Looking for the lights

I hope a lot of people got to see the dazzling display that was predicted for the Northern Lights last night. The sun released two large bursts of energy toward Earth. Activity was expected to peak about an hour ago as I sit to write this journal entry. So far, the view out of our northern windows is the usual. We took a drive around 10 pm to a place that has a less obstructed view of the north and at that time there were very few clouds in the sky, but we saw no northern lights activity.

I expected that my move to this place would enable me to see northern lights frequently. So far, that hasn’t proven to be the case. I was treated to views of northern lights during the years we lived in North Dakota and I even got a glimpse of the lights from South Dakota on a couple of occasions. Where we live is the farthest north that we have ever lived, but seeing the aurora is not just a matter of how close or far away one is from the geographic north pole. The aurora forms around the magnetic poles of the planet, and the magnetic pole is significantly east of the geographic pole. Still, the predictors indicated that we had a good chance to see the lights early this morning.

Skies are mostly clear here right now, with a bit of fog drifting in patches from the ocean. The view to the north is impeded by the homes of our neighbors, but we have a good view from our second story window. There is a bit of light pollution from Surrey and Vancouver BC, but the northern lights should be brighter and slightly higher on the horizon than those light sources. Alas, no sightings from our house so far.

As disappointments go, this particular one isn’t particularly intense. I’m expecting to get many more opportunities to see the northern lights. Living where we do, there are several options for less expensive travel to points north and we have plans to make such a trip in a year or so.

This geomagnetic storm is not the strongest possible. It is rated 3 out of 5, which means that there will be conditions even better for viewing the northern lights in the future as the sun has multiple active sunspots that produce solar flares.

I haven’t seen a map with a projection of the places in northern Europe and Asia where the northern lights can be viewed. I know it is daytime there now, but as I am thinking about our place on the globe, my mind is drawn to other places that are about the same latitude. That includes Ukraine. We live very near the 49th parallel, at about 48.99 degrees north. Ukraine is a fairly large country, but its latitude is listed as 48.38 degrees - pretty similar to where we find ourselves.

I wonder if any, or most of the 4 million refugees displaced by the war were able to glimpse the northern lights last night. I wonder if the incredible beauty of this planet struck any of them in the midst of personal and communal crisis. With churches, homes and public buildings bombed and uninhabitable, with so many forced to leave with very few possessions or resources, with the grief of loss and the thread of additional violence, it seems possible that many of the refugees are looking at their feet more than they are raising their eyes to the night sky.

I know, however, about the ability of this planet to amaze and delight in the most grim circumstances. I know how I have been suddenly struck by wonder and awe even in moments of profound loss and grief. In the past, attending to those who have experienced sudden and traumatic loss got me out of bed in the middle of the night. I know the feeling of steeling myself for walking into the lives of people beset with deep grief and stepping outside into a stunning vista of stars and a sense of the vastness of the universe. I know that there are moments when I have felt small in the vastness of the universe and awed by the beauty that I have been allowed to witness.

I hope that the northern lights were visible to those in Ukraine last night. I hope that soldiers on watch were allowed a few moments of silent contemplation as the lights danced on the horizon. I hope that they sensed the difference between the lights of nature and the lights of warfare. I hope that refugees traveling in the night without a complete sense of their destination or of the resources they need to complete their trip were given a few moments to experience beauty and sense wonder. It seems to me that there are many things in this world that are far more important than my getting a glimpse at a natural phenomenon.

I can wait. I’m given the gift of beauty every day. Spring is in full swing here. The buds are producing new leaves on the trees. New blossoms are appearing every day. The vastness of the ocean amazes me on my daily walk as I watch the many colors of the sea, from gray to green to blue. The array of birds that frequent the air, land, and water around here is a treat beyond imagining. I know that I am fortunate to have safe rest each night in a home that is warm and secure. I know that the food in my pantry is a luxury that many of the world’s people cannot imagine. I know that the leisure to take a walk every day with my wife of nearly 49 years is a genuine gift. I count myself as among the most fortunate of this world’s people.

Simply being able to walk to the window and gaze out at the northern sky is a gift that I should not take for granted. So if I do see a glimmer of the dance of light on the horizon, it is an unearned bonus, worthy of celebration and joy. May God grant that joy to many others in a world in need of genuine joy.

When the baby cries

Our youngest grandchild is seven weeks old today. Even when I am holding him, I find it difficult to remember precisely what our lives were like when we had a seven-week-old in our house. We have two children. It happened to us twice, but I can’t remember the precise details. I know that it seemed to me like our second child was awake in the night more often and therefore I lost more sleep when she was an infant. However, I confess that there were a lot of factors that make it difficult for me to remember accurately. Our first child was born to us and was breast-fed as an infant. Our second child is adopted. She was just over 4 weeks old when she came to live with us. She was fed with a bottle, which meant that I was able to participate in night time feedings in a way that was not possible with our first child. Another factor in my memory is that I was so very excited with the arrival of both of our children. That excitement gave me energy during those early weeks of learning to live together and care for the child.

I simply don’t remember details such as what was the longest time between wakefulness when our children were tiny. I don’t remember how many hours of sleep I got before my sleep was interrupted. I know it was interrupted many times. I remember being tired. When I look back, it seems like the time in my life when I was the most tired was during the early months of having our second child, but to be honest, I’m no longer sure.

I’ve always been fairly good at waking in the night and I’ve had lots of different reasons to be awake at night, only some of which had to do with being a parent.

I’ve been trying to remember a bit as I observe with wonder and deep appreciation the grace with which our son and daughter-in-law are providing care for their four children. We never had four children, so I don’t know the full extent of their workload, but it is easy to see that it is a very busy time in their household. Since we don’t live in the same house and since we aren’t at their house overnight, we don’t know how much sleep the parents are losing during the night, but it is safe to assume that they are losing some. What I can observe as a grandfather is that the baby tends to go through a fussy period in the late afternoon, just as his mother is trying to prepare dinner for the family. Our son has a lengthy commute from work, so at least five days a week it falls on our daughter-in-law to care for three children just home from school, and an infant, at the time when dinner needs to be prepared for the family. That’s a handful, so we try to drop by at that time about once a week to help a bit. Sometimes we can provide a bit of homework help for the older kids. Mostly what we do is hold a moderately fussy baby for an hour or so. His mother is good about feeding him when he is hungry and she is tuned into his eating cycle. We all know how to change a diaper. So his basic needs are met. He just doesn’t seem to want to lie in a bed or sit in an infant seat. He prefers to be held, rocked, and sometimes walked around the house. Grandparents are good at holding children when their parents are so busy that there aren’t enough hands.

One of the stories that my mother told me when we had infants in our house is that when I was a newborn, I figured out ways to self-comfort at a fairly young age. I was child number 4, but the spacing was different in our family, so my oldest sister was a teenager when I came along. Still, I’m pretty sure that our household was a busy place. My parents were readers, so I’m sure that they had read the various childcare books that were available at the time. They had no doubt heard of sleep training for babies and the practice of letting a child “cry it out” when their needs were met, but they just needed psychological comfort. Our house was pretty crowded during the first couple of years of my life, so I don’t think they had the luxury of having my crib in a different part of the house from where they slept, so I’m pretty sure I wasn’t left to cry very much. It isn’t the way my parents were anyway. But I guess there were times when I was put in my crib and I learned to suck my thumb and soothe myself a bit. I don’t remember.

It is going to take quite a few months before our little grandson is able to learn much about southing himself. Right now he cries when he is upset or just wants attention and there is usually someone to respond quickly to his crying. I can observe how much easier it is for his parents, however, when we are able to stop by and hold the baby. Holding a baby is very therapeutic for adults, so I am grateful for the opportunity. I find release from the worries of the world when I’m paying attention to the little one. I set aside my worries about global warming, the war in Ukraine, work stresses, undone household chores, financial worries, and other things. It is easy for me to just think about what is going on with the little one, whether or not he wants his pacifier, if he likes the creak of the rocking chair or prefers that I stand and rock him. He’s still a lightweight, so he isn’t hard to hold and sometimes he will snuggle against my shoulder in a way that takes away all of the stresses of life. And if that eases the workload for his mother just little bit, it is a worthy enterprise.

As far as I am concerned, we can wait for him to learn how to self-comfort. His grandpa likes to feel needed. Then again, I’m not drawing night duty at this phase of my life.

Advice on purchasing invisible art

In 1958, artist Yves Klein opened an exhibition called “The Void.” In that exhibition, he placed a large cabinet in an otherwise empty room in a Paris art gallery. Thousands of people paid an admission charge to get a glimpse of nothing at all. That art show’s success prompted Klein to take the idea of invisible art a step forward. He gave collectors a chance to purchase a series of non-existent and entirely conceptual spaces. A handful of buyers took him up on the offer, paying cash money int exchange for only a receipt to prove ownership of an invisible work of art. Now, almost 60 years after the death of Yves Klein, one of those receipts is up for sale. Auction house Sotheby’s estimates it could bring up to 500,000 euro or about 551,000 US dollars.

A half a million bucks for nothing seems like a high price to pay. On the other hand, Sotheby’s said it will accept cryptocurrency payment for the item. That seems like a really solid investment: use a bit of imaginary money to purchase an invisible work of art.

I heard the story of the proposed resale of invisible art on CNN radio as I was driving home last night. Apparently it was a re-airing of a piece that had been previously broadcast, but it was news to me. I haven’t been keeping up on the market for invisible art. The story prompted me to do a quick Internet search to learn more about the market.

In May of 2021, 67-year-old artist Salvatore Garau sold an “immaterial sculpture.” It went for $15,000 euro, about $18,300 at an auction at the Italian art house Art-Rite. The invisible sculpture is made literally of nothing. The buyer went home with a certificate of authenticity and a set of instructions: the work, per Garau, must be exhibited in a private house in a roughly five-by-five-foot space free of obstruction.

You have to be pretty enthusiastic about conceptual art to want to pay that kind of money to purchase those kinds of art.

The record, as far as I know, for invisible artwork is the invisible painting that sold in 2020 at Sotheby’s. There was no canvas. There was no frame. There was nothing to be seen at all. “As you can see, it is abstract, expressionist, conceptual, and totally next level,” said the auctioneer. Actually, I’m suspicious of this last story. I think it might be a spoof of the art world.

When it comes to invisible artwork, I’m not an expert. I’m not even a fan. In fact the stories about invisible art bring to mind a quote that is sometimes associated with P.T. Barnum: “There’s a sucker born every minute.”

In light of the high prices of such conceptual pieces of art, I would like to offer a few other intangible and invisible things that those with money could purchase.

You can name the price for the invisible and intangible feeling of having helped someone with a gift to Church World Service. Every two seconds someone in the world is forced to leave their home and everything they know. The threat of persecution or disaster forces them into the only choice they can find in search of safety. The crisis in the Ukraine has once again reminded us of the plight of people forced from their homes. Ukrainians join over 70 million people worldwide in need of assistance. Unlike invisible and intangible artwork, a gift to Church World Service will give you a tax deduction.

You can invest in intangibles with a donation to your community library foundation. Public libraries are about more than collections of books. They offer essential public service to communities. Libraries are primary providers of access to the Internet for homeless persons, they provide information and research assistance to community governments. They are safe gathering places for people of all ages. Libraries are centers of community education and learning.

Here is an option for those interested in invisible and intangible rewards. You can help save a life. Suicide affects millions of persons every year. The immediate aftermath of a loved one’s suicide is a challenging, confusing and painful time. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention provides support for survivors of suicide, but it does much more. It is a center for research and information about suicide and suicide prevention. Through its programs people at most risk for suicide are identified and provided with resources and support to continue to live meaningful lives.

You don’t have to purchase invisible artwork to support artists in your community. Check our your local arts guild or other organization that supports music and the arts in your community. Your donations to local art museums, galleries, symphonies, theatre groups and other arts organizations go a long way to support culture and community. Not all artwork belongs in private collections. You can give access to high quality artwork to those who cannot afford to pay auction house prices by supporting public art venues.

Donation receipts from churches and other houses of religion often have these words: “Other than intangible religious benefits, no goods or services were received in exchange for this donation.” A donation to your church helps build community, provide essential services such as funerals and weddings, and provides support in times of crisis and need. All of that plus a receipt that gives direct reference to intangible benefits. In my opinion it is far better than bidding on a receipt for an intangible sold a half century ago. We have been donating to churches for all of our adult lives and find it to be easy and satisfying. If you are short of cash, donations of time and talent are always appreciated.

If you have a strong urge to become the owner of intangible and invisible artwork, I guess you could pay attention to the latest offerings of the auction houses. However, if you want to fully appreciate the full power of the human imagination, there are a lot more options available to you.

Watching the birds


Our daily walk was later than usual yesterday. Sundays have always been busy days in our house and so it didn’t seem exceptional that we went into the church early for a bell choir rehearsal. After worship we had a little break before confirmation class started. We’d brought lunch from home and a hot cup of tea and a sandwich gave us a boost of energy for the afternoon’s activities. After confirmation class, we rushed to get ready for a family event. It was fun and exciting to see families with children learning about Lent, making pretzels, creating torn paper art, collecting items for a scavenger hunt, and making chalk art. By the time things were cleaned up, the building secured and we were on our way home, we began to feel a bit tired. A quick change of clothes and we were off on our walk.

Because it was later than usual, we just walked down to the beach and back - a half hour walk shy of two miles. After spending most of the day in the back yard, my sister’s dog, who is living at our house temporarily, was ready for a walk and it felt good to us to stretch our legs. As we walked we remarked about the difference a month can make in the amount of daylight in the evening, especially when that month includes the change to daylight savings time.

When we reached the beach the tide was out and a large flock of Western high Arctic brant were feeding on the mudflats just off shore. The small geese look a lot like ducks at first glance, but they sound similar to Canadian geese. Locally the brant are sometimes referred to as gray-bellied geese. One of the joys of walking in our neighborhood is the wide diversity of bird species that we can watch. Just a day earlier, we took delight in watching a bald eagle eating a fish atop a post. The great blue herons always delight us with their graceful flight and somewhat less graceful transition from flying to standing in the water. The seagulls and crows provide raucous commentary on the beach with loud cries that can be heard a long ways away. Flocks of ducks and geese are common and we often see different varieties of ducks mixing it up along the shore.

The brant, however, seemed to be keeping to themselves yesterday. We haven’t lived here long enough to know which bird sights are rare and which are common. After i got home from our walk, I looked up the brant on the Washington Department of Wildlife website and discovered that brant population has experienced a long-term decline in numbers. The reasons for the decline are not fully understood, but could include increased water-based recreation, commercial and residential development, shellfish harvest, and fishing. Since the brant consume eel grass another plants that can be damaged by oil spill, the presence of several major oil refineries along the coast may also be a factor in their population numbers. It seems like we were experiencing a treat by being allowed to watch the brant feed as we stopped for a sip of water before climbing the hill back up towards our home.

The Western high arctic brant are closely related to black brant, which are also seen in our area. The brant are not year-round residents of our area. They winter here and move north to the Parry Islands and inland across far north Canada including Northwest Territories and Nunavut. I guess you could say that they are at least as Canadian as the Canadian geese that we also see and hear on our walks in this area.

As long as I can remember, I have enjoyed watching birds. I’ve never been what I consider to be a birder. I don’t keep a list of the birds I have sighted. I don’t know the names of many of the birds that we see. But we do keep a couple of bird books near the windows of our home and we refer to them frequently to identify the birds that we are watching. In a way my appreciation for birds may stem from the fact that I grew up in a large family. I didn’t have a bedroom to myself until I was a college student. Our house was always full of people and there weren’t many places indoors where one could be alone. Outside, however, I could have all the space I needed. It was a short walk from our house to open fields and places where I could watch the sky and pay attention to the birds. The magpies and crows always offered entertainment and I enjoyed watching them fly. I often saw geese flying higher up and wondered at where they were going. They seemed to invite me to travel in my imagination even though my feet were rooted firmly to the ground.

Now that the years are adding up and I have had the opportunity to travel, I still enjoy looking at the birds and thinking about their lives. I know a couple of snags where we frequently see eagles. I know their nests are probably nearby, but I haven’t found them yet. The heron rookeries are a bit easier to locate and they are busy building nests right now. The crows seem to also be busy as well. We recently saw a crow with a stick that seemed to be a bit too big for the bird, but it was flying with the stick in its beak, headed for a nest site. Dogs, children and crows all seem to be interested in carrying sticks just a bit too big for convenience.

It seems a blessing that I am aging along the west coast, where the sunset provides a dramatic vista most evenings. The ocean provides a wilderness close at hand. The birds remind me of our connectedness to all living things. And sometimes, my days make me just tired enough to appreciate the end of the day when I can sit and think and watch the world and leave the intense activity to other creatures.

Life is good to us and I am grateful.

