January 2022

Life's different paces

I have been reading a few of my journal entries from a few years ago. It is possible, though not easy, to access all of my journal entries since 2007 on my web site. The volume of so many essays makes searching slow, however. When I complete my new archive page, entries will be much easier to find and will load much faster. Although initially entries will be searchable only by date, plans are underway for other ways to search the database of documents. This is behind the scenes work that makes no difference to daily readers of my journal.

The process of this work, however, has offered me the opportunity to read about the events of my life 15 years ago. It is pretty interesting reading for me. I had forgotten how much things have changed in that period of time. One of the things that has shifted is the pace of my life. I feel like I am remaining engaged and active in this period of semi-retirement, but when I read the journal entires I realize that there have been times in my life when I was a lot busier.

In 2007, for example, I was serving on the corporate board of Local Church Ministries of the United Church of Christ, a national board that had two meetings each year in Cleveland, Ohio. I served on two sub committees of that board that required additional meetings and travel. In addition, I was serving as an educational consultant and traveling with that work. I was also the vice-moderator of the South Dakota Conference, with meetings in various locations around the state. We were preparing for the 2008 annual meeting, which was held in Yankton. Yankton is 365 miles from Rapid City and on at least two occasions that year I drove to Yankton for meetings and returned the same day - 12 hours of driving in addition to the meetings. I was also teaching classes in the Cotner College program for licensed ministers that were held at Hastings College in Nebraska that year. That is 450 miles one way from Rapid City. I would drive down on a Friday, teach Friday night and Saturday until 3 pm, then drive back to Rapid City and lead worship on Sunday morning. All of those activities were above and beyond my duties as a pastor and my work in my local community as a sheriff’s chaplain and a member of our city’s suicide response team. I was actively engaged in our congregation’s Habitat for Humanity project - a duplex home for two families. I participated in our firewood delivery projects. Just reading about what I was doing is a bit exhausting.

In comparison, I’m nowhere near as busy these days. I serve on one national board and that board has all of its meetings online and requires no physical travel. I am not on any Conference committees. My work at the local church is half time. Most weeks I only go to the church office three days.

You’d think, on the surface, that I would have lots of time for my own projects. Yet, in 2007, I launched a boat in the fall that took me less than a year to complete. My current boat project has been underway for seven years and I am not completely certain that I will get it finished this year.

The bottom line is pretty simple. I’ve slowed down.

That isn’t a bad thing. I’ve known for some time that when I give myself time to think and read and reflect I can be more focused and more precise with my energies. There is a lot that I was doing 15 years ago that was not productive. I spent a huge amount of time traveling. Although the activities took place at a phase when we had no children at home and our parents were in good health so that we weren’t involved in elder care, I wasn’t investing much time in family and the primary relationships in my life. Those relationships are worth the increased time that I give them these days.

I have noticed that when I get to the end of a day’s activities, I have energy to sit and read a book for a while. Sometimes I just sit and think for a few minutes. I used to be fast asleep within minutes of the end of the evening’s last activities. There are mornings when I linger over breakfast. I take time to go for a walk with my wife every day.

The slower pace agrees with me a great deal. At the time, I thought that all of those activities were important. I felt like I was needed in the places where big decisions were being made. I struggled to make wise decisions and provide leadership in areas of church life where I felt like I was contributing. Looking back, I know that I had very little impact on the decisions that were made at the time. There have always been others who were willing to step up and take my place.

I don’t mind not being on call 24 hours a day. I enjoy staying home some days. I have time to read books with my grandchildren. I even have time to read through old journal entries, trying to organize some of the stories of my life.

Developmental psychologists assert that the years after age 65 or so are often devoted to looking at life from a broader perspective. Our minds seek to draw together the various elements of our lives into a whole. We seek to understand the connections between a lot of different activities and relationships. We pursue integrity. I am enjoying the view from this vantage point. I am much more able to recognize my biases and inconsistencies. I am more consistent in establishing priorities. I am less fearful of making mistakes. I probably am making more mistakes and am more aware of my mistakes, but I am also more forgiving of myself and others.

I have no desire to go back to the way things were. I’m at home in my new pace of life. I can even imagine days ahead when I slow down a little bit more. But all of that will come in due time. Right now, I’ve got a long list of things I want to do today.

Seed catalogue

Marketing has changed a great deal over the span of my lifetime. I’m no expert in marketing, but it is impossible to ignore the impact that the Internet has had on how goods and services are advertised and sold. There are many things that we order online and have delivered to our home, and the pandemic has increased how much shopping we do online. Still, we try hard to support local businesses. We never were much for shopping at big box stores. We’re not boycotting Amazon, but when we can see a way to purchase things other places, we often do.

When we began our ministry, the congregations we served had two items in their budget for advertising: a yellow pages ad and a weekly newspaper advertisement. I remember when we first started questioning those items in the church budget. There were defenders of the practice. The feeling was that both made the church visible in the community and helped those new to the community to find us. I don’t know how many times I heard, “I go straight to the church advertisements when I get my newspaper and when I don’t see our church there, I feel like we aren’t keeping up with those who are.”

Of course, the new people in our community weren’t reading the newspaper. Those who did occasionally look at it weren’t drawn the church advertisements. The year we finally stopped all newspaper advertisements we added more new members than we had in previous years. It wasn’t long after that the leading answer to the question, “How did you find out about our church?” was “Your web page.”

Slowly, but surely, churches were embracing new media and new ways of reaching people. Then the pandemic struck and we made radical changes very quickly. I went from occasionally looking at FaceBook on my own time to spending time at work on FaceBook every day. Churches made big investments in upgrading technology. Congregations purchased video cameras and the software and hardware to operate them. We learned to integrate live and prerecorded elements in the same worship service.

Once we made the plunge into social media and remote worship, it seems that there is no going back. Members of the church staff are working remotely from home, but the technology team is at the church, pulling wires, checking connections, testing audio and visual equipment and preparing for the challenges of online worship. In my new job, one of my regular tasks involves using my phone or an iPad to respond to online comments during the worship service. I used to leave all of my devices in my office when I went into a worship service. I had no need of their distraction. Now I’m using my devices to connect with people who are worshiping remotely.

However, yesterday, we got a bit of a flashback to the way things used to be. A seed catalogue arrived in our mail. It felt really good to walk to the mailbox, insert the key and open the door to discover a printed catalogue with color pictures of all kinds of fruits and vegetables and flowers that can be ordered for spring planting. Of course, I still haven’t adjusted to the seasons out here. As I write this morning, it is raining. Our daughter-in-law has been working for a couple of weeks at pruning. Folks are starting to talk about spring plantings. And it is January.

Of course seed catalogues have always arrived long before time to plant. Pouring over seed catalogues and making garden plans is part of late winter. One good seed catalogue and a day when the temperature is in the mid fifties is enough to give me spring fever.

Over the years, I’ve purchased a lot of seeds from farm and garden stores. I’ve purchased plants from nurseries and put them into my garden. But I have also ordered my share of seeds and plants from mail order sources. There is something very tempting about looking at the beautiful pictures of perfect flowers and berries and huge fresh vegetables fresh from the garden.

Results may vary. I’ve grown three- and four-inch carrots from a seed package that has a picture of foot-long carrots on it. I’ve grown “giant” sunflowers that weren’t as tall as I am. And I’m not a tall person. There have been years when my pumpkin patch produced only two or three pumpkins. Those years are exciting because there have also been years when I didn’t harvest a single pumpkin. I’m not the world’s best gardener. I tend to be excited about preparing the soil and planting and a bit more reluctant about weeding. I’ve been known to take a vacation when a dedicated gardener would be hand watering every day. I’m not blaming the people who print the seed catalogues for my lack of gardening success.

What the seed catalogues do for me is to inspire my dreaming. Perhaps this is a year when I will be more attentive to my garden. We won’t be taking a big trip this year like we did last year and when we go to visit our daughter and her family we’ll be flying, not driving. And, I keep telling myself, we have a small yard now. We don’t have a big area for gardening, so I can keep it small. A small garden will be less work.

Hope springs eternal for me when the seed catalogues start arriving.

I don’t know if folks younger than I do all of their seed shopping online. I suspect that the seed companies have great web sites. But I do know that the print catalogues are just the right kind of marketing for me. I pour over them with attention that I don’t find for the Internet. The seed catalogue we got yesterday is in the kitchen. I’m likely to read it at the breakfast table this morning.

Of course the seed catalog has information about their web site, Facebook page, Instagram and Twitter accounts on the cover. There is information about how to order online. I’m just nostalgic enough, however, that I’m likely to use the paper form at the back of the catalogue, put it in an envelope with and old-fashioned check, put a postage stamp on it and drop it in the mailbox. It seems like a good thing to do while I wait for spring.


Sometimes when I met with grieving families to plan funeral services, I would ask people to tell me what of their loved one they saw in themselves or in other family members. I might comment that the most important inheritances don’t have to do with property or finances, but rather with strengths and gifts and attributes that are shared. Somehow I got to thinking about that question in relationship to myself, my siblings and my father. It has been a long time since my father died. He was 59. I was 27. However, I see bits of him in myself all the time.

Although my appearance has changed over time, as did his, I am similar to him in terms of size and shape. I wear the same size shoes as he did. I’m the same height. He was prone to bumping his head and so am I. He loved to teach, especially practical skills such as how to operate a tool or machine. He was a flight instructor and was especially patient and careful when he taught me to fly an airplane. I love to teach and think of his balance of allowing his students to do things themselves while still maintaining control of the airplane and preventing any dangerous maneuvers. He would allow us to make mistakes, but would intervene when the consequences were too severe. I try to imitate that when I am teaching things to my grandchildren and to others.

I get my love of teaching from another important father figure in my life. My father-in-law was a teacher of electrical apprentices and he was a patient teacher of mine about many things including how to do basic wiring and make safe repairs to home appliances and light fixtures.

My father was absolutely committed to family. He made no distinction between adopted children and those born into our family. He and my mother instilled in me a strong desire to become an adoptive father and that is one of the deepest blessings of my life. He loved to plan family get-togethers and events. He would invite all of our aunts and uncles and cousins to join us for winter gatherings at the hot springs and summer gatherings by the river. Family gatherings give me great joy and when I look through my photographs, some of my favorite are group pictures taken at family gatherings.

He loved to talk. I do too. He could embarrass his children with his tendency to talk to strangers. I can too.

Of course there are a lot of differences. My father was an entrepreneur and a small business owner. I don’t think I would have done well in that kind of a vocation. He was a superb salesman. Me, not so much. He knew how to purchase a vehicle at the best possible price. I’ve probably over paid for vehicles on several occasions.

Lately I’ve been noticing traits that my father possessed in our son and in our grandson. There is something in the way our grandson tells stories that reminds me of my father. Our son’s patient way of figuring out how to make repairs around the house or with a vehicle is very reminiscent of my father. I’ve also been noticing that there are a few stories about my father that I need to share with them. Both of them enjoy hearing about my father and some of the things he did in his life.

There is a genetic legacy that is passed down from generation to generation. Each of us is the product of a long line of people who have somehow found mates and developed homes to nurture infants and to raise children. We inherit physical traits from our ancestors. We also inherit spirit and attitude towards life.

We are drawing close to the birth of a new grandchild. Our daughter-in-law thinks the event will occur in the next two weeks. This baby will be a unique expression of the lineage inherited from both sides of their family. I have a tradition of writing a letter to each of my grandchildren on the day after their birth (or the day after we learn of their birth - one of our grandsons was born in Japan on the other side of the international date line from where we live). I’ve been thinking about what I might write for this new baby. One of the things that I want to say, that I tried to express to the others, is that there is a legacy of love and family into which they have been born. They have been loved from the very beginning. The idea of them was beloved even before they were conceived. Hopefully this legacy will nurture the sustain them in the difficult moments of life. But it is also a responsibility. Being raised in love, each of our grandchildren bears the responsibility to share love with the world. They have also been born into a legacy of serving others and caring for the lives of others. Raising animals and children and helping neighbors is all a part of the legacy of their inheritance.

Like our other grandchildren, there will be many stories I will want to share with this new one. I’ll want to tell them about their great-grandparents and about the adventures we shared. I’ll probably bore them with stories about how it was growing up in the old days. Nobody had cell phones. Our telephones were attached to the wall with a wire. We had to find a phone booth if we wanted to make a phone call when we were not at home. And we walked miles to school in driving blizzards and it was uphill both directions. OK, there may be a few exaggerations in the stories I tell most often.

We have no control over which stories are treasured and remembered and told again. But I’m pretty certain that a few of them, and even a few of my dad’s old jokes, will be told by our grandchildren. We have a legacy to pass on.

Border crossing baloney

Were it not for the Covid pandemic, we would have made several trips into Canada in the past year. We regularly walk on a path where we can see the international crossing at Blaine, and if I search for a restaurant, my phone application will frequently suggest one in Canada. We have had some wonderful visits to British Columbia in the past and would love to spend a bit more time exploring close to our home. A few years ago, before the pandemic, we went with our son and his family to visit a Zoo in Vancouver that is closer to our home than the one in Seattle. We are fortunate. Our son and his family live just a couple of miles down the road from our home on this side of the border. There are a lot of families in this area who have members on both sides of the border. Before the pandemic, they were used to traveling across the border frequently and with minimum hassle. Residents of Point Roberts, Washington, have to drive through Canada to get to the mainland.

The border has eased pandemic restrictions, but there are still protocols and requirements that must be met in order to cross. At Blaine, Peace Arch Park is right on the border and it is a place where families can meet and visit without having to go through the entire border crossing process. When the weather is good there are usually many families sharing picnics and getting together in the park. Even when it is rainy or windy a few folk meet to be with family members. Last week there was a protest in the park. A group of people, from both sides of the border, met at the arch and walked from one end of the park to the other carrying signs protesting the continuing covid protocols.

Because we have not been crossing the border, I am not familiar with the issues, but I do understand that the pandemic has made it more challenging for family members to get together. We have friends who had to seek Covid testing, which is difficult to obtain in the crush of cases that have overwhelmed hospitals, in order to visit family members who live north of the border. Another family had to go through a lot of bureaucratic shuffling in order for their Canadian family members to attend a family funeral.

Border issues make the news around here far more frequently than any other place where we have lived. We have a neighbor who works for U.S. Customs and Border Protection. His job is shift work. The border is patrolled around the clock and he is sometimes assigned shifts that mean he works at night and sleeps during the day.

The Bellingham Herald, the local daily newspaper has a regular column of border issues and activities. I guess yesterday must have been a slow news day at our border because the article I read this morning is about the issue of bologna smuggling. Once, when we were waiting for a ferry to cross between Vancouver Island in Canada and the US mainland, we were asked if we had any eggs. We had our camper and we did. The agent informed us that we could not transport raw eggs across the border. We could either cook them as we waited in the parking lot or surrender them before crossing. Since we had already had our propane turned off and tagged, we gave up the two or three eggs we had. So I know about eggs, but I didn’t know about bologna.

The issue is not one of the border with Canada. It occurs on the US Mexico border. Bologna from Mexico is prohibited from entering the US because pork has the potential to bring foreign animal diseases into the country. In two separate incidents, 234 pounds of contraband bologna were recently seized at the Texas border. In one case, a 40-year-old resident of Albuquerque tried entering the US at El Paso and did not declare any meat products. His car was inspected and officials found 55 pounds of bologna hidden under a bag of chips, under the seats and in the trunk of his SUV. I guess the moral of the story is don’t hide your bologna under your chips.

In another incident a woman had 19 rolls of bologna totaling 188 pounds under the back seat, inside the duvet cover liners and hidden in her luggage. She was cited and fined $1,000. Apparently, it can be expensive to sleep with bologna.

The motivation to smuggle bologna is financial. It can be purchased in Mexico for about half of the usual price in the US. However, I wonder how successful smugglers cash out their haul. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be interested in buying bologna from the trunk of someone’s car.

I understand how people could find themselves at the border with items that cannot be brought across, but intentional smuggling is not something that makes sense to me. I think that there is a fairly high chance that one would be caught. And the rules are made to protect others from harm. Illnesses carried across the border could have devastating effects on the economy. It isn’t just covid, but diseases that affect livestock or plants can have huge impacts. I support the care that is taken to keep food supplies safe. The idea of intentionally attempting to bring a large amount of contraband across the border seems pretty stupid to me.

However, we need to find ways to make the border crossings accessible to families. We have been able to live at peace with our Canadian neighbors for a long time. So many families have members on both sides of the border. I understand the longing to be together and to gather for family events and occasions. And most of the people who are crossing the border have no intention of breaking the rules or causing harm.

Unfortunately a few folks and their baloney make life less convenient for others.

