July 2022

On our way

Note to regular readers: For the next week, I will be a church camp in the mountains of northern Idaho. The camp is not far from a popular tourist destination and I expect that I will be able to publish my journal through either a Wi-fi or cell phone connection. However, I have not been to this camp before and signals can be tricky in the high country, so it is possible that the publishing of my journal might be delayed. I’ll write each day, but if I have trouble connecting to the Internet, I may not be able to publish daily. If you don’t find the latest entry, check back in a week, and I’ll have everything uploaded. I apologize for any inconvenience.

The story I have been told is that my mother was nurse for family camp at Camp Mimanagish in the mountains south of Big Timber, Montana, the summer that I was born. I would have been about six months old when they headed up into the mountains. There are family pictures of me sleeping in a bundle of blankets in the wood box of the cabin. The rest, they say, is history. I went to church camp at that same camp every summer as I grew up. I attended youth camps when I was the right age. My family continued to go to family camp each year. It was at family camp at Mimanagish where I met Susan for the first time. When we were college students she worked as a cook’s assistant at camp one summer, while I was working down in the valley setting up and delivering farm machinery. I made a lot of trips up and down that rocky partially graveled road that summer. A few years later, after our first and second years of seminary, we spent the summer at camp, serving as managers and cooks.

After Mimanagish, there was Pilgrim Place, Pilgrim Cove, Camp Adams and Placerville. I attended church events and programs at Pilgrim Firs, La Foret, and other camp locations. At one time, I could wear a t-shirt from a different church camp each day of a week long camp. One of the ways I introduce myself when meeting new church folk is to say that I’m a child of church camp who has gone to church camp every year of my life. And I’ve collected a lot of years - and a lot of t-shirts.

My mother grew up in a family that went to camp every summer as well. Her family was Methodist and they called their annual camp “Institute.” It was held at a site in the center of the Little Belt Mountains in central Montana near the town of Neihart. Her parents were very active in developing the camp. They participated in building some of the buildings, including a family cabin that was used by the camp during the regular season and the family at other times of the year. There are a few old family pictures of the family car loaded up for camp with all kinds of bundles and parcels tied to the outside of the vehicle. There is a family story, but no photo, of a trip to the camp with a toilet strapped to the fender of the car.

My family has lots of stories about camp.

This week we’re headed off to make some more. We’ll be attending family camp at N-Sid-Sen, a camp of the Pacific Northwest Conference located in northern Idaho.

Most of the time that I have been a minister, I have served in conferences that had only one camp, but for ten years, when we served in Boise, Idaho, we were part of the Central Pacific Conference, which operates two camps: one not far from Portland, Oregon and the other near McCall, Idaho. I participated in many camps at both sites, and I noticed that the Idaho camp was popular among youth from Oregon. For a few years, we had a popular water sports camp at Pilgrim Cove and chartered buses to transport youth from the Portland area to attend the camp. During those same years, the youth from Idaho loved to go to Camp Adams - a trip of over 400 miles one way. I used to joke, why just go to camp when you can have a road trip and camp at the same time? It did seem that there were traditions formed of traveling to go to camp.

I think there is a similar bit of history between the church we now serve and Camp N-Sid-Sen. Our church is just a couple of hours drive from one of our Conference’s camp site, Pilgrim Firs. But families of our church have a tradition of driving seven hours one way to get to N-Sid-Sen. When you live near the coastal forests, a trip to the high country is a change of scenery and a special treat.

Church camp is very different now than it was when I was growing up. Mimanagish used to be a very remote location, more than twenty miles from the nearest telephone. When we were managers, we hauled groceries over 40 miles, half of it on rocky roads with no pavement. It was a similar distance to get to a doctor in case of an emergency. That was in the time before there were cell phones or the Internet. We enjoyed the isolation and quiet. Now, some of our UCC camp sites are used for computer camps and have high speed Internet routers for Wi-Fi. Many of them are within reach of a cell phone tower. I was leading camps at Placerville in the years when cell phones first came to camp. In those early years, they didn’t work at camp. Campers would ask me to take their phones to town so that they could get a signal and reset the clock. The campers used their phones as devices to tell time and if they got turned off, their clocks would not work. Cell phones work fine at Placerville these days.

Still, camp is a week to get away from routines and to focus attention on building community and experiencing God’s presence. So we’re off to camp. I’m sure I’ll have some new stories to tell. I doubt that I need another t-shirt, however.

Heading to camp

I’ve drive across the state of Washington from east to west and west to east a lot of times. Western Washington was a vacation destination for our family for many years before we moved here. When our children were little, my brother lived on Whidby Island. The year that our daughter was born, we came west with our two-year-old son in a car that did not have air conditioning. Eastern Washington is hot, dry country in the middle of the summer but we knew that we could camp in our tent in the high country of North Idaho and be cool and that it was less than a day’s drive to the coast where it would be cool once again. We often camped when we were making the trip. We planned to not need to camp in the eastern Washington wheat country because of the summer heat.

As a result of so many trips I have learned a couple of things. One is that as long as our vehicle is mechanically sound and cooling properly, we can make it through the high desert country. The second is that the mountains of Idaho offer respite from the heat. North Idaho is beautiful mountain country and we have camped there for many years. When we lived in south Idaho, the lure of the mountains to the north was strong. One of our favorite destinations year round was McCall, where the Central Pacific Conference of the United Church of Christ has a church camp. For years, I led camps at the Payette Lake site. In the winter there was excellent skiing in the area.

One of the things that I have never done, but that I have wanted to do for many years is to visit the church camp N-Sid-Sen, of the Pacific Northwest Conference of the United Church of Christ. I know the area where the camp is located from many trips to the area. Lake Coeur d’Alene is a spectacular mountain lake with forested shores and deep blue waters. The camp is located on the eastern shore of the lake a bit south of where Interstate 90 crosses the state’s panhandle.

Tomorrow we head to N-Sid-Sen for a week of camp. I have mixed feelings about the trip, however. I’m looking forward to a week of camp in a truly beautiful location. I am excited to visit a new church camp site, having been a person who goes to camp all of my life. I am excited to have the opportunity to dip my paddle into Lake Coeur D’Alene and feel my canoe slip through the waters. On the other hand, I’m not especially looking forward to the seven-hour drive on a hot day across eastern Washington. If it is windy, which is common, the air will feel like stepping into an oven each time we step out of our air-conditioned car. Fortunately for us we now have efficient air conditioning in all of our vehicles. It won’t be the same as those long trips across the state in the days before we had air conditioning.

There is, however, a difference this year. Washington, like much of the rest of the country, is experiencing a heat wave. Out here on the coast, it means that daytime highs are reaching into the 80’s. West of the Cascades, the highs are topping 100 degrees. And the hot weather is affecting the high country as well. The National Weather Service has issued an excessive heat warning for the area that continues through tomorrow when we will be driving there. I know what to expect because last year we drove through the area and camped on the shores of Lake Coeur d’Alene in the midst of another excessive heat period. When we checked into the campground they warned us about not over using the air conditioning in our camper as the campground did not have the electrical capacity to manage all of the air conditioners in all of the campers in all of the sites. Daytime highs in the region are usually in the seventies and overnight lows in the fifties in that part of the country. People who live there don’t have air conditioners in their homes. Everyone was sweltering in the heat.

It is happening again this year. Although we should experience some relief from the high temperatures as the week goes on, our introduction to Camp N-Sid-Sen will be in nearly 100 degree conditions. And I know the cabins at the camp do not have air conditioning. Until last summer, they didn’t need air conditioning.

A little discomfort is not going to keep me from going to church camp. The conditions will be considerably less primitive than those of the church camp where I went as a child and youth. We didn’t go to camp for luxury. We went to camp for community. We went to camp for the experience of the beauty of creation. The cabins didn’t keep all of the critters outside. When we were managers at camp in the early years of our marriage, we had a strict ban on any food in the cabins because food attracted mice, which could get into the buildings and bears, which could not. We tried to avoid confrontations between those animals and our campers for good reasons.

Today I’ll be checking over the car to make sure it is ready for the trip. I’ll also be loading a canoe onto the roof rack and paddles and life vests into the back of the car. Sitting in a canoe on the lake gives me a sense of awe at the beauty of creation and connection with the elements. I’m looking forward to early morning paddles on pristine water.

I will also be aware of how much our world is changing because of our failure to be good stewards of its resources. Excessive Heat has a direct relationship to global climate change. that climate change is driven in part by human greed. Camp can be an opportunity to make commitments to changes that will benefit future generations and, hopefully, preserve some of the beauty of these places for our grandchildren and their children.

Sushi and cherry cobler

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Last evening we each had a bowl of sticky rice and we shared a couple of sushi rolls. After supper we walked a mile or so down the beach alongside the bay. It was a warm evening and the tide was in. We saw paddlers, swimmers, and a row boat cross in front of a sailboat anchored off shore. After our walk we came home and enjoyed a serving of cherry cobbler with vanilla ice cream before tackling a few chores and doing a little reading before heading to bed. I think the cherry cobbler was the last of the fresh cherries from our tree this year. We’ve still got lots of cherries in the freezer, but I don’t think there is a bowl of cherries in the refrigerator for snacking any more. The blueberries and raspberries are coming on strongly, however, We can pick more than we can eat every day now. And blackberries are not far behind. You can find a few ripe berries on the bushes and they are loaded with berries that will be ripe in a week or so.

As I stretched out on the bed, I thought to myself how much of my evening would have been difficult for me to predict even a few years ago. Certainly, had I been asked 50 years ago what my life would be like in the future, I would not have predicted living within walking distance of the beach, knowing how to roll sushi with fresh fish for supper, or even having access to strawberries, cherries, blueberries, blackberries, apples, plums and pears fresh off of the trees and bushes in the yard. I wouldn’t have predicted that we would visit our son’s farm nearly every day. I wouldn’t have predicted that we’d have a son who has a farm.

I didn’t think of retirement much during my working career. My life was full and fun and my work was meaningful and I was occupied with day to day living. For a long time I simply assumed that my life would lead me back to Montana. When we went to seminary in Chicago, I expected it to be a brief foray away from my home state. When we accepted our first call to serve churches in North Dakota, I thought “four years or so and then we’ll move back to Montana.” When our careers took us to Idaho and then to South Dakota, I expected that we might one day find a little place in the mountains to retire.

And when it comes to cooking, food, and diets, I’ve always enjoyed eating different things and learning new recipes, but there is a bit more time for planning and cooking meals in our semi-retired lifestyle. I did go into the office at the church yesterday for a brief time, but I didn’t put in a full day of work. There was plenty of time to pick up a bit of fish and plan a meal. What I didn’t expect when I imagined what my future might be like from the perspective of a few years ago, is how much we would blend the old and the new.

When we were first married we would occasionally eat rice in a casserole, but we didn’t own a rice cooker until after our children were raised. It took hosting exchange students from Japan and being able to make two trips to Japan ourselves that refined my taste for rice. On the other hand, the cherry cobbler recipe would have been familiar to my grandmother. I doubt that my grandmother ever ate sushi. She certainly wouldn’t have had dried seaweed nori in her pantry as a staple.

Around fifty years ago, I set up some goals for myself. I imagined what I would accomplish at five year intervals. I don’t remember all of the goals that I set, but I have frequently looked back with laughter at how little of the reality of life I envisioned. I achieved the goal I set for the first five years. My second or third goal, to have published my first book, didn’t occur until decades later. In the goals I set, I didn’t even think of having children. And children became such a big part of my life that I cannot imagine it without them. How could I not have thought of that when I was planning my future?

Like others, I had no idea how much time, energy, and commitment would be involved in raising children before they came into our lives. I didn’t know how much it would change our priorities and shift our goals. I couldn’t imagine that living close to our grandchildren would be much more important than what place we would live in retirement.

This morning, I’ll have farm-fresh eggs for breakfast. At sometime during the day I’ll probably stroll through the garage at the farm and check in on the chicks in the brooder. They’re getting almost big enough to move into the barn and a few weeks later they’ll be out in the yard. The meat chickens grow quickly and are only around for a few months. I can remember being in high school and thinking that getting chicks raised took such a long time. Now, it seems like a very short span.

I can already tell that it is starting to get dark a bit earlier in the evening. A month’s time makes a change in the length of the day here in the north country. In another three months we will have lived in this house for a year. The seasons pass much more quickly when observed from my point of view.

Some things change a lot. Other things don’t change very much at all. I need both change and stability in my life - sushi and cherry cobbler. I don’t think our menu choices would surprise our grandchildren. Then again, I don’t think they can imagine what foods they will be eating fifty or sixty years from now. I hope their lives have as many wonderful surprises as mine has offered.

Thinking of time

In the 1840’s in New England, the growth of railroads held the possibility of expanding business and industry, but there was a problem that was getting worse. The problem was train accidents. the crashes killed people and the public was growing angry. People accused the railroad companies of cutting corners to increase profits. The problem, however, wasn’t money. It was time. Train conductors set their clocks by the time at their main departure station, found locally by marking the passage of the sun or observing stars. That meant that trains originating in different times were observing different times. With most lines having just a single track on which trains traveled both directions, the practice was for trains to pull onto designated sidings at designated times to allow a train traveling the opposite direction to pass. However, the two trains were traveling to two different times. And there were a lot of times: Boston time, Worcester time, Springfield time.

With the industrial revolution enabling more precise manufacturing, clockmakers were honing their skills. Watches and clocks were becoming more and more accurate. But the pocket watches carried by train conductors were of little use when they did not know the time being reported on the watch of the conductor of a different train. The result was an increase in accidents, causing death, injury and loss of property.

The solution came through a unique collaboration of Harvard College Observatory and Boston clockmaker, William Cranch Bond. Starting in 1849 and continuing for the next 43 years, a time signal originating in the Harvard College Observatory allowed for the synchronization of watches on trains. The result was America’s first time zone. Not only did the Observatory’s time signal allow trains to run on time and avoid accidents, factories were enabled to employ workforces on the same hours, and bankers could time-stamp financial transactions.

The historian Lewis Mumford noted that it was the clock, not the steam engine, that was the most important machine of the industrial revolution. Steam engines may have powered factories and transportation, but it took accurate clocks and a system of synchronizing them for people and their activities to be coordinated enough for efficiency.

The concept of standardized time did not originate with the Harvard College Observatory. Years before, the Royal Greenwich Observatory in London, England, began to proclaim “true” time. In 1833, timekeepers added a ball to a mast at the Royal Greenwich Observatory. The ball would drop precisely at 13:00 (1 pm) each day allowing merchants, factories and banks to adjust their clocks.

In the 1880s a cable was laid under the ocean that connected the Royal Greenwich Observatory with the Harvard College Observatory, establishing the first international time standard. At the International Meridian Conference in Washington DC, more than 25 countries decided that GMT would become the international time standard.

Systems of delivering accurate time involved swinging pendulums, later electronic oscillations of a quartz crystal, and yet later measuring the energy levels of an atom when electromagnetic radiation is applied. Once atomic clocks were developed it was discovered that the clocks were more accurate than the Earth’s rotation. The rotation speed of the earth is slowing down due to gravitational effects from the moon, sun and planets. It is also affected by geological shifts within the core and mantle of the planet, and also by oceanic and climatic changes.

The result is that there is no absolute that is “true” time. Time is a human invention. The most accurate of clocks need to have leap seconds added every so often in order to keep from having time depart from night and day.

Today’s most accurate clocks have deviated from the rotation of the planet as the standard for measuring time. Instead of a second being 1/86,400 of a solar day, it now is based on “a fixed numerical value of the unperturbed cesium ground-state hyperfine transition.” Basically if you bathe cesium in microwaves, they release electromagnetic radiation with a specific frequency. Measure this frequency and you measure the passage of time.

Scientists have gone beyond counting seconds to counting nanoseconds as a standard. This allows for the measurement of very fast objects. And it allows the creation of systems that use objects that are very distant from one another to make accurate measurements. Those measurements are used for the basis of many modern conveniences, including GPS navigation systems. It is no longer just trains and banks, but our entire telecommunications system is based on accurate clocks.

Now laboratories are experimenting with optical technology that may produce a new definition of the meaning of a second within a decade or so. Only time will tell, and it takes time for testing.

Way back, when the first time zones were created, there were those who objected. How could it possibly be the same time in two different places, they asked. The sundial in one place will always read differently than the sundial in another place. They spoke of a basic truth that we often forget. There is no clock on Earth that can ever be perfectly stable or run at exactly the right rate. We have decided to come to agreement despite differences, no matter how small, in how time is measured. We share enough information for trains and planes and satellites to be tracked and measured. We share enough information for our telecommunications systems to work.

