In the ranks of the unretired

When I was growing up and thinking about a career, I had no shortage of examples of what it meant to work full time. My parents were both engaged in running a family business and raising a large family. My father purchased a second business when I was six years old and ran both of those businesses simultaneously until I left for college. He would rise at 4:30 am and go to work at the airport four three or four hours before heading to town to run his farm machinery business. Noon hour was reserved for family. If he had a customer or business associate with whom he was working when noon arrived, he often brought that person home for dinner with him. Then it was back to work until 6 pm. And if a customer needed parts after supper, he was known to go back and open the shop to serve the customer. Seven hours before lunch and five hours after. 12-hour days six days a week. Our mother rose before us and worked the company books before making us breakfast. She managed the checkbooks for two businesses, including deposits and receipts, paying bills and payroll. And she was generally working when we went to bed, baking bread or making a cake for a school or church event.

Our parents’ friends were also people who worked hard. They tended to be professionals or business people who worked long hours.

Looking back, I know that part of my work life was shaped by the mentors and models I had growing up. While I had plenty of examples of what it means to work, I now realize that I had far fewer models of what it means to retire. My father was financially successful and sold his businesses when he was relatively young. It took several years for him to divest himself of his businesses, but as he cut back he increased his volunteer work, starting a new roofing company that never attempted to make a profit, but rather replaced roofs at the church camp and at a college of which he was a trustee. He did a building demolition for the college as a volunteer. He didn’t really cut back on his hours of working, he shifted his focus from earning money to pursuing favorite projects. He became sick and died before he reached the age of 60.

I knew pastors who retired and lived relatively short amounts of time after their retirement. I had a teacher who simply didn’t retire until a stroke caused a disability when he was in his 80’s.

My one good example of retirement was my father-in-law who continued to teach a few classes after he retired, but mostly shifted his work time to volunteer activities. He had what I have seen as a very successful retirement, funded in part by a good retirement package from years as a union worker and in part by wise savings and investment strategies.

I have also had friends who are good at retirement. I have watched as they remain very active in church and community, serving others and always having plenty of projects.

So I thought that the transition from work to retirement would be a bit simpler than it has turned out to be. Learning how to be retired has been, for me, as big of a challenge as learning how to make the transition from full-time student to full-time worker was. Like that transition, where I experimented with a lot of different part-time jobs as a student, I am finding that a bit of experimentation is in order.

Going back to work half time was definitely a good move for me. I would not have lacked for volunteer opportunities. I could volunteer in our grandchildren’s schools. I could volunteer in our church. There are several community service organizations such as Habitat for Humanity where I would be welcome to volunteer. But there is something about the level of accountability and responsibility that go with having a position that others see as a job that fits my personality.

I know I’m putting in a few too many hours for a half-time job. I think I probably did the same when I was working full-time. I’ve never had to track hours and I’m not going to start now. I am at the office three days each week, plus a few extra trips as needed. I have the other four days for family and home projects, of which I have a long list. I have the luxury of living just down the road from our son’s small farm. There are always more jobs than time on a farm. I can go there and have things to do anytime I have run out of projects at home. We share a workshop at the farm, where I can make repairs and build boats.

I don’t know what I expected retirement to be like, but I have never learned to play golf and I’m not one who is entertained by sitting back and watching others work. It turns out that for this stage of my life semi-retirement is working pretty good.

Our position at the church is an Interim position. We probably will have this job for another year, but not much beyond that. The church will discern the new leadership patters that are right for its future and we will step aside to make way for those new leaders. It is possible that there will be other interim positions at other churches, but we don’t have anything firm and it is most likely that we won’t even begin looking until after our service in this position is completed, so there will be a period of unemployment between jobs. We’re comfortable with that.

It turns out that I’m not the only one making it up as I go along. The pandemic resulted in more than 3 million Americans retiring early. Now, as inflation spikes, people are coming out of retirement. “Unretirement” levels are much higher than the pre-pandemic years. One survey found that two-thirds of people who retired during the pandemic are returning to work in some form. Some are returning to work because they need the money. Others because there is a labor shortage and companies need skills and knowledge from experienced workers. Most because of a combination of factors.

Researcher Michelle Silver wrote, “It’s really important to recognize that retirement is just a phase that was invented, it’s not a natural progression or an essential stage of life.” I think i recognize that. In fact, I think I’ll make it my motto.