Make a sad dad glad

The gospel reading for today in congregations that follow the Revised Common Lectionary is a parable that is often called “The Prodigal Son.” I’ve used that title to refer to the story simply because when I do people know what story I’m talking about. I’m not going to tell the story in my journal today because I think that most of my readers are familiar with it. If you want to check out the story, it is found in Luke 15:11b-32. The Lectionary throws in these introductory sentences: Luke 15:1-3.

the reason that I am a bit uncomfortable with calling this parable “The Prodigal Son,” is that I think that undue focus on the younger brother in the story misses a great deal of its richness. there is so much more going on in the story besides the dynamics in the behavior of the younger son.

To begin with, the parable demonstrates the deep love of the father for two very different sons. One is serious and diligent. You can imagine he was often quiet. He went to work and got the job done. You have to admire his dedication and loyalty. You can see lots of reasons for the father to love this one. The other son is impulsive and doesn’t always think things through. He loves to party and is generous. Things don’t always work out for him, but his energy and enthusiasm is obvious. It is also easy to see why a father could love such a son. Sure, he often messes up, but he is creative and fun, and I suspect, often funny. He brings an easy smile to the face of the father. The point of the parable, however, is that the father loves both sons equally. Both are beloved. Both find it easy to get the father’s approval.

To the extent that the parable is a parable of God’s kingdom, we can realize that in God’s realm, people who are vastly different are equally loved. Both sons are treasured. Both have the capacity to cause the father grief. The father is not only sad when the younger son is away and his condition is unknown. He is also sad when the older son grows angry and believes that the younger son is somehow favored. The father is grieved when the two sons don’t get along with each other.

It is this aspect of the parable which I think parents can easily identify. One of the things we most want for our children is for them to love and care for each other. Parents invest a lot of energy in bringing together their children. This is one of the big aspects of being a parent of adult children. It is nearly impossible for me to express how joyful it makes me feel to see our children when they are together enjoying each other and offering support. I know that they will keep track of and care for each other as they grow older, even when I am no longer around to facilitate their meeting. It is one thing that I think of often in terms of my siblings as well. I know how much our parents loved all of us and I know how much it would please our parents for us to be mindful of each other and take care of each other.

The parable reaches its climax in the expressions of the father’s unconditional love. Even though the younger son has grieved the father with his demand for an early inheritance and his use of that inheritance to distance himself from his family of origin, the father has no restraints on his joy at the return of the son. The party he throws is complete and without limit. The robe and ring are real gifts. Even though the older son grieves the father with his refusal to come to the party, the father is quick to go out to the son and remind him that he is an important part of the family and of the family celebration. There are no conditions on the father’s love. He loves his sons regardless of their behaviors. When they mess up, he still loves them. When they grow angry and sullen, he still loves them. He never doesn’t love them. Never.

His expectation is that they will learn to love each other as much as he loves each of them.

As a parent of adult children with children of their own, I deeply understand the power of this parable. It is a topic I’ve discussed with our son in regards to his children as well. He, and we, so hope that they can grow up in such a way that they learn to love each other as much as we love them.

This story is about so much more than a prodigal son.

I confess that I always have had a bit of bias when it comes to this story because I am an older brother. My personality is not that much different than the older brother in the story even though I did not stay at home and take over the family business - an option that would have been available to me had I chosen it. I went straight to college and from college to graduate school and from graduate school to financial independence from my family of origin. I jumped through the hoops and met the expectations. I worked without stopping for my entire adult life. I never experienced even one day of unemployment in my active career. I was a good boy. My parents loved me.

My parents equally loved my siblings who chose different paths in life. They loved their children who couldn’t seem to find a career path and a sense of vocation. They loved their children who struggled to make ends meet and pay their bills. They loved their children who didn’t ear degrees. And the wanted all of us to learn to love one another.

Today, as I tell the story to the children of our church, I’m not going to refer to a prodigal son. Instead, I’m going to call it the story of “How to Make a Sad Dad Glad.

Springtime in almost Canada

Spring is beginning to pop around here. The blooming trees are showing color. The shrubs are turning green. The crocus, tulips and hyacinths are emerging. Spring is different here than other places we have lived, however. The grass in my lawn has remained green all winter long. It isn’t growing fast, but I have to mow it every couple of weeks or so now after about three months of not having to mow at all. I can’t say how, exactly, but things are different here than they are in places that have longer and more severe winter weather.

I think I’m adapting to my new climate as well. The last couple of days, when we have had partly cloudy skies, I have been commenting on how beautiful sunny weather is. The problem is that it isn’t really all that sunny. A few patches of blue sky amidst a lot of clouds don’t constitute clear skies. When we get a day without rain, and we have had several recently, I almost forget what it is like to have horizon to horizon blue skies.

I have not, however, taken to mowing my lawn in the rain. That behavior is one of the strange ones of this place. We see people mowing their lawn in the rain - and not just amateurs. We see professional lawn services mowing and trimming in the rain. Just a week or so ago, I saw the crew of a lawn service working in a neighborhood lawn with mowers, trimmers, and even a leaf blower. I can’t imagine that grass clippings blow well when they are soggy from the rain. And I’m not just talking about a light sprinkle. The workers of the lawn service were wearing rain jackets and at least one of them had on rain pants as well. They knew it was raining.

Another practice that is very strange to me is that roofers continue to work in the rain. Across the street from our house is a home that is being substantially rebuilt after a major fire. Last October, crews removed trusses and the house was down to bare stud walls. Through the winter they have worked steadfastly and the house is not completely weathered in. There are signs that interior work is going well. Along the way, I watched as a roofing crew was putting on shingles. When it started to rain, I expected the crew to be pulled off of the roof, but they continued until they were finished. Most of the members of the crew were wearing safety harnesses, but still it seems like the risk of injury seemed to outweigh the rush to complete in my opinion. I kept thinking about a statistic that I used to cite to the families of newly sworn deputies: line of duty deaths are more common among roofers than law enforcement officers. Fortunately, no one was injured in the shingling of the house in our neighborhood. Again last week, I saw a roofing crew up on a roof putting on shingles in the rain.

I joke that the locals don’t know when it is raining, but that isn’t really true. You will occasionally see someone in a rain jacket when it isn’t raining, but it is fairly rare. Most of the time it takes a good downpour to get the locals to gear up.

Yesterday, however, the weather was good. It didn’t rain and it was warm enough to take a walk in our shirtsleeves. We were in Mount Vernon, the town where we rented a home for the first year after we moved out here. Mount Vernon has a beautiful walking path along the riverfront through its downtown section. There are high and effective flood walls along the river and last November those flood walls were needed to protect the city as the Skagit River set new records for streamflow. We noted that the water level in the river was 14 feet lower yesterday than it was at the crest of the flood, and tried to imagine what it was like when such a huge volume of water was flowing by, just a few feet beneath the bridge that is now high above the water level. There is a lot of work being done to repair flood damage. We could see areas where rock had been hauled in by the army corps of engineers to shore up the river bank. A large crane on a barge was at work setting new pilings on barriers erected to deflect logs from slamming into the bridge that crosses the river in the downtown area. Not related to the flooding, the riverwalk was being extended and we were able to walk on some newly installed pathway.

One of the interesting things we saw were the planters alongside the river. Mount Vernon is tulip country and there are fields of tulips surrounding the town. Along the riverwalk there are planters with trees and flowers. In those planters all of the tulips were crowded on the side of the planter away from the river. When the river flooded last fall it must have rearranged the bulbs beneath the ground. Everything was soaked and when it dried out the bulbs were all washed up against the edges of the planters, so that is the way they came up this spring.

I spoke on the phone with a friend in Minnesota who reported that their snow was almost all gone, reminding me that the mild winters around here are not the weather that a lot of people experience. I do miss the snow, but I really can’t complain. This is a good place to live and we have found the adjustment to our place to be easy. It isn’t bad only having a couple of days of slippery roads each winter. We didn’t have to rearrange our travel plans for winter storms at all, though we did have to alter our route a couple of times due to flood damage to roads.

I’m not fully acclimated to this place yet, however. I still refuse to mow my lawn in the rain. I don’t intend to change my ways, either.

Godspeed good friend

49 years ago this summer, I worked in a large commercial bakery for the summer. It was a good job for a college student. We newer workers were assigned to the warehouse and when someone on other parts of the line was out for vacation, one of the more senior warehouse workers was tapped to fill in for that person. There was a common break room for all of the line employees and I spent my breaks and ate my lunch with the rest of the workers. I was pretty quiet. Sometimes I would read a book during my breaks, but I listened to the chatter in the room. Among the most senior employees were those who worked in maintenance, keeping the massive machinery of the bakery running. One maintenance employee talked frequently about his upcoming retirement. He and his wife had purchased a motorhome and were planning to take a grand tour of the United States with it, traveling just as far as they felt like and staying wherever they landed for each evening. “No schedule, no rules,” he would say in anticipation. “No boss to look over your shoulder and tell you to hurry up.”

On the eve of his retirement, preparing to leave on their trip, he slid under the motorhome on a creeper to change the oil. That is where he experienced a massive heart attack. It is where he died. He died just short of his retirement - just before taking his dream trip. He was a neighbor of my in laws and it was the summer that we got married. We talked about his death quite a bit with them.

It turned out that my father-in-law, who was much more quiet about his retirement plans, and who expressed no big plans for a major change in his lifestyle other than staying home from work, had a wonderful retirement. He used the freedom from work to volunteer at the church a lot more. He served on the camp committee. He mowed the lawn. He volunteered to give people rides to and from medical appointments. He helped us move twice. He made repairs at the homes of all of his daughters. He taught me a lot about retirement that has made my life rich with meaning.

The memories of that bakery worker, so intent on retirement, so close to achieving his dream came to me yesterday when I received the news that a friend and colleague had suddenly died. We had been pastors of different congregations of the same denomination in the same town for 25 years. He had come to the church he served several years before I came to the church I served. I don’t know the exact span of his service, but he was nearing 40 years of serving the same congregation. It was an exceptionally good match of pastor and congregation.

Over the years we have shared so much of the journey of being pastors. For a long time we met weekly with other colleagues to discuss books and provide support to one another. One of the frequent topics of our conversations was how to maintain ministry with retired clergy. Both of us had multiple retired clergy in our congregations. I guess Rapid City is an attractive place for a pastor to retire. Over the years I have attended a number of funerals at which my colleague officiated. Among them were plenty of funerals for retired pastors.

I was expecting to hear the news of his retirement soon. He isn’t that much younger than I. I suspect, though don’t know that he was planning to coordinate his retirement with that of his wife. They have enjoyed traveling together and probably had plans for more trips. Perhaps he was going to wait until his 40th anniversary with the congregation he served. We tend to look at anniversaries as opportunities for big life changes. I really don’t know. Of all of the conversations we had, including several about my retirement, I don’t ever remember talking with him about his retirement.

He grew up on a farm in southeastern South Dakota and he loved to go back to the farm. His brother still runs the family farm and one year my colleague spent a sabbatical break just working on the farm. He had a lot of practical skills, something that is a bit less common among clergy and something that I appreciated. In the winter of 2016-2017 when the water protectors were camped at Standing Rock, we hauled a load of firewood up to our friends from the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe. I had a new-to-me pickup truck and we were pulling a heavy trailer. When the time came to unload, he chipped right in and the work was soon finished. On the way home, I pushed the range of the truck until the low fuel light appeared on the dashboard. Reservation country is empty country with a lot of distance between fuel stations and I was a bit worried about making it to the next fuel stop. He laughed off our condition, saying, “It won’t be the first time I’ve been around a diesel run out of fuel. I thought it was the check engine light and I was prepared to tell you to keep driving.” We didn’t run out of fuel. We laughed about the experience later. Both of us had been involved in “rescuing” a conference minister who had a diesel automobile, but no experience with diesel engines and cold weather. He would get mixed up about #1 and #2 diesel, forget to use additives, and the fuel would gell. Both of us knew more about the fuel filters and tow points on that car than the conference minister who drove it. We appreciated our practical skills and enjoyed working together whether it be a work day at camp or a conference ministry project.

And now my friend has taught me a new lesson. Do the work you love. Enjoy the present. There are no guarantees on the future. I don’t know my friend’s retirement plans. I do know he loved the work he did, loved the family he had, loved the church he served. He was faithful to the end of his life. I grieve with his wife and children and grandchildren. I grieve with his friends and colleagues. But I also am grateful for the gift of God that he was and his example of living one’s faith all the way.

Stories of change

Each week a small group of folks from our church meet to discuss the book “Climate Church, Climate World” by Jim Antal. Last night we were discussing how climate change exacerbates virtually every other social justice issue. We were especially aware of how some of the initiatives of our Mission and Justice Board are interconnected. Climate justice is a factor in the struggles for people for simple, decent, housing. It is a factor in the cost of living for some of our community’s most impoverished people. Communities of color are more severely affected by climate change than white communities.

The conversation got me to thinking about two stories about which I know a little bit. Both are of people who live on the continent of Africa.

In Uganda, the indigenous Batwa people used to live in the area now designated as Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park. They gathered honey. They hunted bush-pig and several types of antelope. For centuries they lived off the forests of the mountainous regions on the borders of Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo as hunter-gatherers. But in the 1990s, the Ugandan Batwa were evicted from the Bwindi, Mgahinga and Echuya forests as those areas became wildlife parks, primarily for the protection of rare mountain gorillas.

Human encroachments on the traditional habitat of the mountain gorillas was threatening the survival of the great apes. People from around the globe began to advocate for the creation of protected habitat to save the gorillas from extinction. Their efforts led to the establishment of wildlife parks that in turn led to the eviction of the Batwa people from their homes. It also resulted in the destruction of their way of life. They were no longer allowed to congregate in a special cave to worship. Young people were no longer allowed to engage in traditional courtship rituals. The people could no longer gather honey or hunt for animals for food. Displaced from their homes, they moved to urban areas like Kisoro. Some are learning to farm. Most continue to squat on public land, living in homes made from cardboard and tarps.

The conservation efforts have been successful. Uganda’s mountain gorilla population has risen from a low of 459 to more than 1,000. They are no longer listed as critically endangered. While education and farming have been beneficial to some Batwa, the effects have been generally devastating. Their culture has been largely erased. The people are losing traditional survival skills. The poverty and unemployment has been devastating.

That is one story. Here is another:

The Jane Goodall Institute, whose work began with the chimpanzee research of Jane Goodall in Tanzania, claims responsibility for the establishment of 3.4 million acres of habitat protection. Alongside those conservation efforts more than 130 communities have been engaged in partnerships to protect the habitat of the chimpanzees. To date 179 people have been trained in the use of forest monitoring technology, 600 girls have returned to school after receiving mentorship from peer educators, scholarships have been provided to support education of members of indigenous communities. Rather than move the communities, the Institute has focused on shifting the local economies so that people are engaged in the process of protecting the local ecology. No longer dependent upon burning forests to expand their farming for profit efforts, people are given other ways to earn their living and protect their cultural heritage.

Of course, I am sure that there are lots of details about both stories that I do not know. On the surface, however, there seem to be great differences between the ways in which environmental protection is taking place in the two areas. Around the globe colonization has resulted in the displacement of people and the destruction of traditional and indigenous cultures. When environmental destruction has resulted in the reduction of habitat for critical species, governments have continued to respond in colonial fashion in some spaces. Making a national park and removing the human residents in a particular area is one approach. It has produced rapid results to problems that seem to be in need of immediate change. On the other hand, long-lasting change has also been affected by working with the people who live in an area and helping them to shift their culture and economy to invest more deeply in the process of conservation. When people are given jobs and the means to support themselves, they become supporters of conservation efforts. In both of the areas from which these stories have arisen, tourism is becoming an important part of the local economy. Eco-tourism is popular and as the world begins to emerge from a pandemic, there is no shortage of people who are eager to travel to remote places and see rare animals. Protecting the forest from the effects of tourism and even guiding the tourists themselves provide jobs for people and a means of sustaining traditional culture.

As we work for change in our world in the light of the crisis that global climate change is producing, we need to remain aware of the effects of our efforts on other people. In our discussion last night, stories were told about the differences in the way people of wealth and poor people have emerged from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. FEMA was a great help to people of means who could afford to rebuild or relocate. For those who had little and lost everything, there has been far less help. Many have been forced to relocate - told that the places where their families have lived for generations are no longer inhabitable. They have been left without the means to obtain decent housing or recover from the losses caused by the storm and its aftermath.

It is clear that our economy needs to shift in order for us to engage in more sustainable ways of living. The failure to change will be a betrayal of our children and grandchildren, who are already paying the price for our overconsumption. But as we make those changes, we need to continue to be aware of the impact of those changes on the lives of everyday people. We are all in this together. Being aware of and standing with “the least of these” is not only our heritage of faith. It is a mandate for every change we make.