The bottom line, however, is that nobody really knows what time it is. That is the true answer to the question posed by the song. No, nobody really knows what time it is.

We have devised a system that works most of the time for most people. And we continue to revise that system, gaining in accuracy. A nanosecond may not mean much to the average person, but when it comes to interplanetary travel, a nanosecond can translate into light years of distance.

Although I don’t really know what time it is - here or on distant planets - I’m pretty sure that the berries are ripe in the garden and when daylight comes it will be time to pick a few more for breakfast. I’ll leave the fine definition of nanoseconds to others - for now at least.

Camp lists

Yesterday we took a short walk and after arriving at our destination, I realized that I was still wearing a mask. We wear masks when inside our church building unless we are in our offices with the doors closed. I’ve gotten used to reaching for a mask and putting it on whenever someone knocks at the door. I also do a fair amount of walking around the building wearing my mask. I’ve discovered that some N95 and KN95 masks are more comfortable than others. I’ve gotten used to dealing with the problems of steamed glasses and ears sore from the elastic straps wrapped around them.

Most places around here are “masks optional.” I try to be responsible and wear a mask when I find myself in a crowd or in close proximity to others. What I know about the current variants of the Covid-19 virus is that it is quite possible for people to spread the virus before they know they are infected. More than fearing becoming ill myself, I am worried about spreading the virus to others. So I wear my mask.

I am under no illusion that the precautions we take give us any guarantee that we will not contract the virus. I know plenty of people who have been cautious and who have observed safety protocols and have still contracted the virus.

Still, getting the disease would put a crimp in our plans. We are heading across the state for a week of Family Camp on Sunday. An outdoors camp in a wilderness setting provides lots of opportunity for healthy activities with plenty of space and fresh air. But we will also be eating in a dining hall full of folks who have come from many different places. Then a week after we return from camp we have a day camp at our church. While it is not called “Vacation Bible School,” that’s what it is. We have excellent leadership recruited and have planned a very strong program for the children who participate. Nonetheless, someone getting sick would create a significant scramble to keep the program in motion. We will do our best to avoid contracting the illness so that we can assume leadership in these programs.

It is not an easy matter to keep up with all of the variants of the disease. Less than a year ago we were talking about Delta, a spike in infection rates and hospitalizations. Then Omicron surfaced and quickly became more common than Delta. The new strain was more contagious than earlier versions of the virus. A little more than a month ago it was announced that the sub variants of Omicron, BA.4 and BA.5 were even more contagious and causing more infection than other variants. These new variants, however, are not causing the spikes in serious illness and hospitalization that was the case with Delta. It seems that the disease is following a pattern that is similar to other viruses. As time goes on, more variants emerge, with a general trend of being more contagious but causing less severe illness.

It is unclear whether the virus is evolving faster than the ability of vaccines to protect us. Existing vaccines appear to be less effective in preventing infection from the newer variants, but still seem to result in patients having milder symptoms than those who are not vaccinated. It may be that Covid-19 vaccines will become more like the annual vaccination for the flu virus: a new formula each year with varying levels of protection.

I don’t have the background or the desire to become an expert in infectious disease. I try to learn enough to engage in safe practices in my community. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, age is a factor in he severity of the illness. I can’t do anything about my age. It has allowed me to obtain one more booster than those who are younger.

There is some evidence that exposure to the virus, including having contracted the illness, may increase immunity to future infection. There are, however, no guarantees in this illness. People who are fully vaccinated can contract the virus. Those who have previously contracted Covid can contract it again. I read in one online source that researchers are now conducting studies of those who have not yet contracted the illness to see if there are other factors than those previously known. I have been thinking that the fact that neither I nor Susan have tested positive for the disease is primarily a matter of luck. Although we have been careful and have tried to observe safety protocols, we have been in close contact with our grandchildren without wearing masks. They contracted the illness, and we did not.

There is a new item on my list of things to pack for camp this year. We have stocked up on Covid-19 rapid test kits so that we can test ourselves if we exhibit symptoms or if we think that we may have been exposed. Early detection can help with going into isolation and trying not to spread the disease. It may also allow sufferers to obtain antiviral medications which have resulted in milder symptoms for those who are infected.

Along with the test kits, we are trying to equip ourselves with accurate information and knowledge about the illness and steps we can take to minimize the spread of the disease.

Experts are predicting that new variants will emerge more quickly than was the case earlier in the pandemic. Newer variants may develop ability to evade some immune responses. The longer the pandemic goes on, the less protection having previously contracted the disease will serve as a protection.

Masks, test kits, accurate information, sleeping bags, sturdy shoes (with closed toes), bible, swimming suit, camera, medications, comfortable clothing, a positive attitude, sweatshirt and jacket - the list of items to take to camp is growing. For years my mother kept notebooks with her lists of items to take to camp. Because we went to family camp every year, previous years’ lists were helpful in remembering all that we would need. I don’t know what happened to those notebooks and those lists. We no longer have them. It might be interesting to compare them to my list for this year’s camp. Even without those lists, however, I know several differences between them and the list I am making.

Nonetheless preparing for camp is a wonderful and fun adventure.

A partial apology

I am not indigenous. On both sides of my family I come from people who immigrated to the United States. I come from people who came from Europe. My people are not, however, recent immigrants. All of my grandparents on both sides of my family were born on this continent as were my parents and I. We’ve called this country home for many years.

I have, however, personally benefitted directly from the process of colonization and westward expansion of the United States. The first home that we owned is located on the historic land of the Shoshone and Bannock tribes. Neither tribes have relinquished title to that land. After a decade we sold that home and bought one ion the heart of Paha Sapa, land sacred to the Lakota people and other tribes. Our home was very near to the center of the territory ceded to the Great Sioux Nation. The land was illegally taken from the Lakota people when their reservation lands were downsized without their consent. The United States Supreme Court ruled in favor of the tribe and ordered the US Government to pay financial compensation to the tribe for the land seized. The tribe has steadfastly refused to accept money for their land and continues to maintain that justice can only be accomplished by the return of the land. After 25 years of living in that home it was sold. The home where we now live is on the traditional lands of the Lummi people, who call themselves Lhaq’temish. In addition, I am a trustee of a family trust that owns a small parcel of land in the heart of Crow country in Montana. Despite the fact that each of these parcels of land was obtained by my family through legal transactions of purchase from former owners, the fact that they are parcels of land to which title exists is the direct result of colonization. Further, the fact that our family has had money to purchase land comes, in part, from the historic process of homesteading, which granted free land to my ancestors - in all cases land that was taken from the people who had called that land home since time immemorial.

I do not pretend to be able to speak for indigenous people and I will wait until I have heard directly of their expressions, but as an outsider listening in to the ceremonial speech of Pope Francis yesterday on the grounds of a former residential school in Maskwacis, near Edmonton, Alberta, I heard only words that were similar to a papal statement that was previously made from the Vatican. Indeed the pope did issue a formal apology in a sense. He said “I am deeply sorry.” He expressed, “sorrow, indignation and shame” for the actions of Christians who operated the government-funded residential schools. He called the residential school system a “disastrous error” and asked for forgiveness.

I also noted what he did not say.

He did not confess that the majority of the residential schools in North America - nearly 70% of such schools in Canada - were run by the Roman Catholic Church. While he noted that the schools had been funded by the government of Canada and were part of official governmental policy, he did not acknowledge the role of the Roman Catholic Church in establishing that government. Most of all, he did not repudiate the Papal Bull “Inter Caetera,” issued by Pope Alexander VI on May 4, 1493. As long as this document is not officially repudiated by the Pope, it remains official Roman Catholic Church doctrine. That Bull establishes what is known as the “Doctrine of Discovery.” It states that any land not inhabited by Christians was available to be discovered, claimed, and exploited by Christian rulers and declared that “barbarous nations” be overthrown and brought to the faith. This “Doctrine of Discovery” became the basis of all European claims in the Americas and the foundation of United States western expansion. In 1823, the United States Supreme Court, in an opinion written by Chief Justice John Marshall, held “that the principle of discovery gave European nations an absolute right to New World lands.”

The basis for removing indigenous people from their lands and seizing those lands for European settlers is directly based on an official doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church. And though the Pope apologized for the horrible treatment of native children in residential schools including torture and death, he fell short of repudiating the official doctrine upon which the policies establishing those schools were based.

If I were indigenous, I would be tempted to respond to the Pope by saying, with all due respect, even though you have called this trip “a pilgrimage of penance,” you have failed to apologize for the actions of the church that led to the treatment of indigenous people as less than human. How can you expect those people to forgive you when you have not yet apologized for the official doctrines that allowed such colonization to occur in the first place?

The Vatican has a difficult time with apologies. I am afraid that many indigenous people will find this to be a less than complete apology for the actions of the church. In that they will be like Jewish people who are still waiting for a complete apology for the failings of Pope Pius XII and the Catholic Church during the horrors perpetrated by the Holocaust.

My reactions to the Papal visit, however, are not the important ones. Because so many indigenous chiefs as well as many First nations, Métis, and Inuit residential school survivors were present to hear the Pope’s remarks yesterday, I will wait and listen carefully to their responses. I remain hopeful that the apology and the pilgrimage of penance might be a first step on a journey of healing.

The 2015 report of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission called the residential school system a central element of “cultural genocide” against indigenous peoples of Canada. More than 3,000 students are thought to have died in the schools. The pain and trauma of those schools remains with the survivors, their children, and grandchildren.

I will wait and listen carefully to what they have to say.

Thinking of bees

I have been trying to cultivate a new hobby, but it has been going slowly. Last spring I completed a course in basic bee keeping and have been certified by the Washington State Department of Agriculture as a beginning beekeeper. I do not yet have any colonies of bees, having decided I wanted to take it slowly and gain a bit more experience before becoming responsible for colonies. My plan was to participate in our local bee club, volunteer at our club apiary, and gain some more hands on experience. Then, in the spring of 2023, I plan to start with a couple of hives, which will be located on our son’s farm, where there is plenty of room and a fruit orchard. It is a good location for the hives.

I’ve been interested in keeping bees for many years and have had a couple of close friends who were bee keepers. I have not had a good place to keep hives in the past, but now our son’s farm is just right. Being semi-retired should give me time for a new hobby as well.

The problem is that the Mount Baker Beekeepers Association holds almost all of its club activities on Wednesdays and Sundays. That’s where the “semi” in semi-retired gets in my way. I lead an adult forum on Wednesday evenings and have responsibilities on Sundays for my job as well. So far, I have not been able to make it to a single event of the bee club. That makes for a very slow learning curve. I may have to adjust my plans in terms of when I will get my first hives and bees.

One concern for local beekeepers is that there have been confirmed sightings of Asian giant hornets in our county. These hornets, native to temperate and tropical East Asia, South Asia, Mainland Southeast Asia, parts of Russia and the Far East, have appeared in Whatcom County. So far, local officials have been able to find and destroy several colonies of the hornets. One such colony was discovered just a few miles from us. The invasive insects could cause a great deal of damage to bee colonies. So far, local beekeepers have not experienced problems with the hornets, but special care is being taken to locate and deal with colonies. There is a hornet trap in our neighbor’s yard that is part of the agriculture department’s efforts, and we have seen others around the region.

A much bigger concern for local beekeepers is the presence of varroa mites. These tiny parasitic insects feed on the bees’ body fluid and spread viruses that cause the bees to grow deformed wings and lower the survival rate of bees during cold temperatures. Local beekeepers are trained to detect the presence of mites and to treat colonies with a special pesticide that kills the mites without harming the bees. The use of pesticides in bee colonies, however, is a risky business. In general bees are very susceptible to the use of pesticides. Over use of the chemicals used to treat mites can create adverse effects for the bees. Another concern is that overuse of pesticides could cause the mites to develop resistance. One of the reasons our son’s farm is a good location for bees is that the farm is organic and chemical pesticides are not used. Even in that location, however, we will have to be prepared to treat colonies for mites if we are going to keep bees.

Critical in the process of treating mites is timing. Local beekeepers wait until the end of summer to treat for mites, when the varroa populations are highest. They prefer to wait until after the honey is harvested to treat for mites. Although it is unlikely that the chemical used to treat the mites could get into the honey, it is a good practice to keep the two activities separate. Testing for mites, however, can be conducted even before honey harvesting and can guide plans for intervention.

Waiting too long can have devastating impacts on the colony. Last year our region experienced unusually warm weather in the spring and early summer, which led to an early pollinating season and strong expansion for bee colonies. However, the conditions also favored the expansion of varroa mites.

To our north, in Canada, beekeepers experienced the largest rate of colony loss in the last 20 years. Nearly half of Canada’s bee colonies didn’t survive the winter of 2021-2022. That means that raising queen bees for export is an important practice for beekeepers in our area. Bees imported from Australia and New Zealand, where the seasons are opposite of the northern hemisphere, are important to keeping the bee industry strong in Canada.

This year we had a slow spring and a later pollinating season. The harvest of honey is now underway and it is still a bit early to determine how serious the mite infestations will be in our county. However, my schedule, and the schedule of activities at the Mount Baker Beekeepers Association seem to be at odds and I have yet to get hands-on experience with testing for and treating mites, an important part of being a responsible beekeeper in our region. Like any other new hobby, I have a lot to learn. Time will tell whether or not I will have bees in my care next year.

So it is all a bit complex. I’m trying to keep myself informed and to keep up with news from the beekeeper’s association as well as general information from the department of agriculture. I’m making friends with some local beekeepers in hopes of furthering my education. A process that once appeared to me to be simple has turned out to be complex and challenging.

Retirement, however, is a good phase of life to accept new challenges and to learn new skills. I find that I don’t learn as quickly and that I need more reinforcement than was the case when I was younger. Nonetheless, I am capable of learning new information and developing new skills.

We’ll just have to wait and see how it goes with the bees.

Accidental soloist

I love music. It is a very important part of my life. Singing and playing instruments was a part of our family for as long as I can remember. We gathered around the piano in our home and sang as a part of our celebration Christmas and other holidays. We sang silly songs at camp and sang table graces at home and at church. When I turned six, I started piano lessons. I don’t remember much discussion about it. I did it because it was what my sisters had done before me. When I was old enough for band in elementary school, I got my first trumpet. My mother played the trumpet and the cello as well as the piano. I had a sister who played the french horn and another who played the flute. Music was simply a part of our lives.

Somewhere along the line, I learned that our father had not had much musical training as a child. I’m not sure that he ever learned to read music. He sang at church and camp, but did so by pitch matching our mother’s singing. As a result, he often sang the alto part one octave below our mother’s voice. She sang alto whenever singing four part harmony was offered. I sang the melody for the most part as a young child. When my voice began to change, I learned to sing tenor. I sang in choir in high school as well as playing in the band. I usually was first or second chair trumpet in my high school years. My band music continued through my college years. I took a few music education classes in college including instrumental methods and introduction to conducting. When we drove back and forth from Montana to Chicago during our graduate school days, we usually traveled with a trumpet and two guitars packed into our tiny car.

I never became very proficient on the guitar, but I could read music and learned the basic chords. With a capo, I could strum along with almost any piece and I learned a lot of folk songs and camp songs. My brother is an accomplished percussionist and he was very good when we were young. He plays professionally on occasion, performing with a jazz group, a symphony orchestra, and pick up pieces with rock and big band groups. For many years he pursued a career as a musician.

While music is important to me and I have always enjoyed playing music, I am not, for the most part a soloist. The one exception to that is that I started playing taps for military funerals when I was in high school and I continue to play taps on occasion. The rest of the time, I’m happier being a member of the band or a voice in the choir. I leave the solos to others who are more accomplished than I.

Somehow, however, I’ve gotten myself down for a couple of musical solos recently. I participated in a prayer vigil for a friend who was gravely ill. Something about the setting and the personality of the person for whom we were praying made me think of the old hymn, “It is Well With My Soul.” At the prayer vigil, I sang the first verse. It turned out that the song was a favorite of the person for whom we were praying. After she had partially recovered, we were at a small gathering at her home and I was asked to sing the hymn again. I did, accompanied by a small group of musicians who play regularly in a band. Months passed and the friend for whom we had prayed died. Her widow asked me to sing at the memorial service. I couldn’t say no. In the way of grieving and funerals in these seasons of Covid, the memorial service is more than a month away, so I’ve got time to fret and be nervous about singing.