Joys of family

One of the joys of my life is the way that I was welcomed into the family of my wife when we married. She is the oldest of three sisters. Her parents and sisters were incredibly warm and welcoming to me. I sometimes joke that I enjoyed a very privileged position in that family as the first son. When Susan and I started to become serious about our relationship, the only male in her family was her father. Even the cat and dog were female. I have countless stories of how they showed their love and support for us as a couple and for me as an individual. It is one of the deep blessings of my life. As a result, I couldn’t have more positive feelings than I do about a family of sisters. In our case, it was an excellent place for my wife to grow up and an excellent family into which to marry.

In a sense, I was predisposed to think positively about a family of sisters because my mother is one of five daughters born to her parents. They had a large family with no boys. It was a happy family and the close relationships between the sisters was a part of my growing up. My aunts were each special to us in different ways and important to my growing up years.

Although my mother- and father-in-law are no longer living, the sisters remain close to each other and their love for each other has been an ongoing blessing for our marriage and family. I think of the sisters and their close relationships often when I hear the stories of other families. It is one of my points of reference when thinking of how relationships might work for others.

I was thinking of the joys of sisters recently when we learned news of a new granddaughter born into the family of a couple of friends of ours. This couple had five daughters like my mother’s family. Now they have six grandchildren. Interestingly, of those grandchildren, five are girls. There has been just one boy born to those five daughters. And we know that there is another baby expected in that family. If the ultrasound technicians are right, which they usually are, there is another baby girl on the way. I know that our friends are simply delighted with their grandchildren and wouldn’t want them to be any different, but I suspect that their grandson will enjoy special privilege and a special place in their family.

Our family is different, though no less joyous. We had just two children, one boy and one girl. Each of them brought their mate into our family, so we gained an additional daughter and son through their marriages. We have four grandchildren, two boys and two girls. A new grandchild is going to be born in a couple of weeks. We do not know the gender of this child. We will be delighted whichever way the balance swings.

Of course we know that gender is much more complex than the particular combinations of X and Y chromosomes. We have many friends, colleagues and acquaintances who don’t fit into the traditional either/or of simply male or female. Healthy families have plenty of love for children to grow and discover their own identities and expressions. And all children, as they grow, offer surprises to the ones who love them. Each new baby born is the beginning of a story with many chapters and each life will take twists and turns that offer countless opportunities for newness and surprise.

One of the joys of being grandparents is that of learning the unique personalities and possibilities of each child. Just as our own children surprised us with their unique gifts and talents, each of our grandchildren have delighted us with their individual personalities. Not long after she was born, our youngest granddaughter, who is soon to become a big sister, expressed her place in her family. She has often been described by those who love here as “fierce.” She asserts her fiery personality into every conversation. Once, when a playmate of her sister commented that she is “cute,” she snapped right back, “I’m not cute. I’m fierce.” The friend, who had intended the word “cute” to be a compliment, was a bit shocked at the response. It is a story we’ve told over and over since it occurred. Our youngest grandson learned to walk at the youngest age of any of our grandchildren. He loves to climb and we’ve sometimes referred to him as a “little monkey.” That nickname won’t last, however, I suspect. He is growing so fast that I doubt that we’ll be calling him “little” anything in a decade or so. Then, again, my cousin who had the nickname “tiny,” was anything but tiny.

In time these children will grow up and form relationships of their own. They will invite new people to come into our family. I fully expect to be surprised and delighted by the ones they choose. Just as I was so warmly welcomed into my wife’s family, I fully intend to make our family as welcoming as possible to the ones chosen by our grandchildren. Each relationship will bring great joy and open new futures for us. We have been blessed with good health and it seems likely we’ll be around to welcome more new members into our family.

When our son-in-law spoke to me about his plan to propose to our daughter, I commented to him, “You have to realize that she comes with a family. If she says, ‘yes,’ you’ll be getting all of us.” He gladly accepted those terms and has become a great addition to our family. I’m unlikely to be in the position for a similar conversation with the future mates of any of our grandchildren, but if I were, I’d have a similar response. If you fall in love with one of us, you’ll be getting all of us. After all, I have inherited the legacy of love not only from my family of origin, but also from the family that raised my wife. It is too good to keep to ourselves. We’ll be passing it on.

Watching the clock

This is just my second winter in northwest Washington, and there is still so much that I have to learn about this place where we have chosen to live. My observation this year is that this is a place where spring fever comes very early in this place. Having said that, it is important to note that I’m very prone to spring fever every year. I don’t know how many times I have responded to the change of seasons with irrational behavior. The year our son was born, I planted three sets of tomatoes, having set out the first two sets before the frost had left us for good. And the early onset of spring fever this year may be related to the fact that I have a brand new grand niece, who is my sister’s first grandchild and is charming the socks off of all of us. I haven’t met her face to face yet, but the pictures are positively precious. And we are expecting a new grandchild soon - probably in the next couple of weeks. Maybe babies give me spring fever, or at least intensify my natural tendencies.

All of that aside, we are emerging from the dark here. The darkness is fading. You can feel it. We are emerging from the darkness. It isn’t an illusion. The days are really getting longer. Right here in Birch Bay, today is the first day that the official sunset will be after 5 pm. And sunrise is at 7:45, which means we get 9 hours and 14 minutes of sunlight today. Well, if you can describe fog and cloudy skies with the possibility that we might see the sun shining through some breaks in the clouds at mid afternoon as sunlight.

I have never noticed that I am affected by seasonal affective disorder, but there is no denying that I am experiencing a psychological lift from just a few more seconds of daylight each day. those seconds add up to minutes and the thing about being this far north is not only do we have a wider swing in the amount of sunshine we see, we have a more dramatic and quicker shift between the darkest and lightest days than any other place that I have lived. Living in “almost Canada” gives me a bit of a sense of what people who live in Canada, Alaska, and other more northern places experience.

It is a bit harder to be sure, but it seems that I am also beginning to stretch out my days just a bit, sleeping just a little less. Of course I still go to sleep and get up in the dark, but I’ve stayed up a bit later than usual the last few days and I’m rising as early or a bit earlier

Being aware of the sunlight keeps me aware of the clock. It is still dark at dinner time, but I’m beginning to look forward to the longer days when I feel like cooking outside because it is light out. We’ll still be eating dinner in the dark for more than a month. Daylight saving time doesn’t come until mid March.

The time of shifting to and from daylight saving time always prompts conversations about the shift back and forth. There is evidence that the twice-yearly shifts mess with body clocks and minds. There is strong evidence that it has an impact on highway safety. Accidents go up every time the shift occurs. Researchers believe it is because people are more likely to be sleep deprived and driving impaired by their sleepiness.

A couple of years ago, the Washington legislature passed a bill that was intended to make daylight saving time permanent. However, passing the bill wasn’t all that is required. It turns out that states need approval from the national Congress or permission from the U.S. Department of Transportation to gain an exemption from the annual shift in time. Although Washington has applied for both, neither has occurred.

This year the legislature will take up a bill that would make standard time in Washington permanent, “until congress authorizes states to observe daylight saving time year-round.”

It may just be me, but I don’t think I’d have much passion for the debate on this bill were I serving in the legislature. My representatives won’t be getting letters from me about the topic. I’ve been going along with the shift in time for so much of my life that I really don’t care that much. I’m a morning person, so I’m a bit less affected by the switch to daylight saving time than some of the other members of our family. I might notice it a bit the first day, but after that I’m good to go. It is a bit of a challenge when we fall back to standard time. I have a bit of a tendency for a week or so to head for bed a bit early. While others argue passionately for or against daylight saving time, I’m pretty neutral.

The one thing I like about the proposal to make daylight saving time permanent in Washington is that daylight saving time here puts us on the same clock as mountain standard time. Having lived almost all of my life on mountain time, except for parts of four years living in Chicago while attending school, and occasional trips to distant locations, it seems like going to permanent daylight saving time here in Washington puts me into the time zone to which I am most accustomed. The reality, however, is that other than the first few days of adjustment it doesn’t matter what the clock says. There is still a whole lot of dark in the winter and a whole lot of light in the summer here. I’m willing to accept that because there is a whole lot of change that occurs and I am delighted by the change in seasons.

Of course we can still get snow. We had snow in February last year. But for now, I’ll do my share of watching sunrises and sunsets and enjoying the increasing time between them.

Signs of hope

In The Book of Hope, Jane Goodall and Doug Abrams discuss the resilience of nature. The book is filled with stories that Jane has told Doug. She is a natural storyteller and believes that people are far more moved by stories than statistics. One of the stories reported is of Jane’s visit to Nagasaki, Japan, where the second atomic bomb was dropped at the end of World War Two. The fireball produced by that explosion reached temperatures equivalent to the surface of the sun. Scientists predicted that the soil had been sterilized and that nothing would grow for decades. Amazingly, however, two 500-year-old camphor trees survived that blast. Jane told a moving story of her visit to one of those trees in 1990:

“It’s now a large tree but its thick trunk has cracks and fissures, and you can see it’s all black inside. But every spring that tree puts out new leaves. Many Japanese regard it as a holy monument to pace and survival; and prayers, written in tiny kanji characters on parchment, had been hung from the branches in memory of all those who died. I stood there, humbled by the devastation we humans can cause and the unbelievable resilience of nature.” (Book of Hope, p. 70)

In the summer of 2018, Susan and I were able to visit Hiroshima, the site of the first atomic bomb blast in 1945. The heat emitted by the explosion in Hiroshima within the first three seconds was 40 times greater than the sun. The rebuilt city that we visited stands as a monument to peace, but also to the incredible destructive capabilities of humans. The devastation that followed the blast is impossible to imagine, even though we walked around the charred remains of partially-destroyed buildings, looked at pictures and read stories in the museum, and viewed memorials made from some of the melted and charred debris left after the blast.

One of the things that was striking about Hiroshima were the trees. We were deeply grateful for all of the greenery in the city as we walked around on a hot summer day. After the blast, trees from around the world were donated to help with the city’s restoration. Among all of the trees of Hiroshima are more than 150 that had been there prior to the bombing. The trees are called Hibakujumoku in Japanese - survivor trees in English. One grows at the site of the Hiroshima Castle. The tree survived while the castle was destroyed.

It is good to be reminded of hibakujumoku these days. I have had a number of conversations recently with people about a sense of despair that can come from all of the signs of human damage to the environment. Human-caused global climate change has resulted in dramatic changes in the weather and intense natural disasters. A short distance from where we live, in southern British Columbia are entire towns that were destroyed by wildfire last summer. At least one of those locations was inundated by flooding earlier this winter. Evidence of wildfires, flooding and mudslides is easy to find. There are many people working to bring about changes in human behavior including the decreasing of our use of fossil fuels, the redesign of buildings to decrease their carbon footprint, and other green initiatives in society. But there can also be a sense of “too little too late” when it comes to our capacity to change. I’ve participated in conversations with people who seem to be nearly defeated by all of the negative news about the destruction that humans have caused.

I have lived with the knowledge of the amazing destructive power of humans all of my life. I was born less than a decade after the blasts that brought such destruction on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. My father was a pilot instructor during World War Two. He has entries in his logbooks as pilot of a B-29, the type of airplane that delivered the bombs. But I also have lived through signs of the resilience of nature. I have walked on the streets of Hiroshima and witnessed the restored city with its beautiful trees and peaceful monuments. I stood in the park near the epicenter of the blast and rang the peace bell as I dedicated my life to seeking alternatives to such violence and destruction. And, like Jane Goodall, I have a few stories to tell about the amazing resilience of the natural world.

I grew up in Montana, not far from Yellowstone National Park. In those days, Elk were the dominant species in the Park. They had so overpopulated that the herds had eaten all of the willows growing along the banks of the rivers. Winters saw elk perish from starvation. In those days, we never saw eagles at all. Then, in 1988 and 1989, wildfires swept over the park. Near West Yellowstone there is a slope where the fire burned so hot that the soil was said to be sterilized and no plants were able to survive. But they did. That hillside was green two years after the fires. New life came back in Yellowstone in unexpected ways with amazing swiftness. These days the elk herds are back in check and the population is kept in balance by wolves. Willows and beavers have returned to the streams.

These days I see eagles on every visit to Yellowstone country and I see them on my daily walks in the neighborhood where I now live. The restoration of eagles and other raptors is due to changes in the use of pesticides and also to the amazing work of raptor rehabilitation centers. We were able to visit the Birds of Prey Center when we lived in Idaho and learn of the work of those who have devoted their lives to studying these amazing birds and discovered ways of captive breeding that have brought them back from the brink of extinction.

Every time I see an eagle splitting the sky with its wings, I am reminded of the power of nature to recover from damage and destruction. Each eagle is, for me, a sign of hope. And, like Jane Goodall, we are called to tell the stories of hope so that we do not fall into despair for there is much work that remains.

Missing the news

I have an “on again/off again” relationship with Facebook. I was slow to establish a Facebook profile after many of my friends had embraced the site as a way to share information. Initially, I set up a Facebook account for the sole purpose of accessing my nephew’s reports of his travels. He was posting reports and pictures and I wanted to keep up with what was going on in his life. I decided that I didn’t care what number of “friends” I had on Facebook, so I made it a policy to not ask anyone to be my Facebook Friend. I also decided that I would not accept friend requests from people I did not know. I’ve not quite kept to that practice, as I have requested to be a Facebook friend of folks with whom I am friends outside of Facebook on occasion.

Nonetheless I find myself looking at Facebook nearly every day. I have the application on my phone and I’ll often look at my newsfeed when I have a few odd moments of waiting.

The Covid pandemic is the event that got me to start using Facebook. When people began to isolate to prevent the spread of the disease, there were many with whom Facebook was the easiest way to maintain contact. Then we made the decision to use Facebook live as the vehicle for broadcasting our worship services. I had no experience with broadcasting worship and needed to come up with solutions for getting worship to our congregation on a very short notice. Facebook was already set up to make broadcasting fairly easy. Like a lot of congregations across the world, we began to offer services over Facebook live. Early in the pandemic, before I retired, it became clear that once we started to broadcast, there was no going back. There were some people with whom we were connecting via Facebook who we would miss were we to stop.

I made the shift into retirement, moved, and became involved in a different congregation, where we also use Facebook live for worship. This new congregation has been more conservative in allowing face-to-face gatherings and is currently in a three-week online only phase of our life together. Between Facebook and Zoom we are conducting all of the business of the church. I’m getting fairly adept at the use of both platforms.

Through Facebook I get news of a lot of people with whom I probably would not have much contact. I’ve joined a group from the town where I grew up, and I occasionally will post in a group of my former high school classmates that was started on the occasion of our 50th class reunion.

Facebook, however, is not a perfect way of keeping up with all of my friends. I’ve noticed that many of my friends have cut back on their Facebook posts and their reading of Facebook. Some have been clear that this has been caused by offensive and inaccurate posts that they have read. Others have simply wanted to free up time that they were spending on screen and have eliminate Facebook as a way to make time available for other things that are more important.

Yesterday I learned that a friend had passed away more than a month ago and I hadn’t heard about it at the time. I had simply missed the news of his death. We have plenty of friends in common, even a number of Facebook friends in common. Somehow posts about him hadn’t shown up in my feed and I hadn’t searched for news about him. We had both moved during the pandemic to be closer to our children and his illness had prevented him from using social media as a channel to keep in touch.

Years ago a similar pattern of slow traveling of news would have been common. People who traveled or who moved across several states lost contact with friends in their old home. Some letters were exchanged, but news traveled slowly and some news just didn’t get through. These days, however, we expect to be able to keep up with events going on in distant places and to be able to access our friends through a variety of media.

I am not dismayed that there was a lag in my learning of his death. I knew that he was suffering from terminal illness. I knew that he was likely to die. Our relationship was such that we enjoyed each other when we were able to get together and often went long periods of time without a conversation even when we lived in the same town. We initially met because of the activities of our children and our children have grown up and moved out into the world. For a while his father and my father-in-law lived in the same retirement community and we’d see each other when visiting there. But our parents have passed away and our visits to that facility ceased. We continued to meet at events in our community on occasion until first I and then he moved away from our town. It seems natural that we have drifted apart.

When we were together, we had three topics that were most common for our conversations. We’d talk about our children, about paddling, and tell stories about his younger brother who was also a friend of mine. After I received news of his death, I looked up his obituary and realized that I had lost contact not only with him, but also with his brother. Even all of our technologies cannot prevent us from growing apart from people with whom we once were close.

In my new home, I’m making lots of new friends, but I also have relationships with people whom I’ve known for many years that are important to me. I don’t want to have to give up prior relationships in order to establish new ones.

The experience reminds me that I need to use different media to keep track of my friends. Facebook works for some. It doesn’t for others. And, when I am talking with my friends, I need to ask about other friends. We’re all in this life together. And, as I have once again learned from my friend, life is short. I hope I can succeed in spending less of my life with my smartphone and more in genuine conversation with real people, even if it means I’ll miss some of the news.

