to play on occasion, though I still am not a big fan of playing games.

I can, however, remember one evening that we played Othello. It was March 14, 1981, and we were in the kitchen of the Congregational parsonage in Hettinger, North Dakota. The length of a game of Othello can vary widely, from just a few minutes to nearly an hour, depending on the strategies employed and the ability of players to anticipate their opponent’s moves. I think the length of the game can vary quite a bit due to the conversation and ideas being shared around the game as well.

As hard as I try to remember that evening, I cannot remember who won the most games. My memory doesn’t seem to include any strategies or even images of the game board with one color having the majority. I cannot remember whether I was playing light or dark discs.

The reason I remember playing the game is that it was one of the things we did in the early evening as Susan began to experience labor. Since it was a first pregnancy, neither of us was sure exactly what to expect. We had attended the classes and we had read the books, so we knew that when labor became regular and contractions became close to each other it was time to head for the hospital. Those books, however, don’t give you a specific definition, or at least what was happening in our family didn’t fit the description. We waited a few hours before we finally loaded into the car and made the trip to the hospital. We arrived there in plenty of time. It was more than 12 hours later that our baby was born.

I learned that night why the process is called labor and I gained a great deal of respect for Susan’s strength, endurance, and ability to work hard and long. I also remember that the evening and night was a process of waiting. Waiting can mean releasing control of time. I have long had the tendency to plan more activities than fill any amount of time, so I rarely experience anything like boredom, but like to have things go according to plan. We have a joke in our house that when I’m involved, we always arrive early for any event or appointment. Like other jokes, it is based in the truth. I don’t like being late. I don’t like not controlling my time.

I’m learning patience living where we do because I am dealing with a bit more traffic than in other places we have lived. A sense of humor and a bit of patience goes a long way to making commuting less stressful. Another factor is that when we drive anywhere from our home, including the short trip to our son’s farm, we go past a railroad crossing that is near an oil refinery and often has trains passing. The trains can be long - over 100 cars - and one learns that waiting for the train is just part of the process. There is a second railroad crossing past our son’s place, near the Interstate highway. If you catch a train at the second crossing (or the same train a second time), the delay can be 10 minutes or more. The longest we have waited at a crossing was just over a half hour when the train went back and forth coupling additional cars somewhere down the line.

We are definitely in the days of waiting with the imminent arrival of a new grandchild. All of the signs are pointing to a birth sometime in the next few days. Our other grandchildren in that family have their overnight bags packed in case they need to spend a night at our house. We have our phones close at hand at all times in case the call comes for us to go and help with the grandchildren.

This baby, however, like all other babies, will come when the time is right and for now we need to exercise patience.

It is not like I don’t have anything to do while I am waiting. We still have plenty of sorting to do following our recent move. There are pictures that need to be hung on the walls. There are boxes with contents that need to be sorted. There are always some small home repair and cleaning jobs that demand my attention. I could always sort through the board games to see if we kept the Othello board.

The skill of releasing control is not an easy one for me. As I age, however, I realize more fully that I am rarely really in control. Usually my sense of control is only an illusion. I can’t control the timing of sunrise or sunset. I can’t control the timing of my aging. I can’t control how long I will wait in a doctor’s office or at a traffic light.

One of these days I will be writing a letter to a new grandchild. It could be tomorrow, or it could be another day. I’m not in control of the timing. And that is a good thing.

the lighthouse


People have lived near oceans for much longer than recorded history. And they have taken to the water in boats for much of that time. There is an Egyptian vase from about 3500 BC that has a picture of a ship under sail on it. There is archaeological evidence of sailing that is much older than that, however. There was a migration of Australo-Melanesian populations migrating to the Sahul landmass, which is modern Australia and New Guinea, which occurred between 53,000 and 65,000 years ago. Those people had to have traveled across the water on boats powered by sail.

For almost as long as people have traveled by boats and sail, the problem of navigation, and finding safe harbor has been a challenge. The exact timing has been lost to history, but there are signs that the ancients built fires on hilltops as an aid to mariners returning to known ports. At some point, people built platforms out of stone and other materials to raise the fires higher for greater visibility. There is evidence of these towers being constructed as long ago as 2000 years before the common era.

Lighthouses have been around for a long time.