Memorial Day 2022

BBC reporter Jeremy Bowen is covering the war in Ukraine. He has written a couple of pieces in the past three months about Maxsym Lutsyk, a 19-year-old who put his university education on hold to fight the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In March he wrote of Maxsym and his friends. “Witnessing 18- and 19-year-olds, full of the invincible sense that young men have, going to war in Europe, just as they had during the blood-soaked years of the 20th Century was moving, depressing, and alarming. It was a sign of the big war that was coming.”

He wrote about how young Ukrainians were adapting, the way human beings always do in war. After the first shock old lives and routines fade into a new, all-consuming version of real life. Their lives, along with those of every Ukrainian, were turned upside down, when the Russians invaded in February. In his latest installment, Bowen asks Maxsym how his life has changed.

“Even now I can’t answer you exactly because it is very hard to understand that some of your friends, they died in your arms. It is hard to live with that fact . . . and when we left Rubizhne, it was hard for us to understand that we have lost the battle for this factory; for one of the key cities of Luhansk region.”

War changes the lives of its participants forever. The story of one student turned into a frontline soldier is a window into the dramatic changes that have come to a country and to the entire world. Maxsym now has a strong sense of the meaning of his life and his mission: “We are fighting for the freedom of the entire world, the entire civilized world and if anything thinks it is a Ukrainian-Russian war, it isn’t. It is the war of the light and the darkness between Russia and the entire world.”

Young men and women have found their purpose in battle for generations - for centuries. It is not pretty. It is terrible and dark and filled with bloody injuries and death. Witnessing the death of friends demands that some meaning be found in the loss and grief.

In the nineteenth century, as the United States emerged from the terror, devastation, and death of a bitter and bloody Civil War, those whose lives had been changed forever by the war sought ways to learn to live with the grief of the loss. On soil literally hallowed by the blood of those who died in the war, the tradition of Memorial Day emerged. People had mourned their dead since time immemorial, but there was somehow a new quality to the decoration of the graves of the war dead. The cost of the war seemed unbearably high. The death was too much. They vowed to never forget those who had died.

In my early teen years, I played taps for our community’s Memorial Day observance. The simple sounds rang out and echoed off of the simple white granite markers in our town cemetery marking the final resting places of those who had fought in World War I and World War II. I saw first hand the tears on the cheeks of the old men who had marched in the simple parade in our town. But I was young. I did not understand what they had seen. The war of my generation, Vietnam, was far away. The reasons for the war and the aims of our nation were unclear.

One day when I was 15, I once again played taps in that cemetery. This time the occasion was the funeral of a young man just four years older than I who died in Vietnam. His earthly remains were shipped back on a military plane in a casket provided by the US Army. I saw the tears on his mother’s and father’s faces. I began to understand the terrible cost of war. I began to understand how important it is to never forget that cost.

The sound of taps and Memorial Day are linked forever in my memory. They stir deep within my soul. I do not know how many more wars it will take for the leaders of this world to understand that the cost is far higher than any imagined benefits of war. But I do know that one of the ways we humans deal with the incredible burden of grief is to remember. It is because we need to remember that Memorial Day is important.

I don’t know if Maxsym will survive his war. Frankly the odds are not good. But I pray that he will live to one day have the luxury of peace to grieve the losses he has experienced. I hope that he will have days of quiet remembrance when tears come to his eyes at the memory of friends who have died. He cannot afford the emotional cost of full release of his grief now in the midst of the fighting. It will go unprocessed until his life grants him peace and rest. If he survives, he will create his own opportunities for remembrance. It might not be a formal holiday with a name like Memorial Day, but it will be, for him and his friends a day of remembrance. If they survive they will need to remember those who did not.

A few years ago I played taps in church on a Memorial Day weekend. I knew where to look in my congregation for the tears on the cheeks. For them the simple song was a release. It was also a reminder that they were not the only ones who remembered.

One human life is precious beyond compare. The carnage of war is a cost that is incalculable. And yet the leaders of this world somehow still imagine that war is something that can be won. They do not count the cost because counting the cost is impossible. Memorial Day reminds us that even when the leaders declare victory, the losses are real and tragic. We will not forget. The world will not forget.