Care for the poor

There is a set of phrases that have been circulating in the United Church of Christ for several years. There are posters and banners that show the list. At the top of the list is the phrase, “Be the Church.” Those words are followed by a list of imperatives for churches and church members: “Protect the environment. Care for the poor. Forgive often. Reject racism. Fight for the powerless. Share earthly and spiritual resources. Embrace diversity. Love God. Enjoy this life.” We decided that those imperatives would make interesting conversations with other church members and have arranged what we are calling “Occasional Conversations.” These conversations take place following worship. Originally we had planned to have a series of hybrid discussions, employing a conference camera and microphone that would allow a small group in the church and a group of people who would join the conversation by Zoom. However the omicron variant and the subsequent surge in Covid cases has meant that the in-person part of the gatherings is not possible at this time. We don’t have these conversations every week as there are other conversations that occur in this time slot, especially with the annual meeting of the congregation coming in a few weeks.

We started to pursue the imperatives in the order they appear on the posters with a discussion of “Protect the Environment.” Our plan had been to focus our conversation away from the question of “how” to the question of “why.” Instead of discussing what we need to do as faithful Christians to protect the environment, a topic addressed by the Mission and Justice Board of our church and through a One Book all church read this year, we wanted to look at the Biblical teachings that motivate action. We wanted to ask church members why they think this is an important task for Christians.

As we had that first conversation, we noted that the poster itself, while being catchy, doesn’t quite express a complete picture of life as a Christian. First of all, even though it begins with “Be the Church,” it doesn’t really speak of a state of being, but rather of things that should be done. Perhaps it should say “Do the Church” instead of “Be the Church.” Secondly, as several people noted although the list is of good things worth doing, it is far from comprehensive. There are other imperatives that thoughtful people might add to that list. We did, however, have a meaningful conversation about the care of creation and the many places in the Bible that speak of protecting the world in which we live.

Our second conversation will take place today after worship. We’ll be focusing on “Care for the Poor.” Although those two conversations seem to be about different topics, they are, in practice, closely related. As Jane Goodall notes in most of her public speeches, solving the problems of poverty is a necessary part of protecting the environment. When people are struggling to find enough food to survive, they will cut down the trees of the forest, eat food that is not sustainably produced, or otherwise engage in practices that harm the environment. If they have enough income to provide for the basic needs of their families, they are able to take a longer-term view and make different environmental choices. The increasing divide between the world’s richest and poorest people has left many people without the means to do anything more than simply survive, regardless of the environmental impact of their practices.

The very notion that some of the world’s people are able to experience limitless increases in wealth and standard of living is simply not sustainable. We live in a planet with limited resources. The only way for the wealth of the few to continually increase is at the expense of an increasing number of impoverished people.

There are many directions that our conversation might take. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus is anointed with costly ointment by a woman while he was in the house of Simon. Some of his disciples were angry at the extravagance of the act and asked, “Why this waste? The ointment could have been sold and the money given to the poor.” Jesus replied, saying, among other things, “You always have the poor with you.” This passage of scripture has been mistakenly interpreted by some Christians to mean that poverty cannot be overcome and that trying to address poverty is a useless cause and a waste of money. Such an interpretation, however, is a betrayal of the event reported in the Gospel and a misunderstanding of the context of Jesus’ words. Biblical scholars remind us that in this interchange Jesus is himself quoting scripture. In the 15th chapter of Deuteronomy it says, “For there will never cease to be poor in the land.” This statement follows specific instructions for care of the poor. “If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns within the land the LORD your God is giving to you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor. You should rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be.” The statement is then followed by a repeat of the commandment, “I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.’”

It was in the midst of a discussion of this commandment that the parable of the Good Samaritan arose as Jesus responded to the question, “Who is my neighbor?”

The bible verse is not a capitulation to perpetual poverty, but rather a prediction of the real consequences of the failure to obey God’s commandments. If the people forget that the land is not theirs, but rather that it belongs to God, there will always be poverty and need. We are not called to accept poverty as inevitable, but rather to understand that the poverty of others is the direct result of our own decisions and choices.

The conversation will, I predict, be meaningful and intense. It is, however, just a beginning of a much wider conversation that we need to continue as we seek to be faithful members of the church.

Thich Nhat Hanh

One of the tasks I am working at this year is a revision of my web pages. Most of what I am doing isn’t visible to visitors. The bulk of my work has to do with the reorganization of the archives of my journal. Because of the volume of the journal, I have had some problems when periodically re-loading the web site. To streamline things, I have been taking previous years’ entries, reformatting them into .pdf documents with a month in each, and publishing these new documents in place of individual entries. It is time consuming work, but it does involve reading my old entries, which is interesting to me. Another thing I have been working on is re-doing some of the lesser-viewed areas of my site. One of those areas is the tab about books. Right now that tab is not functioning as I am designing a completely new tab. The old tab was a set of book reviews. I not only write volumes of essays, I read a lot of books. The books page revived a feeling that I had when I was an elementary student. I love reading, but I procrastinate when it comes to writing book reports. At the point where I took down the book page, I was more than a year behind in writing book reviews. I’ve decided that I am simply not going to get those reviews written, so the new page, which should be up in a couple of weeks, will be a simple list of the books I have read. I won’t go too far back, as the list would be too long to be meaningful, but I’m trying to include a decade or so of reading. The list will be like a bibliography, alphabetized by author’s last name.

Last night I was looking at the list and notices that on it are at least three are three books by the Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh. The Zen master died yesterday at the age of 95. The official press release from Plum Village said he “passed away peacefully.” Those words are common when speaking of a gentle death, but in this case, I believe they were very accurate. He was a man of peace who practiced his teachings in his personal life.

The three books that came to my mind when I read of his death are “The Miracle of Mindfulness: An Introduction to the Practice of Meditation,” “Peace is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life,” and “True Love: A Practice for Awakening the Heart.” On one level, the books are very simple. They describe easily-followed techniques for focusing one’s attention, releasing anxieties and distractions, and being present to the people and experiences of life. I am not a Buddhist practitioner, but I have found many parallels between Buddhist meditation and Christian prayer and following some Buddhist practices has opened my mind and deepened my awareness of Christian practices.

Thich Nhat Hanh was exiled from Vietnam in the 1960’s because of his opposition to the war. He lived for decades in exile in France before being allowed to return to Vietnam near the end of his life. He traveled extensively, leading workshops and teaching practices. His contributions to peace were recognized by other Buddhist leaders such as the Dalai Lama and by many Christian leaders including Desmond Tutu. He had a close relationship with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. King nominated Thich Nhat Hanh for the Nobel Peace Prize, and credited him with being among his teachers in nonviolence and peace. All of these spiritual leaders have influenced my life’s journey, primarily through the words they have written that I have been privileged to read.

One of the incredible and amazing resources of this world is the human capacity to be influenced by the writing of others. We are able to pass on learning through language. Thich Nhat Hanh didn’t write in a language that I can read. Although he was fluent in several languages, including English, his native Vietnamese and French were the languages that he spoke from childhood. His books were translated into English by others. Even with the extra process of translation, I feel as if I have been taught by him. A great deal of his calm and peaceful presence comes through the translated words. It seems as if his spirit has been shared through print on paper.

I think of Thich Nhat Hanh as being in the same generation as Desmond Tutu, who also was 95 at his death less than a month ago. They were just a bit younger than my parents. Their generation has been essential in my formation and the formation of people in my generation. We have been shaped by those of many other generations. We are able to read the words of people who lived centuries before our birth, but somehow the teachings of our parents’ peers has been very impactful on the life I have lived. I have looked up to those elders as examples of the life I aspire to live.

Thich Nhat Hanh, Desmond Tutu, and others of their generation remained engaged and productive through their aging years. They were teaching and active well beyond the age of retirement. Their productivity and engagement inspire me and remind me that even though I am moving into the age of an elder and our parents’ generation is passing away and passing on their legacy to ours, this is not the time for me to stop living fully or to cease contributing to the wellbeing of others. There is meaningful work that remains for me. Discovering and continuing that work is a perpetual task before me and one that will demand thoughtfulness and prayer. I have the good fortune to have many mentors and teachers of that kind of thoughtfulness and prayer. Thich Nhat Hanh is one of those mentors and teachers.

I don’t know if I will read more of his books. I have a long list of books that I intend to read. But I will take time, as the world celebrates his life, to re-read one of the volumes on my bookshelf. There is much that I can yet learn from this teacher.

A Covid story

Whenever I get together with colleagues from another part of the country, something that is happening exclusively by Zoom these days, the informal conversation always includes a bit of storytelling about brushes with Covid. The pandemic is at the top of our conversations because it is having a dramatic effect on all of us, even those of us who have not personally contacted the disease.

Our family has been pretty careful to do what we can to decrease Covid spread. We became vaccinated as soon as we were able and kept up with our second shots and boosters. We have kept our personal bubble very small. We have had unmasked contact only with our son and his family and my sister. We work in a very covid-conscious setting. Our congregation has an active Covid advisory committee that has guided the Church Council in making conservative decisions about allowing gatherings. We are currently not meeting face-to-face for a few weeks as the Omicron variant spreads rapidly in our county. Nearly one sixth of the Covid-19 cases in our state occurred in our county last week.

We know, however, that it is impossible to eliminate all risk of contacting the illness. We have been fortunate, however, and until last week we didn’t have a Covid story to share. Now, however, we have our own story. It is the story of a minor brush with happy results.

We have some familiarity with the at home self-tests that are available. Some of the members of our family have had cold symptoms in the past month. Normally we wouldn’t have been concerned, but it is difficult to distinguish between cold symptoms and Covid. Because health care providers are overwhelmed and testing is difficult to obtain, the self-tests are a convenient screening tool. Although they are not 100% accurate, they can give some information. One of the things that we discovered is that if a person has cold symptoms it is difficult to obtain professional screening or care. Susan had a regular appointment to see a doctor for an annual wellness exam, but she was coughing a bit. She reported this to the doctor’s office. Their response was to immediately reschedule her appointment to several months later. We commented on the quirks of a health care system that means you can’t see a doctor if you have any symptoms and wondered how people who are really sick get the care they need without going to already overburdened emergency rooms. Her symptoms were not severe, however. She wouldn’t have missed a day’s work in pre-Covid times. Out of an abundance of caution, however, she stayed at home and I used a self-test before participating in leading worship.

When our grandson had some general tiredness and complained of having trouble catching his breath, his parents watched him closely and he was kept home from school. We used our last self-test to check and his test came back positive. Following the CDC guidelines, we all isolated, staying at home. His symptoms quickly faded. His sisters and parents did not develop any symptoms. The girls were tested by the school and their test results were normal and they returned to school. Our grandson returned to school after the required days of symptom-free isolation. More self-test kits arrived and we did another round of testing. So far it seems that our grandson was the only one infected. He had minor symptoms and recovered quickly.’

Our family has been very careful. We’ve upped our face mask strategy using KN-95 masks. We have a small circle of people with whom we have contact. We observe guidelines about distance. We keep track of personal contacts. That means that we are fairly certain that the way the virus got into our family system was through the public school. We don’t blame the school. They have been very careful. The children wear face masks. The school is very careful about isolating children who have symptoms. At the school, if a student asks for a tissue, the request is treated as a symptom and the child is sent home.

The reality is that the omicron variant of the disease is extremely transmissible. Its symptoms are similar to those of a common cold. Even though our covid precautions mean that we are less likely to catch cold viruses, they remain a constant part of our environment. A few minor symptoms are going to occur. At the same time, health care facilities are overwhelmed. They are only able to treat those who are extremely ill. Testing facilities are overwhelmed. Most people are not able to obtain a full PCS test until after the symptoms have passed. The County test site is so overwhelmed that it takes 10 days or more to obtain a test. The wave will pass, but in the meantime, a lot of people are going to get sick.

Our family is very fortunate. I still don’t have much of a Covid story to share and that is just fine with me. I’d much prefer to keep it that way. Fortunately, the need for us to isolate from our son and our grandchildren was a short period of time. They have a new baby expected within a month. We are the childcare plan for the other children when the time for the birth comes. We also occasionally pick up the children from school and provide care for them when the school has breaks and their parents are working. For better or worse, we are all in the same bubble when it comes to the virus.

Meanwhile my sister is in Oregon where her daughter will be delivering a baby any day now. We intentionally parted in advance of that so that she had time to isolate between visiting us and being with her daughter just to be safe. They are getting adept at administering self-tests as well. Her dog, however, is with us. We will need to make a plan for her to return before too long. And, at the end of the month, we will host our daughter-in-law’s father and stepmother in our home. They are as eager to meet the new baby as we are. We can’t live our lives isolated from the people we love.

With care and a bit of luck, however, we hope to keep our Covid stories to a minimum. We hope you will remain safe as well.

Walking the dog

Some days being retired doesn’t seem that much different from having a full time job. I guess I should say “semi-retired” because I have a half time job at present. Yesterday I began my final meeting of the day, a really fun gathering called “Adult Forum” with a small group of faithful people who are eager to discuss faith and adults. Informally visiting for a few minutes before our Zoom session, I did the quick math in my mind and realized that I was starting my ninth hour of Zoom meetings for the day, as I began my 13th hour since the first meeting started. 14-hour days were not unusual when I was working full time, but they are less so now. And I’m no big fan of Zoom, but this week I am grateful for the technology that assists our work. I remember the days when meeting with the board of a national organization meant two full days’ of travel and even more hours in meetings each day. As it was, I had time between my Zoom sessions to take a walk with my wife and the dog, make a quick trip to our son’s farm to pick up a few items that we had stored there, and even a little time to sit and read.

We were commenting on how quickly my sister’s dog has come to feel at home in our house. The joke is that sometimes the dog will allow me to sit in his recliner.

The dog may have adjusted, but so have we. Although Susan and I both had beloved dogs in our families when we were growing up, we haven’t been dog people during our active careers. Simply put, a dog is a lot of work and a big commitment, and we had very busy lives. As we grew older and began to think about our retirement, we began to notice that a lot of people our ages were a bit dog crazy. I’m sure that those words might offend some and I don’t mean to make light of mental illness, but some people go way overboard when it comes to their pet dogs. We started to see dogs in baby carriages when traveling. People have back packs to carry their dogs. We meet folks walking on the path while their dog rides. Fortunately for us, my sister’s dog is full of energy and doesn’t need to be carried when we go on our walks.

What is more striking is the way that people speak about their dogs. Seemingly serious and otherwise intelligent people will speak of their dogs as if they were children born to the family. I’ve found myself talking about our daughter’s dog as our “grand dog.” And a lot of people our age who have dogs have more than one. They’ll speak of how well their dogs get along with each other. They are quick to add “they are rescues, you know.” It makes me wonder who is need of rescue.

However, now that we have a dog who lives in our home, albeit for just a while as my sister attends to her daughter who is expecting the birth of my sister’s first granddaughter any day now, I can see some of the advantages of being a bit dog crazy.

For one thing, complete strangers will strike up conversations about the dog. We will be walking on a public pathway and someone who wouldn’t normally speak to us as we pass will stop us to complement us on the dog: “My you have a beautiful dog!” I’ll admit that the Australian Shepherd has a very pleasant and expressive face, but I don’t think I would describe him as beautiful. I don’t know how to react to such unsolicited compliments. Usually I just say “Thank you.” Sometimes I say, “He’s my sister's dog.” Lately I’ve come up with another line: “He group on a ranch and thinks he’s a ranch dog, but I don’t have a ranch.”

Having a dog in our household has made me much more aware of all of the other dogs in the neighborhood. The dog sleeping in my lazy boy recliner will perk up and often jump up at the sound of one of the neighbor’s dog’s barking. And there is a lot of barking in our neighborhood. Although I try to keep the barking from our house to a minimum, there are times when our quiet is interrupted by loud barking. Yesterday during a Zoom call, the dog got out of the chair and ran to the front door barking. As I rushed to push the mute button another participant in the meeting didn’t miss a beat and said, “UPS truck!” Not being a long-time dog owner, I didn’t know if it was just a quirk of this particular dog or if barking at the UPS truck was a universal dog behavior.

The UPS truck is nothing compared to garbage pickup day. I’m not sure I could have a Zoom meeting at home on the day that garbage and recycling is picked up. That dog sounds as if he believes that every garbage truck is a grave threat and that the only defense is continued barking for as long as he can hear the truck.

So whatever the particular form of older adult dementia causes folks my age to speak of their dogs as if they were human seems to have settled on me as well. I recently told a colleague that we now have a “canine enhanced” household. I attribute human emotions to the dog. I speak to him as if he has a perfect command of the English language. I’m pretty sure that in addition to the strangers who greet us when we are walking with the dog, there are plenty of other people who say to their friends when we are out of earshot, “There goes another crazy old couple with their pampered dog. I bet they have some cutesy name for it.”