Living with volcanoes


When it comes to the geology- and climate-changing forces of volcanoes, humans don’t have much direct experience. There have been some major eruptions that have been observed by humans, but the majority of information that we have comes from studying the geological evidence left behind. Geologists who study such phenomena discover much about the history of the planet. That knowledge doesn’t translate into abilities to predict the future.

The Yellowstone Caldera, sometimes referred to as the Yellowstone Supervolcano, is one of the largest volcanic caldera in the world. It measures 43 by 28 miles. I grew up on Montana just north of the region of the volcano. In addition to all of the geothermal features of Yellowstone National Park, hot springs are common in the surrounding area, including two that we regularly visited within a few miles of my hometown.

The 1959 Yellowstone Park earthquake was a major event for all folks who lived near Yellowstone at the time. We could feel the shaking in our home and providing airplanes for observation and rescue coordination was a major focus of our family business at the time. Engineers and geologists from around the world came to study the effects of the earthquake and plan responses, including the dynamiting of a major landslide that formed a new lake and threatened major flooding should the natural dam fail.

Scientists studying the area say that in terms of geological time, volcanic activity in the region is relatively new. The major eruptions of the region took place 2.1 million, 1.3 million and 640,000 years ago. Since modern humans have only inhabited this planet for the last 200,000 years or so, all observations of the Yellowstone Caldera are after the eruptions took place. What we know is the result of observing the geological evidence left behind.

Except for four years of graduate school in Chicago and the last year and a half in Washington, I have lived all of my life within the region that scientists predict would be disrupted by a super eruption of the Yellowstone Caldera. Should such an eruption occur, human survival would be in question in all of those places. Predicting when a volcano will erupt, however, is not a precise science. What scientists do know is that there is a dramatic increase in seismic activity before an eruption occurs.

Much of what is known about volcanoes comes from those with a more recent history of eruption. The Mount St. Helens eruption in 1980 gave scientists an excellent opportunity to observe an active volcano. Mount St. Helens is small when compared to Yellowstone, however. Scientists estimate that the Island Park super eruption (2.1 million years ago) produced 2,500 times as much ash as the Mount St. Helens eruption. That amount of ash is pretty spectacular. Ash from the Mount St. Helens eruption filled the skies and left visible and collectable ash on the ground where we lived at the time, 1200 miles to the east of the mountain. Multiply that by 2,500 times and much of the world, especially the northern hemisphere is covered in ash.

Even though scientists can’t predict eruptions, it doesn’t seem likely that Yellowstone will erupt in the next few hundred years. The same, however, isn’t true of the five active volcanoes in my new home state. Washington is home to Mount St. Helens. Mount St. Helens continues to be monitored as a highest priority and potential threat. Lava continues to build up the dome in the crater, which has risen 1,500 feet. Another eruption is likely. Scientists just can’t say when it will occur.

Mount St. Helens is only one of five active volcanoes in the Cascades. The last reported eruption of Mount Rainier was in 1894, but never confirmed. The mountain still releases gases and steam from its opening and small earthquakes are a daily occurrence. The Osceola Mudflow, 5,600 years ago, filled valleys with sediment traveling at speeds up to 50 miles per hour. It is being monitored at highest priority and remains a potential threat.

Glacier Peak is one of the more dangerous volcanoes in our state because it has erupted frequently and has produced dangerous lava and mudflow. The last recorded eruption was about 300 years ago, but it, too remains highest priority for monitoring.

Mount Adams is the largest volcano by volume in the Pacific Northwest, but it has not had as many eruptions as the others. The latest eruption was about 1,000 years ago, though avalanches and mudflows have occurred as recently as 300 to 600 years ago.

The volcano that we can see as we drive between our house and our son’s house, Mount Baker, is also considered to be a highest priority threat volcano. It is one of the newest of Washington’s volcanoes. The last major eruption was about 6,600 years ago, but in 1975 surface activity and a collapse of the crater concerned scientists. There was no eruption at that time, but steam and gas can be seen coming out of the volcano from time to time. Mount Baker is best known for its record snowfalls. the mountain was topped by 95 feet of snow in the 1999 season. That is a world record for the most snowfall in a single season.

We enjoy our views of Mount Baker. It is a mountain of many moods as the clouds swirl around it. The mountain remains snow covered year round and reflects the light of sunset and sunrise in dramatic ways. It is amazing to us that we can see the ocean and the high mountains at the same time. I’ve taken pictures of the mountain from the ferry and from the islands of the Salish Sea. It is one of the most dramatic features of our home place.

An eruption of the mountain would have dramatic effects. Although it is likely that prevailing winds would carry the ash away from where we live, mud flows could clog rivers and streams and cause catastrophic flooding in our region. We do not know, however, when the next eruption will occur. It could be in hundreds or thousands of years. Knowing the power of the mountain, however, adds to the drama of looking at it. There is even more than meets the eye.

So far, however, living with volcanoes has not been difficult. We respect their power and live with the possibility of eruption. I’m glad they are monitoring the seismic activity on the mountains, but I’m not inclined to lose any sleep over the possibility of an eruption.

The sound of water

The night sounds in this place are different from other places that we have lived. I think that there are plenty of coyotes around the country, as was true in other places where we have lived. Recently our son saw a coyote when traveling between his home and ours. I’ve heard the coyotes in the night around here, but not very often. My theory is that while coyotes howl and yip when establishing territory or when hunting at night and that even though this time of year is a good time to hear the coyotes in other parts of the country, it is still raining quite a bit and the rain may be affecting the coyotes’ patterns. I have no idea whether or not this is correct, however. I just know that the coyotes seem to sing a bit less often around here for some reason.

What I do hear at night around here, especially in recent weeks since it has begun to warm up, are frogs. I don’t think I have ever lived in a place where the frog sounds are so prominent at night. I don’t know much about frogs, either, but I think that what we hear are mating sounds and as spring comes the frogs emerge from the mud and begin to search for mates.

And we hear the sound of the rain. It simply rains a lot more here than it does in some of the other places we have lived. Our kitchen has a pair of skylights, which are wonderful and add a lot of natural light to the room, but the rain on the skylights is louder than what we hear in other parts of the house. Upstairs in our bedroom the rain on the roof is rarely heard as there is a ceiling, an attic, insulation, a roof and shingles between us and the rain. The rain gutter system on this house is installed so that there is no downspout near the place where our bed is located, so I don’t hear the rain in the same ways that I heard the rain in our rental house last year.

I find it easy to sleep around here. I prefer for there to be some night sounds. I grew up listening to the river as I drifted off to sleep and I think that some sound is preferable to complete silence when sleeping. Of course there are few places where one can experience complete silence. There are plenty of creatures that are active in the night and plenty of sounds that are a part of each place.

The rain is fascinating to me. Then again, water is a fascinating substance. I have heard water described as colorless, featureless and tasteless. But when you fill a clear glass with water, it is easy to see. It reflects the colors of things around it. The water in the Salish Sea reflects all kinds of color. Sometimes it appears to be gray. Other times it is green. Then again it can appear to be blue. In the evening it reflects all of the colors of the sunset and doubles the sensation of color surrounding us. And as for taste, I have convinced myself that I can taste some of the minerals, chemicals, and other things in water. I’ve grown fond of filtered water and prefer it to the water that our utility provides before it is filtered.

Water is a truly strange substance. It doesn’t always follow the normal rules of chemistry. Hydrogen and oxygen are fairly light atoms. Combined to form water they shouldn’t really produce a liquid at the temperatures and pressures of our planet. But most of the water we see is not a gas. Even when we see clouds, they are primarily liquid water suspended in the atmosphere. When water turns to steam under increased temperatures and/or pressure it becomes clear and invisible. Water vapor suspended in the air is visible as a cloud.

And water expands when it freezes. Most substances contract when cooled. The fact that water expands as it turns solid means that ice floats. Floating ice insulates the liquid water beneath, allowing all kinds of life to thrive in the liquid beneath the ice.

Folks who live in cold places know that hot water freezes more quickly than cold water. That shouldn’t be true, but if you take a cup of cold water outside when it is below zero and toss it into the air, the liquid will fall to the ground before freezing. If you do the same thing with a cup of hot water, it will freeze into ice while still traveling upward, long before it hits the ground. I have no idea why this is the way it is, but it is a fun demonstration for those who are not familiar with this property.

Water can flow upwards, defying gravity. Water molecules stick to each other so well that they can pull each other up through narrow channels. You can notice this on a smooth surface such as a waxed car. This property allows water to deliver nutrients to your brain even when you are standing up. It is called capillary action. The same process allows water to flow upward inside a plant, coming from deep in the ground and flowing upward to provide nutrients to leaves and blossoms at the top of the plant. A fir tree can transport water from its roots more than a hundred feet in the air to the needles at the top of the tree without the use of pumps or other mechanical action.

All of the water on our planet has come from other places in the universe. When our planet was formed, there was no water on the earth. The water arrived on asteroids and comets from space, objects from the edge of our solar system. Those objects were leftovers of the vast clouds of dust and rocks that didn’t become planets. All of the water on our planet arrived from space. It has been here for a long time, though. the water within you has cycled through rocks, air, animals, plants and back again. At some time it was inside of dinosaurs, bacteria, the oceans, storm clouds, polar ice caps and more.

So when I listen to the rain falling, I know I am witnessing an incredible miracle - one without which I would not be sitting here writing and you would not be reading these words. Whatever sounds we hear, the fact that we can hear is an incredible miracle. Even when the coyotes aren’t singing, I’m grateful for the sound of the rain.

Caring for our home

People have lived in the area we now call home for thousands of years. The Lummi, Nooksack, Samish, and Semiahmoo tribes were coastal, Salish-speaking people who lived along the rivers that flow into the sea. They moved around the area during the year, with many people occupying seasonal fish camps depending on whether they were harvesting salmon from the rivers or shellfish from the beach areas.

European explorers visited the area traveling by ship in the late 1700s. Spanish explorers laid claim to this area in 1775. Later the area was claimed by Russia, England and finally the United States. The 1792 Vancouver expedition of the British Navy was responsible for many of the local place names, including Bellingham Bay and Birch Bay. The first European settlers to stay in the area were fur traders. Hudson’s Bay Company established outposts for the fur trade throughout the area.

By the mid 1800s settlers moving north from California began to harvest and mill timber from the forests that covered much of the landscape. It seemed to those early settlers that there would be an unlimited supply of timber to cut and sell. The Fraser River gold rush of 1858 just north of her in Canada, brought over 75,000 people to the area. Local industries to support the expanding population included coal mining, lumber mills, fish canneries, and ship building.

The economy of the area began to make a shift from subsistence to export. Lumber milled in the area was loaded onto ships and exported. Fish was canned and exported. Relationships with the indigenous people deteriorated.

Over the course of the 20th century, timber harvest became one of the chief industries of the area. Two major oil refineries provided additional jobs.

Because the natural resources were so abundant, people lived for decades as if there were no limits on the capacity of the land to have products extracted. Old growth forests were cut and replaced with faster growing trees. Forest harvest cycles shortened to the point where some areas now produce trees that are harvested in as short as 30 to 50 year cycles. The capacity of the land to produce wealth to be extracted, however, is limited. It is now clear that the practices of the 19th and 20th centuries cannot be sustained.

The Nooksack River watershed is the largest drainage in the area, covering roughly 830 square miles in Washington and British Columbia. Commercial timber companies own about 14% of the land in the drainage. The impact of commercial timber harvesting on the amount of water in the river is dramatic. It has been estimated that stream flows in the South Fork of the Nooksack River has been reduced by as much as 25% due to timber harvesting. This decrease is exacerbated by global warming which results in less snowpack. The decreased river flows result in warmer water in the river which decreases the spawning of Salmon. It is now clear that the extraction of timber is threatening much more than just the appearance of forested hillsides.

The local economy, however, leans heavily on forest products. Large companies such as Sierra Pacific Industries provide jobs and tax support for the local economy. Public owned lands are harvested to fund school construction and other public resources. Major shifts in forest management practices have a huge effect on the local economy.

We are among the newest residents of the area. We arrived long after settlers had transformed the economy and the landscape. Even though we think our impact is small, we live in a timber-framed house, eat local seafood, and are connected to public water and sewer systems. We dive our cars and burn fuel from the refineries. We participate in the economy and use roads and other public services. We are not alone. The population of the area continues to grow. New housing developments are springing up as the demand for houses continues to exceed the supply.

It is too simplistic for people like us to sit back and blame others for major environmental issues such as stream flow and water temperature. We participate in the extractive economy. Major policy changes such as a shift in the timber harvest practices from 30 to 50 year harvests to 80 to 100 year harvests would benefit the overall health of the river systems, but will also have an effect on the local tax base and employment.

It is complex. Simple solutions carry unintended consequences.

In our church we are focusing attention on issues of environment and climate this year. Our all-church read is Climate Church, Climate World by Jim Antal. Groups in the church are reading and discussing the book together. Author events have been scheduled for May and November. We are learning how it is important for communities of faith to be engaged in working for change to protect the environment. Our conversations, however, are teaching us more about how complex the issues surrounding the environment are.

Clearly we can all learn to consume less of the resources of the world. Paying attention to the purchases we make and learning about the impacts of personal decisions are part of what is required of us. We are getting better at reducing our consumption and at recycling our waste. It is evident that we can make big changes and have a big effect by being careful with personal decisions. More, however, is required to begin the larger process of changing public policy and shifting industries.

As a pastor, I saw my job as speaking to my congregation, not as speaking for my congregation. I was careful not to try to represent the church in the public arena. I learned to shy away from making statements on behalf of the church. But it is clear that faithful people need to take a public stance and speak out by testifying before the legislature and bringing our faith to bear on public policy. If we are to protect the water, we must develop the capacity to involve others in our discussions. Simply educating ourselves and our congregation is only one part of the process.

As I continue to learn more about this new place where we live, I become more appreciative of the values and the voices of the indigenous people. The Salish people have great wisdom about the importance of caring for the water, the forests and the fish. It is clear that along with speaking out, we need to develop our skills of listening to our neighbors. Even though we are newcomers, we can see that we are all in this together.

May the conversation continue and may we not shy away from complex issues.


Recently, I have been doing some work on the archives of my journal. The process gives me a chance to read entries from several years ago. I’ve posted daily journal entries since 2007, but they have been disorganized. It has been several years since they were all easily accessible on this site. I’ve been carefully working my way through the old entries and getting them into a new format that, hopefully, will mean it is easy to search by date for any of my entries. In the future, I hope to make it possible to search by title and subject as well. One of the themes I have noticed is that over the years I have written a number of posts on the theme of home. There are three or four posts in 2008 that have the title, “Home.”

When we left Montana to go to graduate school in Chicago, I made a point of telling people that my home was in Montana. I expected that after we completed our degrees I would be moving back to Montana to serve a church there. As we prepared for graduation and made our first search for a call to ministry, there were very few congregations in Montana seeking a pastor and none was a match for us. Our search included the surrounding states and we ended up accepting a call to serve in North Dakota. We had a wonderful seven years in North Dakota, serving congregations with wonderful people. We made lifelong friends there, but we kept our eyes on Montana. We looked at congregations in Montana, but no matches were made and when we moved on from North Dakota it was to a congregation in another neighboring state, Idaho. After a decade in Idaho we once again thought and dreamed of moving to Montana, but the congregation that called us was in South Dakota. South Dakota really became our home. Our children graduated from high school there. We made a lot of friends there. We loved living in the Black Hills and we became deeply engaged in the community of Rapid City. We served on numerous community boards and organizations. While it is true that we did consider options for moving to Montana a couple of times, but none was the right choice for us. We stayed in South Dakota for 25 years.

While we lived in South Dakota, our families were changing. Our parents reached the ends of their lives and passed away. Our siblings moved to different states as their lives and careers progressed. Our children grew up and followed their lives and careers to other states and other countries. Montana was no longer the center of our family. Our South Dakota home became the place of many family gatherings. Nieces and nephews came to visit. Susan’s father and my mother came to live in South Dakota near the ends of their lives.

When the time came for us to retire, it was difficult to explain to our friends and members of our congregation why we had decided to move away from South Dakota. Our move was in part an effort to help the congregation we served and loved for 25 years move on. By leaving the church and joining one in a different place we felt that the congregation was freed to move on without ongoing ties to our personalities. And so we moved to Washington because it was near our son and his family. At the time we moved, our daughter was living in Japan and though she knew that they would be returning to the United States, she had no idea where they might land for their next assignment.

Last night at our home was another reminder to me that we have arrived at a new home that is really home for us. At our dinner table were our son, his wife and four children, a niece and her husband and their infant daughter. There were two babies in our house, both less than 2 months old, a 4-year-old, a 7-year-old, an 11-year-old, four adults in their thirties and forties, and three of us seniors. Just a week prior our table had our son and his family, my sister and one of my brothers.