Thinking of Paul and Silas

Both Susan and I wrote curricula for faith formation over a period of many years on several different projects. Part of the process in at least two of those projects was following the lectionary and writing lessons for each week around texts that had been chosen by planners of the project. On one project, I wrote half of a year - 26 lessons - for each of the three years of the lectionary cycle. In the process we became familiar with some of the texts of the lectionary. The Revised Common lectionary has four readings for each week and the developers of the curricula projects chose a single text for each week. They tried to come up with a balance of Psalm, Hebrew, Gospel, and Epistle, but the pattern of readings and the choice of texts wasn’t always clear to us as writers who had not been engaged in the planning phase of the project. Nonetheless, our job was to develop a teaching and learning plan for the week’s lesson. We were writing both the teacher or leader’s guide and the resources that were distributed to learners.

We quickly learned to be grateful for narrative texts. Although poetic texts are beautiful and can be meaningful they are a challenge to use as the core of a teaching and learning lesson. Long sermons might be meaningful to adults, but often are hard for children to follow. Making connections between a theological argument and the real lives of teens can be difficult. So when we were presented with stories with characters who could be identified, plot themes, and a discernible beginning and ending, we were eager to get to the task. Writing those lessons was decidedly easier than writing for some other weeks. Some narrative stories present readily usable scripts for role playing.

This week’s reading from Acts, the seventh Sunday of Easter in year C of the lectionary, is one that brings to mind lessons we had created. There are two parts to the story. In the first part, a young girl is held as a slave and makes money for her owners by fortune telling. When she encounters Paul and Silas, she calls out to them until Paul finally orders the spirt to come out of her. Once she is healed, she is no longer something that will make money for her owners, so they become angry and have Paul and Silas arrested. The crowd and magistrates turn against Paul and Silas and they are stripped and beaten before being thrown into jail with their feet in stocks. That is the end of the first part of the story.

In the next scene, Paul and Silas are in jail at midnight. They are praying and singing hymns when an earthquake shakes the prison, causing walls to fall down, doors to open and chains to break. The jailer, seeing the destruction of his jail is overcome with fear and threatens to kill himself. Paul calls out to him and he discovers that Paul and Silas have not run from the jail, but remained inside. They succeed in convincing him to belief in the resurrection of Jesus. He washes their wounds. They baptize the jailer and his family. Everyone enjoys a meal and is happy.

There is plenty of action and drama for telling the story with children: jail cells, an earthquake, chains being broken, a death averted, a midnight baptism of an entire family, and a feast to rejoice. The text doesn’t deal with what happens to the slave girl, her owners, the magistrates, the jailer and his family, or even how Paul and Silas leave the community before going on. It just tells of a dramatic change of events.

It was easy to write lessons around this text. We could describe learning activities with puppets, dramas with costumes, craft projects of making jail cells out of popsicle sticks, and dozens of other things for leaders and learners to do together around the theme of trusting God, and lives being transformed.

There is a fun musical entitled “Paul and Company” by my friends Mary Nelson Keithahn and John Horman that we produced at our summer camp in the Black Hills. The songs are catchy and easy to learn.

Looking back, however, although I can tell the story from memory and I suspect that a lot of the children and youth with whom we worked over the years know the outlines of the story as well, I am not sure that I fully understand the meaning of the text. I’m sure that I’ve preached on that text a half dozen or more times. There is a pretty big attraction to preaching from Acts in Eastertide because the Lectionary uses readings from Acts for the first lesson, in place of the readings from the Hebrew Scripture that are part of the lectionary for the rest of the year.

As a teacher and writer of resources for faith formation, however, I wonder if it is enough to learn the story. Most of us are not going to find ourselves confronted by a fortune-telling slave girl. We will never experience an earthquake that opens the doors of a jail in which we are incarcerated. It is hard to make connections between our everyday lives and the events of the story.

We are unlikely to encounter a person at just the right moment to avert a suicide, but that scenario did occur to me once and it was as miraculous as walls falling down in an earthquake. I did preach on this text once using it as an opportunity to speak with the congregation about suicide and practical steps that everyday people can take to help prevent suicide.

So we encounter the story once again. Today the numbers of children in church will be very small. Memorial day weekend is a time for families to head out camping. Today is the day of Ski to Sea, a big relay race that involves cross country skiing, downhill skiing or snowboarding, a foot race, a segment on road bikes, a canoe race, mountain biking and sea kayaking across the bay. The town will be filled with people who aren’t planning to attend church.

We’ll tell the story once again and we’ll have some crafts for the children who do come. We’ll come home at the end of the day, however, knowing that there is still much more that could be learned from this familiar story.