It is likely that the first lighthouses were not constructed as a warning of dangers such as reefs or rocks, but rather as guides to safe harbor. From the 15th century, when transoceanic navigation began to expand through the golden age of sail lasting into the 19th century lighthouses were constructed around the globe. Improvements in engineering led to higher towers and improvements in lighting and lenses made for brighter lights that could be seen from greater distances. Lighthouses were constructed to warn mariners of shoreline dangers as well as to guide them into safe harbor.

Many lighthouses around the world have fallen into disuse and been decommissioned with the advent of modern navigational devices such are GPS and chart plotters. A few are being preserved as examples of the history of sailing and architecture. They are local landmarks and are treasured by locals and attract visitors. In our travels, we have often been drawn to lighthouses and have visited several, including climbing the stairs to the tower and admiring the view.

Part of the process of our moving to a coastal location and purchasing a house has been the joy of rediscovering artwork that we have collected over the course of our lives. For a year we lived in a rental house. The terms of our lease forbade the hanging of pictures on the walls, so much of our artwork remained in storage. Now that we have a house that we own, we are able to get our our artwork and hang it on our walls. The art serves as a reminder of the places where we have lived and the adventures we have undertaken.

The first piece of artwork that we hung in this house is one of the newest in our collection. It is a stained glass scene featuring a lighthouse that was a gift from our congregation in Rapid City on the occasion of our retirement. The congregation has an active stained glass group that meets weekly and creates beautiful pieces that add to the beauty of their sanctuary and the worship spaces of partner congregations as well as grace the homes of members who have received pieces as gifts or purchased them when they are sold to raise funds for special projects and missions of the church. The founder of the group is a gifted artist whose vision has guided the group since its beginning. His handiwork is reflected in the stained glass that hangs in our living room window.

In our scene, the light from the lighthouse is fashioned from an amazing piece of glass that focuses light. The light beam is bright even on cloudy or dim days, drawing the eyes of everyone who enters the room.

Across from the lighthouse in the window is a photograph by South Dakota artist Robert Wong of a coyote walking through tall brush. For us the two pieces are reminders of the wonderful years we lived in South Dakota and seeing either or them or both in combination makes us think of the Black Hills. One fascinating thing about the two pieces is the contrast of the subjects of the art. One is a typical South Dakota scene. We used to love to listen to the coyotes singing in the hills through our open windows. We often saw coyotes running in the distance as we traveled across the state. To my knowledge, on the other hand, there are no lighthouses in South Dakota. Prior to moving to Washington in 2020, we had never lived in a place that was close to an ocean.

Washington has a lot of lighthouses. Eighteen are active navigation lights maintained by the US Coast Guard, and there are a dozen or so more that remain. From the Cape Disappointment Light near the southern border of the state to the Semiahmoo Harbor Light near our home, a tour of Washington lighthouses could easily take two or three days. There is a Point Roberts Light at Point Roberts, which is geographically isolated from the mainland. You have to travel through Canada to reach it. Other lights are on islands in the Salish Sea.

On one wall there is a picture of a typical South Dakota scene. On the window opposite there is a scene typical of Washington. Both serve as reminders to us of the 25 years we lived and served in South Dakota. The stained glass piece is a reminder of the power of human imagination and creativity. In crafting it as a retirement gift for us, the artist drew not only on our past, but on our future. In the kitchen of our church nestled in the Black Hills, a thousand miles from the ocean, he crafted a scene of a rocky coastline with a light guiding mariners to safety. The tower lighthouse reminds us of the Cape Disappointment lighthouse, Washington’s oldest lighthouse that continues to shine.

It is a treasure of our home that continues to not only remind us of our past, but also invites us to embrace our future.

Cape Disappointment Light at King Tide - photo by Eva Bareis

Up north

When I was studying for my private pilot’s license examination, I learned about magnetic variation. The magnetic north pole - the direction the north end of a magnetic needle points - and the true north pole - the direction along a meridian towards the geographical north pole - are not the same. The angle on the horizontal plane between those two directions is called magnetic variation. If you are navigating by a magnetic compass, you need to know that angle and correct your direction by the number of degrees in that angle. Two factors make that angle difficult to compute. The first is that the size of the angle depends on your location east or west. There is always some place on the globe where that angle is zero. The second factor is that the magnetic pole moves. The line of zero declination, called the agonic, is moving westward at about 12 miles per year.