In less than two years we have received siblings, nieces, nephews, children, grandchildren, great nieces and nephews. That big oval oak dining table that used to grace the dining room of Susan’s parents’ home is getting all of leaves put into it. Last night we set up an additional table to make room for all of the people gathered. We have only been in this house for five months, but it certainly has become home for us.

I don’t know that I spent much time imagining what it would be like to be retired. I was blessed with work that I loved and I wasn’t eager to stop working. Over the course of decades as a minister, however, I have had the opportunity to visit a lot of people who were lonely in their aging years. Other family members had moved away or passed away and left the seniors a bit isolated and a bit lonely. Whatever else is going on for us, we aren’t getting lonely. We live close enough to our grandchildren to see them several times a week. Yesterday we had both lunch and dinner with them. We went together to the festival of birds in Blaine, a celebration of the outdoors and wildlife with crafts and projects for children. The children made kites and bird feeders and played whistles and drums made in the ways of the Lumi people. We wandered among booths learning about the mammals of the Salish Sea and lifted whale bones to feel their textures and experience the size of those magnificent creatures.

The fact that this place has become our home does not change the fact that South Dakota was our home for many years. Idaho and North Dakota and Montana have also been our home. Like our ancestors, Abraham and Sarah, we have sought to follow God’s call and that call has led us to places we never imagined going. Each place has become home for us in ways that are deeply meaningful. For now this is our home.

Perhaps, I’m learning that home is not a place after all. I’ll have to keep thinking about that idea. In the years to come, there will be more journal entries on the theme of home.

Car thieves

Local law enforcement officers and prosecutors are scratching their heads, trying to figure out why the rate of car thefts has gone up so dramatically this year. During January and February, 136 vehicles were reported stolen in Bellingham - a 300% increase from the 34 vehicles reported stolen in the city during the same two months one year earlier. That is 2.3 car thefts per day.

An additional 26 vehicles were reported stolen during the first 14 days of March. So far this year, more cars have been stolen in Bellingham than the total car thefts in 2019.

You know it is pretty bad when an investigator sent out to take a report of a stolen car spots another stolen car. The driver of the second stolen car escaped, but was later arrested that same day driving a third stolen car. On March 3, a stolen truck crashed into a Bellingham Police Department patrol vehicle after running a red light. The police seem to be finding stolen vehicles every time they turn around.

I’m not very worried personally even though our car is parked in Bellingham at least three days each week. The church parking lot is a pretty safe location and we don’t have occasion to be in Bellingham overnight. That doesn’t make us immune. I hope the fact that our car isn’t flashy, is not the type of car known for speed, and is more than ten years old, might make it a bit less desirable to thieves. Then again, I don’t know much about how thieves think, so I might not be at all accurate in my thinking.

A few of the stolen vehicles are stripped of parts that are easily sold. Expensive wheels and tires can be quickly turned to cash. Cars are stolen so that their catalytic converters can be taken. Still other cars are stolen to be used to make illegal drug deliveries. Thieves stealing from local stores often use stolen cars to make it more difficult for law enforcement to find them if the license plate of their stolen vehicle is spotted and reported.

One newspaper article about the rise in car thefts blames the booking restrictions in the Whatcom County Jail. During the Covid-19 pandemic, the jail has been forced to limit how many people are housed in the confined space. In addition to Covid-related issues, the jail has experienced facility issues, including elevator problems and staffing shortages. As a result the numbers of people housed at the jail have had to be reduced significantly. That means that people arrested for property crimes are either released shortly after arrest or in many cases not even booked into the jail. This keeps the jail population down, but it may allow repeat offenders to commit more crimes.

It isn’t just the jail. The court system is operating at a reduced pace and the backlog of cases continues to grow as the county court is working with Covid restrictions and a decreased capacity to move cases through the court system. That means that the consequences for stealing a vehicle often come months after the crime is reported. It may, however, eventually result in extended prison sentences for thieves who will face multiple charges and trials for multiple crimes.

Police are beginning to recognize a few key players in the car theft increase. There are individuals who seem to specialize in car theft. When those individuals receive prison sentences, car thefts go down.

Although I’ve spent some time in past years hanging out with law enforcement officials as a Sheriff’s chaplain, I have no particular insight into the increase in thefts. I suspect that part of the reason for the increase is increased desperation of those who are unable to earn their way in a place of high prices. The shortage of adequate housing has left many families with substandard housing. Many of those who have adequate housing are spending a disproportionate percentage of their income on housing, leaving less resources for other needs. Although car theft is not the answer to transportation problems, those who are desperate may fall victim to offers of short term profits or gains from a vehicle theft.

There are many theories about the theft of vehicles and I am sure that there is no one cause for the increase. That means that there is also no one solution to the problem. Some argue that increasing patrols, adding investigators, and tougher sentencing are required. If it were as simple as shifting resources, a quick result might be possible. The problems, however, are numerous and I doubt that these proposals are sufficient to create a rapid change in crime statistics.

I’ve thought about employing the strategy of keeping my car’s fuel tank near the empty mark. With gas prices above $4 per gallon, the value of my car can vary by nearly $60 depending on the amount of fuel in the tank. I doubt, however, that thieves check the fuel gage when making a quick getaway. With my pickup, I seem to have an alternate strategy. I’ve put a special seat cover on the back seat and installed a temporary pet barrier behind the front seat. That allows my sister’s dog to have the run of the back seat of the vehicle. I frequently take the dog to the farm where he is free to run and play. One of the things he loves to do at the farm is wade into the pond. Even if I towel him off before allowing him to load into the pickup, there is a fairly powerful wet dog smell when he is the back of the truck. I’m thinking that if a thief were to slide into the driver’s seat, the wet dog smell might make some other vehicle seem more attractive for theft.

If these strategies don’t work, I guess I could try simply being careful. I’m not sure that this statistic is still relevant, but a few years ago, when I lived in Rapid City, the majority of vehicle thefts in that city were vehicles that had had the keys left in the ignition. Removing the keys and locking the doors might at least slow down a criminal intent on stealing a vehicle. Now, if I could only determine who does leave the keys in their car and park next to their vehicle, I might have a good security system.

Its better in person

Somewhere along the line, I have developed achilles tendinitis. According to the Mayo Clinic website, the condition is the result of “an overuse injury.” I have no recollection of a single event that precipitated the condition, but after hoping the condition would go away on its own, I reported it to my family doctor, who had x-rays taken and then referred me to a physical therapist for treatment. The treatment is fairly straightforward. I have been given stretching exercises to do daily and will receive muscle massage twice a week for a few weeks. Full recovery is expected in about six weeks and the condition should not return as long as I stay in shape and warm up properly before activities such as running and walking.

It seems that my consumption of health care has increased as I get older. Since that is a well documented trend among people my age, I guess I shouldn’t complain and I should be relieved that it involves such a minor condition. There are plenty of folks my age who are facing far more severe health conditions. As explained to me by the physical therapist, my condition is relatively mild. Allowing the condition to go untreated could cause tears within the tendon, which would require more serious treatment. I count myself as lucky because I have both expert medical advice and good health insurance in addition to overall good general health.

In advance of my first appointment with the physical therapist, I filled out some online forms, provided a medical history and consent for my records to be shared with the physical therapist, and set up a patient account with the therapy providers. In the process I shared my email address and phone number. I wasn’t surprised to receive appointment reminders by text message. That is getting to be pretty common with health care providers these days. I also noticed that there was an option for online check in. I could either visit a web site or scan a QR code at the office door to check in. I opted not to do either, but instead speak with the receptionist to check in. I have no idea why one would choose to bypass the brief and pleasant conversation with the receptionist. I enjoy conversation. I would have found silence in the waiting room as we acknowledged each other’s presence without talking to have been awkward. I won’t be using the online check-in procedure in the future.

After my appointment with the physical therapist, I downloaded a mobile app for my phone that gives me access to videos to guide my exercises, learn more about my condition and to keep track of my exercises and progress with treatment. It is all on my cell phone, along with a whole lot of other information. I pretty much don’t go anywhere without my cell phone these days.

That experience got me to thinking about all of the places where a smart phone and access to the Internet are now being taken for granted. The physical therapy provider isn’t the only place where I encounter the assumption that everyone has access to the Internet. Living close to the border, I have been reading about the changes in the process of entering Canada now that covid restrictions are lessening. Tourist visits to Canada are now possible and the conditions required are changing. Currently those traveling to Canada must provide both proof of vaccination and proof of a negative Covid test to avoid being quarantined. On April 1, the Covid test results will no longer be required. However, it takes more than just having a vaccination card for a tourist to enter Canada. Travelers are required to use the ArriveCAN app or website before coming to the border. You have to upload the required documents less than 72 hours before arriving at the border. That means for folks who live a long way from the border, access to the Internet while traveling is essential. Not everyone is set up for access to the Internet, including the ability to scan and upload documents, while they are traveling.

Public libraries are excellent places to obtain Internet access. Most have Internet-connected computers available for public use as well as free wi-fi connections. Seasoned travelers also know how to connect to the Internet using cell phone signals.

It is getting harder and harder to perform some pretty routine functions if you don’t have a cell phone.

Along with the increase in medical conditions as I age, there seems to also be an increase in my irritation about technology, especially the rate of change. If we all have to have a cell phone, couldn’t they at least make a cell phone that doesn’t become obsolete every two years? Perhaps I’m just becoming more irritable and crotchety as I age. I don’t, however, want to become just a grumpy old man. My life isn’t that hard and the things I am most likely to complain about affect lots of other people. I haven’t been singled out by technology . Young people also have to deal with the challenges of rapid change.

For now, my plan is to keep learning about the changes in technology and try to make informed decisions about when to replace devices and upgrade software. I have been able to keep reliable wi-fi service in my home and I’m keeping my website functioning. But I will continue to look for opportunities when a conversation with another human being can take the place of using technology. I prefer to worship in person at the church rather than worshiping online from home. I’d rather go visit someone than make a phone call. And I am delighted to learn that I can avoid the online check-in process at the physical therapy place by simply walking in the door and saying “hello” to the receptionist.

Fortunately for me, even with all of the advances in telemedicine, they haven’t found a way for me to receive the muscle massage required for my treatment online. I’ll take that in person, thank you very much.

Can you herd a flock?

The areas where we walk these days are excellent places for birdwatching. There are several birdwatching guides provided by local visitors’ bureaus, and we have also picked up a bird book that is specific to Washington. As we walk we often find ourselves engaged in describing groups of birds. Some days, for example, we will see large gatherings of gulls on the mudflats when the tide is out. Other days, the groups of gulls will be floating rather than standing on the ground. A group of gulls can be called a colony, though they don’t seem to engage in much colonial behavior. Of course the name flotilla is a good description when a large group of gulls is on the water, but it doesn’t seem to be a good description of row upon row of gulls on the rooftops of large buildings. According to a website I found that lists the proper names for groups of birds, a gullery is a term that might be used. On garbage day we have a scavenging of gulls in the neighborhood that sometimes turns into a squabble, my favorite name for a group of gulls.

But the proper names for groups of ducks are different than those for gulls. Ducks might be a raft, a team, a paddling or a badling. I’m not sure where the term badling originates, but I know the spell checker on my computer keeps trying to change it to a balding, which you think might be a good name for a group of eagles, but is not accepted by the list I consulted. A group of eagles might be an aerie or a convocation. Also applicable to eagles is a term with which I’m familiar, a congregation.

I was taught that a group of crows is a murder, but they can also be called a congress, which doesn’t say much about crows, but perhaps says a bit about the US Congress. We’ll leave it to the experts in politics and government to determine whether a congress of crows is preferable to a parliament of owls. A group of crows can also be called a horde or a muster, and also my new favorite: a cauldron.

Geese gather into a gaggle, which can also be called a plump or a skein, which is also the name for a particular loosely coiled length of yarn. My mother was quite a knitter, so I learned the term applied to yarn, but it is appropriate for a V of flying geese or swans, which also can be called a wedge.

I guess a gross of grosbeaks makes sense, but I don’t think that you have to have 144 or 12 dozen to be a gross if you are talking about grosbeaks, whereas you do have to have the full twelve dozen for a gross of eggs.

I like the name scattering for a group of herons, because they don’t seem to like to gather in groups. We see lots of individuals here, but rarely see them in groups. However the season for chicks is coming and we know where there are several rookeries in the area, so we might get to see a scattering in the days to come, which means a gathering when talking about herons.

We see hummingbirds much more often here than we did in South Dakota. We don’t, however, see them in groups. I would like to see a group of hummingbirds, though. They have such fun names for their gatherings: charm, glittering, shimmer, tune, bouquet, and the best: hover. Finches can also gather into a charm.

A squadron of pelicans is a good description of the birds in flight, and I can imagine how the term pod came up for a group floating on the water. A scoop, however, seems to apply more to an individual pelican than a group, though group scoop offers excellent alliteration.

I understand calling a group of baby chicks a peep, but I guess the term can be used for adult birds as well. We use the term flock, which I think is appropriate for all kinds of birds, though turkeys can gather into a gobble, a gang, a posse or a rafter. I guess you’d have to have a big barn to accommodate a rafter of turkeys, not to be confused with turkey buzzards, who gather in a wake.

A mewing of catbirds, a mob of emus, and a flamboyance of flamingos all make sense when you think of it.

This weekend, however, I am trying to come up with the right name for a different kind of gathering. Friday, Saturday, and Sunday are the days for the Northwest Birding Festival here in Blaine, otherwise known as Wings Over Water. There are field trips, presentations, pavilion exhibits, and a birding cruise. However, I don’t know what the proper name for a group of birdwatchers might be. Perhaps, like some groups of birds, it depends on where you find them. On a bus they might be a load, but on a boat they could be a cargo. At the pavilion they might be a mob. Out walking along the beach or up and down the spit, they might be a scope.

Looking at the website this morning it appears that most of the organized events such as the cruise and field trips are fully booked. That is good news for the local community as it is a sign that some of the tourist industry is returning after the pandemic. I’m guessing it is welcome news for restaurants and brew pubs, motels, and airbnbs. Restrictions for border crossings are easing and we are seeing a lot more British Columbia license plates parked on the streets than was the case just a few months ago. I doubt that birdwatching will attract many Canadians as the coast of BC is equally good for observing birds. The Canadians also won’t be coming to our county for the gas prices, either.

As for us, we’ll maintain our amateur status when it comes to birdwatching. We’ll continue to take our walks, perhaps avoiding some of the favorite spots during the festival. And we’ll keep a lookout for an asylum of loons, a tiding of magpies, or a cover of coots.

About time

The confluence of the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers occurs right at the Montana-North Dakota Border, southwest of Williston. From that point the river makes a gentle curve, flowing northeast and then turning the the southwest. The river is wide and slow flowing as it is part of Lake Sakakawea behind the Garrison Dam. Below the dam, the river wanders southward to flow between Mandan and Bismarck, just west of the center of the state and on south, past Fort Yates where it enters South Dakota widened behind another dam. If you look at a map of North Dakota, the arc of the river divides the state into a southwest quarter and the rest of the state. With a few local exceptions, the river is the demarkation line between Mountain Time in the west and Central Time in the east. But since the river makes that big curve, the line between the two time zones is the line between North Dakota and Montana in the north.

When we lived in North Dakota, our home was in Hettinger, nearly on the South Dakota line about 75 miles east of the Montana border. That meant that while we were in Mountain Time Zone, there were towns including Williston and Crosby that were east of our location and yet still on Central Time. For those new to the area it is confusing and it takes a time to adjust to how the time zone lies. It also meant that we were almost as far east as it is possible to go in Mountain Time.

From Hettinger, we moved to Boise, Idaho, which is also in Mountain Time, in a place where the demarkation between time zones takes a bulge to the west. The result of the wandering of the demarkation lines of time zones is that we moved almost as far east to west as it is possible while still staying in the same time zone. The difference in the location of the sun at noon in those two places is more than an hour. We noticed right away that the sun rose and set more than hour later in Boise than in Hettinger. It also meant that we were living in another state where the division between time zones divided the state between north and south, with North Idaho on Western Time, while south Idaho is on Mountain Time.

It continues to bring to mind the 1969 hit song by Chicago, “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?” Except for four years of graduate school in Chicago and the nearly 20 months we have lived in Washington, all of the rest of our lives were lived in the Mountain Time Zone. I’m not sure how important that is, but I used to brag to some of my colleagues in the Eastern part of the United States that I served as a minister of the United Church of Christ for 42 years without ever living in the same time zone as my Conference Office. The spaces are big in the west and we think about time differently than those back east. They complain about having to travel 45 minutes to a meeting, I ask how they’d feel about a three hour drive plus an hour time zone change meaning you have to leave 4 hours before the scheduled start of a meeting to be on time.

Then, all you have to do is to add in the factor of daylight savings time and the fact that Arizona and Hawaii do not observe daylight savings time. It can get confusing.