Whale watching

The ocean waters off the west coast of North America are the migration route for nearly 24,000 gray whales. The main population winters in lagoons off of Baja in Mexico. In February or March each year, they begin a great migration journey north. They summer north of Alaska in the Bering and Chukchi Seas. They travel along the coast and can be seen from tour and fishing boats at several places along the way. There are also places where a few lucky people are able to observe them from the shore.

A small group splits off of the main group each year to pass through the Salish Sea to feed on ghost shrimp on their way north. These are locally known as “sounders.” A handful of them arrived early this year and were spotted off of Port Townsend in March. The feeding must be good for them this year, because they have lingered in the waters off of northwestern Washington.

Yesterday was our day. We were walking along the shore of Birch Bay, just minutes from our home, where we often walk. We were counting Great Blue Herons, who were feeding near the shore. We had gotten to 15 in the mile-long stretch when we paused to speak with other walkers, who pointed out the magnificent spouts of the gray whales in the bay. Apparently they have been hanging around our bay for a few days now, but yesterday was the first we were able to see them. They were too far out for a cell phone photograph, but we watched, entranced, for quite a while seeing regular spouts. Occasionally we would see the dark mammals as they came out of the water following their spouts. I was amazing and filled us with awe.

As newcomers and implants on the coast, we have lived most of our lives a thousand miles or more from the ocean. We have not yet adjusted to the ebb and flow of the tides, to the seasons of the birds and other animals. The sight of a harbor seal gives us pause. In 2013, we celebrated our 40th wedding anniversary by taking a whale watching cruise out of Anacortes, Washington. We were able to see several pods of Orcas and one Minke Whale on that cruise. It was an unforgettable experience. Yesterday, however, was our first time of observing the gray whales.

As we watched, I remembered watching the Custer State Park buffalo herd in South Dakota and imagining what it must have been like before the over hunting and decimation of the great buffalo herds that roamed the plains. It isn’t hard to understand why the buffalo - technically American Bison - Tatanka in Lakota - were sacred to the indigenous people of the plains. They and land were inseparable. They provided nearly everything the Lakota people needed. The harvesting of a buffalo was an event surrounded by ceremony.

Watching the whales stirred my imagination, thinking of years past when the Lhaq’temish spotted the whales from a high point along the shore and rushed to launch their boats to hunt the giant mammals. Their canoes, sometimes as long as 40 feet, carried skilled hunters who harpooned the whales The harpoons were attached to sealskin sacks that were filled with air and prevented the whales from diving deep. Multiple canoes took part in a successful hunt. The boats, sometimes described by observers as dugouts, were the products of centuries of refinement and design. Carved from a single log, the wood was hollowed out to a specific thickness then filled with water which was heated by putting red-hot stones from the fire into it. This allowed the sides of the canoe to be widened and precisely shaped. The outside of the boat was carved to make it seaworthy in storms as well as cut through the water quickly when used for hunting.

Looking at a Coast Salish hunting canoe, it is clear that the developers of American clipper ships in the 1840’s and 1850’s copied the shape of the bow and stern of these canoes to add speed to their three masted ships. The hollow lines of the canoes were reproduced in a larger scale as merchant shipping shifted from capacity to speed as a primary design element.

As is true with the buffalo, there are very few traditional hunts for whales these days. Treaties made in the mid 19th century insure the right to hunt and fish, but there are many reasons why the indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest are no longer to maintain the traditional hunting lifestyle. As the Lakota call themselves the people of the buffalo, the Lhaq’temish call themselves the people of the salmon. The salmon were not only the primary food of the Lhaq’temish, but also of the orcas in the ocean. Where the salmon were found, the orcas followed. The interconnectedness of the lives of the people and of the fish were celebrated in legend and ceremony. Like the buffalo of the plains, the salmon are simply not as plentiful as once was the case. Overfishing, dams, rising water temperatures, and pollution have decreased the numbers dramatically.

There are many changes that we need to make in order to get our lives back in tune with nature’s ways. But yesterday, shading our eyes from the sun, gazing out across the bay to watch for the spouts of the whales, we were given the gift of experiencing the awe of the created world. Despite all of the pressures of humans and our many environmental disasters, the whales are migrating. They are following the patterns that whales have followed for thousands of years or more. And on their trip, the feeding has been good this year, so a few have lingered in the shallow bays close to the shore here on the border between the United States and Canada. And a few of us have been lucky enough to be looking at the right place at the right time to b witnesses to this year’s migration.