I’m not a soloist. I’ve lost count of how many funerals at which I have officiated. I’ve delivered a lot of eulogies. I’ve told a lot of family stories. I’ve prayed at a lot of gravesites. I used to get nervous about every worship leadership job, but I learned to speak at funerals. My career was leading worship, preaching, and teaching. I never fully overcame my tendency to get nervous, but I managed to overcome my nervousness and I learned to be a public speaker. When it came to singing, however, I’ve preferred to be a voice in the choir. I’ve never sung at a funeral. I’m afraid that I’ll run out of breath and need to take a breath in the wrong place, or that my pitch will not be accurate. I know how hard it is to listen to someone singing off key. I don’t want to be that person. Will my emotions overcome me and rob me of the ability to project at the critical moment of the song? I will do my best, because I said I would and I genuinely want to support the grieving widow. I am, however, waking in the night worrying about having agreed to sing a solo in front of a funeral congregation.

That isn’t the only solo about which I have been losing sleep. I’ve always enjoyed handbell choirs. I served on the board of Bells of the Hills in Rapid City for many years. I emceed handbell concerts on many occasions. Each time I was invited to ring in a handbell choir, I declined, saying I just didn’t have time to rehearse. So I promised myself that when I retired, I would join a handbell choir. I’ve been ringing with a very small ensemble at our church for a year now. Often we are only four ringers and we ring very simple music. Because I work at the church and have access to the handbells, I started practicing on my own and began to work on some solo handbell music. Our music director knew I was doing this and she talked me into ringing a solo for worship this morning. The piece is fairly simple, but it involves two octaves of handbells and the melody is rung in three different keys. It will be just me with a piano accompanist in front of the congregation.

I keep telling myself that when I get through these two solo commitments, I won’t agree to sing or play music solo in the future. I suppose that making a lot of mistakes would be a way to get out of having to be the soloist again, but that isn’t my style. I’ll give it my best and I hope I’ll do OK. Still, I’m hoping they don’t invite me again. I’m much happier being a member of a choir.

No longer on the board

Over the years I have served as a member of the board of directors of several different nonprofit corporations. Serving on a board requires a particular set of skills. One has to develop an ability to read budgets and to judge the financial performance of an enterprise. In nonprofits, board members often have to step in and participate in direct fundraising efforts including looking seriously at their own capacity to give to the cause. They have to develop skills at personnel management, including the search for executive leadership for the corporation. They need to be aware of corporate law and their fiduciary responsibilities. They have to have an ability to endure meetings that are occasionally boring and fellow directors who often more interested in grandstanding and resume building than in the overall health of the corporation.

It makes sense that I would serve on boards of church-related corporations. I served on the board of directors of the Pilgrim Congregational Charitable trust for 25 years - longer than any other director in the history of the corporation. My service was ex-officio. That is, I served because another position I occupied. As pastor, I was automatically a member of the board of the corporation. I also served as a director of the South Dakota United Church of Christ Foundation, a position to which I was elected by the United Church of Christ Conference. Some corporate boards are self-electing, meaning the existing board votes on who will be members of the board. Others employ different methods of selecting board members. When I served on the Board of Local Church Ministries, a corporation in the national setting of the United Church of Christ, I was nominated by a state conference, and elected by the General Synod of the United Church of Christ.

Looking back, however, I served on more corporate boards of institutions that are not directly church-related than those that are officially connected to the church. Some were social service agencies whose causes I deeply endorsed such as Black Hills Area Habitat for Humanity and The Front Porch Coalition. Providing housing for those in need and working to prevent suicides and respond with compassion to those who are grieving the loss of a loved one to suicide are causes that are close to my heart. I served with passion.

There were other corporations that had different purposes as well. I think that I served on more boards of directors of arts agencies than any other type of corporation. At one time I was on the boards of The Black Hills Chamber Music Society, Bells of the Hills, and Allied Arts all at the same time. That’s a lot of hours of meetings for someone whose job already involved a lot of meetings.

Over the span of my career, I served multiple search committees seeking employees for nonprofit corporations. I helped select executive leadership for a half dozen corporations. For the most part, I think that the committees on which I served made good recommendations and I can look back on some very strong and successful leadership. There were also a few mistakes, a few employees whose skills weren’t a perfect match for the needs of the corporation, and a couple of notable struggles that involved pushing for resignations of leaders and in a couple of cases directly firing employees. It isn’t at all like one might imagine from television shows.

There were several boards on which I served where I was the youngest member of the board at my time of service. That interests me now that I have become a senior and reached retirement age. Many boards on which I served had members who were retired from their active careers. So far, however, I have retired from board service along with my retirement from my career. I did go back to work after retirement, but I am no longer serving on any corporate boards. I have no desire to return to that kind of service. I hope that my decision about board service creates opportunities for younger people to assume the mantle of leadership.

Nonprofits depend on volunteer leadership and often benefit from volunteers with years of experience that add up to great leadership for the institution. However, their dependence upon older and often retired board members can result in boards that are unwilling to take even reasonable risks and often are overly invested in the status quo. More than a few nonprofits would benefit from younger and more visionary leadership. Young people, however, are very busy with family and career and have less time to dedicate to volunteer service. It is a dilemma for many nonprofit corporations.

In this phase of my life, I am most interested in finding other ways to serve the causes in which I believe. I would rather be a worker than a leader in many of the organizations in which I serve. I don’t need to be the one in charge or at the center of policy decisions. I’m happy serving as a volunteer just doing the work that needs to be done. And one of the things I have discovered is that I don’t miss all of those meetings. I’m perfectly happy allowing others to sit around the big tables and wrestle with the numbers on a spreadsheet. I try to be a generous donor, but I am not so eager to get involved in direct fund-raising.

One of the advantages of being semi-retired and working in interim positions is that I no longer have to worry about my resume. I don’t need more board positions to list as experience that might gain me another board position. I don’t need to sell myself in the same way that was the case when I was actively working. The jobs I do these days don’t ask about executive experience or board skills.I still have my curricula vitae on my web site, but I am thinking of removing that from the site. I haven’t updated it in a couple of years except to change my address. I’m pretty sure that no one is looking at it these days. That is fine with me.

Sasquatch country

In my seminary years, I did two Internships based at Union Church of Hinsdale, Illinois. The first was in youth ministry, the second in health care ministry. I did a reverse commute, living in the city and heading out to the suburbs to work each day. I grew up in small town Montana, and Montana doesn’t have any cities of the size and scope of Chicago, so living in Chicago during our seminary years was a totally new experience for me. It was during those years that I began to understand what a metropolitan area is. A large city is surrounded by many different independent communities that are affected by the city. People live in the communities and work in the city. Even those who do not work in the city are affected by urban life. They go to the city to access an airport served by airlines. They go to the city to shop. They go to the city for cultural events. The traffic of the city is projected out into the outlying communities.

When we first started to think of moving to the Pacific Northwest, I thought of Seattle as the major urban area. Seattle has Sea-Tac, a large international airport. This summer we have had guests who flew in and out of Sea-Tac. One week I made the 5-hour round trip to the airport two days in a row. We know our way around Seattle a little bit. We’ve visited Pike Place Market and the Space Needle. We’ve ridden on the great wheel at pier 57 and toured the aquarium. I’m sure we’ll do more touring in Seattle in the years to come.

Where we live, however, is not really in the metropolitan Seattle area. We’re beyond the suburbs and even the exurbs of the city. We have to drive an hour before we are really in that zone. That doesn’t bother me. I’m a small town kid. Chicago was my one experience with a major metropolitan area and it was enough to convince me that I prefer rural living.

What I didn’t understand, even when we bought our house here last year, is that although we are not in the Seattle metropolitan area, we are in another metropolitan area - that of Vancouver, British Columbia. Vancouver is one of the densest and most ethnically diverse cities in Canada. The metro Vancouver area has a population of over 2.6 million, making it Canada’s third largest metro area. The population of the metro area is affected by the international boundary. When they say 2.6 million, they aren’t counting us. But in most other ways, we are part of the metro area.

That fact wasn’t clear when we moved here. The international boundary was closed to all nonessential travel due to the Covid pandemic. But the border has opened and things have really changed this summer. One of the first places that I noticed the effect was on the Interstate. We drive about 10 miles on the Interstate from an intersection near the town of Ferndale into Bellingham to get to our church. First of all I began to notice that the traffic was a bit heavier than it had been during the height of the pandemic. Then I noticed that there are quite a few cars that are being driven aggressively - the way they are driven in a large city, cutting off other cars, not allowing sufficient space between vehicles, darting into the space that I have left between me and the vehicle I am following. It annoyed me. I commented to my family that I remember Chicago drivers who drove like they were in the heart of the city even after they had left city traffic behind. These drivers were like those. Then I noticed that most of those overly aggressive drivers had British Columbia license plates on their cars. I noticed that a lot of the cars on the Interstate have BC plates. When we walk along the beach in our little village, about a third of the cars have BC plates. We are definitely impacted by the city just north of us.

After all, we live less than 40 miles from the center of the city. But there is more to that metropolitan impact than might otherwise be the case because Vancouver is a contained city to the west and to the north. On the west the Pacific Ocean stops the city from spreading in that direction. And to the North are high mountains and a vast wilderness area that stretches all the way to Alaska. Vancouver’s impact spreads east and south and most of it spreads south.

So we live in a metro area. But you don’t have to go far to find wilderness. If we head straight east we arrive at the North Cascade Mountains in a place where no highways cross the high country. And, to the north, it is only about 70 miles to wilderness dotted with provincial parks and federal lands.

We may live in a metropolitan area, but we are very close to Sasquatch country. About 70 miles northeast of our home is Sasquatch Provincial Park, near the town of Harrison Hot Springs, home to multiple Sasquatch sightings. Some call the creature Big Foot. In the Himalaya they call it Yeti. Here the name is Sasquatch. Some say the creature is a myth. Others say it was made up to promote tourism. But there are true believers and there have been true believers in this area for a long time. The creature is considered sacred to the indigenous people of this region and the Sts’ailes people have been telling Sasquatch stories for at least 10,000 years. In Sts’ailes tradition, Sasquatch is a shapeshifter that protects the land and the people. Their word for “hairy man” (sasq’ets) has been anglicized into Sasquatch.

In British Columbia the dense forest of cedar, Sitka spruce, Douglas fir and hemlock stretch from the shores of the ocean to the snow-capped crests of the mountains. That area of temperate rainforest is nearly impenetrable.

We may live in a metropolitan area, but the wilderness is close by. I’ve never seen Sasquatch, but I’m rather pleased to live in Sasquatch country. In a way I’d rather encounter Sasquatch than those aggressive city drivers.

Theologies good and bad

I was 14 years old when I was confirmed into full membership in the church. That fall, I participated as a visitor in our congregation’s annual stewardship drive. We went out in pairs and called upon members of the church, sharing information about the church and its budget and inviting them to pledge their support of the congregation. I had already been pledging and giving a portion of my discretionary money to the church in addition to my family’s pledge, which was determined by my parents. One of the visits we made was to an elderly widow. It didn’t take us very long to make our pitch. She was well aware of the church, its budget, and probably had been supporting the church for many more years than I had been alive. She, however, wanted to talk about other things. The meeting soon became a process of her interviewing me and not the other way around.

She asked me what I thought of the space program. I was an active and avid follower of US space exploration. I had written letters to several of the original 7 astronauts. I had a picture of the seven and an autographed picture of Wally Schirra on the wall in my bedroom. My parents were pilots and I aspired to become a pilot as well. I had to wait until I turned 16 to be able to fly solo, but I was already taking lessons and flying the airplane with my father who was an instructor pilot. I shared my excitement and enthusiasm with the woman. She pressed me, and asked if I wasn’t worried that shooting those rockets into the sky might penetrate heaven and anger God.

I can’t remember how I answered her. I know I didn’t have anything clever to say. I was completely shocked at her concept that heaven was a place that might be somehow harmed or destroyed by rockets. I didn’t think of heaven like that at all. I didn’t see scientific exploration as any kind of a threat to faith. I was surprised that there was someone who was a member of our church - a woman I had known all of my life - who had such a view of the nature of the universe.

She was not alone in her understanding of the universe. There were many people of faith, including some of the authors of parts of the bible who viewed a three-tiered universe with heaven on top, earth in the middle, and hell below. They lived before there was an understanding that the earth is a sphere. They didn’t have information about the movement of the planets or the nature of the universe beyond our planet. They had no concept of the size of the universe. Some of the ideas and images of the ancients have persisted. Some people read the bible today and take parts of it literally. They believe that the seven days of creation in the first chapter of the book of genesis are measured the same way as we measure time. Their view of the length of time and the size of the universe is limited by their interpretation of a few words of scripture.

It took me a lot longer, however, to be able to accept the faith of those who view the universe differently than I as genuine. My encounters with fundamentalists in college led me to believe that they had bad faith, when in reality they simply had bad theology, a much different thing. After four years of college and four years of graduate theological education, I had a fairly complex theology of my own. I also was much better versed in the bible and in biblical interpretation. As I aged and my faith matured, I became more accepting of people who had different beliefs than my own. I have now come to the understanding that faith is not a matter of having the right beliefs. We can argue about theology, and I’m prepared to do so for hours, but the organization of our thoughts about God, the nature of the universe, the role of humans, the development of community and church, and other topics are only a small part of Christian practice.

Recently I heard the report of one of the members of our congregation asking another minister of our church about having a minister of another denomination lead a worship service at our church. The minister of our church hesitated and said something about needing to “check out” the other minister to make sure that their theology was consistent with that of the United Church of Christ. I didn’t say much when I received this report, but I smiled inwardly. The minister who wanted to check for theological consistency is a young pastor and will gain experience, and hopefully a bit of grace, as time passes. I remember the dilemma myself. The request came most often in relationship to weddings. “Pastor we want to have our daughter’s wedding at our church, but she wants to have her friend, who is a minister at another church officiate.” I have helped congregations develop policies that attempt to give the congregation control over who is allowed to lead worship in their building. I have also co-officiated with pastors of other denominations who have said outrageous things at weddings, who have implied beliefs with which I disagree, and whose interpretation of the bible is based in ignorance that borders on disrespect of scripture. More than once I’ve had to bite my tongue to keep from expressing my outrage. So I understand the desire of the minister of our church to avoid having someone spouting bad theology and uninformed biblical interpretation.

But the diversity of belief and interpretation is already present in our church. There are already members of our congregation whose beliefs are more fundamentalist than mine. There are others whose beliefs border on something I wouldn’t call Christianity. Our community is not held together by agreement about beliefs. Salvation does not come from having the correct theology.

It turns out that heaven safe from rockets and God has nothing to fear from scientific exploration. It also turns out that we don’t need to protect the members of our church from occasionally hearing words from those with whom we disagree. It took me a while to learn that lesson, and I need to have patience with others who have yet to learn it.

Imaginary conversations

Sometimes I let my imagination run away with me. The other day we were walking along the bay and we saw a father with five boys playing in the water. We had four boys in our family and we found out a whole lot of ways to get into trouble. Five must be a real handful. I noticed that four could be running in four different directions. It was a good thing Dad was holding the baby in his arms while he tried to run after another little one. I keep thinking about what life must be like for their family. Here are some imaginary fragments of conversations that might have taken place on various trips to the emergency room.

These are all fictional situations. I don’t even know the father or the children we saw on the beach. Like I said, sometimes I let my imagination run away with me.

The admissions clerk said to me: “You don’t really need to sit down. All I need is a first name and date of birth. I already have your insurance information. We’ve got your whole family in our system.” It reminded me of so many other conversations I’d had with the admissions clerk at the Emergency Room.

. . . So I said to her, ‘I’d really like to have a little girl, and we have a 50/50 chance.” But here we are, number five and its a boy and she didn’t even wait to get to the hospital this time . . .

. . . I thought it was a good idea to have a speedometer for the bike. I never thought they’d try to see if they could get it to go 50 mph. I’d never take that corner at 50 mph in the car . . .

. . . I have no idea where the piece of stick came from. He said he put it in his nose, but he doesn’t know why . . .

. . . Once. ONCE. I only said to him “You have Dumbo ears,” one time. It was his big brother who started calling him Dumbo, but I didn’t think he believed that he could actually fly . . .

. . . It says right in the instructions for the tent that they are “patented safety poles.” I guess the patent didn’t consider what would happen when they are used as light sabres . . .

. . . He is really cute putting on his big brother’s shoes all the time. How could I have guessed he would try to walk with both feet in the same boot? . . .

. . . I really didn’t think they were listening when I said, “If we have a fire before we get a safety ladder, we can tie together sheets and lower ourselves out of the window.” . . .