As a result, I am mildly interested that the US Senate has passed a bill to make daylight saving time permanent. The bill has exceptions for Arizona and Hawaii, as well as American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. And the bill has not yet passed the House of Representatives. When that happens it will need the signature of the president to become law. If all goes as expected, we may be staying on Pacific daylight time from now on, which won’t be an inconvenience for me. After all, Pacific daylight time is the same as Mountain standard time, which is the zone in which I have spent most of my life anyway. It also would leave us in the same time zone as Arizona, which is quite a bit east of our location, providing yet another place where you cross time zone lines by traveling north and south instead of east and west.

I thought that I would stop paying attention to the clock when I retired. It hasn’t quite worked out that way. I still have multiple meetings each week. I’ve had at least two meetings each day this week and I have appointments on other days as well. I still have to be aware of what time it is. I still wear a watch. I don’t set an alarm as often as I did when I was working full time, but I haven’t weaned myself from it entirely, either. It reminds me of a patient who came into the health care center where I interned as a seminarian. He was experiencing very high levels of stress and cardiovascular disease. One of the recommendations of the care team was that he stop wearing a watch. He did and his symptoms improved. Within a few months, however, his wife came into the clinic with very similar symptoms as he had initially presented. She said the stress of having to keep him on time was more than she could bear.

I wear a watch to keep from making others worry about where I am and why I am not on time for appointments and meetings. After all we live in a society where a health care clinic can cancel an appointment if the patient is tardy, but the patient has no recourse if the doctor is tardy. I’ll keep the watch.

I’ll also pay attention to the permanent daylight savings time bill. I don’t really care about whether or not it passes, but I do need to know what time it is.

Languages of science and faith

I am not a physicist. I did not feel drawn to the study of science in college. I have, however, been fortunate to have had many friends over the years whose lives have been dedicated to the study of science, and I have acquired a bit of a layperson’s understanding of physics. Because so much of physics has to do with new discovery and shifting interpretations of the nature of the universe, it seems to be a dynamic and exciting study. For the first 45 years of my life, up until 1998, scientists didn’t know that dark energy existed. They did not study or search for it because it had not even been theorized. Now, scientists see dark energy as the dominant form of energy of our universe. Physics, like theology, is not a field of study that leads to absolute answers. The possibility of something new being discovered that alters the entire framework of interpretation is always just around the corner.

The language of physics is mathematics. And my scientist friends use distinctly religious language when talking about mathematics. Some of my friends seem to take the view that mathematics is a purely human invention. It is a framework of thought invented by humans to explain the relationships that they have observed in the universe. It is not so much that the universe is inherently mathematical, but rather that humans seeking to understand the universe have adopted the language of mathematics to describe what they are seeing. Others will quote the 20th century physicist James Jeans who used the phrase “God is a mathematician,” to express their belief that the universe is inherently mathematical. Math, for them, is a universal language that has been discovered along with other observations of the universe. For them there can be no other way to describe the realities of this world than the use of mathematics.

I have been thinking of that question posed by Mario Livio, who has written several popular science books, among them one titled, “Is God a Mathematician?” On Sunday we began a conversation that I believe will continue for their lifetimes with members of the class preparing for the rite of confirmation in our church. The way we posed the question to the confirmation class was, “What is the nature of God?” Of course a single confirmation class is far too short a period of time for a conversation about that topic, unless you view it, as I do, as part of a longer conversation that began thousands of years ago and will continue long after our time on this earth has passed. Theology, like physics, is fascinated by big questions and wrestles with problems too large for any individual to solve. Our confirmands will, between now and the first of June, come up with statements of faith - sets of words to express their beliefs. Those statements of faith will be influenced by expressions of faith that have been a part of the church for generations. They will be influenced by the truths that the students have learned in school and in life. They will be unique, standing not as claims to universal truth, but rather as expressions of faith in a particular moment of life. If we have been successful in our confirmation preparation classes, they will mark the beginning of conversations and thought processes that will continue for the entire lives of the students. It is our hope and prayer that they will share those conversations with others and the great conversations about the nature of God will continue into future generations.

The conversations we have and the languages we choose to have those conversations are part of the human quest for truth. We are constantly involved in reaching for something beyond ourselves. I’ll reach into the history and philosophy of science for an example: Sir Isaac Newton formulated several important mathematical principles. In his time, there were astronomical observations that were done by Johannes Kepler and others. Contemporary scientists, with access to more powerful telescopes and more accurate systems of measurement, have been able to demonstrate that those observations by Kepler and others were not accurate. Somehow, however, Newton managed to produce a mathematical law that describes gravity, a law that has been demonstrated to be accurate to better than one part in a million. The theory posed by Newton turned out to be far more accurate than the observations upon which it was based. Scientists point to this principle when arguing that there is something universal about mathematics - that the language is inherent in the universe. Mathematics has a reality that is greater than - beyond - human perception and description.

In one of the most treasured stories of our religious tradition, Moses is called by God to go to Pharaoh to plead for the freedom of the children of Israel. Moses, dubious of his ability to accomplish the task, argues that God might do well to choose someone else. As part of his argument, he asks God to tell him God’s name. “When I go to the people of Israel and tell them that the God of their forebears has sent me, what name shall I give them?” he asks. God’s answer is direct and simple. “I am,” God asserts. “Tell them that I am has sent you.” The word for “I am” is three simple letters in Biblical Hebrew, which does not employ vowels. Those three consonants are the same ones used in the four-letter word that is often used as God’s name in the Hebrew Scriptures. Those letters, transliterated YHWH in English, are the same letters as the verb “to be” with one letter, H, repeated. In the verb the letters are in a different order, but there is a direct connection between the verb of existence and the name of God in Hebrew. It raises the question about the languages we use. Are languages, such as Hebrew and Greek and Latin and English purely human inventions, or are they expressions of something that is inherent in the universe?

Those deep connections in the way we talk about the nature of the universe between the studies of science and theology illustrate the tragedy of some religious people who have pitted science vs religion as if they were mutually exclusive languages. My hope for the students in our confirmation class is that they can see beyond that false dichotomy to a life that embraces both the study of science and the language of religion. If we succeed in enabling them to see the value in both ways of thinking, we will have connected them with the great conversations of humanity - the ones that once begun continue forever.

May they continue their contemplations for all of their lives and discover language to share those thoughts with others.

a little child shall lead

I don’t know if there are any college professors who get to teach classes in the history of philosophy any more. Certainly university philosophy departments have been decimated. There are a few colleges around that offer some courses in philosophy, but it is hardly a major field of study in many modern universities. I was lucky that way. I was a student at the end of an era - actually I was a student at the end of several eras.

I got to study Latin in high school. It was a regular class offered in our school - two years of study: Latin I and Latin II. They retired the textbooks, and the teacher, not long after I was able to complete both courses. It took a bit longer for them to retire the typing teacher and get rid of the classroom full of typewriters, but you won’t find either in a contemporary high school.

And yet, while there are many things that I studied in high school that I don’t use in my everyday life, Latin and typing and the history of philosophy are all things that have been constant companions on my life’s journey. They have been useful in ways that I could not have imagined when I was a student. In a career that is now in its fifth decade, I have had secretaries and office administrators and administrative colleagues, but I have never had a fellow staff member of any congregation I have served who could type faster or more accurately than I.

My faith, teaching, and preaching have been shaped by my limited knowledge of Latin. Because Latin was the language of theology and of the church for a millennia - roughly half of the history of the Christian Church - that language shaped how we read the bible and how we think about God. The first bibles available in common languages were not translated from the original Greek and Hebrew, but from Latin bibles. Many of the historic prayers of the church were originally offered in Latin. Being able to recognize how a language that is not currently spoken has shaped the language we do speak has been essential in my understanding of our faith. It has also informed the way I think about ideas as being the product of generations of thinking and not just individuals.

I can still remember how Dr. Murphy opened my eyes to the realization that ideas take a long time to form. He used to say things like, “One idea that we got form Plato that he got from Socrates . . .” Ideas don’t always emerge in a single generation. Big and important ideas need to be mulled for a long time - often longer than the span of a lifetime. Ideas that we take for granted - like there being one God over the entire universe - took many generations to be formed and to take hold. The first humans to grasp that concept, did not grasp a fully expressed theology of the nature of God. It took time and experience and telling stories for generations for an idea that we take for granted to fully emerge.

One of those multi-generational ideas is one that came to us from Plato, and is an idea that he got from Socrates: “Wonder is the beginning of philosophy.” And that idea, originally expressed in Greek and later in Latin before becoming a quote memorized by generations of students of philosophy, continues to shape how I think about this world.

The things that cause me to go silent with wonder are all around. I am filled with wonder when I watch the sunset over the ocean, and when I watch a sunrise from my canoe on a quiet lake. It is the same feeling that overwhelmed me the first time I saw a blue morpho butterfly. It is the feeling that sometimes floods my senses when I look up at the night sky and see familiar stars in a field of stars so vast and numerous that I couldn’t begin to count them. It is the feeling I have each time I am blessed to hold a newborn child.

I felt wonder yesterday. For months we have shared the time with children in our church from a distance. For many months we worshiped online only and we told our children’s stories to an audience that we could not see. We had to imagine the children who were watching from their homes with their families on computer screens land televisions. I would look into the camera, but it wasn’t the same thing as telling stories to children. Then we had some brief weeks when we could tell the story, but weren’t allowed to invite the children to come forward. Covid protocols demanded that the children and we keep our distance. I would talk to them from across the room and try to have visual clues that they could see from a long ways off. Yesterday, however, I took out a picture that is over 100 years old - a picture of the grandparents of Susan’s father - and all of a sudden the children who were in the room came rushing up to look at the picture. Somehow the protocols of the church and the parents of the children didn’t prevent them from coming to have a look. I had to blink away the tears from my eyes. The sense of gratitude and wonder that swept over me as the children came forward was incredible and sweet.

The prophet Isaiah described what a world at peace would be like during a time of military conquest and the defeat and exile of the people of Israel. He spoke of the wolf living with the lamb, and the leopard with the kid, and the lion and the falling together. And then he said, “and a little child shall lead them.” It has been true for as long as we can remember: our children lead us out of the dark moments of life. And now, in a time when we cannot ignore the tragedy of war and we feel the pain of loss and are filled with fear by pandemic, once again our children are leading us.

My philosophy is that we can trust the leadership of our children. It is born of genuine wonder. Plato learned the lesson of his teacher Socrates well. We would do well to learn the lessons of our teachers.

So I will leave you with another bit of philosophy. This bit came from a sign in a Ben and Jerry’s ice cream store: “Ice cream is a force for good in a morally ambiguous world.” Consider that truth as well.

What's in a name?

Last night we had the rare treat of not only having our son’s family, with all four children, at our dinner table, but also my sister and one of my brothers were present for the meal. As many other family members, including my wife can attest, when I’m together with my siblings, the volume of the conversation at the dinner table raises. We grew up in a large family and are used to raising our voices in order to be heard. We have all grown up a bit since those days, however, and are a bit more polite. We have learned to listen a bit more and to not always raise our voices. Still, the meal was punctuated by lively conversation and a lot of laughter. At one point in the conversation we commented that none of us grandparent-aged people know any children the age of our grandchildren who share our names. The siblings who were at our table last night and I do not have names that were very common in our generation, but my wife, Susan, once had a grade school class with three or four children who shared that name. All of my remaining siblings and myself have family names, however, We knew the relatives whose names we shared. None of us, however, feel like our names need to be passed on to another generation. We’re happy with the names our children have chosen for their children.

Giving a baby a name is an emotionally charged process. Parents worry about giving a child the “wrong” name. Names are part of our identity. Names also are influenced by stereotypes and can have an impact on the types of jobs people pursue.

During the years that I was a pastor in Rapid City South Dakota, I made it a practice to spend a few minutes each year reading the names of the children who participated in the preschool that met at our church. Most years there were nearly a hundred children in the two- and three-day preschool programs. Over the years I read a lot of very unique names and many names that were more common, but featured unusual spellings. For example, I had to ask how to pronounce a name spelled La-a. It shares the pronunciation with a name spelled Ladasha. There were a lot of other unique names that showed up on the lists over the years.

Recently I read an article published by BBC that stated that research shows today’s rising popularity of unique baby names in many different cultures around the globe. The article asserted that the popularity of unique baby names reflects a move from collectivism to individualistic societies. Increasingly, the article claimed, parents value unique names that help their children stand out, instead of fit in.

This has not always been the case. In English-speaking countries in the 1800’s, the name Mary was the most popular name for girls by such a wide margin that there were more girls named Mary than the total of the next three most common names: Anna, Emma and Elizabeth. When it came to boys, John and William were the most popular names, followed at a large distance by James, George and Charles. Choosing a common and easily-recognized name was very popular in those days. A boy was over one hundred times as likely to be named John as Phillip in England at that time.

In fact, John and William were to top boy names for over 700 years from the 1200s to the 1930s. In the 1600s the top three names for boys and girls accounted for fully half of England’s population. Naming traditions were founded in religious and ancestral ties.

When our generation came along, however, the culture had shifted. While we tended to have family names, we did not tend to pass those names on to our children. Pamela Redmond, who published a book titled “Beyond Jennifer and Jason” in 1988, wrote, “The Baby Boomers were the first parents who wanted to be cool, and who wanted their children to be cool as well.”

Our millennial children have taken it a step farther. They grew up with the rise of the Internet - a unique social system in which a username became a unique identifier. Annual rankings of popular names made people feel competitive. But instead of wanting to be number one, everybody wanted to avoid the top of the charts. Today’s parents want to express a unique style and their own personal values in the names they choose.

This trend away from traditional names toward unique baby names is happening in other places around the world as well. Japan has been a traditional, collectivist society for centuries, but even there researchers are finding a shift away from naming traditions. According to a 2021 study of 8,000 baby names between 2004 and 2018, the rate of unique names is rising in Japan. Researches believe that it is an indicator of rising individualism in the culture. Although I do not speak or read Japanese, I am aware that the use of characters stemming from Chinese means that the same set of characters can have different meanings. There are at least 18 different ways to pronounce the boy’s name 大翔, which can be read as Hiroto, Daisho and Sora amongst others. There are 14 for the girl’s name 結愛, like Yua, Yunari or Meia. Parents choose unique variations of names by abbreviating common readings of Chinese characters, choosing less common characters or reading them with different pronunciations. Similar studies conducted in China also show an increase in unique baby names. Parents want their children to be independent, unique and autonomous.

I believe, however, that unique names are not always the ticket to success that parents want them to be. I suspect that there is less stigma attached to names in this generation than was the case in some previous generations. There are plenty of successful people who have very common names. Far more important than what name a child receives is the love with which that name is given. When parents surround their children with love they are passing on the values of previous generations regardless of the name by which their child is called.

All the same, I have been known to remind my nieces and nephews that I was named for a great uncle and it wouldn’t be out of line for one of them to give my name to one of their children. So far, I haven’t had anyone take me up on the suggestion. And I’m not getting my expectations up, either.

Not every idea is a good idea

The human imagination is an awesome and wonderful thing. We are capable of coming up with new ideas, new experiences, and new solutions to perplexing problems. Human imagination is a key component in all of the world’s religions. Art and music spring from the imaginations of humans. Theologians have postulated that mean imagination is one expression of being created in the image of God. Not every idea that springs from human imagination is a good idea, however.

This week, on the second Sunday of Lent, the Gospel lesson from the Revised Common Lectionary is Luke 13:31-35. In that passage, Jesus is warned that Herod is trying to get rid of him. Jesus gives a vague prediction about the end of his own life, and repeats his steadfast intention to continue to Jerusalem. Then he expresses grief over the city. He mourns the fact that prophets have died in Jerusalem and says, “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”

It is my job this week, to bring a time with children to our worship service. I have been giving a lot of thought to visual aids for children’s messages over the past couple of years because there are still a lot of children among those who are participating in worship over the Internet. As we live cast our worship, it is important for us to remember that there are more people who are watching online in what we are calling “the bigger balcony” than there are in person in the sanctuary. While we are creating a meaningful worship experience for those who are with us in person, we also have to keep in mind those who are viewing the service over FaceBook live, or watching it on YouTube at a later time. For children, that means that we must communicate with more than just words. Children are used to seeing strong visual images on television and computer screens. They have seen the results of multimillion dollar investments in television production. They know the power of animation. They have seen Sesame Street with its teams of professional puppeteers. The visual elements of a children’s sermon are very important. And unlike the sermon for adults, all ages have their attention focused on the time with children, and we have a very short amount of time - about a quarter of the time allotted for a sermon for adults.