I know I will never again walk along the shore without looking to the horizon just in case I am given the treat of seeing the spout of another whale.

Continuning conversations

I have been thinking lately about the ways in which ideas and conversations can be too big for a single generation. We know, for example, that the idea of monotheism - the concept of one God and Creator of all of the Universe - existed very early in Biblical times. Abraham and Sara had an understanding that the God of their ancestors and the place that they had left behind went with them as they traveled to unknown places. But we also know that there were faithful people among their descendants who continued to struggle with that idea even after the Exodus. It isn’t as if one person suddenly work up with a new idea and it immediately took hold. Rather there was a long conversation of ideas - a give and take - that continued for many generations as our people wrestled with the enormously big idea of a single transcendent God and what that might mean.

One of those big conversations that continues through many generations found expression in my parents. My mother grew up among settler people. Although her grandparents on both sides had been part of a large migration of Europeans moving across the North American Continent, when they arrived in Fort Benton, Montana - the end of the steamship line - they settled. They purchased land and built houses and stayed put. Their children married and occupied land adjacent to that of the parents. The five daughters of my mother’s family mostly stayed in the area, the oldest on a farm on the land of their forebears that continues to be operated by the fifth generation of the family. My mother left Montana briefly to become married during the Second World War and followed my father as he went to school following his service in the Army Air Corps. They soon moved back to Montana, however, and stayed there until after my father’s death when she moved to be closer to her children. My father’s people, on the other hand, although they homesteaded on the land of the Dakota, never stayed in the same place for more than two generations after leaving Europe. In fact they moved around from country to country within Europe before members of the family immigrated to the United States, first to Pennsylvania and later to several points west before he ended up on Montana. Two of his brothers kept moving west, one ending up in California, another in Washington.

This conversation between settler and nomad that went back for many generations, continued in my growing up. On the one hand, we lived in the same house all of the years of my growing up. On the other hand, we traveled whenever it was possible and I was eager to leave my hometown, something I did when I was 17 years old. I came back to work summers for a few years and then moved away from Montana altogether and have not since called that state my home. For my profession, however, I was more settled than many. Pastors often move in about four-year intervals, but each place we served, we remained longer. Our first call was seven years, followed by ten, followed by twenty-five. Not many pastors are called to serve the same congregation for a quarter of a century.

When, a dozen years into our marriage, it became possible for us to begin to purchase our own home, I was so eager to get with it that I rushed the decision-making process. Although we lived in that house for a decade, the process we went through to make that decision was flawed and we took a different approach the next time we went shopping for a house. I’d like to believe that we continued to refine our process as we aged and that this home was purchased with due deliberation. I’m not sure, however, that we didn’t panic a bit at the tight housing market here and make a few more compromises than we might have otherwise made.

The conversation between settler and nomad continues. Part of me wants to simply stay put. Part of me knows that we will own this house for a little while and that the time will come for us to move on. I see that conversation continuing in the lives of our children. Our son seems to have adopted a settler lifestyle, purchasing a small farm, planting more trees in the orchard, developing gardens, working on home improvement projects in his spare time. But there were a lot of moves before they found this place and it is still relatively new to them. Our daughter has lived in Wyoming, Montana, South Dakota, England, Missouri, Japan and South Carolina in her adult life and she is pretty sure that they will move once again in a few years. In a way conversations between our two children have echoes of the conversations my parents must have had.

Understanding that our lives take place within a particular span of history-making and that we are connected to those who have gone before is a critical part of being an educated person. Knowing that the huge moral choices of our time have their roots in choices made by previous generations informs us. Understanding that the consequences of our behavior are not just personal consequences, but have an impact on future generations, gives us much-needed perspective.

Regular readers of my journal know that I continue to be intrigued by the history of philosophy and the philosophy of science. I am continually aware of how many of the current debates in our society have their roots in ancient conversations. We aren’t the first generation to have wrestled with ideas of individual freedom and the good of the community. We didn’t invent the challenges of consumption and sharing. We aren’t the first to ponder the difference between the perspective of the winners and losers. Distribution of resources has been a problem for generations before we arrived on the scene. We won’t solve these problems. We will pass on the conversations to our children and grandchildren.