. . . I thought a human pyramid of the males in our family would be fun. Six works, if the oldest three are on the bottom and the baby on the top. I never expected the two in the second layer to jump in the middle of my back at the same time . . .

. . . We used to have a beautiful solid glass storm door on the front door. I say used to because when he was chasing his brother and slammed that door right in his face, it shattered into a thousand pieces as he went through the door head first . . .

. . . I wonder how many trips to the emergency room begin with “I double dog dare you!” . . .

. . . No, I don’t know how much peanut butter they got into his ear. I just know that I didn’t get it all out . . .

. . . It was burned toast that set off the smoke alarm. I was trying to get that quiet and didn’t see him pull the pin on the fire extinguisher. I wiped it off of his face, but he keeps coughing . . .

. . . They are not supposed to get into my tool box, but frankly, I didn't think he was strong enough to lock a pair of channel lock pliers onto his brother’s toe. I suppose they’ll have to x-ray it . . .

. . . I don’t know which one of them came up with the idea of using the clothes chute as a shortcut from up to downstairs. I just know they shouldn’t have used the littlest one to test the theory . . .

. . . I know the package says, “For children age 8 and over.” But you try telling a five-year-old that he isn’t old enough to do what his brothers are doing . . .

. . . According to his brothers, this wasn’t the first time they put him in the middle of the trampoline and then the other four all jumped at once. They called the game “Send Brian into the stratosphere” . . .

. . . When you have five boys you buy a lot of food in large quantities. We do our weekly grocery shopping at Costco. They came up with the idea of having a hot dog eating contest with cold dogs fresh out of the refrigerator. It was a very large package . . .

. . . The gate at the top of the stairs was put there to prevent falls. In his case, it just gave him a higher starting point for the fall . . .

. . . They were watching weightlifting at the Olympics on the television. He took my 20# therapy weight, lifted it over his head, cheered and then threw it to the ground. Unfortunately his brother’s toe was right where it fell . . .

. . . I have a friend with two daughters. I suggested a trade, but he wouldn’t go for it . . .

. . . We have a garage full of bikes. It wasn’t a shortage of bikes that gave them the idea to try to go down that hill with all five on the same bike . . .

. . . We have no trees suitable for climbing at our house. Their grandparents only have one tree that you could climb. One is enough . . .

. . . A tennis ball on the stairway can be pretty entertaining. I didn’t even know they had found my old bowling ball in the back of my closet . . .

. . . Maybe you should start a frequent visitor program. We could fill up a punchcard with 12 visits in less than half a year and if you made a free visit for every 12 our insurance company would love you . . .

There are a thousand more possibilities. Fortunately for you, I’ve had enough for today.

Sitting with grief

One of the things that I have said about my retirement is that after a long pastorate, one ends up conducting the funerals of friends way too often. It certainly is the truth that I found myself in the midst of my own grief at the same time I was in the role of walking with someone who was journeying through the grief of the loss of a loved one. I’ve preached sermons at the funerals of people who were my friends. I do think that the stress of doing so much grief work was one of the dynamics of retirement for me. I loved the work that I did and I never actively wanted for it to come to an end, but the shift in my role in the church from that of a pastor to one more focused on teaching has been a positive move for me.

I am sure that there is an active support system for survivors of suicide in this area, but I have not become involved. I have not even checked out the organizations of survivors of suicide. Although I felt called to the work of suicide response, I have not ben sad to leave that work behind for now. I only realized after I stopped being on call for suicide response that I understood how much of a toll that work was taking.

On the other hand, retirement has not stopped people from dying. And as I grow older, the news of deaths in the community is more and more the news of my peers, or members of my age cohort. It is not that uncommon for me to receive the news of the death of someone who belongs to the congregation we served in Rapid City. Now there is a new twist to my grief. I no longer am in the midst of that congregation. I am no longer able to go wit with the widow and family. I am no longer able to attend the funerals. I grieve no less than before, but it is a new way of experiencing grief.

To some extent the Covid-19 pandemic shifted the patterns of grief for our whole society. Especially during the early days of the pandemic, people hesitated to gather. We started live-streaming funeral services so that people could participate from a distance. Having served in the midwest for decades, I can assure you that a funeral without the funeral lunch is an incomplete process. Lots and lots of people had to develop ways of dealing with grief in more private settings. I know, however, that were we still living in Rapid City, I would have figured out ways to be a part of community in the midst of grief. For the most part, I do not watch the livestreams of worship in the congregation we served for so long. However, I do on occasion view a funeral.

These are my people and I am involved in the grief of their deaths even if I no longer carry the title of pastor of that congregation.

Now that I belong to another congregation, I know that I cannot isolate myself from death and the process of grieving.

I sat with a friend at Hospice House last night. The move from a home care setting to Hospice House had come quicker than the family had expected. Suddenly they found themselves in the midst of a busy move from one place to another. By the time I got to Hospice House, the patient was settled into a bed and medications were being adjusted to provide for comfort. Grieving family members, however, were having trouble adjusting to this new place. As it turned out, they needed a little while to take a break, go home, regroup and prepare to spend the night with their dying loved one. They didn’t want to leave their loved one alone, however. I understood. I offered to sit with our friend while family members got a much needed break.

It was not a difficult task. I did what I have done so many times before. I read some beloved passages of scripture out loud. I sang a few hymns that give comfort. I said some familiar prayers. I refreshed the cold washcloth on the forehead. I straightened the covers. I moistened the lips with a swab. I wiped a few tears with a tissue. Mostly I just sat and listened and immersed myself in the experience. I found myself breathing in rhythm with the person in the hospice bed.

Unlike family members for whom the experience of Hospice House is new and strange and maybe even frightening, I’m quite at home at Hospice House. It was my first visit to this particular facility, but I knew how to step into the chapel for personal prayer while nurses performed a procedure. I knew how to talk to the attendants. I wasn’t afraid when eyes failed to focus and breathing patterns shifted. I know my way around a Hospice. It is a comfortable place for me.

We human beings are mortal. We die. It is part of who we are. And while we live, we cannot escape grief. Those whom we love die. And for those of us who are blessed to have lived long enough and experience layer upon layer of love and grief, our grief become a familiar friend. What once felt strange and painful to us does not shed its sting, but does settle into a pattern that we recognize. We understand that we are not losing our minds. We discover that we can endure. We recognize that feelings that overwhelm us. I tell grieving people that we are waterproof - that tears are not the enemy.

I don’t know the sense of timing for my friend’s journey through death. I know I haven’t received a phone call from her family yet. The timing is not in our hands. What might take hours for some can take days for others. Learning that we do not control the timing is part of the process.

I collect another layer of grief. I shed a few more tears. My faith is strengthened. My convictions are unshaken. Love never dies. These are moments we don’t get over. We get through them. And we journey together. I don’t regret the time I have been privileged to sit with the grief and loss of good friends.

Candidates at my door

The primary election in our state is August 2 and the mail-in ballots have already arrived at our house. We have read through the official voters guide with the statements of the candidates and are just about ready to vote. We have a bit of research yet to complete so that we can cast an informed vote in the race for a non-partisan judge position. Other than that, our minds are pretty much made up about our votes for this primary.

The candidates and their representatives are busy, canvassing the neighborhoods. We’ve had several ring our doorbell and hand us flyers with information. Some have asked us to participate in a “survey.” I declined that invitation, even though I wondered what kind of questions they might ask. Usually those kind of questions are an attempt to determine how people plan to vote. That information will be used later as part of a get out the vote campaign. Years ago I worked on passing a school bond measure and we canvassed our neighbors to see who was in favor and who was opposed to the measure. Then, on election day, we called those in favor, reminded them to vote and made sure that they knew where to vote. We did not contact those who were opposed. Getting out the voters who agree with your position is a powerful political tool.

One candidate appeared at our door, introduced himself, and handed us a flyer about the size of a large postcard. As he did so he said, “Here is some literature.” I’m never as quick with my thoughts as I wish I were. I didn’t say anything, but what I later wished I had said is, “Do you really think a card with perhaps one hundred words is literature? I write ten times as many words every day in my journal. Maybe that is a reason why I shouldn’t support you. I’m in favor of strong schools with lots of opportunities for children to learn. Calling a few sentences of self-promotion literature is a demonstration of ignorance. Have you ever read The Great Gatsby or To Kill a Mockingbird or One Hundred Years of Solitude? Those are literature. Why don’t you go home and read Ulysses and Don Quixote, Moby Dick, Hamlet and War and Peace and then come back and we can discuss literature.”

I admit that I am an educational elitist. Having had the opportunity to complete college and graduate school degrees and engage in high quality continuing education, I have a bias in favor of those who are educated. I know that the traditional academy is only one way of teaching and learning. I know that there are some very intelligent persons who haven’t had the educational opportunities that I have had. Nonetheless, I value education and I hope that the candidates for public office have invested at least some of their lives pursuing education.

Reading through the candidates’ statements in the official voters guide gives me additional clues about candidates and which ones will gain my support. Education is not my only bias. I also value experience. There are, on our ballot, candidates for statewide office who have listed no prior public service. There are times when a fresh opinion and an alternative to a governmental insider can provide much needed leadership, but a lack of political experience isn’t exactly a qualification. There are candidates who seem proud to declare that they have no experience. It makes me wonder how effective they might be. Policy in our system of government comes though a political process and one must understand that process in order to accomplish anything in government. These are candidates for positions in government. Being opposed to government isn’t a qualification for the jobs they seek.

These are trying times for democracies. All around the world democratic governments are being challenged by those who don’t believe in majority rule, who are willing to cheat the system in order to gain power, and those who put their own interests ahead of the needs of others. Old fashioned values like integrity and honesty seem to be in short supply. The capacity to think critically and make informed judgements are qualities I look for in leadership. Calling an advertising flyer literature does not inspire confidence in me.

If a candidate wants to impress me, a good starting point would be a list of places where that person had served others. Is the candidate a volunteer in community service? Has the candidate worked with others to come up with solutions to real world problems? Is there substance behind the rhetoric of campaigning?

I’m not paying attention to word count on election flyers, but I might notice the size of the vocabulary used. I’m much less interested in a litany of dissatisfaction with government than in practical solutions to pressing problems. If you want my vote, tell me what you favor. Don’t just give me a list of things you oppose. Show me that you are able to work with those with whom you disagree to forge practical political solutions.

I’m taking my vote seriously and will continue to work to be a thoughtful and informed voter. The people who are ringing my doorbell these days aren’t particularly helpful to that process. It is probably a good thing that we don’t invest much time talking with those who stop by. An argument probably wouldn’t change my vote and it would consume a lot of time that the candidate might better use handing out flyers at other doors in the neighborhood.

I suppose that I have become a bit of a curmudgeon as I age. I suspect that some of the campaigners have identified my house as one where it is best to drop off the flyer and leave as soon as possible. I won’t feel bad if they think of mine as a place where there are challenging questions.

Years ago, I watched as eager missionaries from a church worked our neighborhood and simply skipped my house. The word had gotten out that I have religious convictions and am not likely to be converted. I wouldn’t mind having my house skipped by a few campaigners. It is a house where there are political convictions and the people who live here aren’t likely to abandon their convictions.

Considering the birds

I think that our congregation has left the Revised Common Lectionary behind this summer. Our lead pastor is on sabbatical and our interim pastor isn’t a lectionary preacher. We’ve had several changes of scripture, sometimes in the week before a service. Because I have lived my professional life within the lectionary for so many years, it throws me a bit, but change is good for one my age, even if it is a challenge. I’m trying to go with the flow. I just wait until the bulletin is completed and check out the focus text for the service before planning the time with children. That seems to work.

Even though this is year C of the lectionary - a time when we focus on the Gospel of Luke, today in our church we will be hearing a familiar text from the Gospel of Matthew: “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?”

Even though I think in terms of the texts of the lectionary, and I might have considered the story of Mary and Martha in this week’s reading of Luke, I actually did spend some time this week considering the birds of the air.

We have been enjoying the bounty of the cherry trees in our back yard. We have picked cherries for eating and have given gallons of them to our son’s family for snacking. We have frozen cherries. We have dried cherries. And I have made cherry pie. On Thursday, both Susan and I picked a bucket of cherries and I baked a cherry pie to take to friends. On Friday, it seemed as if most of the birds in the region discovered the cherry tree. They descended in mass. There were times when I’m sure there were more than a hundred birds on a single tree and in the grass below the tree, feasting on cherries. I was entertained by birds chasing rolling cherries that had been dropped on the neighbor’s roofs, and by birds in the rain gutters, retrieving dropped cherries. A crow would fly to the tree and send a cloud of smaller birds into the air until it left. Robins seemed to come one by one, but the smaller birds came in mass, squawking and tussling over the cherries. I sat in my chair on the deck for quite a while just watching the birds. Then I put my chair away so the birds wouldn’t make a mess on the chair.

There was a bit of mess. They weren’t careful with the pits from their cherries. Many of them, along with numerous bird droppings, ended up on our deck, which I had to scrub. Simply hosing it off was insufficient to remove the mess. Somehow the mess seemed worth the entertainment.

The bounty of nature is such that we had plenty of cherries to share. We had had several days of being able to allow our grandchildren to pick and eat cherries from the tree. We have pints of cherries in our freezer. We have dried cherries. And there still is a large bowl of cherries in the refrigerator available for snacking. We had so many that picking them was beginning to be a chore. I don’t mind sharing a few with the birds.

However, I don’t think that it would have occurred to me to use the birds in our back yard, gorging themselves on cherries, while competing with all of the other birds, as an example of not worrying. Actually, they seemed to be pretty stressed. Their wings were flapping, they called out to each other when they didn’t have a cherry in their mouths. They flitted from here to there. And at least the small birds were very flighty and easily frightened. The shadow of a crow was enough to send hundreds of birds swirling into the air and off toward the woods. I don’t think they relaxed while they were gone, either, because they would soon be back, flapping and fluttering as they tried to keep balance on a loaded cherry branch with a dozen other birds pecking at the cherries.

The text from Matthew ends with this advice: “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.” I suppose that the birds weren’t worried about tomorrow, because by the next day there were a lot fewer cherries and a lot fewer birds. It seems that Friday was cherry day for the birds and by Saturday they had to look for other sources of food.

The text also uses flowers and grass as examples of reasons not to worry. “If God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith?” Lilies are beautiful flowers and the hayfields around here are very beautiful in the springtime. It seems to me, however, that the passage is also a reminder of our mortality and the shortness of life. “Tomorrow is thrown into the oven,” isn’t exactly a description of long life. I’m probably a bit morbid in my mood because I heard yesterday of the death of a friend who is several years younger than I. I knew that he had been sick, but his death caught me a bit off guard. He was a person with whom I had several conversations about life and death. I know he wasn’t afraid of dying, but his life did not end the way he imagined it would. None of us gets to choose the manner of our departure from this life. We all have to surrender control.

Indeed we are more like the grass and the birds than we might think. There are more productive ways to invest our time than worrying about the future. Seeking and recognizing Gods’ gifts in the time that we have, and living lives of justice and righteousness, are enough for our time and our lives.

Still, I will take a few moments, from time to time, to consider the birds as I watch the gift of the wild diversity of creation right in my own back yard.

Hope in a harsh world

About 150 miles northeast of here, in the high country alongside the Fraser River, is the town of Lytton, British Columbia. Last year a devastating wildfire completely destroyed the town. All of the city buildings and homes were destroyed. The only homes remaining were those that were out of town, including the homes on the west side of the river, across the Fraser from the main town. The town is located right on Canada Highway 1, north of Hope, and is home to members of the Lytton First Nation, a recognized indigenous tribe.

Now, just 1.7 kilometers northwest of town, on the west side of the river, a fire that has been burning since Thursday has forced the evacuation of two dozen families. At least six homes have burned and the total number of residential structures destroyed “could be upward of nine,” according to Lytton First Nation deputy chief John Haugen. As many as 31 additional homes north of the fire are on evacuation alert, with residents advised to be ready to leave on short notice. Electricity to the entire community, on both sides of the river, has been cut off due to the fire.

Despite a crew of 80 firefighters, three areal tankers, and six helicopters, the fire continues to burn out of control. It doubled in size yesterday. The fire has been named the Nohonim Creek fire and it has been aggressive. At one point on Thursday, the fire jumped the Fraser River, but firefighters were able to control the fire on the east side of the river.