We don’t. His name is Cody. It fits him quite well, thank you.

The words we use

Over the years, I taught law enforcement officers, led survivor’s support groups, presented to college and high school classes, and addressed civic and governmental leaders on the topics of suicide and suicide prevention. One of the topics I frequently addressed was the language we use to speak of the act of suicide. On countless occasions I explained why suicidologists don’t use the term “commit” as in “He committed suicide.” We prefer, rather, to use words such as “He died by suicide,” or “She died after a prolonged struggle with mental illness.” Our choice of words is not an attempt at hiding the harsh reality of suicide. It is, rather, an attempt to combat the stigma attached to suicide and suicide loss.

For a long time, suicide has been viewed as a criminal act. The rationale has been that if killing is wrong, killing oneself must also be wrong. The implication is that the victim of suicide has died because of a willful act, a bad decision, or a controlled process. Because suicides are unattended deaths, they must be investigated by medical examiners or coroners, who generally work alongside law enforcement agents. This means that the place of suicide is often treated as a crime scene, with intentional control to preserve evidence. Family members are often prevented by law enforcement agents from obtaining all of the information surrounding the death. Sometimes they are delayed in their desire to see the body of their loved one.

We argue that suicide is not a crime and we shouldn’t use criminal language when talking about these tragic deaths.

There were, however, occasions when I heard the words, “commit suicide” spoken and did not intervene with my usual lesson in appropriate language. Those were occasions when grief-stricken survivors used the words. Not every moment is the time for teaching. I might later gently speak of the topic during a support group or another venue at which those people are present, but at the time of providing initial comfort, information, and support, I often choose not to bring up language use.

Recently a couple of experiences have gotten me to thinking about the language of suicide from a slightly different perspective. Cory Robin, a YouTube artist who makes beautiful videos of backcountry flying in light airplanes, lost a sister to suicide last year and after simply taking time off following the death, has been very open and frank speaking of his grief in some of his videos. He has tackled the tough subject of pilot suicide and worked at prevention by education of pilots. In at least one of his videos he uses the word “commit” in reference to his sister’s death. David Sedaris, a brilliant and very funny essayist, also used “commit” when writing about his sister’s death. These are not people who use language lightly or flippantly. They are used to choosing their words carefully. Since they are survivors who know the continuing path of grief, their choice of words is worthy of contemplation.

The first definition of the word commit in the dictionary is the one that has sparked my decision not to use it in relationship to suicide death: “carry our or perpetuate (a mistake, crime, or immoral act).” Theologians and ethicists have taken different positions in regard to suicide. I submit that the choice of some in the history of the church to label suicide as immoral is based in a lack of understanding of the nature of mental illness. We would never think to call death by heard disease or cancer “immoral.” Yet we continue to speak of mental illness as if it is not an illness, but rather a voluntary act. A person cannot choose to escape depression any more than a person can choose to escape kidney disease. Even though people make mistaken decisions in regards to the prevention of the spread of viruses, we don’t blame the victims of Covid-19 for their own deaths.

The complexity of language, however, results in there being other definitions of the word commit. The second dictionary definition of commit is “pledge or bind (a person or an organization) to a certain course or policy.” Leaders can become committed to world peace. Donors commit to raising funds. Couples commit themselves to each other in marriage. There are many times when the word has very positive connotations. I am proud that I have committed decades of my life to the work of suicide awareness, prevention, and response. I use the word commit in its positive sense on a regular basis.

The third definition in the dictionary is “transfer something to (a state or place).” I have lots of ideas that I do not commit to my journal. This definition is very tricky when mental illness is involved because we use the word “admit” when we speak of hospitalization for many illnesses, but “commit” when speaking of treatment for mental illness. People are admitted to the hospital for treatment of Covid, but committed to institutions for treatment of depression.

Making hard and fast rules or banning the use of particular words in particular situations doesn’t work very well for us. What is needed is careful sensitivity to the needs of suffering people and thoughtful choices about the words we use. I will continue to avoid the phrase “committed suicide.” However, I understand that those words are meaningful to some who are grieving the loss of loved ones. Words are neither harmful or helpful. It is the way that they are used that can cause harm.

Suicide carries an enormous weight of social stigma in our communities. We help to ease that stigma by having the courage to speak of suicide openly and honestly. I am deeply grateful for voices like Cory Robin and David Sedaris who elevate the subject of suicide by their courageous and honest sharing of their experiences. Just as I have worked hard to create support groups where people feel free to speak of suicide without stigma, I long for an enlightened attitude in the wider community that allows suicide death to be openly mourned and suicide grief to be freely expressed. As we work towards that goal, I remain committed to choosing my words carefully.

Always a teacher

The union that created the United Church of Christ occurred when I was a toddler. By the time I was an elementary school student, the church was in the process of rolling out new Sunday School Curriculum, commissioned and produced at a significant expense as a part of that union. Professional educators, curricula designers, and writers were employed to produce what, at the time, was a significant advance in Christian education. There were hard-cover books for each age group, soft cover books to take home, and posters created by professional artists and archivists. The artwork that accompanied the curriculum was, at first, controversial, especially in some more conservative congregations that had grown used to gentle pictures of a European-looking Jesus in a field of sheep or a circle of children. The use of more symbolic artwork was jarring to some church members.

The curriculum was, however, effective. We learned significant amount about the Bible and the traditions of the church. We were encouraged to tackle tough questions and consider the meaning of our own faith. Of course no single curriculum can contain all of the elements necessary for lifelong learning, and there were serious flaws in the materials produced for my generation of children. Furthermore the church’s track record with children and youth of my age is not very strong. Despite a big influx of baby boom children, the majority of those children did not grow up to be lifelong members of the church. The decline of mainline Protestant congregations occurred in the midst of huge budgets for educational programs.

For whatever reasons, however, the teaching ministries of the church have been central to my understanding of my career. At our ordinations, we took the vows that Christian ministers have taken for centuries. We promised “to teach and preach the Gospel.” Note that the word teach comes first. In our part of the church, we have a strong tradition of educated clergy. At the time we were ordained, the minimum educational credential for ordination was a three-year master’s degree. A masters degree is a teaching degree the same degree required as a minimum for a college professor. From the beginning of my career, I felt that teaching was a central part of my calling. I have promoted education within the church all along. I have taught classes for children, youth, and adults. I have promoted biblical literacy. I have been a strong advocate for the educational ministries of the church in all of its settings. I served on Conference education committees. I was a professional Educational Consultant deployed by the national setting of the church for two decades. I have written and edited thousands of lessons published as a part of educational curricula for our church and many other churches.

It isn’t a path that was chosen by many of my seminary colleagues. At the time of our ordination, the educational ministries of the church were often viewed as second class positions. In general ministers of education were not ordained and did not have the educational background of senior ministers. And senior ministers tended to mostly ignore the work of educators. In an effort to strengthen educational ministries, we worked hard to promote certification of educators. For a number of years, the congregation we served in South Dakota was the congregation of the United Church of Christ with the largest number of certified educators. We also worked on commissioning, a formal recognition of the calling and qualifications of professional educators. Both of those credentials have not been maintained in recent years, but they were significant programs of preparation and support for ministers of education.

As funding and support eroded from the national setting of the church, the support of educators faded. The same church that employed a strong team of professional educators and teachers when I was a child became a church that had not even a single professional educator in its national setting by the time of my retirement. It is, in my opinion, a sad story.

The language of education has changed as well. Ministers of Education are now called Ministers of Faith Formation. Faith Formation has replaced Christian Education as the preferred way to talk about the process of teaching and learning. At one point, I wrote volumes of lessons for a curricula where we did not use the terms “teacher” and “student,” replacing them with “leader” and “learner.”

Through all of these changes, the Association of United Church Educators (AUCE), a voluntary organization within the church, has worked to promote the teaching ministries of the church. Over the years, I have served the Association in a variety of positions, including developing the Association’s first web site. I also served on the Association’s National Coordinating Committee for several terms. Now reorganized, the National Coordinating Committee has become the AUCE Board. It is made up of representatives from each region of the church as well as several positions elected by the membership such as Chairperson, Vice Chairperson, and Secretary.

Today I begin three days of meetings of the AUCE Board as the newly-elected representative of the Western Region of our church. Because of the pandemic, the Board Meetings will take place over Zoom. I’ll be spending quite a bit of time in front of the computer in several three-hour blocks, working on a variety of projects and programs to support education in local congregations. As the denomination’s official support of educators has declined, AUCE has taken up some of the slack, reviving a certification program, offering support for ministers of education seeking ordination, and providing educational programs for church leaders. Although the United Church of Christ has what is called “The Faith Education, Innovation, and Formation Team” (Faith INFO), there is little information about the work of this team. The national web site contains a few brief descriptive paragraphs and a link to the AUCE website. Increasingly, AUCE is becoming the major provider of resources and support for the educational ministries of the church.

I am old. I am at the end of my career. But there is still much that remains to be done. I’m not a fan of meetings, but I’ve agreed to serve on the board because I passionately believe in the educational mission of the church. Our generation may not be one of great advances in Christian education, but the educational work of the church is worthy of our time, energy, and passion. Being semi retired, I’ve got plenty of time and passion. I’ll have to keep working on the energy part.

The important tasks

I’ve been working on the archives of my journal lately. It is a slow process and it will probably take years, but the goal is to organize more than 14 years of daily essays into some form that is accessible should anyone want to go back and search out a particular date. Realizing that I am probably the only one who would want to do that, the task is probably mostly for my sake, but it potentially has some benefit should someone else want to read back essays. As I work my way slowly through the essays, I have experimented with a variety of different ways of organizing the task. I started with the years 2016 and 2017 because there were some issues with the publication of those essays in the old manner. By combining a month’s essays into a single document and changing the document’s format to .pdf, I was able to publish a month’s essays in a much more compact form and consume less digital storage space on the Internet. However, in the next couple of weeks I will begin working with a different organizational pattern, preserving and publishing some significant months in other years before returning to finish 2016 and 2017. The fact that I keep revising my plan of organization is consistent with the way I have lived my life. The process is reminding me of some themes that connect the thousands of essays.

One theme is my personal lack of expertise. There are a lot of essays that begin with me admitting that I am not an expert in the field on which I am writing. This lack of expertise doesn’t stop me from making comments, however. It may be that the words, “I’m no expert, but . . .” are among the most common combinations in my essays.

Another theme in that keeps emerging is that I struggle with time management. I frequently write about the feeling of not having enough time to complete the tasks that I have set before myself. Ministers are considered “self-employed” for tax purposes, and we have a high degree of control over how we organize our work. Throughout my career, I tried to make relationships my first priority. That meant that sometimes I spent hours talking with someone rather than completing administrative tasks. It meant that I would interrupt a work plan to listen to another person. I would go to a bedside, or the home of a grieving family, or sit with someone struggling with a difficult decision while tasks like ordering supplies, organizing receipts, filing paperwork, and cleaning off my desk took a back seat. For most of my working life, there were piles of unsorted papers on my desk, my books sat in piles on flat surfaces, and there was computer and paper work that was undone at the end of nearly every day.

At one point, when I was well into my career, I had a conversation with someone about how I had learned to go home at the end of a day with tasks undone. That person couldn’t understand how I could live with that chaos. She said to me, “I have never left work with undone tasks.” I don’t know if that was actually true. I didn’t have any way to check and I’m not interested in knowing, but it seems to be impossible from my point of view. To have never left work with undone tasks would mean, in my opinion, that the work wasn’t very significant. The Christian ministry is the work of participating in a multiple-generational activity. We don’t run out of work after a lifetime of activity. Our work would never be done.

Looking back after years of active ministry now that I am semi-retired (a designation that in itself indicates that the work isn’t done) I am pleased to find that somehow in the midst of my lack of organizational skills, I did manage to accomplish some things that are very important to me.

Despite having plenty of undone tasks, I did find time to participate in a genuine partnership with my wife. We have learned to work together and grown closer together over the years. Our marriage has carried us through many hard times and we continue to find strength and meaning in being married. Over the years of my life, I have managed to build strong relationships with our children. Being a father has been a blessing for me, and it has also involved hard work. It is meaningful work and I am so pleased that I continue to be close to our children and that they have good memories of growing up. Over the years I have met plenty of people who have suffered from parents who weren’t present for important times in their lives. Their feelings of neglect and even abandonment leave lifelong scars. By the Grace of God, I have avoided leaving such feelings in the lives of our children.

In my active ministry, I was known for my skill at leading meaningful funerals. I always made time, regardless of what else was happening in my life, to be with and listen to grieving families. I worked hard to provide ceremonies that were carefully matched to the needs of those families. I feel that such work was far more important than tasks that I left undone.

I always made time for prayer and study. I maintained disciplines that nurtured my spirit and gave me strength for the long haul. I endured in ministry in part because I was diligent in prayer. I kept up with my profession because I made time to study scripture, read books, and pursue continuing education.

I kept worship and mission at the center of my ministry. I made time for fresh and creative worship and strong preaching. From our worship, we were able to remain connected to service to others. The congregations I served had faithful and meaningful worship and strong programs of service, outreach, and mission.

And somehow, through it all, I kept writing essays. OK, that last one probably isn’t a mark of well-organized time. That doesn’t bother me. Sometimes the people who are most organized fail to accomplish what is most important. Pursuing what is most important in the midst of a bit of disorganization seems to have been a better strategy for me.

A Calm Day on the Coast

I’m no expert, but as near as I can figure the tsunami was pretty much a non-event in Birch Bay. Not knowing about such things, we stayed out of the tsunami zone during the hours of the watch even though we know that the tsunami zone is based on a much closer event and much bigger waves than were predicted following yesterday’s eruption of an underwater volcano near Tonga. Later, in the afternoon, we walked along the berm near the beach and could see no signs of particularly high water. The king tide of a week earlier left all kinds of debris on streets and water entered quite a number of beach homes. There were places where the tide washed over roads and flooded low-lying streets. It backed up Terrell Creek where it enters the bay and caused flooding alongside the river. In one place there was water over a bridge. Yesterday’s tsunami apparently was expressed in a series of waves that were smaller than recent high tides.

The bay was calm as we walked along the shore. It was a gray day, with the clouds meeting the sea on the horizon. We couldn’t see the sun through the clouds and it simply got gradually darker as the sun began to set. It was a peaceful time and there were lots of people walking along the path and others down on the beach next to the water.

All of the NOAA sources, weather application, and news sources I consulted warned people not to go down to the water to observe the tsunami. They all noted that tsunami waves are very difficult to predict.

It is an amazing phenomenon that an earthquake can be so violent that it sends waves flowing thousands of miles. It is more than 5,800 miles from Tonga to the coast of Washington, and the waves made the trip in less than 12 hours from the eruption. Apparently there were some observable waves out beyond the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Inside the Salish Sea all that was observed were slightly rougher waves than normal. No evacuations were ordered, simply a warning that dangerous conditions might exist. Even with waves that are not much higher than usual, currents were different from the usual due to the tsunami.

Let’s see, record heat, wildfires, floods, mudslides, record snowfall, high winds, record low temperatures, and now a tsunami. All in all, it has been quite an introduction to our new home. Through it all we have not suffered and have remained safe from all of those major events.

Meanwhile, it was a quiet day in our neighborhood. We had a crew working in the craw space under our home. One of the things we knew about the house from a pre-purchase inspection is that there had been a rodent problem in the crawl space. Although the rodents were gone and the space had been properly sealed, there was damage to the vapor barrier and insulation. We decided that it would be a wise move to have all the old insulation and vapor barrier removed and new materials installed. The cost was about the same as the deposit we had made on our rental home, and the work carries a 10-year guarantee, so it seemed like a good investment. The workers were efficient and cleaned up after themselves. It took a little more than five hours for the work to be completed.

Workers under the floor was quite unnerving for the dog. He felt compelled to bark, and when we ordered him to be quiet, he paced nervously. We ended up taking him to the farm for most of the time the workers were completing the job.

Out on the street there was a man walking the neighborhood campaigning for the upcoming vote on a new library for our community. He didn’t need to convince us. We are completely convinced that a library will be a good investment for Birch Bay. Of course, being parents of a librarian, we are biased. We are also biased because we are big users of library services. We have library cards for two different libraries and often have books checked out from both places at the same time.

The proposed library for our community will be located on land that has already been purchased by the county library district. It is right across the street from the beach and includes a section of formerly private beach, now made public by the library. If the proposed library receives enough votes in a couple of weeks, it will be within walking distance of our home. Furthermore, it will have a feature that we have not seen in any other library before. The new library will have beach toys to borrow. There is something about the idea of a library that loans beach toys that is specially appealing to me. We know we live in a unique place with unique features. A unique library seems to be just the right thing.