The conversations continue. And they have consequences in the lives we lead and the lives of future generations. May we be mindful of our place in the ongoing history of people on this planet.

Isolation and fear

Here is something that I would not have done prior to the Covid pandemic: I spent the last two days self-quarantined in my home. I do not have Covid. I have a cold. However, the symptoms of covid are similar to those of a cold and even though I know I do not have Covid, I don’t want to share my cold with others. So, using a phrase that we use a lot at our church, “out of an abundance of caution,” I have been working from home. Zoom software enabled me to attend all of my scheduled meetings and keep contact with my colleagues at work. Most of my correspondence is done via email these days anyway, and I can receive and send email from home as easily as any other place. I did take a few naps, something I probably would have done even if I had not been isolating at home.

Our health has been pretty good since the pandemic began, but we are regularly exposed to our grandchildren and they are exposed to whatever viruses and germs come to public school. Even with increased awareness of personal hygiene, the kids have gone through two rounds of colds since the mask mandate was lifted.

In my personal experience, the masks, though inconvenient, do work to limit the spread of infection and disease. I’m getting pretty used to making sure that I always have a mask with me and pulling it out whenever I think I might be putting another person at risk. I was wearing my mask when shopping or going into the library or church before this cold, so I hope that I have not infected anyone else.

Wearing masks will remain part of the protocol for many of us for a long time. We won’t wear them in every context, but we won’t hesitate to don them when asked or when we feel we may be coming down with a cold or the flu.

I’m less convinced about self-isolation. It is, I’m sure effective. But sometimes we are capable of transmitting a virus before we have symptoms. And if we are careful about wearing masks, the risk of sharing a cold is reduced. I got this cold from playing with my grandchildren when I knew they were suffering. I took a risk and there are consequences to such behavior. I take responsibility for my cold and I’m trying my best to keep from sharing it with others.

I have it very easy when it comes to working from home. I am able to do it without much disruption. I do have job responsibilities that require me to be at the church, especially on Sundays, and this cold seems to have conveniently struck mid week. I should be back to my usual routine by Sunday. But there are a lot of workers who do not have the option of working from home. You can’t clerk at a convenience store, or clean a motel room, or make deliveries with a truck, or wire a house remotely. The majority of jobs in our society require real people to go to real places and do real work. And if you don’t have paid sick leave you simply may not be able to afford to stay home.

We are social animals. The toll of pandemic isolation is evident in the stories that people tell me about their experiences. While we should do whatever we can to avoid spreading illnesses, we also need to continue to nurture our immune systems so that we can resist the infections that are a normal part of being with other people. I suspect that this particular cold is a bit more severe for me simply because I haven’t had very many colds in the last couple of years. My body hasn’t had to fight off infection because I have been isolated from others and from the viruses that normally circulate a bit more freely.

Local school officials report that absenteeism due to normal childhood illnesses has been very high during this entire school year. There have been times when 30 to 50% of students have been out. Part of this is that the schools have changed the rules about staying home due to illness. If a child needs to be picked up by a parent from school due to illness that child is not allowed to attend school the next day in the school our grandchildren attend. Something that would have resulted in a 3 or 4 hour absence in previous years now is likely to be two or three days. The irregular attendance of students presents an additional challenge to the task of teaching. I suspect that teachers are aware that they haven’t been as effective since the pandemic forced the closure of schools. Even with schools reopened and students returning, there is less direct contact between teachers and students. Less time means less teaching in many cases.

Add to the fears of pandemic the fears of school violence, and we are slowing the pace of education for all of our children. There will be no school today in the Blaine school district. That is the district where we live, but it is not the one our grandchildren attend. The announcement is simply that the main campus is locked down due to a threat. There is no information available to parents or school patrons about the nature of the threat. It is, however, credible enough to have school officials close down the school. If, as we hope, the threat turns out to have been false, there is still the loss of a day of teaching and the loss of trust in the safety of the school. While we don’t make it a topic of conversation in front of our grandchildren, I’m pretty sure that at least the older one knows about the school shootings in Texas this week.

Worry and fear aren’t the best companions for learning. We can put on masks to decrease the threat of illness. We’ll have to take bigger steps to decrease the threat of violence in our schools.