And it isn’t just fire that threatens the people who live in what once was a beautiful mountain setting. Last November, the Fraser River and tributary creeks flooded. Mudslides tore down the hillsides blackened by last year’s fires. One of the problems facing those who are evacuating due to the fires is that not all roads and bridges have been repaired from the winter’s flooding.

Fires and floods and mudslides are a lot to face. I can’t imagine what it is like for those who are evacuating for a second time, or for those who lost their homes a year ago, yet returned to rebuild their town only to see it threatened once again.

Thoughts and prayers seem insufficient in the face of the scope of this tragedy.

The circumstances that have led to Lytton becoming the hottest place in British Columbia are clearly the result of human caused climate change.

In the southwestern United States the water level in Lake Mead continues to drop. The region has experienced a decades-long drought while water demands across the southwest have increased. Currently the level of the water in the reservoir is at 1,000 feet above sea level. If the water level were to continue to drop a little more than 100 more feet, the hydro generators at the Hoover Dam would no longer be able to produce electricity. It is a condition that the original designers of the dam believed would never occur.

Human caused climate change has exacerbated the conditions that are causing the lake to dry up.

Yet there are still those who deny that climate change is a reality. There are those who believe that there is nothing we can do about our circumstances.

In recent weeks, I’ve had several conversations with people in the church where a deep despair about the world and the conditions we face has been expressed. People are disheartened by the political situation in our country and the rising power of a vocal minority whose only purpose seems to be deconstruction and disruption. From local school boards to the United States Supreme Court, public servants seem to be determined to subvert the will of the public. Poll after poll has shown the increasing distrust of government to provide solutions to large scale problems.

We are facing large scale problems. Climate change is just one of them. The Covid-19 pandemic has proven to be more persistent than any of us expected. Just when we think it might be safe to let down our guard a little and end the isolation that has marked the past two and a half years, another variant emerges. Even with the ready availability of rapid testing, there is no way to be certain that we aren’t transmitting disease to others. We follow protocols and wear masks. We’ve stopped shaking hands and instead gesture from a distance or bump elbows when passing the peace in church.

All of this has a deep impact on the mental health and sense of well being of the people in our communities. We can look at a community like Lytton and be grateful that our community is not similarly threatened, but there is no joy. There is no real assurance that we won’t face similar devastation in the future as the earth continues to deal with the excess carbon built up over the use of fossil fuels by our generation. We have been consuming the earth’s resources like there is no tomorrow for so long that now it seems there may be no tomorrow. At least the future will be vastly different than the present.

Our grandchildren will not be able to see some of the grandeur and beauty of this world that has inspired us. Glaciers are melting. Coral reefs are dying. Climate refugees are clogging communities. Housing shortages are becoming more and more rampant.

In the midst of all of this the business of the church remains. We are a people of hope. Our hope is not based in the hard facts that appear before us, but neither is it a blind-eyed optimism. Hope is a powerful force that recognizes that change is possible even when we do not see the way ahead.

When people are grieving there is often a thin line between hope and despair. The role of the community to support and minister to the needs of those in grief is critical to their ability to get through the grief and rise from the depths of despair. We need to be the bearers of hope even when others cannot see it.

Now, more than ever before in our lives, our faith is needed. Our hope is needed. Our love is needed. There is much work to be done.

An unwritten story

I’ve dabbled in fiction over the years, writing a few short stories, and, like many other writers, have attempted to write a couple of novels. However, I have come to the conclusion that my genre is personal essay and I’ve never put enough effort into writing fiction to get good at the craft. Sometimes, however, I like to imagine stories. Like every other place we have lived, our town is full of stories and I don’t know many of them. There is a pallet of cardboard boxes, wrapped in blue plastic wrap sitting in a driveway a few blocks from our house. It has been there for quiet a while with no one making an attempt to undo the plastic or deal with the contents. I’ve commented about it several times when we have walked or driven by. I don’t know the story, but that big package invites speculation and would be a good prompt for a fiction exercise.

Sometimes when we walk around the neighborhood, I see children playing in front yards and the street. Often I don’t know which children come from which house, and I think that there could be some good stories there. I sometimes make up short stories about other drivers on the freeway, people we see in a store, or the people who bring preschool children to play at the tot lot across the street from our office at the church.

Yesterday as we were walking along the brim between the beach and the main drive in Birch Bay, we noticed that tourist season is in full swing. About a third of the cars parked along the street had British Columbia license plates. Maybe half of the cars had Washington plates. The remaining vehicles had plates from several different states and provinces. Whenever we see plates from Montana, which we did yesterday, I try to comment on the county as Montana plates begin with a number designating the county where they were issued. So many different trips have been made to come to our part of the country. A small car had been driven from Virginia all the way across the US to be parked in our village. A new SUV, licensed in Kalispell, Montana, was waiting for its owner to return.

An old pickup truck parked right next to a brand new convertible go me to thinking about what story might be behind those vehicles. There are two parking places reserved for persons with disabilities across the street from a brew pub. One was occupied by an old Dodge two-wheel drive, single cab pickup with faded blue paint and quite a few dents. The truck appeared to be sporting its original paint and a little rust from a life of more than 40 years. It had a Washington State farm vehicle sticker. I don’t know the rules applying to farm vehicles in our state, but I have seen vehicles with official stickers on the back that designate them as farm vehicles. I suspect that there are certain taxes that are waived for those vehicles. The windows were rolled down. I’m sure that rolled was the right verb in the case of the truck. I doubt that it sported electric window actuators. A temporary disabilities parking tag hung from the rear view mirror.

Right next to the pickup in the other disability parking place, also sporting a parking tag hanging from the rear view mirror was a new Toyota convertible with shiny pearlescent paint. The top was down, but all of the windows were rolled up. Perhaps it had been driven on the freeway, or at least on one of the roads where it is legal to drive fast. It looked like it had enjoyed a trip going much faster than the pickup next to it.

Of course, I know nothing of the owners of the vehicles. There are many different types of disability that would merit the parking tags. It is possible that one of the people in the vehicles was recovering from a major illness. Perhaps there had been an accident. Other people might have experienced disability from their birth.

I like to imagine that the owner of the pickup truck was an elderly gentleman who had been working all of his life on a farm in the area. He doesn’t travel much, just an occasional trip to town for groceries or parts. The owner isn’t the kind of guy who sits around on the beach and he isn’t much for trendy brew pubs. He prefers the familiar places that have been around for a long time. Somehow he ended up in Birch Bay, perhaps after making a delivery of straw bales for the landscaping of one of the new million dollar homes. The owner decided to stop for a quick beer on a hot evening before heading home. Like his pickup, he had seen some better days. Hard work and age had combined to leave him with a slow limp in place of the steady gate that had marked decades of his life. I imagine he is sitting a bit uncomfortable in his work clothes at the bar, sipping his beer, a bit taken back at its price. His wallet, never flush with cash, is particularly empty and it is too early in the month for the money to be so short.

I imagine that the owner of the convertible arrived with a date in the other seat. Their hair had been blowing in the wind over the car and they ran their fingers through their hair as they made it across the street to the pub. It was a destination as they enjoyed sampling the brews from small micro breweries up and down the coast. The owner of the car had lived with disability since birth and had achieved success in spite of a condition that left others dependent. Sampling a few different brews is a summer passion and having friends with whom to share the experience is important. A plastic card was used to pay without thought of the cost. A few beers is a minor expense in the scheme of things.

Of course, I don’t know the stories. I’m sure that they are far from the truth. Still, I like to imagine that the owners of the two vehicles shared a brief conversation yesterday and that both of them got a bit of joy from the exchange. It is a story that remains to be written.

International Non-Binary Day

Ten years ago, Katje van Loon wrote a blog post calling for the creation of International Non-Binary Day on July 14 - exactly half way between International Women’s Day and International Men’s Day. Since 2012 the day has been observed as a time for raising awareness and organizing around the issues faced by non-binary people around the world. Ten years ago, I was not very aware of non—binary as a gender category. I had transgender friends and was well aware that there were people who identified as having a different gender than assigned at birth. I was also aware that there are cultures in different parts of the world and at different points of human history where there are more than two genders recognized. As a student of the Bible I was aware of Biblical characters with non-traditional gender identities. Joseph, the youngest son of the patriarch Jacob is an example. Both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament have stories of eunuchs. Some eunuchs have experienced the alteration of their genitals. Most are not named, though the eunuchs in the Book of Esther are an exception. Jesus, when addressing the subject of divorce in Matthew 19, speaks of eunuchs directly: “For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can.” (Matthew 19:12)

As I became aware of friends and colleagues who came out as non-binary, however, it became very important for me to not use categories that I had previously identified. These people were expressing an identity that did not conform to what I already knew, but revealing something completely new.

Part of my learning included struggling with pronouns. My non-binary friends are not comfortable with traditional “he/him” or “she/her” pronouns. They prefer to use “they/them” as a singular. This was a real mental struggle for me. Having worked as an editor using more traditional language rules, my mind rebelled at what I perceived as a lack of noun/pronoun agreement. I kept wanting to correct the grammar and I found myself having to make a real effort to use they and them as singulars. Part of that struggle was good for me as it raised awareness. If I am uncomfortable with a little change in language, imagine how much more uncomfortable it is for someone to feel like the entire world is identifying them as different than they perceive themselves.

I’ve found myself in the midst of several discussions about pronouns. Some of my friends openly rebelled at the use of they/them in reference to individuals. For a while, I would remind those friends that Shakespeare regularly used “they/them.” This, however, is a rather silly argument. Most of us don’t speak Shakespearean English and none of us write as well as Shakespeare.

My personal preference is “zie/zir.” It is a little bit easier for me to learn completely new words than to use other words in a different manner than I have been using them for the rest of my life. “Zie/zir” sounds gentle and playful to me. But my preference is hardly the important factor in language choice. I am learning to listen carefully to others and to use the pronouns they choose.

Listening carefully and discarding previously accepted categories is important. Some non-binary individuals are transgender, but not all. Some non-binary individuals focus their attention on roles and are careful not to be forced to conform to traditional roles. But neither Susan nor I identify as non-binary, but we have not conformed to the rigid gender roles that were traditional in our upbringing. I’m a fairly good cook and am competent at cleaning and organizing. Susan is a professional and has always earned income to support our family. We have worked together as a team both at home and at work without the need to identify one as “boss” or “in charge.” Persons who identify as non-binary do not always conform to traditional gender roles, but some of them find that there are traditional roles with which they are comfortable. One of the lessons for me has been to allow each person to assume the roles and make the identifications they choose.

I’ve never gotten into recognizing International Women’s Day on March 8 or International Men’s Day on November 19. I haven’t found a need to celebrate people by gender. We do observe role-based holidays in our family. Mother’s Day and Father’s Day are days of celebration for us. On the other hand, I see no problem with recognizing International Non-Binary Day. It is an opportunity for me to express appreciation for certain friends and colleagues. I’m not sure what is the best way to recognize the day, however. Flowers might be appropriate for some, but not for all non-binary individuals. For starters, I’m going to work very hard today to use the pronouns chosen by the people I know. I’m also going to try to avoid other gendered titles such as “sir” and “son.” This is a bit easier for me because I do not have reason to use titles with my non-binary friends.

The International Human Rights Campaign has a web page celebrating the diversity of the non-binary community and recognizing today as International Non-Binary Day. I recommend taking a look at the page and obviously I am grateful that you are reading my journal posted on the Internet. However, I suspect that the best way to celebrate the day is to spend less time immersed in media and more time in relationship with actual human beings.

To all of my friends, those who identify as male, female, non-binary, or other, I wish you a joyful International Non-Binary day. May you find joy in the rich diversity of the people of the world and discover communities of love and support for all people. As we say in the United Church of Christ, “No matter who you are, or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here!”

Cherry pie

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I was surprised when I looked up the lyrics to the song, Billy Boy, on the Internet. A quick google search revealed 16 verses. I only knew two:

Oh, where have you been, Billy Boy, Billy Boy?
Oh, where have you been, Charming Billy?
I have been to seek a wife, she's the joy of my whole life
But she's a young thing and cannot leave her mother

and:

Can she bake a cherry pie, Billy Boy, Billy Boy?
Can she bake a cherry pie, Charming Billy?
She can bake a cherry pie, quick as a cat can wink her eye
But she's a young thing and cannot leave her mother

I have forgotten, or never learned the others:

Where does she live, Billy Boy, Billy Boy?
Did she bid you to come in, Billy Boy, Billy Boy?
Did she take your hat, Billy Boy, Billy Boy?
Did she set for you a chair, Billy Boy, Billy Boy?
Can she cook and can she spin, Billy Boy, Billy Boy?
Can she make a feather bed, Billy Boy, Billy Boy?
Can she make a pudding well, Billy Boy, Billy Boy?
Can she milk a heifer calf, Billy Boy, Billy Boy?
Is she often seen at church, Billy Boy, Billy Boy?
And is she very tall, Billy Boy, Billy Boy?
Are her eyes very bright, Billy Boy, Billy Boy?
Can she sing a pretty song, Billy Boy, Billy Boy?
How old may she be, Billy Boy, Billy Boy?
Is she fit to be a wife, Billy Boy, Billy Boy?

I was humming the song yesterday afternoon because I was baking cherry pies. Our cherry tree is producing more cherries than we can pick and process. Susan and I both picked more than a gallon yesterday and there are so many more. We don’t mind that the birds are eating cherries. We have plenty to share.

My plan was to bake two cherry pies. One for us and one to take to some friends one of whom has been ill. However, I made a mistake with my pies. The process is quite simple: wash and pit the cherries, sugar them and cook them until there is plenty of juice. Remove the cherries with a slotted spoon. Thicken and reduce the sauce with cornstarch. Pour the thickened sauce over the cherries and put the mixture in a pie crust. Sprinkle with cinnamon, dot with butter, and top with a lattice crust. The pies looked good going into the oven, and not bad coming out. However, the sauce didn’t thicken as much as I had thought and the pies never set. After dinner, I cut a piece and it was soupy. I served it in bowls with vanilla ice cream and it tasted good.

My problem, however, is that the friends for whom I was baking the pie used to have a pie business. They really know what they are doing when it comes to pies. I decided that I would make a second attempt this week and see if I can’t come up with a better pie for presentation. That left me with a lot of pie for two people. That secondary problem is easy to solve, however. Just down the road from our house is our son’s house and they have four children. The baby is too young for pie, but the other three are great lovers of sweet treats.

We took the pie over to the farm. As a tribute to its soupiness, a bit sloshed in Susan’s lap as she held the pie on the way there and she ended up with a sticky spot. The pie, however, was a hit with the family. They served it in bowls, too, and topped the pie with whipped cream. The children ate with relish and carefully spooned every last bit from their bowls.

We have no shortage of cherries, so in addition to freezing and drying cherries, there will be another cherry pie this week, hopefully one that can be given to our friends.

I’ll probably have the song in my head all week, even though it barely seems to apply. Both Susan and I cook and she is probably the better baker of pies, though I try. And neither of us is a young thing who cannon leave our mother. Susan is tall and bright eyed and often seen in church, but otherwise doesn’t really resemble the maiden in the song who throws the hat at the cat and milks the heifer not missing the bucket more than half. The song is a bit unclear about the age of the young thing, but three times six and four times seven, twenty-eight and eleven isn’t Susan’s exact age.

There is, however, a cherry pie with only two pieces served in our refrigerator. And over at our son’s place, there is half a pie in their refrigerator. We own four pie plates, so the only delay in baking a pie for our friends is my time. I am teaching a class this evening, so it may be delayed until tomorrow. And then there is the problem of the sauce not thickening properly. I thought I knew what I was doing, so it is a bit of a mystery to me what happened. I think it was mostly inattention and distraction. I was preparing pork chops for the grill and doing a couple of other tasks while I was preparing the pie filling and I think I will be able to do better with another attempt. But I’m not completely sure what happened, so it is possible for me to make the same mistake again. We’ll see. After all, we have plenty of cherries.

I’ll take my time and not try to race the wink of a cat’s eye. We don't have a cat at present though there is a major campaign going on over at the farm for a pet cat and I’m pretty sure that the children are going to be getting one before long. In the meantime, it sure puts a smile on grandpa’s face to watch them eat cherry pie, even pie that is imperfect.

Dance class

Our daughter was almost two years old when we moved from North Dakota to Idaho where our home was on a residential street called Kipling Road. We could walk down the street to where it ended at Latah Street, across from Morris Hill Cemetery. There on the corner was a strip mall and in the strip mall was a ballet school in a storefront with large windows through which you could look to see the dancers doing their exercises on the hardwood floor. At that time, the American Festival Ballet company had dual headquarters in Moscow and Boise, Idaho. Over the next few years, with generous support of the Simplot family, the ballet company made the move to a downtown building in Boise as its headquarters. Having the ballet company headquartered in Boise meant that the city had several small dance schools with professional dancers as teachers.