The same ballot will be used for another proposed property tax increase, this one to support area schools. We’re inclined to be in favor of that proposal as well. The two measures combined would affect our taxes by less than $100 per year and we feel that such an amount is an excellent investment in our home’s value. Homes in communities with good schools and a good library are worth more than those more distant from such community services. The school bond vote includes a proposed new elementary school for our neighborhood. Families with children will be attracted to our area and that is a good thing.

I guess that being retired carries with it the opportunity to take life at a pace that is just a bit slower than ours used to be. I take more notice of little things like workers in the area and campaigners working the neighborhood. Those things turned out to be more important than the possibility of tsunami waves yesterday. Still, a tsunami watch is not something to ignore. A closer earthquake or volcano might have completely different results.

Hope persists

Sometimes we will find ourselves in a conversation about how we think future historians will interpret our time of history. We have imagined some future archaeologists sifting through the rubble of our time on earth in some future dig revealing our time on earth. The other day, we noted that the abundance of Lego bricks might bring some consternation to future archeologists. Why was so much energy invested in miniature building materials. There is no evidence of tiny humans having lived in our time, but the Lego detritus that we leave behind will certainly include abundant mini-figures. Will future historians interpret the presence of such items as a kind of religious practice. If so, what will all of the heads separated from bodies and upper torsos without lower extremities be interpreted? What will they think of figures with “hands” that are shaped to grasp round objects only?

It is, of course, idle speculation, but sometimes it doesn’t take much to amuse us and spark thoughts and ideas that can be shared. I suppose that part of what inspires such conversation is a love of learning and a bit of knowledge of history and the tools of discovery about the past.

Having some kind of perspective on our time, and a bit of understanding that there are both similarities and differences between different historical eras, can be a source of strength for the trials of this life. We experience pain and grief and we turn to our scriptures to discover that ours isn’t the first generation to experience such emotions. Furthermore, we discover that our forebears endured despite suffering. Hope is born from a sense of connection with those who have lived in other times.

As a college student I found the history of philosophy to be a hopeful pursuit. It is clear to students of how humans have thought about the meaning of life over the centuries that we aren’t the first generation to ponder dark thoughts. I can express dismay at the grim state of politics, in which politicians equate winning with goodness and see any disagreement as enmity. Ours isn’t the first generation of hypocritical leaders, however. Others have experienced injustice and cruelty in the halls of power.

Philosophers have pondered the presence of evil in the world since ancient times. More than seven centuries before the birth of Christ ancient philosophers discussed what has been labeled the Myth of Pandora. In the story, the god Zeus creates Pandora as a punishment for humanity over the theft of fire by Prometheus. Pandora comes to humanity bearing a jar (or sometimes a box, depending on who is telling the story). In the jar are countless plagues. The jar is opened and evil is released into the world. Only one thing remains in the jar. Hope is somehow stuck within the rim of the jar.

There are many different ways to interpret the story. Some see the presence of hope in the midst of evil as a sign that evil is never the only option for humans. Others see the presence of hope as a sign that hope somehow is also a plague - a soothing emotion that can also cause harm.

Philosophers have debated the meaning of the story for thousands of years. In the 19th-Century Arthur Schopenhauer described hope as a “folly of the heart.” He argued that hope is a delusion the "deranges the intellects appreciation of probability.” Hope, from his perspective prevents people from seeing the obvious. “A hopeless misfortune is like a quick death blow, whilst a hope that is always frustrated and constantly revived resembles a kind of slow death by prolonged torture.”

Schopenhauer wasn’t the only philosopher of his century to take up such a dim view. Friedrich Nietzsche wrote, “Zeus did not want man to throw his life away, no matter how much the other evils might torment him, but rather to go on letting himself be tormented anew. To that end, he gives man hope. In truth, it is the most evil of evils because it prolongs man’s torment.”

Those and other philosophers of previous generations might find themselves at home in the frustrations of current times. In a world beset by a global pandemic facing catastrophic events of global climate change, they might argue that hope blinds humans so that we do not see the inevitable and that any hope in our current situation is simply a prolonging of inevitable suffering.

Fortunately for me students of philosophy are trained to argue with other thinkers, whether they belong to our generation or to another. I can read Schopenhauer and Nietzsche and not be swayed by their arguments. Furthermore, their voices are not the only ones we can read. Immanuel Kant, in his Critique of Pure Reason, argues that hope is an essential element and necessary for human life. Without hope, there is no joy. Søren Kierkegaard and Gabriel Marcel view hope as a way of overcoming the limitations of human experience. Kierkegaard makes a distinction between earthly hope which fades over time and heavenly hope which is eternal. Both are available to humans.

Regardless of all of the arguments and philosophies, Hope continues to persist. Even in the darkest of times, humans are capable of experiencing hope and using hope to motivate significant action. History is filled with accounts of humans overcoming odds and accomplishing great good. Furthermore, hope is often present in the lives of those who are most familiar with the evils of this world. The new collaboration between Jane Goodall and Doug Abrams, The Book of Hope, is not prefaced by some blindness to the dangers and evil of this world. Goodall is a realist who has seen the danger and damage humans have caused. Her hope is not some weak emotion that will disappear at the first challenge. It is, rather a deep strength that cannot be destroyed.

Despite millennia of debate, hope continues to motivate people to work for good. Despite the realities of evil in the world, hope persists. A student of the history of philosophy will soon conclude that hope will continue to inspire humans for generations yet to come.

In the Lord of the Rings, Frodo asks Sam, “What are we holding on to?”

“That there’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo . . . and it’s worth fighting for.”

Despite the multitude of evils in Pandora’s jar, hope is the strongest of its contents.

The Duke of York

I remember sitting on wooden benches at the tables in the old Half Moon Dining Hall at Camp Mimanagish. At camp, we sang songs after every meal. Many of the songs had actions to accompany them. Singing together was a way of building community. A song that often showed up after breakfast was this:

Oh, the grand old Duke of York,
He had ten thousand men;
He marched them up the hill
And he marched them down again.

When you’re up, you’re up,
And when you’re down, you’re down,
And when you’re only halfway up,
You’re neither up nor down.

As we sang, we’d stand for “When you’re up, you’re up,” sit for “And when you’re down, you’re down,” and then quickly go halfway up, up and down as we sang the last two lines. The song would be repeated at a faster pace until we were singing too fast to complete the actions in time with the song. Then we’d all stop, panting and giggling. As much fun as it was to sing the song and go through the actions, it was even more fun to watch the other campers, especially the adults at family camp. I didn’t get very many opportunities to see my parents just being silly, but I treasured those times and they have a special place in my memory.

I didn’t know anything about the Royal Family in the United Kingdom, nor of who he current Duke of York might be. I didn’t know the duties or the Duke of York or how such a person could come to have command of ten thousand men. But I did know that the song was repetitive and that it seemed to be mocking repetitive and meaningless action.

I’ve lived most of my life thinking that much of the uniforms, medals, pomp, and ceremony of British Royals is about as meaningful as the children’s song. They go through the motions, but their actions belong to a former time and are reenacted as meaningless ceremony. Granted that judgement was made from a place of no direct knowledge.

Later, as a young adult, we did visit England. We saw the guards at Buckingham Palace and we watched the ceremony of the changing of the guard as tourists. The uniforms were showy, especially the tall shako hats. The guards maintained a stoicism and kept straight faces as they performed their duties. Quite frankly, however, they came off as a group of well trained actors more than as a crack military force.

When I sing The Grand Old Duke of York, I am not thinking of the grandeur of a sunset or the high mountains of the continental divide. I’m thinking of silly pompousness and overdone uniforms.

When I read that the Duke of York has returned all of his titles to the Queen and that he can no longer be referred to as “his royal highness,” it doesn’t seem like a big deal to me.

Prince Andrew, the second son of the Queen of England, is the defendant in a civil lawsuit here in the United States. The charge is that he sexually assaulted a woman when she was 17 years of age. The prince’s lawyers attempted to have the suit dismissed, citing a non-disclosure deal the victim signed with convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. The judge in the case ruled that it could continue.

The charges are serious. There is nothing funny about the abuse of a young woman. There is significant evidence that Prince Andrew, Jeffrey Epstein and other rich and powerful men used their power and wealth to pursue inappropriate relationships with young women without regard for the physical and psychological damage that was occurring. Their actions have been labeled sex trafficking. Epstein associate Ghislaine Maxwell, has been found guilty of recruiting and trafficking underage girls to be sexually abused by Epstein and his associates. Prince Andrew was one of those associates who traveled on Epstein’s private jet, visited Epstein at his homes, and entertained Epstein in properties owned by the royal family.

Now, the Prince will appear in court and defend himself as a private citizen, without the titles and the potential diplomatic immunity they might carry. The fact that he was stripped of his titles is a sign that the Queen and other members of the royal family believe that there is merit to the charges that have been brought against him.

Rich and powerful men do some pretty terrible things. Occasionally, someone has the courage to stand up to them and hold them responsible.

I’m no lawyer and I have no inside information. I am in no position to make judgements of whether or not Andrew should have been stripped of his titles and I cannot predict the outcome of a lawsuit in which highly paid lawyers will argue technicalities of the law and exchanges of large amounts of money. I have no intention of following all of the legal wrangling and subsequent charges, counter charges and proceedings.

What I do know is that when wealth and power are abused the victims of the abuse are real. Their pain and suffering is real. Lawsuits and financial settlements cannot erase the pain of the victims. Some actions have permanent consequences. Assault can leave permanent scars.

I don’t know what consequences Andrew should face, but I believe that no person is above the law and that those who victimize others should be held responsible for their actions.

When I was a child, I somehow knew that the Grand Old Duke of York, wasn’t really grand. I knew that there was a kind of ridiculousness to the pomp of titles. I believed that no one should be able to control the behavior of ten thousand other people. It might have been a silly song, but it helped me to learn some important things about life. I wasn’t old enough to understand the nuances of the abuse of power, I just knew that some people take themselves way too seriously and a silly song worked to eliminate barriers between people.

Perhaps the real Duke of York didn’t have the opportunity to sing the song enough to learn that important lesson.

Conversations with Cody

My sister has a wonderful dog named Cody. Cody is an Australian shepherd. He is intelligent, faithful, and well-behaved. From the first time I met him, I have liked the dog and he likes me. Once, when we were still living in South Dakota, Cody stayed in our home for a short while as my sister went to visit a friend in Minnesota who was living in a home too small for a human guest and a dog. Although our yard was not fenced, we got along just fine. Cody loves to chase balls, sticks, frisbees, or any other object thrown. He comes when I call him and he didn’t run into the street. His one quirk seems to be that he barks loudly at all garbage trucks and delivery vans. He will occasionally bark at school busses as well. I can’t seem to get him to stop barking when the garbage trucks are in the neighborhood.

Cody is living with us for a while. My sister is visiting her daughter who is going to have a baby soon and she needs to be able to focus her attention on the new little one and the needs of the mother. We have a fenced back yard. We walk every day. And we live just down the road from our son’s farm where there are large fields in which Cody can run and chase objects that I throw. As a bonus, he has no interest in the chickens at our son’s farm, so we don’t have to worry about him chasing them.

When Susan and I go to work or are away from our home, Cody waits in the back yard and other than barking at garbage trucks he is no bother to the neighbors. If it rains, he can go underneath our deck to keep dry, though he doesn’t seem to have too much interest in staying dry.

Cody and I have been having several conversations lately.

Me: Seriously, Cody, that recliner isn’t your chair. It is mine. I like to sit in it and read. You can lie on the floor.
Cody: I don’t see what makes the chair yours. It is comfortable and you can see that it is just the right size for me.
Me: I’m not going to argue. I had an argument with a cat over that chair once and that is how the scratches got on it.
Cody: You let a cat in your house?
Me: That was a long time ago, before I even met you.
Cody: If a cat has been in this chair, I don’t want to sit here.

Cody: Did someone forget to feed the dog?
Me: There is a fresh scoop of dog food in your bowl.
Cody: (taking one kibble and then spitting it on the floor) Where’s the topping?
Me: What topping?
Cody: You put cheese on my food this morning.
Me: That was a special treat. You don’t get cheese every time you eat.
Cody: (lying down next to the door) I can wait.
Me: (putting cheese on the dog food) You’re really getting spoiled.

Cody: Why aren’t you throwing the ball for me? I brought it to you so you can play. I work so hard to entertain you and you don’t seem to appreciate my efforts.
Me: I’ve thrown that ball at least 25 times. You’re panting. You need a break.
Cody: One more, one more, just throw it one more time.
Me: (as Cody runs to catch the ball and then keeps going and jumps into the pond) Cody! Stay out of the pond.
Cody: I’m hot and the pond feels good.
Me: It’s winter.
Cody: It’s 55 degrees out. There is no ice on the water.
Me: Now my truck is going to smell like wet dog.
Cody: No extra charge for the improvement.
Me: Here, sit on this towel.
Cody: (turning around several times and wadding the towel into a little ball that fits under his front paws as he sits his wet behind on the seat) Thanks!
Me: Don’t mention it.
Cody: You know I prefer to ride in the front seat.
Me: Not a chance. Don’t even think of it or you’ll end up in the box.
Cody: You don’t dare. I’ll tell your sister.
Me: Sit down and be quiet.
Cody: I don’t see why I can’t sit in the front seat.
Me: Don’t push it.

Cody: (pushing open the bathroom door and barging right in)
Me: Cody! Can’t I have a little privacy?
Cody: I don’t mind.
Me: I’m taking a bath.
Cody: Don’t get up for me.
Me: Cody! You have a water dish, why are you drinking out of the toilet?
Cody: You only put fresh water in that dish twice a day. This thing has fresh water all the time.
Me: It isn’t for you.
Cody: I can smell that you marked it. So what? I don’t see why you get to mark inside and I have to go outside.
Me: Yuck!
Cody: (going out and coming back with a ball in his mouth) Want to play?
Me: Cody, I’m not throwing that ball for you right now. Put it down.
Cody: (spitting the ball into the tub) Here, I’ll make it easy for you.
Me: Hey! I don’t want that dirty thing in here. I’m trying to get clean.
Cody: The ball is clean. I just had it in my mouth.
Me: (scooping up the ball and depositing it on the bath mat) I’m not throwing it.
Cody: I don’t see why. You are such a strange creature. I share everything with you and you don’t even want to play.

Me: (tripping over Cody’s bed) Your bed it huge!
Cody: It isn’t as big as yours.
Me: It is always in the way.
Cody: I wouldn’t need it if you’d let me sleep in your bed.
Me: Don’t even think of it. It isn’t going to happen.
Cody: I can wait until you are asleep.
Me: Don’t you dare!

I really love the dog. He is a wonderful companion for my sister and mostly a very good house guest. He is fun to be around and keeps me laughing. But don’t try arguing with him. I was never any good at arguing with cats, either.

A lucky grandpa

A reading through the bible demonstrates that there are many different kinds of families. There are families that have been reconfigured, families made up of tow parents, one parent, and more. There are large families and small families. A career in the ministry reinforced that observation with experiences of lots of different kinds of families. I’ve met people who live alone and who have happy and fulfilled lives. I’ve met families that have experienced tragedies that are strong and provide wonderful places for children to grow. I’ve met grandparents who are raising grandchildren.

Coming from a family with a lot of children, I once held a bias for large families. I can remember thinking that only children were unfortunate. My life’s experience has taught me, however, that small families are as precious and wonderful as large families. One of the best teachers was being the father of two children. From the moment our first was born I have always felt grateful for our children. Simply put, I am fortunate indeed when it comes to children. I love being a father. I am delighted with our children. Although I know that there are many different sizes and shapes of families, it seems to me that two was exactly the right number of children for us. Then there was the year when we had an exchange student living with us - for that year, three was just the right number and since that time, having Masami in our lives is a special bonus for our family.

Once, quite a few years ago, I made the comment to our children that I thought 5 was a good number for grandchildren. I was joking at the time, but now, with four grandchildren and another on the way it seems like that was a pretty good count. I know that we can’t predict what the future holds, but at the moment, five seems like just the right number in the grandchild department.

The spacing of our grandchildren seems just right to me as well. Until a birthday which is coming up soon, and a birth that should occur around the same time, they are 10, 7, 4 and 2. That gives me four distinct ages and four distinct flavors of humor.

The two year old still gets the giggles from playing hide and seek. And he loves tickling. He will come up to the computer and pretend that he is tickling us over the Internet. It always makes me smile and laugh. He is an excellent talker and has a big vocabulary and I sometimes get the giggles from his choice of words, but he doesn’t really understand the concept of a joke yet. He takes things literally.