I didn’t need to know all of the details in order to obtain my pilot’s license and to navigate accurately when I was flying. The angles were computed and printed on the navigation charts that we used and were required to carry with us in the airplane at all times. These charts were dated and obtaining current charts was the responsibility of the pilot. These days the charts are in electronic databases and updated by Internet connections. Furthermore, contemporary pilots rely on GPS navigation over compass navigation. Their situational awareness is much more accurate than ours was 50 years ago.

Magnetic variation, however, is playing a role in my life these days. I’ve moved north. Our home here on Birch Bay, Washington is very close to the 49th parallel. That is a full 5 degrees farther north than Rapid City, where we lived for the previous 25 years. It is easy to tell the difference when the night sky is clear. The north star and the location of the two dippers are higher in the sky than they were when I viewed them in Rapid City. Knowing that I am that much farther north has brought me outside in the evening on occasion looking for a view of the northern lights. The lights, also known as the aurora borealis, are beautiful, dancing waves of light that can be seen in the night sky in northern locations. Their intensity changes with variations in the geomagnetic activity. Solar activity affects the earth’s geomagnetic field. I was looking at the sky last night because a solar storm has increased the intensity of the aurora.

Part of the challenge of seeing the lights in our location is that we live in a tight neighborhood, which means that there are houses blocking my view of the northern horizon. Another part of the challenge is that there is moderate light pollution from Vancouver, British Columbia to our north. This light pollution is intensified in the winter, when the snow on the surrounding mountains reflects that light resulting in a general glow on the horizon.

The real problem with viewing the northern lights from our home, however, has to do with magnetic variation. While I have moved farther north on the globe, I have not moved closer to the magnetic north pole. In fact, our old home of Rapid City, SD is closer to the magnetic north pole than we are here in Birch Bay. After all, I only moved north 5 degrees. It’s a long way to Alaska from here.

And then there are the clouds.

Seeing the night sky is dependent upon being able to see the sky. If there are too many clouds in the sky, the range of visibility is limited. And we have plenty of clouds most of the time around here. Although a solid overcast is less common, clouds anywhere in the night sky limit the visibility. The clouds also reflect light from the earth back down, making it more challenging to see the stars and other phenomena of the night sky.

I have not yet observed the northern lights from my new home here in “almost Canada.” Last night was supposed to offer the opportunity. I suppose that if I was a really dedicated observer, I might have gotten in my car and driven out into the countryside a bit farther from the lights to a place where at least I could observe the horizon. I wouldn’t have to go too far. Our son’s farm offers a clear view to the North. When evening comes, however, I am generally tired enough to be content to stay home and leave the car in the garage. Our bedroom on the second floor of our home offers a bit better view to the north than our back deck, so I peer out the window and hope to see a bit of the dancing lights, but so far I’ve had no such luck.

There will be other solar flares and other geomagnetic storms. And, the magnetic north pole is moving. Life on this tilted planet is in perpetual transition. Enough patience will reward me with another view of the aurora. Patience, however, is not my best quality. Although I am refining skills as I age and I suspect I am a bit more patient than I was as a young adult, I keep anticipating a display that would send me for my camera. So far, all is quiet in the limited range of my vision from my north window.

I have observed, however, that the nights are getting shorter. The solstice has passed and the days are getting longer. I still find myself wearing a headlamp to cook dinner outdoors, but another month will eliminate that need. The mild weather near the ocean means that February heralds the coming of spring. Despite the predictions of Punxsutawney Phil, we know that we’ll be pruning our bushes and mowing our lawn within a couple of weeks around here. That is a big change from our years in South Dakota where I could pretty much ignore yard work, except for shoveling snow, well into late March or early April.

I’ll keep looking up and checking the sky. One of the nights, I might just get a glimpse of the lights.

Teenagers and beyond

When I was a seminary student, I was enrolled in what was called the “straight through” D.Min. This program had all of the requirements of the M.Div. degree plus an additional year of training in a ministry specialty. It also required two internships. My first internship was as a youth minister at Union Church in Hinsdale, Illinois. At the time, I thought that youth ministry was a specialty that I might pursue. My career as a parish pastor has been marked by strong youth programs and engaged youth.