I was mildly interested in the ballet school just a little over a block from our home, and we walked by on occasion that first year. When our son began kindergarten, one of us walked by the school twice each day taking him to and from school. Often our daughter accompanied us on the walks. She was fascinated with the school and asked us if she could go there. At first she was too young for classes at the ballet school, but it wasn't long enough before she was able to sign up for kinder ballet beginning classes and was dancing around our house in her pinks (pink tights and leotard with pink ballet slippers). I had taken a single class in ballet as a college student and could remember the first five positions of the feet and arms. We would go through the positions together with her laughing at how I looked.

From those early days until she graduated from high school, I became a ballet dad. I drove her to and from lessons week after week. I attended all of the recitals and programs. I wrote checks for lessons and costumes and countless sets of ballet slippers and shoes. And I enjoyed it all. I used to stand at the door of the door of the ballet school watching her skip eagerly to class with the words of the Elton John song in my head:

You must’ve seen her
Dancing in the sand
And now she’s in me
Always with me
Tiny dancer in my hand

When we moved from Boise to Rapid City, before the van picked up our furniture, we made a trip to shop for a new home. On that trip we visited two ballet schools and obtained Rachel’s approval for the transfer from her dance school in Boise to the Dance Arts Academy. The row of ballet costumes began to take over her closet.

Yesterday we took our granddaughters, ages 5 and 8, to their first day of a summer dance and arts camp. Just walking into the dance studio brought waves of nostalgia for me. The tiny packages of pink tights for sale by the front desk, the wall of mirrors in the largest rehearsal room, and mostly the eager young girls, some shy, some confident, leaving their parents and grandparents and heading off to their places - everything about the place was familiar to me.

If one of our granddaughters were to say to me, “Grandpa, I want to take dance lessons,” I would eagerly agree to pay for the lessons and drive them to and from class. Whether or not they take any more lessons, however, I have the rest of this week to drop off the two girls on my way to work and pick them up at noon to give them a ride home. I’m going to savor the experience. You can count on me to be there with my camera for their performance on Thursday and I’ll be sending pictures of them to their Aunt Rachel.

Our daughter had to work harder than some of the other children at learning math in school. I volunteered in her elementary classes to help her teachers during math class just to learn how they were teaching because we had to help her with numbers and math facts at home. But that same girl could count her way through twenty measures with four counts per measure with each step in perfect rhythm and memorized. If elementary school would have let her dance her math facts she would have been the top student in her class. When she had to learn her multiplication tables in fourth grade, we sang them to each other. She had a natural talent for music and dance and rhythm. We sang together a lot. Her mother and brother like to sleep in mornings and rise slowly when the schedule allows. She and I liked to get right out of bed. On Saturdays we’d get on our bikes and go out for breakfast while the others slept. Some days we’d take a canoe and head to the lake early in the morning with her favorite CD in the car stereo and both of us singing along at the top of our lungs.

It is impossible for me to walk into a dance studio without thinking of her and remembering what it was like to be her dad when she was a child. They are very happy memories for me.

As we picked up the girls after their first day of dance camp, there was a rush of children and parents and a bit of confusion in the parking lot as the dancers said good bye to one another and were loaded into their car seats and buckled in. The parents had competed for a small number of parking places close to the entrance to the school. I wanted to be very, very careful backing out the car to make sure I didn’t come close to one of the children. The girls were eager to tell us about their morning and they were hungry for lunch and wanted to get home. I was in no rush. I wanted to take it all in. I want to remember every detail.

With luck, I’ll remember, and they’ll always be in me, always with me, tiny dancers in my hand.

Start your own business

I am not an entrepreneur. I have been happy in my life to work for a church and be paid a salary for my services. Sometimes I have had other jobs on the side, including driving a school bus, working as a radio announcer, and free-lance writing and editing. But I’m not one to start my own business. However, I sometimes have conversations with family members about what I see as good business opportunities. “If I were going to start a business,” I’ll say, “I’d do this or that.”

So here is one of my ideas for a new business. It has a relatively low capital investment and as far as I can see, no lack of customers. Here is how it would work:

To start out what you need is a selection of screwdrivers and a few wrenches. Most importantly you need a multi-meter and access to simple car parts such as bulbs, flashers, wires, etc. It would be good to have a small space, perhaps a single car garage, to work. It wouldn’t hurt for that to be near an auto parts store so you could get just what you needed when you needed.

Then you put up a sign, advertise by word of mouth, on the internet, and whatever other way you can discover. Your business? The blinker fixer.

I’m pretty sure that you’d have lots of business because whenever we drive around here we are bound to see cars with blinkers that don’t work. At leas that’s what I’m thinking. There can’t possibly be that many drivers who simply don’t use their turn signals, could there?

Most of the repairs would be simply replacing bulbs. Occasionally there might be a flasher that needs to be replaced. Sometimes, especially on vehicles pulling trailers, you'd have to check out a ground wire or make sure that there isn’t a short. It really isn’t that difficult to diagnose and repair problems with vehicle and trailer lighting. It just takes time and if you charged by the hour, taking time wouldn’t be a problem.

You could charge extra to repair turn signals that won’t turn off.

I suppose there is a problem with this business. Otherwise someone would already have done it. But it seems like a good idea.

If that doesn’t work out, no worries. I’ve got other ideas.

I sometimes tell people that I earned the right to tell North Dakota jokes by living in North Dakota for seven winters. I grew up in Montana and went to graduate school in Chicago, so there was nothing particularly new to me about North Dakota winters. Sure, it got cold. And sometimes there were snow storms that were so severe you wanted to be safely at home and not out on the roads. But we didn’t suffer much during our time in North Dakota. Those years, however, were followed by a decade of living in Boise, Idaho, which is a place of pretty mild weather. Most days are sunny, with very little precipitation. It does snow in the winter from time to time, but not that much. The city uses its street sweepers between snow storms to pick up the sand they had scattered on the roads during the last snow storm to reuse on the next snow storm. The place has the tiniest thunderstorms I’ve ever experienced. A few puffs of wind and a couple of crackles of thunder and it is all over. I was almost relieved when we moved from Idaho to South Dakota which has a healthy mix of weather. There are a few good blizzards every year and it can get hot in the summer, but it isn’t a bad place to live weather wise.

Now, however, I fear we once again have moved to a place with wimpy storms. Last winter there were several snow days when they cancelled school. A snow day around here means that it is cold enough for the snow to stick to the ground, not that there is a raging blizzard. Of course the locals don’t know how to drive on slippery roads and head for the ditches left and right each time it snows a bit. And a lot of people don’t own snow shovels. I’d go out and shovel my driveway - a job that takes about 15 minutes compared to hours spent shoveling snow when we lived in the Dakotas. I never saw any of my neighbors shovel their driveways. That seems to be an unnecessary chore in a place where the snow will melt within 48 hours anyway. During those 48 hours people claim to be snowed in.

There is another business venture for you. Start a winter driving school out here. You could set up a test track and allow people to learn how to steer into a skid. You could demonstrate how it takes more room to stop when the road is slippery and leaving extra space is a good idea. You could demonstrate the use of a snow brush and ice scraper, which are tools that the locals around here have never seen. On snow days when all the schools are closed you can sell snow shovels door to door or start a snow shoveling service.

A week or so ago, there was a tiny thundershower that blew over the place. I heard two claps of thunder and didn't see any lightning. It rained a few drops, but nothing like a typical rain shower around here. The kids ran outside to see what was going on. It reminded me of the kids in Boise, who had never seen a real thunderstorm. And despite the fact that local people occasionally call a few ice crystals in the winter “hail,” these people don’t know what a real hailstorm is like.

There is another possible business. You could arrange tours of places where real weather occurs for those who live in places where the weather is so mild they have never experienced real storms.

I’m full of ideas.

My plumb line

The focus scripture for worship at our church this week is Amos 7:7-17. It begins with a vision by Amos: “This is what he showed me: the Lord was standing beside a wall built with a plumb line, with a plumb line in his hand.” (Amos 7”7). One of the pastors of our congregation is leading the time with children this week and I received a text from him earlier this week asking me if I had either a chalk line or a plumb line that could be used for the time with children. I have both and they are in the car waiting to go to church this morning.

I’m guessing that the plumb bob and line will be chosen as the illustration. Chalk lines are messy and this one is filled with red chalk. Furthermore, the plumb bob is interesting and it is unlikely that the children will have seen one in use. My chalk line can be used as a plumb line as it has a pointed bottom to make accurate marking simple. However, I have a steel plummet with a pointed tip on the bottom attached to a fairly fine piece of string. I use the plumb bob when I am setting up forms to build a canoe or kayak as the forms must be perfectly square, level and plumb in order for the boat to come out straight. I don’t remember the source of this tool. It is possible that it belonged to my or Susan’s father or grandfather. I have tools from both sides of our family. But a plumb bob is a common tool readily available.

There aren’t many builders who use plumb lines these days. I have a project at the farm that is straightening out an old wood shed. The building was originally built as a pole barn with cedar posts at the four corners that were simply set into holes in the ground. The moisture in the ground rotted the posts and the wind moved the building slightly. It is all out of square, with one wall leaning quite badly and the roof not quite level. I have measured and poured new footings with post bases set in them upon which I am setting new pressure treated timbers to hold up the roof. Part of the process was using ratchet straps to wrack the building and pull things square. I could have used the plumb bob to determine where to set the new concrete footings, but instead I used a 4’ level which is giving me all of the information I need for the project. Doing the job with the level is itself involves a bit of antiquated technique. Most builders these days would use a laser level to project precise lines and establish level, plumb and square.

Frankly, I am a bit interested to see how the plumb line gets used in worship this morning. Since there are lots and lots of children’s sermons available online and there are plenty of them that are keyed to the Revised Common Lectionary, it is possible that the pastor leading time with children in our service looked up a children’s sermon online. On the other hand, it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to come up with the idea of using a plumb line as an illustration since it is directly mentioned in the text from the Hebrew scriptures for this week.

The book of Amos, however, uses the plumb line as a metaphor for the standards to which Israel is being held by God for judgment. There is a pretty long stretch of meaning and understanding to get from an actual plumb bob to the way it is used in the text. For young children, you have to start with a demonstration of the plumb line. I suspect that holding it or affixing it to a wall would be one way to do that. Then you need to explain why it is important for a building to have walls that are plumb. From there, you have to explain how Amos was using the tool as a metaphor for God’s expectations of the people. It is not an easy task explaining that to young children in the short amount of time that is allowed for time with children in worship. One of the things that is common for most adults who do not regularly lead time with children is taking much longer to lead this portion of worship than is usually allowed. I’m guessing that today’s leader will roughly double the amount of time we usually invest in that part of the service. A longer time with children is not in itself a bad thing. It is the one place in the service where everyone, regardless of age or circumstance, is paying attention. Sometimes I think I can say more in a well-planned time with children than in a sermon. But it takes skill and practice.

I think I might have been tempted to use a laser level for the time with children had it been my week to lead. With most of the children participating in that part of our worship viewing at home on a computer screen or television set, it is important to think of the scale of visual elements. A plumb bob is fairly small. The line on my plumb bob is thin enough that it might not show up on camera. A laser level would project bright lines showing both vertical and horizontal. A little experimentation might yield a demonstration that impresses both in person and online. From there, however, it is still a stretch to explain the concept with children.

Frankly, I’m glad I don’t have the assignment of leading time with children this week. I much prefer texts with narrative stories. Since the gospel is the parable of the Good Samaritan, I might have leaned towards using it for the time with children.

I’m still learning about the best ways to share scriptures with people of all ages. One of the ways I learn is by observing others. I just hope that today’s lesson will be one in what is a good way to do time with children, not an example of what not to do. Either way, you know I’ll be paying close attention to that part of the worship service.

Gone fishing

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OK, I really haven’t gone fishing.

I don’t know the regulations about fishing around here and I don’t have a Washington fishing license yet. I think that exploration may be left to the fall or maybe even next year. I don’t know where the time is going, but it seems to be rushing past.

We have family camp, creation care camp (our version of Vacation Bible School), and we need to be getting going on planning for fall programs. It seems to be a busy time at work even though we don’t work full time. Part-time ministries are always hard to define.

Last night, however, we had a sleepover at our camper with our grandchildren. We didn’t even go anyplace. We stayed in the camper parked in the yard at their farm. But we tried to do up the fun things of a sleepover, with a campfire and s’mores, sleeping in the camper, and blueberry pancakes for breakfast. We had a great time. I’m not much of a person for playing games, but I try to remember my mother and all of the hands of “go fish” she played with our children, especially on one camping trip when it rained and they were stuck in the tent for quite a while. I figure I owe the universe a lot of hands of cards with my grandchildren, so I played Uno.

One of the treasures of my life are the memories we have. I want to share a similar treasure with our grandchildren. We are focusing on experiences with them this summer. We’ve already had the visit from their cousin and aunt. This week our oldest will start a pickle ball program at the recreation center within walking distance of our house. The two girls will be attending a ballet camp. After that there are more experiences, and we hope, more opportunities to have experiences with the camper. We live close to several State Parks and North Cascades National Park is just a few miles down the road. We want to ride the ferries with our grandchildren sometime this summer. There are way more possibilities than there is time.

This morning I received an email inquiring about something for Sunday, July 24, and for a few minutes, I was in a panic, thinking that July 24 is just a week away. Once I figured out that I have two weeks, my mood changed and it seemed possible to accomplish that task by the 24th. Maybe I have one more week of July left than I had anticipated.

I’m sure that I don’t feel any more pressure than my sister, who is moving the first week of August. I remember all of the things that went into our moves. They take a lot of energy and getting ready to load the truck is a huge task. She hasn’t lived in her present location for 25 years as we had in Rapid City. Still, moving is a big chore and I know that her “to do” list must be pretty long.

Who knows? It might take me a while to get around to learning about fishing and gathering shellfish in our new home. It makes sense, however, for me to learn. This place is very abundant with sources of food. It has been home to the Coast Salish people since time immemorial. They thrived on the abundant seafood, nearby game sources, and rich soil for growing crops. We have a few food crops in our garden. The kale and lettuce are producing lots of salad greens and we are getting an occasional pea from the vines. The tomato plants look healthy, but are just starting to bloom. We are weeks away from having our own tomatoes. The cherries, however, are another matter. We can’t pick them fast enough. We’ll have plenty in the freezer to last for a while and we hope to dry a few as well. This is a good place to live with the rich soil producing a lot of crops on small amounts of land.

Lest you think that I am getting lazy by publishing my journal so late today, I will share that grandchildren, full of sugar from roasting marshmallows and eating chocolate for a bedtime snack, weren’t particularly quick to go to sleep last night. We had them up well past their bedtimes. Then they surprised me by being wide awake and ready to go at 5 am this morning. I stalled them and had them read books and play until 6:30 before serving them breakfast, but I feel like I’m about 3 hours short of my usual night’s sleep. I’m pretty sure the kids will have time for naps today - I’m hoping I will, too!

Days like today remind me of how incredibly fortunate we are to be able to live so close to our grandchildren. I think that their ability to disrupt my routines and schedules is a blessing for me. As I grow older, I become more set in my ways. However, I don’t want to become an old man who has lost the flexibility to go on an adventure on short notice. I have long been a person with certain disciplines and habits, but my work life was filled with interruptions. Sometimes I was late publishing my journal because a phone call in the middle of the night led me to be with someone who was experiencing a crisis. I learned to adjust my routines and it was good for me. Now that I am retired, I need the presence of our grandchildren, the complexity of our son and daughter-in-law’s schedules, and the occasional work deadline to keep me on my toes and help me retain some flexibility.

Exercise has many benefits. Among them are increased endurance and increased flexibility. As I grow older, I know that I need both of those. Having our grandchildren so close gives me plenty of exercise, even if my watch with its fitness application doesn’t always recognize it.

So, no, I haven’t gone fishing. Still, the picture and the title somehow make sense at this point of my life.

Late Publish on Saturday

Friends,

I will be away from my computer overnight between Friday, July 8 and Saturday, July 9. I will write and publish a blog for Saturday, July 9, but it will be published later in the day. I apologize for any inconvenience this may cause.

Blessings!