The four year old understands that people laugh at jokes, but doesn’t quite get what makes humor tick. She’ll offer a completely nonsensical answer to a “knock knock” joke and laugh even though I can’t see the humor in what she said at all. She’ll try a variation on “Why did the chicken cross the road, and think it is very funny, but I can’t find the humor in it. Still, I love to hear her laugh and I’m entertained by her attempts at humor.

The seven year old knows a fair collection of jokes and gets the punch lines right as well. Almost all of her jokes are ones I’ve heard before, but I repeat my jokes as well, so I’ve little to complain about.

The ten year old has a sophisticated sense of humor. Here is one of his jokes: “There was a duck that was just about to cross the road, when all of a sudden a chicken ran up and said, ‘Don’t do it man. They’ll never stop questioning your motivation.’” He is also just beginning to understand sarcasm. I’m looking forward to exchanging jokes with him in the years to come as he delights me with his humor and his capacity to understand the world around him.

Soon each of them will move on to a new developmental stage and a new form of humor. And the wonderful thing is that we have yet another grandchild to start with baby giggles and grow along a similar, but entirely different path from his or her siblings and cousin.

We don’t yet know the gender of this new child and that makes the anticipation all the more fun from my point of view. When our first grandchild was on the way, I didn’t have any preference about gender. I knew I’d be delighted however the child emerged. After he was born, I still had no preference, but I did have a sense that it would be good for our son to have a daughter. At least I was delighted with the experience of being the father of a daughter and I hoped that our son could discover a similar delight. Now we have two boys and two girls and it seems that whatever is born will be perfect for our family. I know that gender identity is not fixed and that there can be many more surprises as our grandchildren grow and develop, but I enjoy surprises and am looking forward to the newness our grandchildren bring to our family.

I’ve always been fascinated by children and am amazed and delighted at the facility with which they master complex skills. I am also thrilled at their delight in experimenting with new skills and testing their effects on others. I’m open to any of my grandchildren testing out a new joke on me - even if I’ve heard the joke a hundred times before. Each joke is an amazing demonstration of a developing mind that can put together a lifetime of experiences even if that life is short. That same mind can analyze social situations and develop a sense of timing and delivery. The humor of grandchildren is better than the stage act of any stand up comedian.

As a bonus, I keep getting new material from our grandchildren. You can count on me telling the duck crossing the road joke over and over again. Who knows, I might even have the opportunity to tell it to one of our grandchildren some day.

A watch in the night

This seems to be a good environment for rabbits. We frequently see wild rabbits when we are taking our walks. Not far from here, on Whidbey Island, the town of Langley has a lot of wild rabbits that appear to be more like domestic rabbits than the cottontails we commonly see around here. The story is that domestic rabbits escaped their confinement, took to the area and have reproduced in large numbers. The presence of the rabbits is a bit of a local controversy, with some people wanting public officials to decrease the rabbit population and others finding the rabbits to be nearly harmless and a unique feature of their town.

At any rate, we recently were talking over dinner about rabbits and the question we were pondering is whether they are nocturnal or diurnal. It seems that we don’t see as many rabbits in the day as we do in the mornings and evenings, leading me to think that they must be nocturnal. So, as often is the case these days, one of us got out our phone and looked it up. And we learned a new word in the midst of our conversation. Rabbits are crepuscular. they are most active at dusk and dawn.

My wife occasionally accuses me of being nocturnal because I have the habit of going to bed in the evening and then rising for an hour or more in the night before I return to bed. I often write my journal during that pause in my sleep as I am doing right now. So, I’ll introduce another term that is relatively new to me. I practice biphasic sleep.

The practice of double sleeping was widely practices throughout the preindustrial world. There are references to “first sleep” in literature, songs, and even old court records. Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, written between 1387 and 1400, present a storytelling contest between a group of pilgrims, and mentions first sleeps as a common and accepted practice. There are descriptions of biphasic sleep in colonial documents from South America. It is mentioned in the Greek epic The Odyssey.

The practice is much less common these days. I didn’t practice it much when I was in the active phase of my career, preferring then to go to bed early and to rise in the predawn hours for my spiritual practices before beginning the day with the rest of my family. I had taught myself to wake quickly and focus my attention in the hours when many others were sleeping from an early age. In college and graduate school I found that some of my most productive hours were in the early morning. I got into the habit of rising at 4:30 am and getting in at least a couple of hours of work before breakfast.

As a pastor, and as a suicide first responder, I learned to rise quickly when the phone rang and respond to the call. I also learned to go back to sleep when the call was ended. It wasn’t an uncommon occurrence for me to receive a call, rise and dress, go out into the community to provide help for grieving persons, and then return home, get back into my night clothes and sleep for a few hours.

Biphasic sleep was once the most common pattern for the majority of the population. They would rise to tend the fire in cold climates, to take care of needs such as toileting, and to engage in conversation with other family members before returning to their beds for more sleep. There is some evidence that the contemporary practice of going to bed a bit later and sleeping for as much as eight hours or more at a time is relatively new in human history.

Somehow, I was thinking of my sleep pattern and our family conversation about crepuscular rabbits. One might say that I am the opposite of crepuscular were it not for the long nights around here. Although I probably sleep a bit more in the winter than the summer, no one I know needs to sleep from dusk to dawn in this country. That would mean going to bed between 4 and 5 pm in the winter, and even I don’t find myself being sleepy at that time. I get to see plenty of rabbit activity as I am awake in the early evening and again in the early morning when rabbits are most active.

One thing that often surprised me when I was going out into the community in the middle of the night, is how many other people were out and about. It seemed like I always saw other traffic at night. I know that the Interstate highways are full of trucks moving goods at night. There are a lot of shift workers who sleep in the day and work at night. Our society is a place where there are many different sleep patterns and a lot of people who shift their time of sleep at times to change from one shift to another. This shifting of sleep patterns can be stressful and result in the person getting less than optimal amounts of sleep. Orientation to shift work is one of the challenges for law enforcement officers, health care providers, and others who provide essential services.

In my semi-retired state, however, I am free to have unusual patterns of sleep and waking. I rarely use an alarm clock any more. I seep and wake when my body is ready to do so. I have a job with significant flexibility about which hours I work. The pandemic has meant that there are fewer meetings and a lighter schedule of activities. It is no effort for me to be awake and alert well in advance of worship on Sunday mornings and I have no trouble with evening meetings, of which there are fewer in this phase of my life.

A little research has given me a bit of new vocabulary such as crepuscular and biphasic sleep. And the period of wakefulness in the middle of the night is called “the watch,” and there is a great deal of Christian literature referring to the watch in the night as being a time for prayers. Psalm 90 speaks of a watch in the night as a short period of time. For now I’ll be keeping my watch. And if I happen to sleep through it on occasion, the journal will be written at a different time. I’m flexible.

A broken system

One of the challenges of moving is establishing care with a variety of providers. After living in Rapid City for 25 years we had a family doctor who we knew and trusted and a dentist who had provided care for our family for years. We were seen regularly by a dermatologist and we knew who to call when we needed care. Susan had a trusted electrophysiologist who read and interpreted the signals from her heart monitor. When we moved, we needed to establish care with new providers. Then we moved again, making some of those providers nearly an hour away. Furthermore, although we had figured out where to go for our immediate needs, we haven’t established strong relationships with care providers. We are still seeking new providers and establishing new relationships.

I drove back to Mount Vernon last week to see the dentist, but that isn’t a long-term solution. I don’t want to have a long commute to get my teeth cleaned.

Added to the complexity of establishing care is the pandemic. Health Care providers are overwhelmed with people seeking care. Because Covid symptoms mean that providers and their staff need to quarantine, many are short staffed. Appointments need to be rescheduled because there aren’t enough people to respond to the demand.

Susan had an appointment to establish care with a family practice physician. However, she has a cold. We have been very healthy since our mood and have avoided illness. We’ve been more isolated and have followed the protocols of wearing masks and keeping our distance. That means we’ve avoided some of the usual winter colds and other viruses going around. It also means that our immune systems haven’t gotten their usual workout and we may be a bit more vulnerable to viruses. In this case we know our granddaughter had cold symptoms a while ago and suspect that Susan’s cold was from that virus.

I need to add that we have been provided with Self-Test Covid-19 Antigen Rapid Test kits by our employer, and have tested negative for Covid, so we know that the symptoms are not from the Omicron variant.

However, being responsible, Susan reported her cold symptoms to the doctor’s office over the phone. They asked her to reschedule. The next available appointment was a couple of months away. When she reported the conversation to me, we noted the irony of being told that you can only be seen by a doctor if you are well. If you have any actual symptoms, they don’t want you to come to the doctor’s office.

It isn’t difficult to see why urgent care and hospital emergency rooms are overwhelmed. A couple of years ago, a cough or congestion usually meant a trip to the doctor’s office, a quick examination and a treatment plan. Now, there advice is to self-care unless things become critical.

We’re pretty good at self care and we have good health insurance. That means that we have access to telemedicine provided by our health insurance company. It wouldn’t involve seeing a local doctor, but we could obtain a prescription, should we need an antibiotic or other care that is beyond what we usually are able to provide at home.

Both our access to telemedicine and our access to Covid-19 home tests are luxuries that most people don’t have. Our community is filled with people who are doing their best with self care because they simply don’t have access to doctors and paramedics and nurses. As a result, very little preventive medicine is being practiced. We know that people consume less health care and health care costs are lowered when they receive preventive care. But our current situation demands that people wait for care and that any preventive measures be undertaken at home without consulting health care professionals.

Media reports make it seem like the breakdown of the health care system in the United States is the result of the pandemic, but the reports I have read recently fail to mention that the health care system was failing to provide care for many people before the pandemic struck. The US system of for-profit providers has resulted in a tiered health care system with luxury care at one end of the spectrum and virtually no care at the other end. We have had a system of medical “haves” and “have nots” for decades in our country. We spend way more per capita than any other country on health care and have way worse results overall. Our health care system is failing us.

Anti competitive strategies, such as limiting the number of admissions to medical colleges and controlling the number of physicians have created shortages. The shortage of skilled nurses has resulted in a system of unfair wage structures that mean that traveling nurses often earn much higher wages than those who serve faithfully in their home communities. Wage discrepancies create morale problems in most health care institutions. For-profit insurance means that there is pressure to provide less care while premiums rise to increase profits. Despite paperless medical record systems, the burden or record-keeping overwhelms medical practices.

I have an appointment next month to establish care and receive my annual wellness check with a family care practice. Since it will be my first visit, I had to fill out 12 pages of medical history and other information prior to my visit. This despite having authorized the transfer of my medical records from my previous health care providers. Those 12 pages of paper forms will be entered into a computer by a staff person, a process that often involves errors that have to later be corrected. In the last transfer of records, the dosage of one medicine I take was doubled and I didn’t discover the error until I filled a prescription and received a 180 day supply of the medicine. The cost of prescription medicine is drive up by over consumption.

There has to be a better way. Perhaps one of the side effects of the pandemic is that it is revealing just how broken our health care system really is. A large overhaul is in order. In the meantime, take care of yourself. You need to stay healthy enough to be able to see your doctor.

Called by name

It is a longstanding tradition in the church to read the story of Jesus’ baptism in the season of Epiphany, just after the celebration of Christmas. Even before the emergence of the Revised Common Lectionary and the pattern of readings that many congregations follow, there were traditions marking the events of Jesus’ life before the beginning of his formal ministry during this season of the year. The Gospels place Jesus’ baptism by John at the beginning of his ministry, when he had become an adult. They also report the presentation of the infant Jesus in the temple, a separate ceremony. For congregations where the baptism of infants is common practice, there can be a bit of confusion about the different ceremonies, but it is clear from the Gospel record that Jesus was an adult and acting independently from his parents when he presented himself to John for baptism.

For worshipers whose primary source of readings of the scripture come from worship, it can be a bit confusing to celebrate the Baptism of Christ early in Epiphany and then wait for several weeks before reading the stories that come next in the Gospel. After Jesus is baptized, he is led to the wilderness where he is tempted, but those stores are reserved for the first week of Lent. The length of the season of Lent is 40 days - the length of Jesus temptation in the wilderness.

So today we celebrate the Baptism of Jesus, but we will wait until the first Sunday of Lent to read the next part of the gospel. It can be confusing to those who haven’t read the Gospels in their entirety. Our Revised Common Lectionary does an interesting thing with the texts for the Baptism of Christ. The reading of the Hebrew Scripture for today is Isaiah 43:1-7. This reading is part of a section of Isaiah that is offered as a reassurance to Israel in the midst of exile. The prophet reminds the people that God has not forgotten them, even though they have been scattered after the trauma of the political defeat of the nation of Israel. Even though they were conquered and even though they have been forced into dispersed exile in many different locations, God still has love for the people of Israel.

Furthermore, the prophet declares that God will gather the people together once again: “Do not fear, for I am with you; I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you; I will say to the north, ‘Give them up,’ and to the south, ‘Do not withhold; bring my sons from far away and my daughters from the end of the earth.”

It is easy to see why the Isaiah text is paired with the baptism of Jesus. Isaiah says, “I have called you by name, you are mine.” At Jesus’ baptism a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Both passages of scripture are powerful reports of God’s love and calling of people. God is actively engaged in the events of this life. The paring, however, has resulted in Christians often reading the Isaiah text as if it is an individual calling. It is common to quote that text at a funeral, reminding grieving family and friends that the deceased person belongs to God and is claimed and beloved by God.

It is important, however, to remind ourselves that God’s redeeming action applies not just to individuals, but to groups of people as well. This reminder, I believe, is especially important in this particular season of the life of the church. The Covid-19 pandemic has resulted in the scattering of the church. Many church members have been forced by the pandemic to alter their patterns of church attendance. Our congregations are less focused on the experiences of corporate worship in one place, and have become more media focused. People connect with churches over the Internet. Instead of all being in the same room, we experience worship in many different places. Some are worshiping at home, some in other places. Some are watching live, others watch a recording of the service at a different time. Our community is scattered. It is not hard to understand some of the feelings of the people of Israel during the Exile as we go through a different kind of exile in the contemporary church.

Today, as we celebrate the Baptism of Jesus, the words of Isaiah offer a reminder of God’s promise to us. We are called to community once again. Despite our fears about the future of the church in these challenging times, God has not abandoned us. God still knows us and calls us by name. We will be tested. There will be trials. But we won’t be overwhelmed. We won’t be consumed. God has demonstrated over and over again through the history of our people: “You are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.”

As together we face hard times as a church we need to be reminded that God is not finished with us yet. We still have a future. We are called to community.

Different people will hear the call to return to community in different ways. Just as Israel didn’t go back to the way things were before the exile, we will not go back to some pre-pandemic state. God is always calling us toward the future. There will be changes and none of us can fully understand where the church is going in these times. However, the experiences of our people and the words of our scriptures assure us that God is not just calling us as individuals. God is not just expressing love to us as individuals. God calls us together into community.

Isaiah was called to preach difficult lessons during a difficult phase of the history of Israel. I believe that contemporary preachers are called to preach difficult lessons as well. God’s gift of salvation is not just a promise to individuals - it is also a promise to the community of believers.

Once again we are reminded that we are in this together and that our lives are bound up with the lives of others.

King tide

Photo by Warren Stirling for the Bellingham Herald.

In our new home at Birch Bay, we are learning things about the ocean that we did not previously know. King tide is a popular, non scientific name for an exceptionally high tide. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I knew that tides are influenced by the moon. It turns out, however, that it is a bit more complex than just the gravity of the moon. The rising and falling of the tide is a product of the interaction of the gravity of both the sun and the moon. The moon has a stronger gravitational pull on the earth and is a bigger factor in the changing of the tides. The moon orbits the earth. Each orbit takes 28 days. The path of the moon is elliptical, so sometimes it is closer to the earth and other times it is farther away. The pull of the moon’s gravity is strongest when it is at perigee - closest to the earth. During a full moon, and again during the new moon, the earth, sun, and moon all line up and the sun’s gravitational pull is added to that of the moon. This is called a spring tide. when a spring tide occurs during perigee the scientific name for the phenomenon is perigean-spring tide. The common name for that occurrence is a king tide.

King tides occur two or three times each year and coastal areas are prone to the battering of high waves. Yesterday here at Birch Bay the king tide was combined with strong winds of 20 to 30 with gusts to 40 mph. The combination of the high tide with the wind caused the waves to be especially high yesterday afternoon. Waves crashed onto beachfront properties and the water rose above the banks where Terrell Creek flows into the ocean. We live far enough away from the beach that there was no danger to our home. About an hour after the peak tide, we decided to walk down to the beach to take a look. It was pretty dramatic to see all of the flotsam that had washed up onto the street and the area next to the beach. The tide had receded by the time we got down next to the beach, but we could see debris scattered around. The waves had washed up parts of fences that extended between homes. A trash can that normally sits in a parking area near the beach was washed up on the road. County crews had closed part of the road and were hard at work clearing debris from the roadway. You could see where water had washed over the road.