The time with children has taught me that although the human imagination is an awesome and wonderful thing, not every idea that springs from human imagination os a good idea. I’m pretty good at coming up with ideas that are impractical. The audio-visual team at our church reminds me from time to time that they don’t have a production studio and a special effects department. There are limitations. Even some of the ideas I have that are not technically challenging are not what I would call good ideas. This week, the first thing that came to my mind when I read the scripture was that perhaps I should bring a chicken to worship. I could pick up a real hen from our son’s farm on my way to church. I could show the children how even the hen is calmed by the space under her wings. If you tuck a chicken’s head under her wing, she will go to sleep. It is a pretty interesting demonstration if you are on a farm. It isn’t a good demonstration for church. Even if you put the hen to sleep, there is no guarantee that you won’t have a mess to clean up. And the in-person congregation might not appreciate a live chicken in the sanctuary.

I won’t be bringing a live chicken to worship tomorrow. It is probably better for the chickens that I’ve already made that decision. Not every idea is a good idea.

A little over a week ago, on the last evening of February, some people who live on Elizabeth Drive in Point Roberts heard a man out on the water of Boundary Bay which, as the name suggests, spans the US-Canadian boundary. The people were sure they heard the man calling out for help. A couple of people were so certain that there was someone in need of help that they launched their jet skis to see if they could make a rescue. Others called 911 and alerted authorities. It is a good thing that rescue teams were called. The people who went out with their jet skis returned with mild cases of hypothermia. The water is only about 45 degrees in the bay - too cold for long-term survival. Even with a good emergency suit, rescue needs to take place quickly.

The dispatcher soon had the Point Roberts fire department on its way. Unified Command alerted U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the Delta police and fire departments and the Canadian Coast Guard. Those agencies notified Whidbey naval air station. The Customs and Border Protection launched a rescue boat, the Canadian Coast Guard dispatched a hovercraft, and Whidbey naval air station dispatched a helicopter. A grid search was performed and personnel aboard the hovercraft found the man adrift, floating on an inflatable chair, dressed in three layers of clothing with heavy construction boots on. He was hypothermic and needed immediate treatment as soon as he was brought aboard the rescue vessel. Authorities said he showed no signs of intoxication. He also gave authorities no details as to why he chose to go to sea in an inflatable chair. The man was transferred on shore to Point Roberts EMTs who continued warming efforts until he could be transferred to a Delta ambulance. Point Roberts fire chief Christopher Carleton said, “It was very strange. We have no idea what possessed him to what he did.”

Not every idea is a good idea.

So there won’t be a live chicken in worship at our church tomorrow. I do have an enlarged photograph of a mother hen that adopted some kittens from Susan’s grandmother’s photo albums. It isn’t as visually exciting as a live chicken, but it will have to do. After all, not every idea is a good idea.

Middle Name Pride Day

I was six years old. It was my first day of public school. I had attended a private kindergarten and now I could go to the school that was only one block from our house just like my big sister. I was excited. We lived in a small town, so I already knew most of the other kids in my class. On the first morning of the first day our teacher Mrs. Beck asked us to introduce ourselves using our full names: first, middle and last. That was a problem for me. I don’t have a middle name. I do, however, have a middle initial. Looking back on that day as an adult, I suspect that the teacher said something like, “You must have a middle name, ask your mother when you go home for lunch.” What I heard was, “You have to have a middle name to go to school.” I fought the tears as I waited for the bell to ring that signaled lunch time. I ran home in a near panic, fearing that my educational career had come to a premature end because I lacked a necessary ingredient for attending school. My mother told me not to worry. She wrote a note for me to give to the teacher when I returned to school after lunch. As far as I can remember, no further mention of my middle name was made.

I don’t remember the middle names of hardly any of my first grade classmates. I can think of first and last names, but we didn’t use the middle names enough for me to learn them. Or, perhaps, I no longer remember things I once knew. That would be true of other facts about my first grade education.

Names have been a common topic of conversation in our family. Our children were careful in their choice of names for their children. Three of our grandchildren have middle names that come from other family members. Elliot Thomas has his uncle’s name for a middle name. Emmala Eve shares her aunt’s middle name. Patrick Anthony is the fifth generation on his father’s side to carry the middle name Anthony. Two of our grandchildren have family values as middle names. Eliza Serenity is a reminder of Reinhold Niebuhr’s famous prayer. Eero True’s name challenges all of us to be true to our identities.

My mother was one of five daughters in her family. They were not given middle names and all used their maiden name as a middle name as adults. I would have learned the names of my ancestors on her side of the family. I know her maternal grandparents’ names which did not continue into her generation. Still, I like thinking of her father and his family when I think of my mother and her name.

My siblings all have middle names. I don’t know the reason why I didn’t have a middle name. I never got an explanation from either of my parents. I have the same initial as my father, whose middle name was Eli - a strong Biblical name. The joke I make about my name is that when my folks got a look at me after my birth they decided that a short name was in order so that I would be able to learn to spell it. When it comes to letters, I got the fewest of the boys in my family: Ted E, Vernon Walter, Daniel Lloyd, and Ralph Craig. My sisters all got middle names and more letters too: Beverly Ann, Nancy Lee, and Lois Katherine. On the other hand, of all of my siblings, I have been the one who has earned his living with words. I’m not a half bad speller as it turned out.

When I got my first driver’s license, issued by the state of Montana, it was imprinted like this: Ted E (only) Huffman, which was better than my classmate, Brad, who also had only an initial, but who received his driver’s license without the parenthesis. It said: “Brad Lonly.” We teased him about it for a little while after he earned his license.

Today, March 11, has been designated Middle Name Pride Day. Middle Name Pride Day is celebrated on the first Friday of the first full week in March. I’m not sure how one is to celebrate such a holiday. According to the National Today website Middle name Pride Day was established in 1997 by American onomatologist Jerry Hill. I had to look up onomatologist to figure out what it meant. Onomastics or onomatology is the study of the etymology, history, and use of proper names. I could not, however, find the middle name of Jerry Hill.

National Today suggests that we celebrate Middle Name Pride Day by revealing our middle name to at least three persons. In my case, I don’t think that would be very dramatic. “I just thought you should know that I don’t have a middle name, only an initial. My middle initial is E.”

Our family once hosted an exchange student from Guatemala. He had a string of middle names. The paperwork for his exchange listed him as Juan Carlos. However, he could list a long stream of middle names that revealed his genealogy, listing the maiden names of his mother and grandmothers after his first name. Other cultures have different traditions when it comes to middle names. British royalty almost always have at least four names. Queen Elizabeth’s full name is Elizabeth Alexandra Mary.

In some places and times, middle names were the names given at birth preceded by another name given at baptism. One name was known as the “Christian” name, the other as the “given” name.

I guess that we could recognize Middle Name Pride Day as an opportunity to explore different cultural traditions. We might also use it to explore family histories and traditions. It could also be a time to tell the stories of how we got our names. Then again, just as I do not have a middle name, I also don’t have a real story of how I ended up with the name that I have.

So, happy Middle Name Pride Day. At least the day gave me a topic for a journal entry.

Rising to the challenge

Recently I was reading the transcript of an interview that Krista Tippett had with Colette Pichon Battle, who is a climate activist and founder of the Gulf Coast Center for Law and Policy. As they were discussing the impact of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the ways in which that giant storm forever changed communities of the Gulf Coast, Tippett commented, “Climate is just this tiny piece of it, right? But it’s a human story. It’s a story about home. It’s a story about belonging. It’s about what we know and love and hold dear. Starts with love — with what we love and who we love, and culture. It doesn’t start with an abstraction.”

I thought of that quote last night. A book group that I facilitate in our church is discussing “Climate Church, Climate World,” by Jim Antal. We began last evening’s conversation by sharing stories about things that we value - things that we love - and how that treasure is in jeopardy or vanishing as a result of climate change. One member of the group spoke of the temperate climate of Bellingham and how last summer’s heat wave made the town seem like an entirely different place. Without air conditioning, that person’s home was not a comfortable place for guests, something that had never before happened. Another member of the group spoke of the vanishing glaciers in the high country and how the snow and ice on Mount Baker and other high points of the Cascades is now melting each summer. Yet another member spoke of the forests turning brown from British Columbia to California - how the intense heat has left the tops of the fir trees burned and scarred. One couple spoke of their love of scuba diving and the death of coral reefs.

I thought of the high country of the Beartooths and Absaroka Mountains north of Yellowstone National Park and the disappearance of grasshopper glacier and the land of the pink snow, iconic places of my childhood that are now very different than the days when the snow did not melt during the summer in those places.

The story of climate change is a human story. It is a story about home, about belonging, about what we know and love and hold dear.

I’ve been reading about the flooding in Australia. Nearly 3,000 homes in New South Wales are uninhabitable because of flood damage. Streets have turned into rivers. The Prime Minister has declared a national emergency. Nearly a half a million people have been told to be ready for evacuation in Queensland and New South Wales. It is easy to simply think of the numbers and statistics, but each one of those uninhabitable homes is someone’s dream. It is a place of family dinners and birthday celebrations. It is where children have grow up and learned about life. It is someone’s place in this world. And that place has been taken away.

At the point of such intense loss, it is no longer a theoretical concept. It is no longer a political argument. Climate change is a stark life-altering reality. The grief that was expressed as members of our book group spoke of what one was and what now is, is multiplied over and over again until the tears of loss are nearly overwhelming.

Scientists have been telling us for decades that the human impact on the environment is devastating and that we need to change our ways in order to survive on this planet. May of us have become aware of some of the things that individuals can do. We reduce, reuse, and recycle. We try to cut down on what we consume and what we throw away. We volunteer for cleanups in our community. We conserve water. We try to shop wisely. We have switched the kind of light bulbs we use. We have planted trees. We use reusable grocery bags.

But most of us also carry a bit of environmental guilt over some of the things we do. I sometimes drive when I should be walking. We have not installed solar panels on our home and we use too much electricity. Our cars are not the most fuel efficient available. It is pretty easy to make a list of the ways we as individuals are a part of the cause of the global environmental crisis.

Beyond that, there are times when the crisis seems so big and so overwhelming that we feel insignificant and unable to have any impact at all.

I’ve forgotten which leader said it but the story is that someone once asked, “What is the most important thing that an individual can do about the climate crisis?” The answer was, “Stop being an individual.” As is true of all of the truly big challenges that humanity has faced, this crisis is beyond any individual. The changes we need to make are systemic. We need to act together to bring about the change that is required. That doesn’t mean that we abandon individual responsibility or that we stop doing the things we are able to do. It just means that we need to find ways to work together to solve environmental problems.

I have personally witnessed not only environmental destruction, but also the amazing recovery of ecosystems. When I was growing up we rarely spotted a bald eagle. The great raptors were endangered because of the use of chemical pesticides. The chemicals aimed at eliminating insects were working their way up the food chain to the apex predators who were dying as a result. But we humans learned. We worked together to stop the use of some of the most dangerous chemicals. We protected surviving raptors. We developed captive breeding programs and reintroduction into the wild. And it is not only the eagles that have returned to Yellowstone. The wolves and beavers have come back. The elk population is becoming more balanced. And, after the fires of 1988 and 1989, Yellowstone is growing a new forest that is more diverse and healthier than what was there when I was growing up.

The energy of our grief can be channeled into collective constructive change. Perhaps sharing that grief is a first step, but there are many other steps that must be taken. The challenges of our generation are huge. Our legacy will be in how we respond as a community.

Anticipating spring

Just over a year ago on a gray day, we drove from our home in Mount Vernon, Washington across the lowlands of Skagit County toward the town of LaConner. We were new to the area and we didn’t know exactly what to expect. We hoped that we would see some of the remaining trumpeter swans that fill the fields during the winter in the area and we were not disappointed. There were still quite a few of the large white birds in some of the green fields. We were also looking for any signs of the tulips for which the Skagit Valley is famous. We knew that we were early. Tulip festival is the month of April and it was still late March. What we did discover was a delight. Before the tulips come into bloom adding their brilliant colors to the landscape, other fields start to turn yellow with daffodils. We love daffodils and have planted them in the gardens of the places where we have lived, but a few of the perennial bulbs in a flowerbed are no match for hundreds of acres of blooms. There are at least three major producers of daffodils in Skagit County: RoozenGaarde Flower Farm, Tulip Town, and Schuh Farms. We were most familiar with Schuh farms because we had visited their farm store the previous Advent with our grandchildren to purchase a few tulip bulbs to be planted at our son’s farm.

RoozenGaard alone has about 450 acres of daffodil fields. That is a whole lot of yellow flowers. The daffodils that are harvested for sale as cut flowers are harvested before the bloom. They look like sticks of asparagus when they are cut and taken to the farm flower stores and from the farm shipped across the country to be sold in flower shops. That part of the growing of daffodils isn’t very impressive unless you consider the scale of the operation. Spring flowers are shipped by air transport to destinations across the United States and Canada.

Cut flowers, however, aren’t the biggest part of the business for commercial daffodil growers. Their big business comes from the bulbs that are harvested, dried and prepared for sale in garden shops. Those bulbs are allowed to produce flowers in the field before they are dug and prepared for sale. The result is that there are giant fields of yellow daffodils and tourists drive along the county roads to see the spectacle. The town of LaConner has an annual daffodil festival in March and gardeners all around the town plant the bulbs in an attempt to produce plenty of colorful blossoms for visitors to see.

Like every kind of farming, a lot depends on the weather. Cooler weather means that the bulbs will be in full bloom a bit later. Warmer weather brings blossoms sooner. It is difficult to predict exactly which days are the best for flower viewing.

Now it is nearly a year later and with gas prices above $4 per gallon, we aren’t eager to make too many trips down to our former home. However, we’d like to make the pilgrimage to see the daffodils this spring. Our son Isaac works in Mount Vernon and makes the commute daily from his farm up here and he can give us some advice on when might be a good time to make a trip. Furthermore he is a March child, having been born on the Ides of March, so a trip down to Mount Vernon might include a birthday lunch with our very busy son.

The gorgeous fields of flowers bring to mind another place we once lived many years ago. In the late 1970s to the mid-1980s we lived in Hettinger, North Dakota. In August and September of each year the fields of sunflowers would color the prairies in a spectacular fashion. Sunflowers face the sun, so the plants would have all of their blossoms facing in the same direction. A field that looked rather plain from one side would be brilliant from the other side. Most of the sunflowers grown in the area in those days were raised for oil seeds. They were left in the field until well after several frosts until the moisture content in the seeds was just right for combining. A few farmers also grew confectionary sunflowers, harvested also for their seeds. It was, of course, very different from the daffodil fields of Skagit County, but it is interesting how the memories of a long life can blend into themes that allow one experience to remind one of a very different experience from a different time and place.

Lent is the season of lengthening. The days are showing more and more sunlight as we move from winter’s darkness toward summer. I walked in my shirtsleeves without a jacket for one of the first times this spring yesterday. It felt good to feel the gentle breeze. But I’ve lived in cold country too many winters to trust an occasional warm spring day. According to my computer, it is only 9 degrees in Rapid City, where we lived for 25 years. A few flurries or snow showers are possible there today. In the town where I was born, it was snowing last night with the overnight temperature forecast to go below zero. Add in 20 to 30 mph winds and it doesn’t feel much like spring there right now. However, summer will come to both places and both places will have some delightful spring weather at some point before too long. Every place we have lived has had some days when the weather seems a bit oppressive and some days that are a pure delight. One joke has marked every place we have lived: “If you don’t like the weather, wait 5 minutes. It will change.”

We listen to the wind blowing off of the bay as we drift off to sleep and although it can seem a bit fierce at times, we know that spring is coming. We’ve already seen a few crocuses and daffodils around the neighborhood. A year from now, after we’ve had time to plant some bulbs in our yard, we’ll have blossoms to share. For now it is enough to remember last year and to plan a trip to visit the flower fields this spring.

Dusting off old sermons

This is a story that could be told in a variety of different orders. There are many different possible beginnings, so I’ll just pick one and take it from there.

In the late 1950’s there was an energy in the mainline denominations in the United States. The pews were full with families following the Second World War. The first baby boomers were reaching their teen years. Sunday schools and youth groups were growing. Our denomination, the United Church of Christ, had a burst of energy that followed the union of the Congregational-Christian and Evangelical-Reformed denominations. Every conference across the United States was in the process of starting new congregations. One of those new church starts was Mayflower United Church of Christ in Billings, Montana, organized in 1960. The congregation was organized and called its first pastor before they had their own church home. They met in the theatre of Losekamp Hall. The college’s theatre and music hall had stood on the campus for 40 years and figured in the stories of many students. It was the place where my parents met, but their story and the story of Mayflower Church hadn’t really intersected very much at the time.

My in-laws, Keith and Charlotte Ricketts moved to Billings, Montana in 1960 with their three daughters. A job at Yellowstone Electric Company promised a bright future for the family after a few years of hard work and searching for opportunities in Libby, Montana. The new church and the family new to town seemed to click. After an invitation, the couple became charter members of the new congregation. They maintained their membership and activity in the congregation through the decades that followed, participating in two major building programs, volunteering in many different ways, and becoming active in the conference camping program, which is how their eldest daughter and I met.