Ted

Enjoying a re-read

One of the great things about having a son as a librarian is that he makes great recommendations about what to read. Sometimes he will select titles for me that I would not have selected for myself and I expand the range of my reading in ways that are fun and entertaining. This year, on my birthday, his family gave me a couple of paperback books that he described as “just fun summer reads.” Uncharacteristically, however, because we talk about book all the time, one of the books he gave me is a book that I had previously read. Last week, however, I was between books one evening and I picked up that book that I had already read and discovered that at the back of the book there was an essay that I had not read. I enjoyed the essay and started to look at the study guide at the end of the book. I am the kind of person who almost always reads books from the front cover to the end. The only reason I skipped to the essay at the end was that I had read the main novel. However, after reading the essay and the study guide, I started to read the novel.

I surprised myself. The book was quite entertaining even though I had read it before. I knew the plot of the book. I knew how it ends. There were no plot surprises for me. It was just good writing. There were details that I had forgotten from the first time I read the book.

The experience reminded me of the last few years of my mother’s life. She lived in our home at that time. She had always been an avid reader and when she was widowed at the age of 59, she started to read even more. Books filled up what would have otherwise been empty evenings. For years she kept a steno notebook with a list of the books she had read. However, that notebook was somehow misplaced in one of her moves and by the time she came to live in our home she would simply write down the name of a book in a random place in another of her notebooks when she finished reading. Since there was no longer a formal list, she didn’t return to check to see whether or not she had read a book.

As she neared the end of her life, her memory wasn’t always as reliable as it once had been. Towards the end, she was re-reading books that she had read only a month or so before and enjoying them as if they were first time reads. I know that she didn’t remember here previous readings of the books because her preferred genre was mystery novels and had she remembered, she would know how the novel would end before she got there. It may be that she had an experience of being better able to guess the ending of the books than before. I’m not sure about that. At any rate the same five or six books were adequate to keep her entertained. We just left them around the house and when she finished one, she would pick up another.

We didn’t talk much about her fading memory. She was good at remembering things from earlier in her life and we would often talk of events from her past. She was also very interested in what was going on in our lives and the lives of our children, so we would talk about those things as well. She was always up for a discussion of politics, so we never ran out of things to discuss. If she occasionally would repeat a report on the book she was reading it didn’t bother us at all.

So being so entertained by reading a book that I had previously read got me to wondering. Am I starting to get to the place in my life where I am entertained by reading the same books over and over again. If so, that is a bit worrying. My mother was 20 years older than I am now when she was living in our home. I’m not prepared to be at that place in my life yet.

In my own defense, I was aware that I had previously read the book. I’m not sure my mother was. Secondly, I have a lot of books to which I return time after time. I’ve recently re-read some of my favorite poetry books and a couple of history books because there is great joy in discovering new depths in a familiar text. I have a few books by favorite writers that I love to quote and I pull them from the shelves just to find the quotes and get them accurate. I also return to familiar books when researching materials for teaching. There is nothing strange in my reading a book that I have previously read. I just have not been in the pattern of doing so with novels. Once I know the story, I don’t feel compelled to read it again. This novel, however, was quite entertaining the second time around.

Normally after I read a novel, especially if it is a paperback book, the book becomes a candidate for the little free library down the street from our house. I’m pretty sure that our neighborhood has the best little free library anywhere around because our son and his children have adopted it and they curate its collection, intentionally adding good reads for children and adults and removing books that don’t circulate. However, I’m going to place this particular novel on my bookshelves for now. It isn’t the kind of story to which I would turn for a quote for a sermon illustration. Still, I am not completely convinced that I won’t enjoy reading it a third time. And if I do get to the point in my life where I start reading the same books over and over again at least I want to read good stories and this is a good story.

I’m pretty sure my son didn’t know that I had already read the book, but I guess I can never be certain. Maybe he knows something I don’t. Whatever the case, it is a good thing to have a librarian in the family. His advice on what to read is just right.

Still adjusting

It has been two years since we officially retired from our call as ministers of 1st Congregational United Church of Christ in Rapid City, South Dakota. In some ways the two years have gone by very quickly. We spent the first four months sorting, downsizing, packing moving and selling our house. It took us another year before we found a home to purchase and ended up here in Birch Bay, Washington. It will be a little more than three months before we will have been in this house for a year.

It takes time to get used to the changes. When I think of all that has happened and the life that we left behind, what I miss the most are the people. We have so many friends both people in the church and those in the wider community. I will always think of Rapid City as a place that is full of very good people. I don’t want to idealize the community. There were frustrations. The politics of South Dakota went in ways with which we often disagreed. But it is a place with some very good people who are very good friends.

I miss my role in the community. After 25 years of serving in Rapid City, I knew a lot of people and was well known. I always ran into folk that I knew when I was out and about in the town. Here I go to the grocery store and know only the names of store employees who wear name tags. I don’t yet have shared stories with the people in our town. I am getting to know some of the people in our congregation and I appreciate their grace and friendship, but it will take time for me to feel at home in the same way as I did in Rapid City.

There are plenty of other things that I miss. Most of the time, however, I don’t dwell on the things that I miss. There is plenty to do here. I have lists of undone chores. There are still boxes to sort and things to unpack. I have a list of home repair tasks that is always a part of owning a home. I have work to do and people to meet. Still, there are times when I take a few moments to allow myself to miss some things of the past.

I miss having deer in our yard. There are deer around here, and we have seen a few in Bellingham near the church, but we haven’t seen any in our yard. In Rapid City fawns were born right in our back yard most years and we got to watch them grow up and recognized individuals.

Still, we live in an amazing place with amazing animals. The sea is alive with animals that we never saw in Rapid City such as sea stars and crabs and clams. We were even able to see migrating gray whales from the shore on a couple of occasions. Yesterday we took a walk and were able to watch quite a few animals including:
  • Great Blue Herons - more than a dozen
  • Crows - too many to count
  • Seagulls - too many to count
  • Deer - with a fawn in spots
  • Harbor seals - five or six
  • A Bald Eagle
  • Shore Birds
  • Black Squirrels
  • Rabbits

This is not a lonely place. It is filled with all kinds of creatures. Some, like the deer and rabbits are familiar to us. Others like harbor seals and black squirrels are new to us and we have much to learn about their behavior. We saw great blue herons around Rapid City and I’ve taken pictures of the birds at area reservoirs, but I never saw more than a dozen in a single outing and I never learned where they nested. Here we know the location of at least two different heron rookeries.

Our area has gray, red and black squirrels. The black squirrels are a relatively rare sub group of the gray squirrels, their fur distinctively black. They have migrated to our area from farther north in British Columbia where increasing numbers of gray squirrels have disrupted their normal patterns and altered their territory.

Harbor seals are common all along the coastline and can be found both north and south of our region. They are intelligent and curious and can often be seen around marinas and other places with lots of people. Yesterday we saw a group of them in Drayton Harbor at the edge of the marina, just a few feet off of the shore along which we were walking.

We’ve made some small changes in our diet since we moved. Our new home has two cherry trees in the back yard. One of them is filled with cherries. We have joked that the crows can pick all of the cherries they want from the top of the tree where they are hard for us to reach, the grandchildren can pick all they want from the lower branches, and there will still be plenty for us in the middle of the tree. The grandchildren spit the seeds into the yard, but the crows have gotten into the habit of leaving them on the back deck, a practice that means a bit of cleanup for me. Still it is amazing to have fresh fruit grown in our yard. And just down the road at the farm the orchard boasts apples, pears, and plums which will be coming on soon. There are already strawberries growing and a few blueberries are ready to harvest, with a lot more coming on in the next few weeks. Raspberries and blackberries will follow in abundance. There will be fruit for eating, fruit for freezing, fruit for drying and fruit for sharing with birds and other creatures.

We are also enjoying living close to the source of abundant seafood. We’ve always enjoyed eating seafood, but now we don’t have to feel guilty about the distance it has to travel before it gets to us. We can buy crabs, clams, salmon, oysters and halibut fresh from the boats that have never been frozen or flown on airplanes.

As we walk through this life we are still looking both forward and backward. We are intrigued by what is coming while we miss what has been. Our lives are filled with meaning and being close to our son and his family with nearly daily doses of grandchildren is a delight. Life is good even on the days when we are missing the place we used to live.

Origin stories

In the 26th chapter of the Book of Deuteronomy there is a liturgical answer to the question of who we are and where we came from. It is part of the instructions about offering thanksgiving gifts after the people of Israel came into the promised land. In the Book of Deuteronomy it is presented as a speculation: “When you finally get to this land and possess it and settle in it, this is what you will do.” The liturgical response was probably in use for a long time before the book became a written document. It is likely that the phrase had been repeated by many generations before it was incorporated into the Bible. Some scholars believe that it is among the most ancient parts of the Bible. Here is what it says, translated into English in the New Revised Standard Version:

“A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.” (Deuteronomy 26:5b-9 NRSV)

For a long time this liturgical response was used as the origin story of our people. When asked who we were and where we came from, this was our answer.

Later, the answer of origins evolved into a more complex story. Often it was accompanied by a partial genealogy list that started with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Many generations later in Biblical history came the events that have been recognized as the dividing point in Old Testament History. The Babylonian Exile (586-538 BCE) saw the elites from Jerusalem taken away from the city and disbursed all around Babylon. Although there was a core of common laborers left in Jerusalem, those who had been wealthy and powerful prior to the exile were spread out among people with different languages, culture and religion than theirs. They began to fear the loss of their traditional ways. Among other things, the exiles got serious about bringing together sacred texts and stories into a written document that we know as scripture. The people among whom the exiles lived, and with whom their children intermarried and mingled, had a long and complex story of how the earth came to be known as Enuma elish. This was a story of multiple gods and battles between different gods. The exiled Jews did not believe that this story was the truth. Over the years of exile and following years they developed their own more complex stories of origin. The Hebrew Scriptures, called the Old Testament, begin with two of those stories.

The first begins this way, “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, let there be light: and there was light.” (Genesis 1:1-3 KJV)

The second starts as if it might be a genealogy. It is the story of Adam and Eve and begins like this: “These are the generations of the heavens and of the earth when they were created, in the day the the LORD God made the earth and the heavens, . . .” (Genesis 2:4 KJV)

These two stories from the beginning of Genesis have been used by some Christians as if they were scientific texts about the origins of the universe. They have tried to reconcile biblical timelines with the fossil record, and impossible task. They have created debates and tried to use scripture to refute scientific theory. The texts were never intended to be used that way. They are liturgical texts - formal answers to questions about our origins to be repeated in worship. They existed for centuries before scientific methods were developed.

Now, so many generations and centuries later, scientists at the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland have discovered a new pentaquark and two tetra quarks. This takes the total number of the tiniest particles known to humankind to 21. Each is unique. Excited scientists have begun to speculate on other subatomic particles might exist and how they might behave. It took a long time for theories about subatomic particles to be developed. The Greek philosopher Democritus speculated that the world is made up of indivisible particles which he called atoms. By the end of the 19th and early 20th century, scientists knew that atoms were not indivisible. In fact they are made up of smaller particles: electrons, neutrons and protons. Neutrons and protons themselves are mad from smaller particles, called quarks. Scientists now believe that understanding the interaction of quarks might reveal the nature of the entire universe. These sub-atomic particles have a fleeting existence. They last less than a hundred billionth of a second. And they travel quickly at close to the speed of light. That makes they difficult to study.

Particle physics is still at the stage of learning and developing ideas. Their stories of the origins of the universe have not yet been codified into liturgy that is memorized and repeated by many as an answer to “Who are we and where did we come from?” It could take millennia for sufficient discoveries to be made and sufficient agreement to be found for there to be a group of people who describe sub atomic behavior in a consistent and liturgical fashion.

It is not possible with the knowledge humans currently possess to make a rational argument between our scriptures and current scientific theory. They operate in two different areas of human endeavor. We can cherish the ancient texts without giving up our curiosity about current scientific discovery. The stories are not incompatible. They play different functions in our community.

I have no interest in so called debates between scripture and science. I’m comfortable studying the ancient texts and also to read of the discoveries of scientists. I find nothing in their discoveries that challenges the value of sacred texts.

Independence Day

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July 4 gave our son an extra day to be with his children. The three oldest went with him to a theater to see the new Minions movie. Due in part to the Covid pandemic, it was the first time the five-year-old had seen a movie in a theater. It was interesting when I asked the 11-year-old how the movie was he responded by saying that he enjoyed the movie, but that it was pretty much the same plot as previous Minion movies. “Gru tries to be a supervillain, but he ends up being mostly a good guy.”

I’m sure that I would have been welcome to join them for the movie, but I’m happy to have let it be their experience with their father. Movies aren’t really my favorite form of entertainment and I haven’t become a fan of the tiny yellow creatures in overalls. I read that movie theaters are having problems with groups of teenagers dressing up as minions and causing problems with rowdy behavior during the movie. Our grandchildren didn’t experience any problems with minions in suits at their viewing.

While they watched the movie, I helped with some of the mowing at the farm. The grass has been so long that we have been picking up some of it with a lawn sweeper pulled behind the riding mower. The place where we dump it is getting to be a big pile and after each load is dumped, I use a pitchfork to make the pile higher and keep it from spreading out too much. It is a good workout for me. I get to ride the mower for a while and do the manual labor of pitching hay for a short time than go back to driving the mower.

After supper, the family came over to our house for fresh strawberry pie. The strawberries are great and very flavorful this year and the red berries in an open-face pie make for a really attractive dessert. We topped it with a scoop of ice cream. Our granddaughter ran out into the yard and picked fresh cherries to top each piece of pie. Having cherry trees in our back yard is a real treat. One has loads of ripe berries on it. We’ve already picked buckets full of cherries and there are a lot more to be picked. I haven’t yet put up a ladder, so the high branches are full of ripe berries.

After dessert it was time to head out to watch the fireworks. Our neighborhood was filled with people firing off their own fireworks. Susan and I had walked along the beach earlier in the day and we were impressed by all of the people. Our little area was packed full of people waiting for it to get dark. There were bonfires and picnics up and down the shoreline. Instead of heading to that location, however, we drove into the town of Blaine, a few miles away, to watch a professional firework show. We weren’t disappointed. We rode with our son and the three oldest grandchildren while the baby and their mother stayed at their house for some quiet time together.

“The best place to watch the fireworks will be the place with the most people,” declared our grandson as he led us towards the area of the park where there were a couple of food trucks parked. We found a space to set up our chairs and blankets in the middle of the small town crowd. There were a lot of people, but Blaine isn’t one of the major urban areas. Even with folks like us coming from all around the area, there was plenty of room.

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As we waited for the fireworks to start, I was impressed with the line of people waiting to purchase mini donuts from a nearby food trailer. The line stretched across the park. Filled with fresh strawberry pie, I had no need for mini donuts. I think that even if I had been filled with cravings for donuts, I would not have been willing to endure the line. I’m not much for waiting in line in the first place. The food trailer was taking about a minute for each customer. At one point I counted more than 120 people waiting in line. That means that the folks at the end fo the line would have to wait two hours before being served. Sitting on our camp chairs on the lawn watching the fireworks was far more pleasant than standing in line.

The fireworks show was very respectable for a small town. I’ve seen bigger shows and I’ve watched a few choreographed to music, and it wasn’t the largest display that I’ve ever seen. After all, we saw some impressive shows at Mt. Rushmore before the combination of bark beetles and drought left the forest too fire prone for the show. Last night’s show, however, was just right for our mood and the ages of our grandchildren. Most fireworks shows end with a big volley of multiple bursts going off at the same time. This show had three such displays. I thought that the first one was probably the end of the show and was feeling a little disappointed that the show had been so brief. However, after that volley, the show continued and there were two more big volleys like that one before the show finally ended.

The happy crowd headed out of the park. Our car was a few blocks away, so we joined the crowd. The city had a couple of police officers directing traffic at some of the street crossings, so it was easy to make a safe walk back to the car. There were some portable toilets along the street, which made a convenient stop for children who had enjoyed a few more snacks and beverages after supper than usual.

The children were asleep before the car reached our house to drop us off. I suspect that our son had to make a couple of trips carrying sleeping children up to their beds after they got to the farm.

It was just the right size of a celebration for our family this year. I hope you found ways to celebrate the holiday that were meaningful, safe and fun.

Blue raspberry - really?

If you want to make a red, white, and blue dessert for your July 4 celebration, a simple method is to frost a cake with whipped cream. Use blueberries to make a square in the upper left hand corner. Put raspberries in rows to make he stripes and you’ll have an attractive flag-inspired dish to feed to family and friends.