The king tide is not surprising to those who are used to living near the ocean. I’m not sure why they build certain items so close to the water. I think that if I were a property owner I wouldn’t be interested in rebuilding the fences that were washed away by yesterday’s tide. It also seems to me that there are a few houses that are simply too close to the water to be practical. I read on the web site of the local newspaper that about 20 homes experienced damage caused by yesterday’s king tide.

I don’t remember hearing about king tides before. If I did, I didn’t retain the information. King tides aren’t a big factor in any of the other places where we have lived. There are no king tides in South Dakota.

All in all yesterday was a relatively dramatic news day when it came to the weather. In addition to the king tide at the beach, all of the roads that cross the Cascade mountain passes in Washington were closed yesterday due to heavy snow and avalanche danger. Temperatures rose and the rain came, melting the snow in the lowlands and causing flooding on rivers. South of Olympia at Chehalis, river flooding closed a 20-mile stretch of Interstate 5 for several hours. With Interstate 5 closed and Interstate 90 closed at the mountain pass, those traveling from Seattle had their plans disrupted. Evacuations were ordered in several places due to record flooding. The governor issued an emergency weather proclamation over the heavy rain and snowmelt. There are flood watches and warnings along many creeks and rivers that flow into the ocean.

Meanwhile, we are safe and largely unaffected by all of this dramatic weather. It didn’t rain as much as was forecast and we had mostly sunny skies yesterday. Although temperatures moderated yesterday, it didn’t get quite as warm as the forecast predicted. Temperatures are right at the freezing point now and we could get freezing rain and even a bit more snow later this morning. We won’t be traveling any farther than the church in the next few days, but my sister, who has been visiting us is planning to drive to Portland, Oregon today if the roads are open, which seems to be likely. A bit of caution for slippery roads will be in order between our house and the Interstate, but she shouldn’t have any trouble with the rest of the trip. Had she left yesterday, she would have experienced hours of delay due to the closed Interstate.

Since we experienced travel delays a little over a year ago when going between here and Rapid City, we know that delays are just a part of winter travel. Flexibility is required when the weather turns harsh. Good tires, an emergency kit, some winter driving experience, and a bit of common sense make it possible to get around most of the time during the winter.

People keep saying that the weather is more mild here than it is where we have previously lived. It seems like that to us, but we also are aware that there have been a lot of uncommon weather events since we have moved. High water is part of global climate change and more dramatic coastal flooding is likely to continue in the years to come. We’ll keep our eyes on the forecast and plan travel with a bit of caution.

Mostly we just enjoy getting out and seeing what is happening. Today promises another king tide, a bit lower than yesterday, but probably still worth a walk to the beach to see what is happening.

A bit less worry

A quick exchange of emails with a member of our church yesterday revealed something that I have noticed in other conversations with folks recently. The other person commented about having had a couple of days of increased anxiety recently caused by a potential exposure to Covid-19 and the subsequent test and wait for results. It turned out that this particular individual was not infected and had no illness. However, there were a few days of self-imposed isolation and worry that disrupted the usual level of activity and engagement with others.

It certainly seems that there is a lot more anxiety for people these days. The phenomena is of interest to me in part because I think I’m experiencing less anxiety than was the case a few years ago. I know that I worry less about my job performance and how others perceive me. I am more confident in my approach to work and the tasks assigned. I am much less to lie awake at night trying to solve problems in the church. I am sure that part of the shift is due to my changed role. Being semi-retired means that I have less responsibility than once was the case. I am no longer the senior pastor. In some ways the buck doesn’t stop here at my desk, and I am able to see myself as a member of a team where others share responsibility.

There is, however, a much more important shift in my life that has occurred. I think that I am less anxious in part because I am living with a heightened sense of gratitude. In the fall of 2019, a serious threat to my wife’s heath gave us a stark reminder of the fragility of life and the preciousness of the time that we have. I am deeply aware that since that time, I have felt as if we have been given a bonus. I knew that she could have died from that episode, but she did not. Instead, she has emerged from that time stronger and more healthy. As part of her recovery, we have been walking together every day and that practice has added a great deal to my quality of life while decreasing my anxiety in general.

Simply taking a walk every day gives me more opportunities to pay attention to the world around me. Often our walks take us to places of inspiring beauty. We walk in the forests filled with magnificent trees and fascinating undergrowth. We walk along the beach and listen to the waves as we look out onto the horizon. We look at thousands of migratory birds and are amazed at the variety of colors and shapes. Those experiences fill us with wonder and awe and leave less room for anxiety and worry. Jesus taught his disciples to take time to consider the flowers in a field as a way of releasing worry. We find that just being outdoors in nature helps us discover balance in our emotions.

Not every walk is filled with a conscious sense of awe, however. Yesterday there was more than a foot of snow on the ground and the wind had blown it into drifts that were even higher. There was little traffic on the streets of our neighborhood and most of the sidewalks had not been shoveled. We walked in the middle of neighborhood streets where a few cars had passed and packed down the snow, making passage a bit easier. The snow was pretty and the day was fresh without being too cold. But most of what we were seeing were things with which we were familiar. Interestingly, however, we talked to strangers quite a bit more than usual. Each place we found people shoveling snow prompted brief conversations. Other walkers seemed a bit more inclined to pause and say hello that is the case other days. A snow day in the neighborhood was a kind of day off for everyone that opened people to a bit more awareness of the others. Maybe we all were dropping a few of our assumptions and looking freshly at the world around us.

Today will be different. Overnight the temperatures have risen to the mid forties and it is raining. Rain showers are forecast for much of the day today. We’ll likely find a time when it isn’t raining. The melting snow will give us access to paths that yesterday were filled with drifted snow. We’ll be able to walk a bit faster than yesterday. We will still greet others as we go, but the mood will be different. People will be hurrying to get to work, run errands, and complete other tasks that yesterday were put on hold due to the weather. Families may be scrambling with schedules, returning to work and school after a couple of unexpected days off.

Our lives won’t be much different. It looks like we’ll get out for appointments and errands today, but we aren’t much behind in our work because we have been able to work remotely and meet with folks over the computer despite the weather. Our planned family dinner to celebrate Epiphany will work out fine this evening. Besides, we are partly retired. We simply don’t have as many meetings and events in our lives as was the case a few years ago.

I think that my experience of less stress in my life is due in part to a shift in my perspective. In my work life, I am less in charge. My role has diminished. I have a bit more time to go out into the natural world, where I am reminded of how small I am in the vastness of the universe. Walking among tall trees or along the shore of a vast ocean reminds me that there is much in this world that is truly grand. Perhaps I feel just a little bit less significant. But when I am less focused on myself, my own goals, my own needs, and my own thoughts, I become more aware of others. When I walk with my partner, I take more notice of what she is experiencing.

There are many teachings in scripture that advise believers to release worry. “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself.” “Do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink.” In this time of increased worry and stress, disciplines that release stress and help us to worry less are genuine blessings. For those blessings I am truly grateful.

Epiphany, 2022

Happy Epiphany, dear friends. As we bid farewell to Christmas for another year, we welcome the season of light. Last night was the official Twelfth Night - a time for merrymaking, singing Christmas Carols, chalking the door, attending church services and having one’s house blessed. It passed in our house this year without any of the usual trappings. Our church is being especially cautious during what has become the most dramatic wave of the pandemic. The numbers of infected are high and the numbers of new cases are setting records nearly every day. The hospitals and health care institutions are overwhelmed. Supplies of testing materials are in limited supply and the county health department’s testing site is operating on reduced hours because of bad roads and short staff.

Across the street from our house is another couple who are experiencing their first winter in their new home. They moved here from Gillette, Wyoming. Like us, they moved to be closer to children and grandchildren. Like us they left their snowblower back in their former home. Unlike us, they are younger and both working. He works shifts, which means that he often works overnight. She works for a local propane distributor that has been very busy during the recent cold weather and needs all of their employees to be working. Between the two of them, they have been keeping their driveway shoveled, so our two houses stand out in a neighborhood of folks who are waiting for the next rainfall to wash away the snow on the ground. We have already had a couple of conversations about the lack of winter driving skills among the locals.

Last evening before supper, I ran into a nearby town for an errand. On the short trip, I saw five vehicles in the ditch. I followed one driver for a while who was terrified by the conditions and unable to go more than about 15 miles per hour. Fortunately they turned off of the street and I had the road to myself for a while. There was ribbon ice on the road and 35 to 40 mph was a safe speed. We have good tires and all wheel drive on our car, so I was having no trouble on my errand. At one place, where a car had slid into the ditch, a tow truck operator was making quick work of helping the driver to get back on the pavement. A local sheriff’s deputy, who might have been sleeping or at least not paying attention on the day they taught about directing traffic at night, was trying to direct cars around the working tow truck. He couldn’t seem to figure out how to wave his flashlight to get the cars to do what he wanted. He kept standing in front of vehicles to get them to stop so the other lane could pass the accident for a while. I worried for his safety. That body armor wouldn’t be sufficient to protect him from a car or truck driven by a nervous person who couldn’t handle a bit of ice on the road. When I returned a few minutes later, he was gone, so I hope his night got a bit better after that.

Our grandchildren had no school yesterday and school for today has already been cancelled. Their mother works at her office on Thursdays while they are at school, so we are the backup for care for the children when there is no school. We’ll probably have them at our house so that their mother can see clients remotely without being interrupted. They can have lunch and snacks with us. Maybe we’ll have a little house blessing with them and their parents around time for them to head back to their house. We’re unsure.

We had planned to have an outside bonfire at their home to celebrate 12th night, but the plan had been to have it on Friday, which isn’t a school night. However, it seems possible that the kids won’t have school tomorrow either. We just don’t know. The forecast is for rising temperatures and melting ice and snow with plenty of rain, so having a bonfire might be a bit of a challenge. The fire ring is at their farm, where there is plenty of open space. Neither their house nor ours has a Christmas tree to burn, as we both have live trees that we will be planting on the farm this year. We’re in a new place and we’ll be developing new traditions slowly.

In some places Epiphany Day is the traditional day to take down Christmas decorations, but there are other traditions in other places. Some folks leave their Christmas decorations up until Candlemas, celebrated in early February as the presentation of Jesus in the temple. Although Shakespeare’s play has the title Twelfth Night, it was first performed as part of a Candlemas celebration on February 2, 1602. Like some other Shakespeare comedies, there is a crazy confusion of relationships. Twins Viola and Sebastian are separated in a shipwreck. Viola falls in love with Duke Orsino, who is in love with Countess Olivia. Countess Olivia thinks Viola, who is disguised as Cesario, is a man and falls in love with her. Then Sebastian shows up and confuses things even more. In the end Viola and Duke Orsino get marriedThe whole thing is a bit silly and disorganized, appropriate for the mood of Twelfth Night celebrations. If a famous playwright like Shakespeare could produce a disorganized narrative, I guess it is almost in character for us to be “winging it” when it comes to our recognitions and celebrations.

So we might have a family dinner and celebration tonight or tomorrow night. We might have a bonfire or we might not. We might have a family blessing of our new house or we might just have a simple prayer as a couple. We might take care of our grandchildren at our house or at theirs. Things are a bit confused and up in the air. One of the joys of being semi-retired is having a bit of flexibility to our schedule and the ability to roll with last minute changes.

At least a bit of ribbon ice on the road isn’t intimidating us and the distance to our son’s place is short so we can drive slowly and be careful. May your home be blessed in this season and may you find joy in your family as we are finding in ours.

Seeking quiet

In the wee hours of the morning, it is quiet in my house. The other humans here are sleeping and there isn’t much going on beyond the click of the keys on my computer keyboard. If I listen, however, the quiet is far from silence. I can hear the refrigerator, which has a variety of sounds. The compressor doesn’t run continuously, and when it is not running I can still hear he sounds of the ice maker running water into the ice trays and occasionally it will make a louder sound as it ejects frozen cubes. The fan of the forced-air furnace makes quite a bit of sound as it takes cooler air into the inlet and discharges warm air through a network of floor vents. My chair emits a few creaks when i shift my position. I just heard a car door slam across the street. Although I try not to disturb the sleeping creatures in my house, my sister’s dog, who is visiting with her, rises to check out my movement and his feet make a clicking noise as claws hit the floor.

I’ve long been aware of the sounds when I am seeking quietness. As a leader of worship, I quite using the term “silent prayer” and substituted “quiet prayer.” A congregation is never truly silent. People clear their throats. There are sneezes and coughs that cannot be suppressed. The shifting of positions makes a bit of sound. Babies and small children don’t understand the request for quietness and make their sounds. The building has all kinds of mechanical systems that make noises. Street noises from outside come into the building.

When I am alone outside, I hear a variety of sounds. Walking in the forest, I might be far away enough from highways and railways and airplanes to temporarily escape their sounds. At those times, my attention shifts to the sounds of birds calling, the wind in the trees, and sometimes the sounds of other animals.

In my life I have experienced what is called silent retreat on several occasions. A couple of times I have gone 24 hours without speaking, a particular challenge and discipline for me, as I am accustomed to speaking. Sometimes, I speak when there are no others to listen. I frequently read poetry out loud when I am alone in a room. I need to plan a bit to go for a day without speaking, but silent retreat is an experience of spiritual growth for me. I was thinking of silent retreat recently as I read about an event offered at one of the church camps in the Pacific Northwest Conference. As it turns out, I am not able to attend this particular retreat because of schedule conflicts, but there was a bit of attraction to the offering. I’ve been at Pilgrim Firs camp once before for an event. The camp is about 90 acres on the Kitsap peninsula, just east of the Hood Canal, which separates it from the Olympic peninsula. Olympic National Park is home to some of the tallest trees in the United States and one of the most acoustically isolated parts of the country. The forests of the camp provide wonderful opportunities to experience life separate from the sounds of the urban areas across the Puget sound. Seattle is a big city with all kinds of big city noises, but you don’t have to travel too far from the city to experience the quiet of nature.

Being quiet in a natural setting has long been recognized as a spiritual treasure. The mystics and other religious practitioners of old discovered deep connections with the natural world, but also renewed commitment to caring for others and seeking justice. A temporary separation from the sounds of dense human habitation does not mean that one is unaware of the needs of others. Giving time to reflect on those needs sometimes produces new solutions and creative ways of responding to others.

As I grow older, I am learning more about the value of thinking before I speak. I used to be proud of my ability to make a rapid response to what someone else thinks. I learned to debate and respond to others’ quickly. However, I am learning the value of sometimes making a slower response. There are situations that do not need my words. Sometimes just listening is the best way of responding to a particular situation. At other times a pause in the conversation can be a benefit not only to me but to others. Learning to be slower to speak and quicker to listen is a skill that has required practice for me.

The stories of our people are filled with tales of people experiencing the closeness of God in the quiet moments of their lives. Some spiritual leaders experienced God’s calling in the form of dreams. Others, like Moses, often experienced God by going alone into the wilderness. We pattern the season of Lent after the stories of Jesus going into the wilderness where he experienced both temptation and the nurture and care of God’s messengers. I am no Moses or Jesus, but I can learn from the stories of their lives and experiences.

As much as I seek and appreciate quietness, don’t expect to see a “Do not disturb” sign on my office anytime in the near future. I have also gained an appreciation of the interruptions that occur when I have planned something else. I read a great deal, but I have learned as much from the interruptions when I had planned on reading. I like to be alone in the church to think about the needs of the people, but I am blessed by others who have access to the building even in the seasons of pandemic. I am sure that it is not my calling to become a hermit. I thrive on living with others and doing so means that there is a bit of noise in my life.

I’ll keep listening and perhaps I’ll keep learning. I’m sure I’ll discover gratitude for the quiet moments of my life.

Celebrating hearing

Somewhere in my education, I learned a little bit about how our ears work. Sounds enter our ears as waves or vibrations that cause our eardrums to vibrate in response. The vibrations of eardrums are carried by three small bones across the middle ear to vibrate the liquid in the inner ear. That liquid vibrates a network of bones in the inner ear and the cochlea turns those mechanical waves into electrical waves that can be processed by the human brain. I learned the common names for those three bones: hammer, anvil and stirrup. And somewhere I learned that the stirrup is the smallest bone in the human body. Ear specialists refer to the three bones as the malleus, incus and stapes. The first is shaped like a small bat or mallet and it is adhered to the ear drum and moves with the vibrations in the membrane. Ligaments hold it in close proximity to the incus which is held by other ligaments at right angles with the stapes, which fits into an opening in another bone where it is held in place by another ligament.