We were married at Mayflower United Church of Christ in 1973, and ordained in that church in 1978. The church is an important part of our story and a place of many fond memories for us.

Back in 1960, the organizing pastor was reaching out in many ways to grow the congregation. Some of the professors at the college became involved and provided a challenge to the pastor. He needed to have sermons with a particular degree of academic integrity because among his congregation were those with significant theological education, including ordained ministers who were serving as faculty members of the college. It was a time when the United Church of Christ was proud of its traditions of educated clergy. Clergy members held graduate degrees and were familiar with academic traditions. The pastor preached from manuscripts and as far as I know his preaching was appreciated. His congregation was gaining success and, I assume, members were asking for copies of some of his sermons. He obliged by having the manuscripts of his sermons mimeographed for distribution.

I know the feeling. Over the span of my career, I had members and friends of the congregation ask me for copies of sermons I delivered. I tried to oblige. I would copy manuscripts and at times, produce transcriptions from sound recordings of my sermons. I was always a bit disappointed in my sermons when they were written. Written language and oral language are significantly different, and a sermon that is well-crafted for oral delivery has repetition, emphasis, and plenty of run-on sentences that need to be edited for easy reading. I suspect that this was less of a problem for that pastor of Mayflower Church because he preached by reading from manuscripts. He created well-crafted written documents that were subsequently read to the congregation.

My in-laws, faithful church members and avid readers picked up copies of those sermons. My mother-in-law, Charlotte was a keeper of things on paper and she hung on to those sermons.

For the sake of the story, I’ll skip 60 years to the present. Mayflower United Church of Christ is well-established and has had a series of pastors over the decades. They have been through hard times and good times and continue to offer significant ministry and outreach in the community. Charter members Charlotte and Keith Ricketts have reached the end of their lives. Charlotte was the first to pass, and it has been a decade since Keith died. Their three daughters are grown and married and live in three different states. None of their daughters lives in Billings any more. The house where they lived in their teenage years has been sold. There probably aren’t many folks left at Mayflower United Church of Christ who remember the days when the family was active in the church and their daughter was ordained in her home church. We have served congregations of the United Church of Christ in Hettinger, North Dakota, Boise, Idaho, Rapid City, South Dakota and Bellingham Washington, where we now live.

The other day, one of Susan’s sisters was sorting through some of the items in her home and came across a box of papers that had come from their parent’s house. In the box were copies of those sermons from 1960 and 1961. She called us to see if we wanted to have those sermons.

I finally have gotten rid of the files of my own sermons from a couple of decades later. I realize that in my case there is not going to be a book of collected sermons gathering dust in church basements. It will likely take me a decade or more to organize my journal entries on this web site. I’m not up to the task of preserving and editing the sermons of a pastor who served the church of my in-laws before I became a member of the family. Frankly, I’m not even interested in reading those old sermons.

I’m just amazed that they have been kept all of these years.

Not everything that has been mimeographed is destined to become a historical treasure. Not every paper is worth keeping for decades. There is, however, a lesson for me in this story. I’ve kept a few too many papers in my life. I have a couple of file cabinets that need to be sorted. I have a few gigabytes of data on the cloud that are disorganized. It is possible that my children or grandchildren might get a laugh out of sorting my things after I’ve died, but it is more likely that my stuff will be a burden for them.

I’m grateful that I have had the privilege of being a part of this family. I may not want the sermons that my mother-in-law kept for decades, but I do feel pleased to have the story. My grandchildren will never read my old sermons, let alone those of the pastor of my wife’s childhood church.

It is possible, however, that they will remember the story and tell it to others.


My sister is visiting us and whenever she comes for a visit, we have a conversation about some of the people with whom we went to high school. Like me, she has lived most of her life away from the town where we grew up, but a few years ago she moved back to our home town. Like us, the pull of a grandchild is strong enough that she is likely to move away before too long, but for the past few years she has been in a position to keep me informed about people from my past with whom I haven’t kept up. Lately our conversations have had several reports of people who have died. It has been a long time since I lived in that town. I am used to reports of the people who were in our parents’ generation passing on, but lately the news has been of people our age. It is a simple reminder of our mortality.

The news has another quality as well. As I entered my teens, growing up in a small town, I began to think about leaving that town. Although I returned for the easy summer job of working for our father’s business during my college years, I have lived away from that town ever since. I’m not opposed to small town living. I’ve lived in other small towns since and I currently live in an unincorporated area with a small number of residents.

It is just that the trajectory of my life has been in other directions and I have invested my energies in forming relationships with folks in other places. There are a number of my high school classmates who, like me, were eager to leave our town and who made our lives in other places. There are other classmates, however, who never did leave our town. They might have gone away for college or for a job, but they remained in the area and they live in the town where we grew up. Their lives have been full of meaning with marriages, children, grandchildren, church and career, but they chose to explore those in the familiar place where we all grew up. The rest of us found meaning in other places.

I belong to a Facebook group dedicated to memories of our old home town and it is a place where I have not been active. Most of the posts are of things that happened after I left that town. Lately someone has been posting pictures of high school sports games, with a lot of basketball pictures. They have asked the help of others in identifying the players in the pictures. I know right away that I would be of no help. When I went to high school, there was no girls basketball team and male students were not allowed to wear their hair as long as those in the pictures. I’m pretty sure that the people posting the pictures don’t even remember a time when dress and hair codes were part of the rules of high school.

We still own a small bit of property in our old home town. It is part of our parents’ legacy, shared by my living brothers and sister. That place is set to go on the market in a month’s time. It is likely to see fairly easily. After that, for the first time in nearly 80 years, our family will not be owners of anything in that place. I can already walk into the hardware store or grocery store and no one will recognize me. It won’t take many years before no one in the old home town will remember our names. Time moves on. The people in our world are incredibly mobile.

Our children don’t have the same sense of place with which I grew up. They moved twice before they reached high school, living in three different communities in three different states. While I can say I grew up in Montana, our kids grew up in North Dakota, Idaho, and South Dakota. They were 2 and 4 when we moved from North Dakota, so they might not have many memories of that place, but they were 10 and 12 when we moved from Idaho. I’m not sure which place they think of as their home place. Our youngest will sometimes say that she’s from South Dakota, but I don’t know that her brother has the same kind of identification with the place where he went to high school.

Like my sister and me, however, they have plenty of stories to share when they get together. “Remember when?” is a question that shows up frequently in their conversations. They have a lot of shared memories.

The stories of our people are stories of both place and of movement. Some of the most ancient stories of our people begin with tales of people moving away from the place of their upbringing. The story of Abram and Sarai heading off to the place that God would show them, and of their wandering through different countries and different people is a story that we have been telling for thousands of years. At the same time, there are places that figure heavily in the stories of our people. Egypt is featured as a place of oppression and slavery in some of our stories, and as a place of salvation in another story. Our faith, however, is not linked to any singular place. Our religious history values story over place. At the time the concept of the same God being the God of every place was a radical thought. Most people believed that when you went to a new place you would find new gods. What marked our story is this radical monotheism that says there is one God and that is the God of every place. We can move and we will still be the people of God. It took generations for that idea to catch hold.

I still like to hear and tell the stories of the old home town, but I understand that those are not my story. I don’t belong to any single place. I chose a vocation that called me from place to place. It is, however, a very good life that I have had and I don’t feel the need to go back to the place of my upbringing. I’m happy in the place I have found myself and open to yet more new places in my future.

Resources for teaching

Yesterday I was preparing to lead a session on “Introduction to the Bible” for confirmation class. For years, I have gone to my library and grabbed Bibles in Hebrew and Greek so that I could show students what the modern version of the original languages looks like. Then I would grab a couple of specific translations to illustrate the difference between a team translation and a solo translation. I might also grab a paraphrase to use in discussing different versions of the Bible. My collection of Bibles, however, is much smaller than it was a few years ago. Making the choice of which Bibles to keep and which to leave behind was not done with an eye to teaching. I was retiring and I didn’t think I would be doing that kind of teaching again. So I kept Bibles with sentimental value. I have my Grandfather’s Bible, a bible that belonged to my father and one that my mother had before she was married. I kept the Oxford annotated bible that I used for my seminary education. I still have a collection of bibles, just not the ones I used to use for teaching.

I’ll still be able to make my teaching points at this afternoon’s class. I have a photo book of the Dead Sea Scrolls that we purchased when we were able to view fragments of the historic texts when they were on tour in Chicago. It shows fragmentary texts and has illustrations of the condition of the scrolls when they were discovered. It makes it easy to illustrate the challenges of translation. I have enough material for an extended class on the history of the Bible - way more than we will have time to cover in a single meeting of a confirmation class. I don’t need the resources that I used to take for granted and that I left behind when I moved. But for a few minutes, last night, I was sad and I missed the things I left behind.

Of course, my style of teaching is another thing that will be left behind in years to come. I can quickly draw up Greek and Hebrew texts on the Internet. All of the resources that I had crammed into boxes and boxes are available on my smartphone. I know how to put together a powerpoint presentation that covers the information we need to teach. That, however, is quite a different experience than sitting around a table and passing around actual books while we talk about the story of how the bible came to our generation. My style of teaching will one day fade and become a relic of a previous generation as new ways of teaching and learning emerge. I thought I was ready to accept that transition. I though I was ready to say good bye to files of papers and boxes of books. But there is a part of me that misses those resources.

This confirmation class has a special meaning to me. The confirmands are weary of almost two years of covid protocols, zoom classes, and disruptions their education. They were quick to advocate for in-person learning. We have a small group and are following all of the protocols of our church, wearing masks, keeping distance, and making sure that there is adequate ventilation. But we are meeting in person and that makes this class special to me. I want the experience of the youth to be meaningful and memorable to them. I feel like our time is a precious gift of the youth and their families. They lead busy lives with all kinds of demands on their time and they are making time and space to meet with us each week to prepare for the rite of confirmation. It is a precious gift that I don’t want to squander. I am working hard to make sure that I am prepared and ready to teach.

When I think back on my years of learning and some of the truly great teachers that have been a part of my life, however, I don’t remember the resources they used. I have specific memories of the stacks of paper handouts that one teacher used and the way another could fill a chalkboard with words and diagrams. I remember a teacher who had written the textbook for the class. You could attend the lectures or read the book. There was no need to do both - the content was all the same. What I remember about my teachers is the relationship we had. I remember the ones who believed in my potential and who trusted my curiosity and honored my questions.

The confirmands in our class will remember us not for the resources we bring to class, but the caring we bring to our relationship. The students want us to be authentic, genuine, and honest. They want us to respect their intelligence, curiosity and experiences.

I know that there are members of our congregation, and possibly members of our Faith Formation Board, who think of the confirmands as the future of the church. The truth is that the youth of a church are rarely the leaders of the next generation of that particular congregation. We “export” our youth. We send them forth in mission. They grow up and move to other places and engage in other congregations. Our job is not one of self preservation, but rather one of trusting the power of God to provide the resources the church needs in each generation and trusting the faith of the people of the church. Preparing for confirmation is a process of being the church in the present moment. It is an investment in community that is real and meaningful right now.

I don’t need a stack of resources to take into the room for our meeting this afternoon. I need my genuine self and the faith I have found. I need my own openness and willingness to learn. And, of course, I always carry with me the stories of our people - stories that are worth sharing. With the grace of God, some of those stories will be told in a different time and a different place by those who are preparing for confirmation today.

Our corbezzolo tree

Compared to other places we have lived, this house has a tiny yard. There is a bit of grass in the back, with a couple of trees, surrounded by a privacy fence. The fence isn’t tall enough for the yard to feel very private, however, as the neighbors’ homes are, like ours, two stories high and we can clearly see the upper story windows above the fence. Presumably they can see our yard from those windows as well. In front, we have a double driveway, so there isn’t much grass. There is a row of conical junipers separating our lawn from that of our neighbor to the west. In addition there are three ornamental shrubs. One of those shrubs, planted where the sidewalk coming off our front porch turns toward the driveway, sported bright red fruit when we moved into the house in October. The berries were eventually eaten by the birds and the leaves have fallen off. We were occupied with the tasks of moving into the house and I haven’t spent much time learning about our yard and the plants growing there, but I was curious about the bush with the bright red berries and have looked it up.

The plant is not native to this part of the world, but seems to be thriving in its place in our yard. It is called a strawberry tree and it is native to the island of Sardinia. In Italian, the tree is called corbezzolo. The Italian poet Giovanni Pascoli noted the colors of the Italian flag in the corbezzolo tree - green, glossy leaves, white flowers, and red berries. The tree blooms in the autumn, later than many other plants. Pascoli wrote an Ode to the Corbezzolo in 1906:

"O verde albero italico, il tuo maggio è nella bruma: s'anche tutto muora, tu il giovanile gonfalon selvaggio, spieghi alla bora." "Oh green Italian tree, your May month is in the mist: even if everything else dies, you, the youthful wild banner, unfold to the northern wind."

Sardinia doesn’t offer a particularly harsh climate, but Pascoli imagined the struggle of the plants to survive on the windswept mountains of the island.

Philosopher and lawyer Marcus Tullius Cicero, who lived from 106 - 43 BCE, was not a fan of Sardinia. “Everything that the island of Sardinia produces, men and things, is bad!” he exclaimed. Then he offered his critique of the strawberry tree in an indirect way - he criticized the honey that bees make from the flowers of the tree. Sardinian corbezzolo honey is distinctive. It isn’t sweet, but rather surprisingly bitter, with hints of leather, licorice, and smoke. Beekeepers have been setting up beehives an collecting corbezzolo honey for more than 2,000 years.

Corbezzolo honey may lack the sweetness usually associated with honey, but it is prized for its healing properties. It is packed with nutrients, vitamins and minerals. It is known to have anti-inflammatory properties. The natives of Sardinia have been known for their long lives for generations. Many inhabitants of the island live to more than 100 years old. Some of them claim that corbezzolo honey is the reason for their longevity.

It has struck me that there is a strange coincidence with the strawberry tree in my front yard. On Epiphany Sunday each year, members of our congregation are given a single word to contemplate for the year. On the following Epiphany Sunday, they share their words and tell stories of how that word has come to have new meaning for their lives. In 2021, my star word was plan. It was a year that defied planning, as the pandemic altered our travel plans, our search for a house proved to be more challenging than we anticipated, and we came out of retirement and went back to work when a position that seemed matched to our skills became available. I couldn’t find many stories of how “plan” had marked my 2021. This year, my star word is longevity. Perhaps there is a link between my star word and the strawberry tree in my front yard.

A week ago, I completed the course and passed the test to be certified as a beginner bee keeper in the State of Washington. I am not planning to have hives this year. Furthermore, I have no intention of placing my hives to produce corbezzolo honey. I have only one of the bushes in my yard, and they aren’t common around here. And it is my intention to place the hives, if and when I get them, at our son’s farm, where the orchard boasts apples, pears and plums and where there are abundant strawberry, blueberry, and blackberry bushes. The hay field is yellow with dandelions in the spring and the bees will find lots of sources of pollen. Perhaps in a few years, they will produce honey for us to harvest and share with our family and friends. It won’t be the bitter corbezzolo honey prized by Sicilians, and crirticized by Cicero, however. “Even the honey, abundant on that island, is bitter!”

The bush in my front yard will remain a novelty. Perhaps this fall, after it has flowered and produced fruit, I may taste one of the fruits. I’ve been led to believe that they aren’’t very tasty. They do, however, attract hummingbirds, and the thought of the tiny creatures withe the very fast wings frequenting my south-facing front porch is a pleasant one. The humming birds around here seem to mostly be green in color, so they will blend in with the leaves of the bush, but stand out against the small fruit.

All of that, however, is in the future. We’ve had a few spring-like days here in early March, but summer is a ways away and the corbezzolo bush won’t even get its blossoms until August or September. That gives me even more time to learn about the plants growing in my yard and what I must do to care for them. I’ll be wondering about the taste and the qualities of the fruit of the trees. Perhaps the humming birds will notice that the fruit isn’t sweet like other fruit. On the other hand, perhaps it will be healthy for them and help them achieve longevity.

Yachts and a big airplane

I don’t know exactly why, but I find myself reading articles about yachts and yachting from time to time. I have no desire to own a yacht, unless you count the boat known as the poor man’s yacht - the canoe. I enjoy building, paddling and rowing boats, and my experience has taught me quite a bit about the costs associated with boating. Even a modest cruising sailboat carries with it costs that I am unwilling to pay. Certainly the mega yachts that require a staff of ship hands, cook, and cleaning staff are not in the realm I will ever visit. However, I am interested in boat design and read articles about the shapes of hulls, construction materials, and other items related to yachting. The big news in the yachting world has to do with the seizing of yachts owned by Russian oligarchs following the invasion of Ukraine. These are incredibly huge boats that are displays of wealth.