More innocent victims

There is a difference. In December 2012, when a 20-year-old shot and killed 20 school children between six and seven years old and six staff members of Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, we were shocked. We also were surprised. We didn’t think that this kind of tragedy could happen in our country. Yesterday, when an 18-year-old gunman took a handgun, an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle and high-capacity magazines into Robb Elementary School in south Texas and killed nineteen children aged 7 to 10, and a teacher, the grief in the media was strangely familiar. There have already been 27 school shootings this year alone. Gun violence overtook car crashes to become the leading cause of death for US children and teenagers in 2020. Active shooter rampage attacks have doubled since the coronavirus began in 2020. Children in schools across the country now participate in regular active shooter drills to train for what once was unthinkable and now seems to have become inevitable.

Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District Chief of Police Pete Arrendondo met with reporters and gave the first official information about the investigation to them. He said that investigators believe the attacker “did act alone during this heinous crime.”

I don’t blame Mr. Arrendondo for his comments. He was under incredible pressure and he was facing rooms full of grieving relatives. His job is going to be miserably filled with pressure for a long time. And when people are under pressure, they sometimes get things wrong. Sometimes they make statements that are inaccurate. I just hope that the entire investigation of this crime isn’t led astray by his initial findings. He did, after all, get part of it right. The crime was heinous.

Sadly, however, the attacker, did not act alone.

I can’t begin to explain or understand what was going on in the mind of an eighteen year old who shot his own grandmother and, wearing body armor carried weapons into an elementary school and began killing at a rate that is horrific and incomprehensible. But he did not act alone.

He acted in concert with 26 others who carried guns into schools and began shooting this year alone.

He acted in concert with Senators and Representatives who have failed to provide common sense legislation to limit the access of youth and young adults to weapons designed solely for the purpose of killing other human beings. He acted in an environment that allows such weapons to be purchased without waiting periods, without adequate background checks, and without insurance or registration.

He acted in concert with a powerful and well-financed gun industry lobby that uses its resources to defeat politicians who attempt to reign in the insanity of gun violence in the United States.

He acted in concert with the National Rifle Association, which will open its annual meeting with exhibits in just a couple of days in Houston, Texas. Texas Governor Greg Abbot and Texas Senator Ted Cruz will address the crowd and demonstrate how important the money from the association is to their political careers. 72 hours from the carnage in Uvalde, they will be warming up the audience by accusing those asking for reasonable gun control of using the tragedy for political gain. The hypocrisy of their actions have become standard fare in a country where a former President continues to accept the results of a fair election without producing any evidence of his claims. He, too, will be addressing the NRA meeting.

The attacker did not act alone.

There is, however, something unique about the attack. Politicians and pundits recognize that this is a problem that is almost unique to the United States. President Biden asked, “Why do we keep letting this happen? Why are we willing to live with this carnage?” His questions are not just for the gun lobby and the politicians and the NRA. They are for all of us. Why do we keep letting this happen.

We know what to expect. There will be a press conference with the official reading of the names of the victims. There will be photos of memorials set up on school grounds with flowers and teddy bears and pictures of innocent children. Robb Elementary School will be added to Sandy Hook and Parkland in the list of moments when we all paused in the face of overwhelming tragedy.

Perhaps, if we have any sense left at all, it will at least temporarily reignite the debate over guns in our country. Sadly, however, there is no sign that it has brought that debate any closer to a resolution that will address the violence and reduce the number of innocent victims.

The attacker did not act alone.

All of us are complicit. We have not spoken out forcefully enough. We have continued to live our lives as if this couldn’t happen in our community. We have not written to our representatives on a regular basis about the need for limits on high capacity magazines and other anti-personnel weapons. We have not educated ourselves on the incomplete development of adolescent brains that continues into the mid-twenties and makes young adults particular vulnerable to rampage. We have not insisted on public funding for mental illness and addiction treatment. We have not made this a topic of discussion in every church, in every community organization, in every city council, in every state legislature. We have not studied the free democracies of the world where gun violence is not a major killer of children and youth. We have not even read the news reports of media from other countries when tragic events like this unfold in our country. We are sadly unaware of how the rest of the world perceives our society. We have not asked every candidate in every election what they will do to reduce gun violence in our country.

The attacker did not act alone.

Until we change our behavior, there will be more attacks. The list is already too painfully long. We have already become numb to the pain and grief.

Like the community members gathered in vigil in Uvalde Texas, I do not have answers, only grief. Like them, I will not forget.