One of the reasons I have been interested in youth ministry is that my teen years were very formative. In that decade I went from elementary school to college. I moved away from my family of origin and became engaged to be married. I obtained my driver’s license and my pilot’s license. I made my career choice and started down the road to becoming an ordained minister. It was the discovery of my calling as a minister that reminded me how important adolescence can be in setting the tone and in making lifelong commitments.

My time in seminary, however, was part of a shift in the vocation of ministry. Seminaries began to see an increase in second career students. They admitted more and more students who were older than the averages of my time. I began to have more and more colleagues who had found employment in other fields before entering the ministry. Along with this trend was a general aging of those of us in the ministry. There were fewer first career pastors graduating from seminary. Ministers in their twenties and thirties became less common. As I approached the middle of my career, the church began to recognize this phenomenon and addressed it by developing special programs and support systems for ministers in their twenties and thirties.

Another trend was developing in our communities. Adolescence was stretching out. The average age of first marriage shot up from the late teens into the late twenties. More and more youth began to remain in their parents’ house into their twenties.

The days of large youth groups in mainline churches, which began to take hold in the 1950s and 1960s were fading. Church youth groups were on the decline in virtually all mainline churches. While they continued to grow in evangelical/fundamentalist congregations into the 1990s, it turned out that these congregations were simply experiencing a lag in their sociology and now are seeing very similar trends.

Youth ministry as a vocational specialty exists only in large congregations and the number of large congregations and the number of professional youth ministers declines every year.

The reality is that the social perception of the transition from childhood to adulthood has shifted over the course of my lifetime. It is part of a shift that began before I was born and will continue after my time on this earth has ended. The term teenager is a product of the 20th century. It wasn’t applied to my parents’ generation. Children simply reached the end of their educations, married and became adults. The First and Second World Wars of the first half of the 20th century required large numbers of very young soldiers and forced young men to assume the responsibilities of adulthood. By the time he was 25 - the age at which I completed my seminary education - he had completed his military service. He had flown thousands of hours in airplanes instructing young pilots, most of whom were between the ages of 18 and 20. He had seen members of his age cohort die in battle and in accidents.

The rise of the middle class and the increasing affluence of the post war time - the years in which I was born and had my childhood - saw an increased use of the term teenager. There was a popular image of teens as rebellious, risk-takers, who built and drove hot rods, experimented with tobacco and alcohol, and explored relationships outside of their families of origin.

By the time I entered my teen years, teens had been recognized as influencers of commerce. Teens set trends in music, fashion and language. They became known as an important market segment and advertising was directed at the age group.

As we entered the new century, the change in the perception and the reality of teens continued to shift. Part of the shift, that will be reflected in the experience of our grandchildren as they enter their teenage years in the next decade is that the process of making the transition from childhood to adulthood has slowed and is taking longer than has been the case at any time in history. Comparing today’s teens to those of the 20th century, growing up has slowed. Psychologist Jean Twenge of San Diego State University has studied and documented this phenomena. Twenge has noted that a 17- or 18-year-old in the United States is less likely to have tried alcohol, have had sex, or acquired their driver’s license than teens 20 years ago. A general reduction in risky behavior has been documented by researchers.

Technology and the internet have played a major role. More interaction with peers happens online and in the home, where sex, experimentation and trouble are less likely. More importantly, the times in which we live have a level of affluence that has not been known by previous generations. World Wars and the Great Depression forced teens to grow up quickly in the beginning of the 20th century. The luxury of a time of relative ease has resulted in a greater emphasis on safety among the current generation of teens. The ability to remain in or return to the parental home into their twenties has resulted in a caution that was not possible for previous generations.

Current research has shown that adolescence doesn’t finish at the end of the teenage years. By many important measures, including brain science, adolescence continues into the mid twenties. Puberty may have finished by the age of 20 but the development and maturation of the brain is far from complete. The early twenties are also a critical developmental social stage as well. People continue to learn about intimacy, friendship, family, self-expression and political and social awareness.

The practice of youth ministry has shifted. Congregations now are looking for ministers who can help individuals and families in the transition into young adulthood. The ages may have changed but the need for attentiveness to the spiritual development in these years is as important as ever.