The super yacht Dilbar, owned by Russian magnate Alisher Usmanov is in Germany for maintenance. It had begun sea trials following repairs, but now is restricted from leaving its anchorage. German officials plan to take additional steps to prevent the use of the yacht. French authorities have seized a massive yacht linked to Igor Sechin, chief executive of Russian energy giant Rosneft. The boat, Amore Vero features five decks of luxury. These ships are examples of extravagant luxurious lifestyles enjoyed by some very rich members of Russian society. They feature swimming pools. Dilbar is said to have the largest indoor swimming pool on any ship. They feature helipads, some have more than one. They require crews of dozens of workers.

Any transactions related to these mega yachts are now prohibited, including hiring of crew, payment of docking fees, maintenance, fuel or other expenses. Other financial sanctions are preventing the moving of money from one currency to another, the use of foreign bank accounts, and other financial tools aimed at putting pressure on Russia’s wealthiest persons. Because these mega-yachts require extensive support services, it is possible for western leaders to shut down their operation.

I can’t help but wonder what becomes of such incredible ships if they are taken away from their owners. It isn’t like there is a big market in used super yachts. There can’t be many customers for items with such huge acquisition and operating costs. Some of these ships are large enough to become cruise vessels, and the cruising industry is struggling during the pandemic.

A million refugees, however, constitute a problem for this world far bigger than what to do with the excessive toys of a few ultra-rich individuals.

I not only follow boating news, but I also enjoy reading about aviation. I grew up in a family of pilots and I earned my private pilot’s license as a teenager. I no longer fly as pilot in command, but have an interest in aviation. Headlining aviation news this week is the reported destruction of the world’s largest aircraft. The Antonov An-225 is a huge six-engined cargo ship that is home based in the Ukraine. Only one of these giant airplanes was ever built, although a second fuselage was built, but never completed into a flying plane. The plane was built in the 1960’s and 1970’s during the cold war and space race. After the breakup of the Soviet Union, Ukrainian officials kept the plane flying, traveling to air shows around the world and hauling massive amounts of cargo.

Photos that appear to show the destruction of the An-225 have caused dismay among aviation enthusiasts. However satellite photos of the giant hanger that houses the An-225 with minimal damage have raised hopes that the damage may be repairable. In the midst of the Russian attack, the plane is not the highest priority, but it has symbolic value to the Ukrainian people. It is a symbol of Ukrainian leadership in the aerospace industry.

As an aviation fan, I am saddened that Russian forces have attempted to destroy the airplane. It has no strategic value in the war, but symbolism is a part of every war, and additional attacks on the plane are not out of the question as Russian troops near Kyiv and the airport that houses the giant plane.

Maybe we are drawn to the news of yachts and a giant airplane because our minds have trouble processing the huge human cost of the war. In a world already overwhelmed with refugees from other crises and wars, an additional 1,000,000 refugees is significant, and there may be even more in coming weeks as people continue to flee for their lives. Modern warfare involves huge civilian casualties and the suffering and grief of innocents is ongoing.

Our local weekly newsletter changed its banner to blue and yellow in support of Ukrainian families. According to US Census data, our county is home to over 2,000 people over the age of 5 who speak Russian, Polis or other Slavic languages, including 511 people born in Ukraine and 348 from Russia. Living on the border between the United States and Canada, we understand how cross-border families have connections to multiple countries. The closing of the border during the pandemic separated families. Folks living here understand that while there may be an official boundary line between Russia and Ukraine and that Russian troops have crossed that border, families are not simply Russian or Ukrainian. The war is dividing families and causing pain and grief for relatives who live in the communities of our county. There are six Slavic churches in our county and some of them have couples with one partner who is Russian and the other Ukrainian.

Members of the Whatcom Peace and Justice Center are planning a series of events this Sunday to educate the public on the war in Ukraine. People are demonstrating their desire to be connected and united with their neighbors in opposition to the war.

I don’t understand the dynamics of the war. Ukraine is not a threat to Russia. Russia seems to be more interested in taking over Ukraine to provide control over a buffer between it and the NATO countries of Europe. But I don’t have to understand to join my neighbors in praying for peace. Prayers continue.


Ash Wednesday, Lent and Holy Week are very important times of connection to the church for me. The services of the season are familiar after a career as a pastor. This year, with the pandemic showing decreases in the infection rate, we have been able to meet face to face and our church had a hybrid service yesterday. It was Ash Wednesday in 2020 when we became aware of the depth of the impact of the pandemic on worship and our ability to meet as a congregation. That service was one of the last opportunities I had as a pastor to physically touch the members of my congregation. Then, last year, in a new church and a new place in our lives, we simply stayed home on Ash Wednesday. So yesterday was a deeply meaningful service for me to be in church, hear the familiar liturgy, and receive ashes on my forehead. The powerful reminder of our mortality is an important part of my faith. None of us will go on forever. We all share the reality that our time on this earth is limited. The season of Lent offers us the distinct opportunity to practice grief.

For me, Ash Wednesday carries the additional layer of memory that it was on Ash Wednesday that my father-in-law, Keith, died. He was a much beloved and very important man in my life and his presence continues to be an important part of my way of seeing the world. The letter to the Corinthians reminds us that love never dies. My sense of the gifts of Keith’s love for his family continuing is a living example of that truth in my life.

There was, however, a strange moment for me in yesterday’s service. I suspect that it was not noticed by most of those who participated in the service. As background, I have often commented on artists who do not trust the power of their art. When I attend a concert or musical performance, I am put off by musicians who feel the need to explain a song before it is presented. I don’t need the commentary. I trust the power of the music itself. The same is true of a dramatic presentation. And it is definitely true of worship. I don’t need an explanation of the prayer, simply pray. I don’t need an introduction to the benediction, simply give the benediction. Many of my colleagues, however, feel a need to constantly explain what they are doing. They announce the hymns before we sing, they narrate the service with their sense of how it flows. I find the practice distracting.

Yesterday, one of our pastors gave a strange apology for the prayer of confession before we shared it. This congregation does not include a prayer of confession in weekly worship. Although I miss it, and feel that a confessional faith is important, I understand that liturgy is a growing and changing element in our lives and not every ritual and tradition of the past needs to be in every service. However, confession and forgiveness are important parts of Lent and I appreciated the presence of a well-crafted prayer of confession in yesterday’s liturgy. But I didn’t understand the reason that the pastor felt the need to explain and even apologize for the call of the liturgy to confession. We are a very affluent congregation with a tendency to exhibit a certain degree of smugness in our faith. A little confession seems in order. We live in a broken world, where our actions bear a direct relationship to the suffering of others. Our wealth is part of the poverty of others. Our consumption affects the entire planet. We need to confess, to be forgiven, and to make changes in our lives. I welcomed the prayer.

I don’t understand why the pastor didn’t trust the prayer to stand on its own, why there was a need to explain and, yes, apologize for having a prayer of confession. I guess it was some form of a pre-confession confession or something. I never felt the need to explain or apologize for the liturgy of the church.

There is a field of theology that is known as Christian apologetics. It is the intellectual defense of the truth of the Christian religion. In 1 Peter 3:15, we are instructed to be prepared to make a defense of our Christian beliefs at all times. I enjoy a good intellectual argument, and am not opposed to speak about my reasons for living my life as a Christian, but apologetics as a discipline has never been my focus. I am comfortable simply living my life of faith without the need to explain or argue with those who do not share that faith. I do occasionally engage in a related field of theology, polemics, in which the beliefs of a particular denomination or church are defended. I am quick to explain how not all Christian congregations are the same and that there is a distinction in the history and traditions of our denomination. There are plenty of people who think that all Christians are judgmental and exhibit fundamentalists beliefs. There has been a false connection between Christianity and the political right wing in our country. I am quick to offer an explanation of the differences of our traditions and perspective in a progressive denomination with a long history of speaking out for justice. When i make such arguments, however, I do not apologize for who we are or what we believe.

The introduction to the prayer of confession in yesterday’s service did not detract from the meaningfulness of the service. The prayer was well crafted and very appropriate for our worship. I know that at least for the season of Lent we will have prayers of confession in our services and I welcome those prayers. Perhaps we might even become used to the prayers so that the pastors feel no need to explain. I think the congregation trusts the prayers. May we demonstrate that trust in such ways that our pastor is able to trust them as well. No explanation is necessary. Let’s just pray.

Stay safe

Yesterday as we were walking in our neighborhood, we saw a girl sitting on an electric skateboard and going down the middle of the street. I’m terrible at estimating ages, but I think perhaps she was a middle school student. Instead of standing on the device, as designed, she was sitting, with her feet tucked up close and resting on the front of the skateboard. She had what I assume was her cell phone in her hand and she was looking at it as she cruised down the street at a speed just a bit faster than a walking pace, perhaps about 5 miles per hour.

I looked at her and commented to my wife, “I wish she was wearing a helmet.”

Traumatic brain injury can happen quickly, when it is not expected. A pothole or a rough place on the street would have sent her flying. She was so low that it would be easy for a person driving a car to miss seeing her at an intersection. She could become distracted and run into a parked vehicle or a curb, or simply lose her balance.

Washington has a relatively new law that divides electric bicycles into three classes. Class one is an electric bike with a top speed of 20 mph where the electric motor assists the rider. The rider must pedal the bike in order for it to be in motion. Class two also has a top speed of 20 mph, but will move without the rider pedaling. Class three bikes have a top assisted speed of 28 mph. I don’t know whether or not electric scooters and skateboards are governed by the same rules. If so, I guess this device would be a class two vehicle. Even though our neighborhood does not have bicycle lanes on the street, it is legal to ride bicycles on the street following the rules of the road for cars. Our neighborhood has a top speed limit of 25 mph for all vehicles and is within a special zone where it is legal to drive golf carts on the street.

So it might be perfectly legal to ride a motorized skateboard on the street. Legal doesn’t make it safe, however. As a walker, I’d be much happier to see the skateboard on the sidewalk than on the street. I could easily avoid a collision with the skateboard by stepping out of the way.

As a person who works regularly with children and youth, I’d prefer to see the young person on a skateboard or a bicycle that doesn’t have a motor. I know how important regular exercise is for my mental and physical health and I believe that it is good for people of all ages. I remember the freedom that I felt while riding my bicycle in the years before I obtained a driver’s license and I hope that the youth of our neighborhood can experience a bit of that freedom. I also hope that they will be kept safe from accidents and injury. I didn’t wear a helmet when riding my bike as a youth. No one did in those days. But I always wear a helmet when I ride my bike these days. And I always insist that our grandchildren wear their helmets when they are on their bikes. They don’t have any motorized devices that they can ride, but I think a helmet is a good idea for those who are riding scooters and skateboards as well as bike riders.

There is a wide debate about what is the appropriate age for a youth to have a cell phone and I don’t have much expertise in that area. Our children were in college before we had any cell phones in our family, so the issue didn’t come up. I understand that a cell phone can increase safety by giving a way to call for help and a way to keep communications open. Cell phones also function as personal music devices for youth. They also provide a way to view videos and access the Internet. Without careful parental controls and limits, it is easy to use a cell phone to view materials that are inappropriate - something that adults do as often as children and youth in my opinion.

In Washington it is illegal to use a hand-held phone while driving a vehicle. If the young person was legal in operating the skateboard on the street, the use of the cell phone would make such operation illegal. Clearly there were some bad habits developing.

I can play the game of “what’s wrong with this picture,” as I recall the youth skimming along the street, sitting just a few inches from its surface while using a cell phone and not providing any muscle for the motion of the machine. The good news is that at least while we were watching, no accident occurred and the person appeared to have made the trip safely.

I understand that there is resistance to making too many rules in any community. People want to have personal freedoms and they don’t want to have to discern whether they have a class one, two or three vehicle. They don’t want there to be a manual of rules and regulations for getting from point A to point B. I suspect, however, that the parents of that young person aren’t fully aware of how the phone and the skateboard are used. I know that I would have been terrified if it was my child or grandchild. There is no way a child or grandchild of mine would have escaped a safety lecture after such behavior.

Safety, however, is a value that reaches beyond individual freedom. The entire community benefits when children and youth are protected from accidents and injury. The entire community experiences loss when a young person is injured or killed. We all have an interest in public safety whether we are talking about traffic rules or protocols to prevent the spread of disease.

So be careful out there, friends. Even if you don’t ride a motorized skateboard, there are others who do and some of them may be distracted. They also might be in places you don’t expect them to be. Keep the speed down. Look twice at intersections. Be careful when backing out of the driveway. I know I’m going to be a lot more careful when I’m driving the streets of our neighborhood.

Atmospheric river

A little more than a decade ago, we noticed a phenomenon in our visits to nursing homes and retirement centers. Many of those facilities had televisions that were turned on all day long. I suppose it was an attempt to keep residents entertained. We would visit facilities and in home after home the common area boasted a large television. In many of the facilities the sound was turned up quite high, possible due to the fact that some residents had experienced hearing loss. At the time we also noted that one of the most common channels for the televisions in those places was the weather channel.

Around the same time we also noted that there were television sets showing broadcasts in a lot of waiting areas. We noticed them in airports and medical offices. There was a large set in the lobby of an accounting firm. Even our pharmacy had a television set for those who were waiting for prescriptions to be filled.

We’re not big fans of television. We don’t own a television, though we are able to watch some television programs on our computer. We are not opposed to television. We simply enjoy doing other activities. There are so many books that we want to read and so many things we enjoy exploring on the Internet that television is not among our priorities when we have time.

The ubiquitous presence of television sets began to bother me. When I noticed that no one was watching a television set, I would look for a remote control to turn down the volume. Turning off the volume made it easier to ignore the set, and it made conversation a lot easier.

Along the way, I began to notice that those who were watching the weather channel nonstop were a lot more anxious than those who were not. The weather channel sees extreme weather and disaster as news and plays far more stories of storms and tragedies than of people enjoying the outdoors. The aging people in the nursing homes sometimes struggled to discern the difference between the weather outside their windows and the storms they were watching on television. The approach of a storm somewhere far away caused anxiety even though there was no threat to the area where the home was located.

These days the use of televisions in waiting rooms has decreased. People are instead focusing their attention on their smartphones as they wait. Some medical waiting rooms have removed their televisions and I notice more and more places where the televisions are turned off.

Nursing homes and care centers, however, seem to still have the televisions playing all day long and they seem to continue to show the weather channel.

Meanwhile, I carry in my pocket my own device that constantly warns me of storms and weather disasters. My cell phone has multiple weather applications and I consult it regularly to determine what time of day to go for a walk or which jacket to grab from the closet before heading outdoors.

Like the residents of a nursing home, I find myself bombarded with stories of weather dangers and disasters. Currently, my weather applications are warning of yet another atmospheric river bearing down on our part of the country. I had never heard of atmospheric rivers until a couple of years ago. Now it seems that they are regular phenomena. My weather applications say that this is an “extreme” atmospheric river, barreling into the Pacific Northwest. We went for a walk yesterday afternoon and although I was wearing my rain coat, I didn’t notice any extreme weather outdoors. The rain was light and the hood on the jacket was protecting my glasses from water spots. It was rather pleasant to stroll around our neighborhood. We walked down to the beach where the seas were calm, the skies gray, and the clouds low.

There was a flood watch in effect for more than five million people in Washington and Oregon. I guess we are among the five million, but we are in no danger. We don’t live close to a river and the nearest flowing water, Terrell Creek, is no threat to our home or the roads we drive to get to our son’s farm. The Nooksack River, which we cross a couple of times on our drive to the church is running fairly full, but nothing like the flooding we saw in the early winter. Our weather applications say that a parade of storms will keep the weather active across our region for at least a couple more days. I guess it is good to give people notice that flooding is possible, but I confess that I’m prone to ignoring the constant flood warning and watches that are a part of weather forecasts around here.

My experience with canoes and kayaks has taught me that I appear to be fairly waterproof. I seem to be able to take immersion without ill effect. I have good rain gear and don’t let a little rain keep me inside. We did pay attention to flood maps and insurance ratings when we were shopping for a house. We avoided houses that were in the flood planes and didn’t consider those that required special flood insurance. We enjoyed our house on the hill in South Dakota and looked for another home that was up a bit from the water. Although we don’t live in hilly country, our home has the lowest flood risk rating of the houses in this region.

Although we have a good view of the mountains on clear days, we are a long way from the areas that are affected by the avalanche warning that is in effect for the mountains.

Although the television and weather applications on our phones are prone to warn of disaster, no disaster seems imminent and the atmospheric river bearing down on us seems more like a couple of days of rainy weather than some kind of emergency. Maybe I’ve become immune to the warnings.

So, if you love to watch the weather channel and if you have noticed that our region is at the center of the forecast of yet another atmospheric river, remember that the Pacific Northwest is a temperate rainforest. Rain is common in our region. And, for the most part, we seem to be waterproof. We’ll reach out to help neighbors whose basements are flooding, but life under an atmospheric river isn’t that uncomfortable. We’ll be going for a walk again today and I’m not dreading the trip out the door.

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