There are two tiny muscles in the middle ear. One can change the tension in the eardrum that gives some control over the degree of loudness of sounds. The other tips the stapes so that its footplate comes in and out of the opening in its bone.

The process is fairly complex and it occurs without us having conscious knowledge of what is going on. The sounds we hear carry pitch. Small ripples in the air cause high pitches. Large ripples carry deep pitches. When I walk along the beach, I am aware of the differences in pitch. The seagulls’ cries are small waves traveling through the air. The water crashing against the beach are large waves.

There are lots of places in nature where my ability to hear enhances my experience. I imagine that someone who is unable to hear experiences the ocean in an entirely different manner than I. So much of my experience is caught up in a combination of visual and auditory messages that are processed together in my brain. Sights and sounds combine to make the experience complete. Were I to lose the ability to hear, something that occurs for many people, the experience would be entirely different.

Fortunately, I have been blessed with reasonable hearing and although there is some normal loss of hearing that has occurred as I age, I still can hear quite well.

Sometimes, I revel in the combination of visual and auditory clues. This is the case when I walk along the beach. I want to both hear and see. This is true also when I listen to a handbell choir. The sounds are enhanced by the visual clues given by the ringers. In our church in Rapid City, the handbells were often rung from the choir loft. Most of the congregation sat and listened without the visual part of the musical experience. I, however, sitting in the chancel, had a good view of the ringers. I often encouraged the handbell choir director to bring the choir down stairs so that the congregation could share in the combination of auditory and visual experiences. I often feel a similar way with a symphony orchestra. I enjoy seeing the musicians as much as I enjoy hearing their music. As one who has played in bands and orchestras, I am trained to look at the conductor. Good conductors move their hands in ways that stay ahead of the music - literally leading the beat and helping the musicians to coordinate their actions. I enjoy watching good conducting.

There are, however, sounds that are so incredible that I tend to close my eyes and temporarily cut off the visual clues so that I can concentrate more intensely on the experience of hearing. Sometimes I will close my eyes to listen more intently in an effort to identify the call of a single bird amidst all of the other sounds that come flooding to my ears. Another time when I close my eyes while listening is when I hear a good pipe organ. A pipe organ, like a trumpet or other wind instrument, delivers sound waves on moving air. Like the wind at the beach, the instrument causes the air to move and the experience of sound is different than sound waves delivered on static air. My joy at the sound of the pipes of an organ was developed in part through the experiences of being pastor at our church in Rapid City where the organ was just the right size for the room. The room was acoustically well designed and the placement of the organ in the loft at the back of the room was just right. During my time as pastor, the congregation added an entire division of about a dozen ranks to the instrument. The expansion was primarily in mid- to small-sized pipes that deliver higher pitches. Enhancing the top end of the organ, however, provided an excellent match for the long, deep bass pipes. When the organ project was completed, I reveled in sitting in the room with my eyes closed and experiencing the sound.

The experience in our new church home is a bit different. The congregation took a different route in developing their organ. The small instrument, perhaps about a third of the number of pipes as the one in South Dakota, has significant historical value. It has been well-maintained and carefully moved from several previous locations to its present home in the sanctuary that is larger and differently shaped from the one in Rapid City. In this installation, the decision was made to add to the organ by installing speakers and electronic components rather than making additions of pipes. The result is that there is less air movement from the instrument while the volume of the sound is greater than the pipes alone. This organ is plenty loud enough for me and I still listen with my eyes closed, now trying to distinguish the sounds made by speakers from those made by pipes, a process that is relatively easy because there are fewer pipes in the instrument.

I miss the sounds of the organ of our Rapid City church. It isn’t that there is something wrong with organ in this church, it is just that I don’t know the instrument as well. Then again, I miss the sounds of the pine forests of the Black Hills. We have wonderful forests here, but they sound different.

I give thanks for those tiny bones in my ears that give me the ability to discern the differences in sounds and I am in awe at the complexity of our bodies that makes it possible.

Star Words

Our church in Bellingham has had a practice for several years of handing out “star words” as part of the celebration of Epiphany. The invitation is for individuals to take a paper star from a basket. On the star is a word. Each person is then invited to think upon that word and reflect on what invitation or challenge it presents for the year to come. Sometimes the word is interesting and pleasant. Other times it may not seem to fit that particular individual. Regardless of the sense of match or mismatch, people are invited to spend a year thinking about their star word. At Epiphany worship the following year, a few individuals volunteer to offer brief reflections on the words they received. We are new to the church, so we haven’t had much time to observe the tradition. Last year, when the congregation was meeting remotely, we received our star words in the mail. I remember being interested in the testimonies of church members who shared about the previous year’s experience, but those reflections were from people that I didn’t yet know and they didn’t have much lasting impact on me.

The star word for 2021 that fell from my envelope was “Plan.” It amused me because in the six months of my retirement that had passed to date, very little had gone according to plan. Events around our retirement were muted by the pandemic and the process of sorting our possessions and moving had taken longer and been more complex than we had envisioned. It was harder to find a rental home than we had anticipated and our son and his family had moved from one home to another during the year, changing the location where we would be shopping for a new home. We were anticipating our daughter and son in law’s moving back to the United States after 5 years in Japan, but their exact plans were shifting due to the pandemic. The finances of retirement were different than we had anticipated. We were uncertain about the process of applying for and receiving Social Security benefits. Expenses were higher than we anticipated. It seemed like “Plan” was something like the opposite of what was happening in my life.

I decided that perhaps the word was an invitation for me to do more thinking about planning and to make better plans for the year to come, but I couldn’t figure out how to apply that word to the year that was unfolding. We wanted to move forward with solving our housing, but we couldn’t quite figure out exactly where to look for a house and didn’t know how to go about making a plan. It seemed like the process of home seeking had shifted dramatically from when we had last made a home purchase. We searched the Internet and looked at a lot of pictures of houses online, but we didn’t even know where our price point would be. It was hard to get a grasp on what we were looking for.

As the year progressed, it seemed much more like chance was a more operative word than plan. We were looking forward to a year in which we might be able to celebrate birthdays in person with each of our grandchildren, but we hadn’t processed that making the party for our two year old grandson would involve a 6,000 mile trip across the continent and back. We had wanted to travel as part of our retirement, and we enjoy pulling our camper and staying in campgrounds when we travel, but the logistics of planning such a trip were daunting. Even after we decided to make the trip, we were slow to have an actual plan. We kept telling friends that we were coming to visit, but that our exact plans weren’t yet formed.

I couldn’t quite come up with a plan for how we were going to proceed.

The lease for our rental home would expire at the end of September, so we needed a plan about how we would proceed with housing, but nothing was becoming clear. On at least a couple of occasions I told our landlord that I was uncertain about whether or not we would be renewing our lease. I just didn’t have a plan.

As it turned out, things finally fell into place. We had our big trip, shortened a bit from our original vision and with fewer days for unstructured exploration, but we had a wonderful time visiting with our daughter’s family and celebrating our grandson’s birthday. We were in South Carolina long enough to participate in a wonderful project of building an outdoor play structure for our grandson. We had a delightful visit with our church friends in South Dakota on our return.

The big surprise of the year, not planned at all, was that we fell into a new job. Our church needed an interim minister of faith formation and when we inquired about the possibility of serving in that position, we got swept up in the search process and soon were being interviewed. Before we left on our trip, we had been hired for the position and were set to start as soon as we got back. The job turned out to be an excellent match for our energies and interests and we have been blessed by the opportunity. It wasn’t what we planned for our retirement, but it is just what we needed to be doing.

A person we met at our church became our realtor and opened up a process of home searching. Things didn’t proceed quite as quickly with us in a new job and having limited time due to a 40 mile commute, but we began to get a vision of the process. Our landlord agreed to a one month extension of our rental and that month was enough for us to finalize the purchase of a home and get moved. Being just down the road from our son and his family seems to be just the right place for us now.

2021 turned out to be a good year for us despite the fact that plan didn’t seem to be the word of the year. Perhaps my star word was inviting me to lay aside plans and trust that things would work out.

Then, yesterday, I drew a new star word from the basket for the year to come. My 2022 star word is “Longevity.” I’m hoping that this one isn’t an opposite word like last year’s. I’m not yet attached to the star word practice, but I’m willing to pay attention and see what unfolds.

Hanging onto Christmas

The season of Christmas presents challenges for worship planners. Even though Christmas is one of the shortest seasons in the church calendar at only 12 days, there seems to be a rush to get beyond Christmas. In the wider culture outside of the church, Christmas seems to get over on December 26. Decorations are taken down and stored for next year. Store displays turn from Christmas to Valentine’s Day as soon as the day of Christmas has passed, and sometimes even before. We are aware of this in part because we have a family tradition of keeping our Christmas tree up in our home until Epiphany on January 6.

The challenge for worship planners is that many people who participate in church activities do so only on Sundays, so the question becomes one of which Sunday to recognize the Epiphany. Today is only January 2, the ninth day of Christmas. However, next Sunday, January 9, will be the day t recognize the Baptism of Jesus. The liturgical plan does not call for an official “Epiphany Sunday” unless January 6 lands on a Sunday. The visit of the magi, however, is a part of the Christmas story that is treasured and would be missed if not recognized on a Sunday.

Our congregation is recognizing today as Epiphany Sunday and we will be celebrating the arrival of the new season with a retelling of the story of the visit of the Magi. The congregation has traditions of celebrating Epiphany that include an offering of gifts of non-perishable foods for a local food bank and the distribution of “Star Words,” as a focus for personal devotion in the year to come. The worship will be rich and meaningful and will be recognized by those who have participated in the church for many years as a “when we always” event. Many look forward to the first Sunday of each new calendar year as the day to focus on fresh beginnings and renewed hope.

There is a part of me, having come from a slightly different set of practices, that misses the full span of Christmas. In a liturgical congregation today is the second Sunday of Christmas and the Gospel is not Matthew’s telling of the arrival of the magi, reserved for Epiphany day. It is, rather the prologue to the Gospel of John. Although the reading from the beginning of John is usually included in Christmas Eve services, it receives special recognition on the second Sunday of Christmas in congregations that observe that tradition. In the past couple of decades, I have experienced an increasing appreciation for poetry and the beautiful poetry of the opening of John is a text that is close to me. I have it memorized and it is a text that I say from memory on many occasions throughout the year.

When I was the senior pastor in a congregation, I would occasionally be asked to speak through the microphones in the sanctuary so that technicians could adjust levels and work on getting the best sound for the congregation. I found the traditional “testing, testing, testing” or counting to be rather boring and I adopted the practice of instead speaking scripture from memory. Sometimes I would recite a Psalm. Other times I would recite the beginning of the book of Genesis. Most often, however, I would recite the prologue to the Gospel of John.

Texts that are familiar to me, that I have often read or recited, become friends. I miss them when they are not read. Of course, I can always read whatever text I choose to myself. I have already read the prologue to the Gospel of John to myself this morning as part of my personal devotion. However, having the scriptures read in worship is an important part of my faith practices as well. And today, because of the snowy weather we’ve been experiencing I may be the liturgist for our church’s worship. The person who has been enlisted for this week called yesterday and asked me if I would be a backup in case she wasn’t able to get out of her driveway, something that was the case yesterday. Although temperatures have risen above freezing, her driveway may still be blocked this morning. If that is the case I will be the backup liturgist today, and I will be the one to read the scripture, which in our congregation will be the story of the visit of the magi from Matthew’s Gospel.

I suspect that this distinction between various readings is not something that the majority of faithful church members notice. It is just that I enjoy Christmas and I want it to linger. I am in no rush to get on with the season of Epiphany. It will come. Epiphany day is Thursday and we will launch into the season of light and joy that lasts until the second of March which is Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent. My personal preference of lingering in Christmas and waiting until January 6 to celebrate Epiphany is really just a personal quirk. It doesn’t mean that I celebrate Christmas more than those who have taken down their decorations and are focusing their attention on the new year and the changing of the calendar. It just means that I have some different personal traditions. There is plenty of room in the church for differences between people and differences in ways of celebrating holidays.

For those who make it to in-person worship and those who participate in the chat function of online worship, the standard greeting today is likely to be “Happy New Year!” It is an appropriate greeting, filled with cheer and good intentions. I, however, plan to greet folks with “Merry Christmas” today. It is just a subtle reminder that Christmas is a season and not just a day. I’m well aware that the calendar has changed. Like others I focus my attention on the year that has passed and on my wishes and dreams for the year to come. I do wish a happy new year for the people I meet. Still, I enjoy hanging on to Christmas just a bit longer just for the fun of it.

New Year 2022

Our town has an annual polar plunge and it is set for noon today. I’m a new resident, so I don’t know how many people they expect or the exact parameters of participation. I think the plunge is open to anyone who wants to participate. After all, the beach is public and there is no law preventing people from taking a dip in the ocean any time they want. I haven’t however, observed any swimmers in the water here. We close on our house here in October, after the warmest days of summer were past, and we’ve been content to walk on the beach. I haven’t even waded into the surf yet.

I’m not opposed to the idea of a polar plunge. As far as I know, my body would take the short dip into cold water just fine. I’ve walked barefoot for short distances in the snow. When I was a bit younger, I’ve even rolled in the snow in my swimming suit after sitting in a hot springs pool before returning to the pool to warm up. It is pretty easy to make the case that this is the year to take the plunge simply because we have lots of snow on the ground. The snow has settled, but it is at least six inches deep down by the beach. There is a foot or more in the ditches and behind some of the driftwood logs on the beach. That amount of snow is very rare around here. Locals say that a white Christmas or a white New Year’s just doesn’t happen very often and this year, we’ve had both. Dipping into the ocean on a snowy day seems like a pretty rare photo opportunity.

On the other hand, I spent a considerable sum on a prime rib roast for New Year’s Day Dinner and we’ve planned to eat in the early afternoon. The meal needs to be carefully tended to make sure that everything is just right. My sister is visiting us and my brother will be in Bellingham, which is just a 20-minute drive away and the opportunity for the three of us to get together is pretty rare. My day is already filled up. I hadn’t planned on taking the plunge and just taking time to go down to the beach and take the dip takes time that I don’t have.

More importantly, I’ve said to justify myself, polar plunges aren’t limited to a particular age group. I’ve seen pictures of 80-year-olds taking a polar plunge. There is no news in someone my age doing it. That means that I likely have many more years available to me to take the plunge. Despite the uniqueness of the snowy year, there will be other opportunities.

So, I’m not planning to take the plunge today unless some unforeseen event changes my mind. I’m not receiving pressure from other family members who are eager to have me join them. No one else has even talked about taking the plunge.

I’m not really feeling the need to do much to mark the passage from on year to the next. 2021 was a year of challenges. We had some good things, like getting called to a new position and moving into a new-to-us house. We’ve enjoyed being close to our grandchildren and celebrated with them their return to school after a year of home schooling. We’ve watched our son’s balancing of home life and work and considerable achievements in both aspects of his life. We had a wonderful cross country trip and got to spend some valuable time with our daughter and her family. We’ve enjoyed excellent health and have walked every day. There have been years when more events occurred in our lives, but 2021 had enough to distinguish it from the other years of our lives.

I’m looking forward to 2022, but I don’t have any expectations that the year will pass without significant challenges. Despite my wish that the pandemic would come to an end and that we could return to the way things were before Covid-19, I know that it will not magically go away. We will have to live with the possibility of illness every year of our lives. We will need to make decisions and to accept that some members of our community will make different decisions than we. We will have to balance risk and reward and exercise diligence so that we don’t endanger others. I’m pretty sure that there will be places where we wear face masks a year from now and that face masks will be a part of our lives for years to come. Sadly, I fear that there will be more death and loss as this particular pandemic plays out and that there are other pandemics that will follow.

Global climate change will not go away suddenly. We will read about floods and fires and hurricanes and tornadoes and other natural disasters. Some of those events will have a direct impact on our lives.

There will be enough tragic news that our capacity to live in hope will be challenged.

Still, 2022 will be a year of meaning for us.

Not long ago, back in 2019, Susan had a major medical event. She had a reaction to a medicine that was being given to address atrial fibrillation. Her heart stopped. Fortunately she was in the hospital where the response was quick and effective. Though she arrested a second time before they stabilized her and she spent a day on a ventilator in the ICU, she recovered from the event. A surgical procedure provided what she needed to go forward without lasting disability. There was a time, in the midst of all of that, when I would have gladly traded everything I had for just a little more time with her. I got my wish. She is here and healthy and we are together. Every day since that event has seemed like I have gotten a bonus. The days of this year are no different. Each is precious because we have each other.

Happy New Year is more than a one-day greeting for me. It is an expression of the joy that we have been given. I pray that you will find that joy as well in the year to come.

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