The point I am trying to make is that blueberries are blue and raspberries are red. But I can almost guarantee that without much effort you can find children not far away on this holiday weekend who are running around with blue tongues. Their tongues are blue because they have been eating ice pops or snow cones that are the color of antifreeze or a beverage served in an episode of Star Trek. The flavor is called “blue raspberry.” It doesn’t taste like raspberries. It tastes like sugar. Imagine a jug of corn syrup suffering from vitamin C overdose.

I have no idea why some people think that it is a good flavor. I have no idea why children think that it is an appetizing color.

Not far from our home there is a treat shop. They sell all kinds of candy, popcorn, fudge, chocolates, donuts, cotton candy, snow cones and at least a dozen flavors of hard ice cream. I love to stop for a treat and most of the time I head for the ice cream. Often they will have huckleberry, which is a blue-purple color or blueberry swirl, which is vanilla ice cream with swirls of blueberries. They also frequently sell a flavor called blue raspberry, which is bright blue. It is my observation that 95% of the blue raspberry is sold to children, usually those under 10 years old. Adults prefer more natural flavors and colors.

Not long ago we visited the shop with our 2-year-old grandson. He chose the bright blue ice cream. The portions are very generous at the shop and he ended up with more than he wanted to eat. Sensibly, he stopped eating and left some of the ice cream in his dish. Not so sensibly his grandfather, after finishing his own dish of huckleberry ice cream, finished off the ice cream left in the grandson’s bowl. Yes, it turned his tongue blue. No, it didn’t taste like raspberries. It tasted like . . . Well, it is hard to describe. “Super sweet” comes to mind. It was obvious why the 2-year-old didn’t feel like finishing it.

I grew up with a distrust of artificial flavors and colors. Red dye number 2 was initially deemed to be safe by the federal Food and Drug administration. Then it was discovered that the research concluding that red dye number 2 was safe to consume had been funded by the chemical industry that made the food dye. The color was a dark red and was often used in foods that had an artificial raspberry or sometimes and artificial strawberry flavor. The flavors were not at all like the fruit from which the name came. They were, frankly, chemical. I can remember going out with our family and ordering a raspberry milkshake that came with that dark red color and tasted awful. And I’ve always been a big fan of milkshakes.

Not long afterward the Food Additives Amendment passed that required producers of food to prove that their food additives were safe. Red dye number 2 was suspect and consumers began to avoid foods with the color.

Somewhere, someone decided that artificial raspberry flavor combined with red dye number 2 wasn’t good for sales and blue raspberry was born. At least I think that is how it happened. At least I have never seen a blue raspberry and I don’t think one occurs in nature. No food of which I am aware is naturally the color of those snow cones, popsicles, ice cream and ICEE brand drinks that turn the tongues of children blue. For the record the color is Blue dye, number 1.

These days the bright blue color isn’t only relegated to the frozen food section of the convenience store. Twizzlers has a blue raspberry flavor and you can get Jolly Ranchers with the same color and strange chemical flavor.

It seems possible that one of the reasons food manufacturers have gone blue is that there are a lot of natural flavors that we associate with red. We have bright red cherries on the tree in our yard. This is the season for fresh strawberries, also red. Real raspberries are red. Watermelons are red on the inside. Cranberries are red. Apples are red.

Nature is full of red foods. It is surprisingly lacking in blue foods. Blueberries and huckleberries are blue, but they are a dark blue, not that neon-bright color that comes out of the ICEE machine at the convenience store. There are some raspberries that ripen into a bluish purple color that are called as white bark raspberries.They look nothing like the color of an Otter Pop.

It may be that the most appealing feature of blue raspberry flavor and color in food is that so far it has not been proven to cause cancer in lab rats. At least I don’t think it does.

While I’m on my soapbox about blue raspberry flavored candy and freezer treats, I’ll offer another theory, completely untested and probably wrong. I think that part of the reason for the bright blue color is that a dark blue shade with a bit of purple, like the real color of blueberries, is the color of artificial grape flavor. In my opinion the purple color is very important in getting people to believe that the flavor is grape. In a blind taste test, artificial grape flavor is closer to pineapple or banana than grape.

I hope you have a happy July 4 holiday, filled with fun with family and friends. It’s a good day to remember the best things about our country and our history.

While you’re at it, however, stick to the yellow lemonade. Who decided that pink was a good color for lemonade anyway?

Speaking of fireworks

My father occasionally received a request to scatter human cremains from an airplane. I went along with him on some of the occasions when ashes were spread. He devised a simple, but effective way to use the air rushing past the plane to create suction in a piece of tubing so that that the ashes were sucked out of the plane and none of them were spilled or blown back. He was a practical man and unafraid to help families comply with their wishes about the final disposition of their loved ones. Once, before he was sick, we had a conversation about why someone might choose to have their ashes spread from an airplane. His thought was that some people don’t want to have a place where family gather to mourn and grieve, and to feel close to one who has died, but rather to have the ashes spread so that every place can be a place of memorial.

Later, after he had been diagnosed with cancer, he spoke with me about his desire to be cremated and to have his ashes spread over a specific place in the mountains of south-central Montana. After he died, we complied with his wishes and later spread our mother’s ashes in the same region. Neither were spread with an airplane, as we didn’t have access to an airplane at the time. We simply hiked into the mountains to a place where we could see a particular feature and spread the ashes on the ground.

I’ve participated in the distribution of human ashes several times since. I’ve watched them disappear in a river and blow across the prairie. I’ve been asked to offer prayers and a bit of ceremony to go along with the distribution of ashes, and I’ve always tried to serve those who are grieving.

I have also officiated at graveside rites for the direct burial of bodies and for the burial of cremains in cemeteries. Over the years, I’ve conducted a lot of funerals and I’ve observed a lot of different funeral traditions and customs. I’ve tried to learn from those who are grieving and to serve them in ways that help them to move through grief towards healing.

On more than one occasion, I have officiated when the cremated remains of pets have been buried with the people who were their owners. Usually the family doesn’t want much said about the pet. It is important to them, but they don’t want to have much said publicly.

People have come up with some pretty dramatic ways for their remains to be disposed. The journalist and author Hunter S. Thompson specified that he wanted his body to be cremated and the remains to be shot from a canon from the top of a tower he had designed and built. When he died by suicide in 2005, his wishes were honored. It took about six months for the necessary permissions to be obtained from local government as well as planning the special fireworks to accompany the ashes in a display. A few hundred select people were allowed to watch.

The idea of launching human remains in fireworks was a part of the 2019 comedy movie, Poms, in which women living in a retirement community form a cheerleading group.

Launching human remains in a fireworks display is a job for professionals. If the desire is to have all of the remains go off in a single blast, a large shell is required. This isn't the kind of firework what you can purchase at a stand for home use on the 4th of July. These large shells can be used only by licensed pyrotechnics experts. And it is illegal to blast them off just anywhere. Permits and approvals are required.

An alternative to that is a symbolic version in which smaller fireworks, legal for individual use on certain holidays, are used to propel small amounts of human remains. Cremation reduces a human body to about three pounds of ashes which can be contained in a box about the size of a shoe box. These fireworks to which ashes can be added take only a very small amount of ashes, a tablespoon or less.

There are a lot of other ways in which a small amount of human cremains are handled. There are companies that make jewelry with a bit of ash in it, as a symbolic reminder of the presence of the loved one. Urns designed to hold human ashes can be placed in a columbarium niche at a cemetery. Some people keep the remains of their loved ones in urns displayed in their homes.

The topic of launching part of the cremains of a loved one in a firework came up recently when we were visiting with a friend who has a terminal illness. It is not possible to predict the span of this person’s life, but it is probably a matter of months rather than days. The circumstances should offer additional opportunities to discuss this person’s wishes and to allow family members to express their reactions to the idea.

The conversation, however, has gotten me to think a bit differently about the blasts of fireworks that have already begun in our neighborhood. Although it is illegal to blast off fireworks here before the actual 4th of July, some people aren’t waiting. We heard random blasts over a couple of hours last night and I’m sure there will be more tonight. It isn’t quite as wild as South Dakota, where there are fewer regulations and just as many people willing to push limits, but there are still plenty of blasts.

I assume that blasting a firework with part of a loved one might invite some ceremony, a prayer, or a few carefully chosen words. I’ve never been asked to bless fireworks, but I would consider it if asked. For my own preference, however, I think I am happy with something that isn’t quite as loud and creates less of a show. A secluded spot and a quiet prayer would do just fine. I’ll leave the fireworks to others.

Of grandparents and grandchildren

When I took Clinical Pastoral Education, we did an exercise in mapping our family diagram. Each participant told their family story using game pieces to illustrate. There were special pieces to designate parents, brothers, and sisters. There were ways to illustrate death and divorce if those events had been a part of your family story. Interestingly, the planners of the exercise had made no distinction between children who were born to a family and those who were adopted. That part of the exercise didn’t matter to me. In my family the distinction between entering as adopted or born was not drawn. We were seven. The first two were adopted when they were two and nine years old. Three years later a third sister was born to our family. I was born another two years later, followed by another brother two and a half years after me. The last two boys were 2 and 4 when they were adopted, fitting right into the pattern of the younger children being 2 years apart.

My family is even more complex than that. The youngest two were born to my oldest sister, so they were my nephews who became my brothers. At no time were there more than six children living in our house at the same time and that was just a brief period. Most of the time we were five living at home. The time allotted for each participant in the class expired before I had finished telling my family story and the story was left hanging for the purposes of the class. I had shared enough to illustrate that I, like the others in the class, had come from a unique set of circumstances. There was probably some other point to the exercise, but there was a lot in Clinical Pastoral Education that escaped me.

I grew up with a strong conviction that what families do is to care for children whenever there is a need. When nieces and nephews came to our house they were treated as extensions of our family. The wide spread in ages between my oldest sister and my youngest brother was simply accepted by me. It was just the way our family was.

When we had children of our own, I was much more aware of families where children were being raised by their grandparents. In some of these cases, the parents raised two sets of children, first raising their children and after a break raising grandchildren.

Now that I am a grandfather, I have even deeper appreciation for my parents and for others who have raised or who are raising grandchildren. I was 58 when our first grandchild was born, I have peers who had their first grandchild in their forties, so I know we are older than some grandparents. Still, we are healthy and active. But I can’t imagine having full-time responsibility for young children. We love to have our grandchildren in our home for visits, but usually we have the additional assistance of their parents. Being solely responsible for our grandchildren would be a major shift in our lives.

Of course adopting my two youngest brothers was a major shift in my parents’ lives. They did a wonderful job of helping us older children adjust to the change, but looking back, I understand that they took on a lot of hard work with those adoptions. I am grateful that they were willing to invest in family without limits. They taught me a great deal about family life through the choices they made.

Our house seems pretty quiet today after a visit from our daughter and our grandson. I miss the two year old running into the kitchen yelling “Papa!” with a big hug for me when he got up in the morning. I miss his invitation to “say thanks” before each meal and the way he closed his eyes as we held hands and said our prayer. I miss the deep joy of watching our daughter be such an excellent mother. But I also enjoy the quiet a little bit. I enjoy having the books I put on the table beside my chair being in the same place with the bookmarks in the same pages as I left them. I like being able to leave a project on my desk knowing it will be waiting when I return. I’m not unhappy that our children are raising our grandchildren in their own homes.

Not every set of grandparents have the luxury we enjoy. There are plenty of grandparents raising grandchildren in all kinds of different homes and settings all around the world. They do so because circumstances demand it. They do so because they love their grandchildren. They sacrifice for the sake of the children and they invest in the future understanding that the human story is always the story of many generations. It isn’t just about us and our time on this earth. We belong to a story that is much bigger and much longer than the span of our own lives.

Although my father raised a couple of his grandchildren, he never met our children. Our son was born six months after he died. He knew that we were expecting, but our son never met his paternal grandfather. He was, however, raised with lots of stories about his grandpa. Both of our children heard many stories over and over again. They have a pretty good sense of who he was and how I was raised. I can recognize bits of his personality in them.

In our lives as pastors we have met families of all different sizes, shapes and configurations. We have witnessed families being reconfigured by divorce, addiction, and tragedy. We have witnessed the resilience of children and their capacity to thrive even when faced with incredible changes. And we have witnessed the love of parents and grandparents as they selflessly give their energy and lives to raise children with love.

Today I salute all who care for children regardless of their ages or life circumstances. Thank you for loving and caring for these precious little ones.

July begins

I guess it depends on how you do the numbers. If you simply count the months and divide them in half, six months have passed and six remain, making today, July 1, the beginning of the second half of the year. There are a number of news stories in the headlines that make that assumption. The US economy begins the second half of the year today, according to the New York Times. Using this method of counting, however, leaves us with 181 days in he first half of the year and 184 days in the second half of the year. The difference lies in February, which has 28 days when it is not leap year. Both halves of the year have two months with 30 days, and the rest with 31 except for February. February means that there are three fewer days in the first half of the year than the second.

Technically, if the year begins at midnight, the second half of the year would begin at noon on July 2. Since there are 365 days in the year, when it isn’t leap year, 182 and 1/2 days is half of a year. In leap years, with 366 days, the second half of the year begins at midnight when the day turns from July 2 to July 3.

I’m pretty sure that most people don’t give that kind of trivia much thought. I only became aware of it because of a conversation I had many years ago, when I was a child, with my father. He made the claim that my mother’s birthday, which was July 3, was the first day of the second half of the year. The claim was technically accurate only in leap years and I have no recollection whether or not it was a leap year when he made the claim. Since July is after my birthday, if the conversations occurred when I was 5 or 9 or 13 or 17, it would have been leap year.

It is a silly thought, really. July 1 is close enough to the mid point of the year that it works for journalists to make their stories as if we begin the second half of the year today. We all know what they mean when they do.

For the record, 1776 was a leap year, so July 3 would have marked the beginning of the second half of the year, which is slightly poetic in my way of thinking, since although we think of July 4 as Independence Day because it was the day of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, the Continental Congress actually voted Independence from Britain on July 2 and adopted the language of the Declaration on July 4. The day in between, July 3, was a Wednesday that year, for what that is worth.

With July 4 falling on a Monday this year, today is the start of a long 4th of July weekend for some in the United States. As usual, the country will be celebrating with picnics, fireworks, a bit of flag waving and family get-togethers.

I hope to spend a little bit of time over the weekend trying to figure out a small problem with the flag pole on our son’s garage. His garage faces another out building on his farm, with a driveway between. On the garage is a flag pole with the flag of the United States. On the building across the way is a flag pole with the flag of Washington State. The Washington State flag pole is the newer of the two and the flag swivels on the pole. High winds don’t seem to tangle the flag. The pole with the US flag is slightly larger, but has a swivel mechanism to prevent the flag from wrapping around the pole. Somehow, however, it doesn’t always work. The pole is too high to reach without the assistance of a ladder, so untangling it is a bit of an effort. I’ve tried several ways to prevent the flag from wrapping around the pole, but so far have not solved the problem. I could, of course, simply purchase a new pole matching the one with the Washington Flag, but it seems wasteful for me to do so. I’d like to just get the other pole to work properly.

Perhaps since I’ve been pondering this small problem, I have noticed that a lot of flags around our area get tangled on their poles pretty easily. This seems especially true of flag poles that are attached to the side of buildings, with the pole extending at an angle.

It isn’t just flags wrapped around their poles that I notice. I also have noticed that there are a lot of torn and soiled flags being flown. Torn flags are especially evident on the backs of pickup trucks where they are abused by being driven down the freeway at 70 mph. It seems that the display of the flag, usually a sign of patriotism, has become a different kind of political symbol, often denoting a particular set of right-wing views. I’m not sure how the symbol of American Democracy became a sign of a person’s embracing of unfounded election fraud theories, but it has. I’ve begun to associate torn flags and poor flag etiquette with particular political opinions.

There is a box at the fire station where flags that have become torn or soiled can be deposited. Once a year the Boy Scouts and a local American Legion group hold a ceremony for the disposal of used flags with all of the ceremony of proper flag etiquette. It is an easy task to retire a used flag and replace it with a new one. Somehow, however, there are a lot of people who don’t follow this protocol.

No matter how you count, however, the weekend invites a bit of serious thinking about the meaning of democracy and the hard work that is required to protect and defend our unique form of government. The last few years have seen unprecedented attacks on American democracy and a significant erosion of the rights guaranteed by the constitution. This weekend is a good time for a bit of reflection and rededication. May this be the beginning not only of the second half of the year, but also of a fresh commitment to the principles of democratic government.

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