New Year's Hope

Happy New Year! At least that is the appropriate greeting today for about a billion of the people in the world. Today is sometimes called Chinese New Year and it is the biggest festival of the year in that country. It is also known as the Spring Festival or Lunar New Year. The Chinese calendar is a hybrid of lunar and solar elements. It occurs on the date of the first New Moon of the Chinese lunisolar calendar, based on the cycles of the moon and the earth. Chinese New Year has been celebrated for centuries. There is an ancient legend that tells of the defeat of a beast called Nain, who was chased away by villagers who used red colors, bright lights, and loud sounds.

There are lots of special foods that are shared in the celebration of Chinese New Year. Different ingredients have special meanings. Dumplings symbolize wealth. Noodles represent longevity. Fish signifies abundance. Red envelopes with money inside are exchanged for good luck.

The Chinese Zodiac is a twelve-year cycle, with an animal for each year. The year that begins today is the year of the tiger. The tiger is known for confidence and competitiveness, and marks the third year in the 12-year cycle. Those born in the year of the tiger are energetic and prepared to take risks. They are hungry for excitement and crave attention. They can also be rebellious, short-tempered and outspoken. They prefer to give orders rather than take them.

I can never remember my Chinese zodiac symbol. I have to look it up, but that is easy to do. I was born in the year of the snake. According to the zodiac, people born in the year of the snake are intelligent, wise and charming, good looking and alluring. They are deep thinkers, like to plan and are determined. They are quiet, reserved and give good advice.

I’m not very interested in zodiac or astrology. It has been my experience that people have many different factors shaping their personality. The position of the stars or the phase of the moon at birth seem to be very minor factors in the personality of individuals. From my point of view people with confidence and competitiveness are born every year. Folks who are intelligent, wise and charming are born each year as well.

I take note of the Chinese new year this year simply because we are nearing the birth of a new grandchild. The baby is likely to be born in the next week or so and given that a billion people in this world celebrate the Chinese new year, the child to be born will likely, at some point, look up or be informed of their Chinese animal and its attributes. Astrology aside, this child will probably be a bit competitive simply because it will be one of four children in the same family. Big families have their own sense of competition and each child develops their own sense of place within the family. I’m the fourth child in my family of origin, but I don’t feel like I had to be very competitive simply because the first three were girls, so I had the distinction of being the first son.

February is a good month for birthdays in our family. My great uncle Ted, whose name I share, was born on February 2. My wife, Susan’s birthday is in February, as is our oldest’s grandson’s birthday. We have a nephew and a niece with February birthdays. This new grandchild will give us yet another reason for celebrating the month of February.

As for the color red, bright lights and loud noises, I suppose there will be plenty of those things as well. Valentine’s Day is a marketing date in our culture. There is an entire aisle of Valentine’s cards, candies, and other items in the local grocery store. There is plenty of red. I’m not too sure about bright lights, but I know that there are more people who turn on lights than turn them off in our son’s family already. Whenever I am at their house, it seems like I’m always turning off lights around the place. And loud noises? Three children are pretty good at loud and I suspect adding another won’t make it any quieter. We won’t need fireworks to celebrate, we can go with the natural energy and excitement of children.

I am, however, thinking that eating some noodles might be a good thing for me. In our church, to celebrate Epiphany, we are given a star with a word written on it. Which word you receive is completely random, one of many written on the paper stars. This Epiphany, I drew out the word, “longevity.” Since noodles are a symbol of longevity, perhaps I should eat a bowl of them as a nod to the symbolism of the season. After all, it is way easier to heat up a cup of ramen in the microwave than it is to make dumplings.

I join a lot of other people in hoping that the year to come will be a little less stressful than the last couple of years. The pandemic has brought a lot of grief and sadness to so many families. People have had to endure separations and isolation. They have had major changes in employment and lifestyle. Even those who are not grieving the death of a loved one have a degree of grief over major changes in their lives. It seems appropriate to start this new year with renewed hope. Genuine hope, however, is not something that we can manipulate. One does not become hopeful by wishing. Hope arises out of a deep confidence in the goodness of the world and the possibility of newness. It is born of human imagination entwined with the goodness of creation.

Romans 15:13 is a benediction that is often given at the close of worship. It seems like a good blessing to offer to those we meet today: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.”

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