Birthday dinner sushi

Last night we had dinner at our son’s home. It was our youngest granddaughter’s fifth birthday. There had been a party with friends the day before. There were crafts and games and a piñata. Our grandchildren and their friends made sundaes with their choice of several different flavors of ice cream. The party was small - just the right size in the opinion of the grandparents. Yesterday, however, was the actual day of her birthday and the day for a family celebration. It was a typical school day, with the three oldest children going off to their classes. The five-year-old attends jumpstart preschool and rides a bus from the school where her siblings go to school to the preschool in a nearby town. Their father was able to leave work a bit early and come home for the birthday celebration.

Like the family where I grew up, in their family the child whose birthday is being celebrated is asked to suggest the main dish for the birthday dinner. I don’t remember what I suggested when I was growing up, but my birthday is in the summer, so I suspect that I often suggested campfire food such as hot dogs or hamburgers. I know that when I was a teenager, I frequently requested fried chicken for my birthday dinner.

I know that none of my brothers or sisters or I ever asked for sushi for our birthday dinner. Times have changed. We had a feast of sushi for dinner last night at the request of the five-year-old, who, along with the whole family, was enjoying the food picked up from a carryout restaurant by her father. He knows that the sushi was freshly prepared because although he had placed an online order, he had to wait while they prepared the order in front of him.

I commented to the family about how exotic it seemed to me as a kid from Montana to have a granddaughter who requested sushi for her birthday dinner.

We definitely eat more sushi since we have moved to the coast. There are several vendors, including the sushi place right at the entrance to Birch Bay State Park, just a little over a mile from our house, who prepare sushi with fresh, local fish. It is simply better than what we were able to obtain in South Dakota, even though there were some good restaurants that prepared sushi there. In the midwest at least part of the fish that is used is frozen and flown in from the coasts. I’m sure that the sushi restaurants around here use some prepared and frozen products in their food, but you can count on fresh salmon in several different varieties to be a featured part of your order.

We think of Sushi as a Japanese food. Both of our children participated in student exchanges in Japan during their high school years and we hosted several Japanese exchange students, including one who lived with our family for a full year. Our daughter lived in Japan for five years and we were able to visit her there twice. Sushi, however, didn’t originate in Japan. It made its way to those islands from the mainland, from China and Korea and other places. Many years ago, sushi didn’t feature fresh fish, but often pickled or fermented fish. All of that was before the particular type of rice was developed that can be cooked into a sticky form that makes good rolls. It was before a paper company developed a way of processing sheets of seaweed that can be used to create rolls of food. It was before the post-World War II restructuring of the Japanese Economy made Japan famous for high quality steel knives.

It was also before True World Group was formed and grew to a conglomerate that specializes in providing fresh fish to high-end sushi restaurants had revenues exceeding $500 million per year.

The story of sushi in America and its popularity from ballparks to street vendors to grocery chain sushi bars is one of an intriguing one. It involves the complex dynamics of succession in the Unification Church, sometimes called the Moonies after its founder Rev. Sun Myung Moon. The story of the Unification Church and its rising from a small cult to a worldwide religion in a few short decades is itself quite a tale. It involves Korean leader who recruited followers in Japan and convinced them to come to the United States to help spread his religion. It involves mass weddings in which the immigration status of those recruits was insured. It also involves the founding of True World Group, originally a company whose profits was dedicated to the support of the church. You could say we have the Moonies to thank for the popularity of sushi in the United States today. The New York Times prepared a special report on the relationship of sushi and the Unification church. You can read about it at:

Our granddaughter isn’t aware of any of those complexities. She is not a member of the Unification Church. And we don’t really know how much of the ingredients in our family birthday dinner came from True World Foods. For us it was a fun evening of eating with chop sticks, enjoying fresh fish and foods that are fairly exotic even for those of us who live near the ocean. About the only fermented food on the table was the pickled ginger, which was very good. I did notice that the five-year-old didn’t eat the ginger. She was especially fond of vegetable rolls with a bit of cream cheese. I enjoyed the shrimp and salmon rolls a bit of spicy mayonnaise and some wasabi on the side.

As I drifted off to sleep last night, I couldn’t help but think of my parents and grandparents. I think they would have been surprised at the menu of our birthday celebration. I doubt if my grandparents ever ate sushi. My parents did, but it was a rare treat, reserved for trips to distant cities. Times have changed. Our family continues to drift from generation to generation.

I can only wonder what will be served at birthday dinners when our grandchildren have become grandparents.

Of sheep, goats and homeless youth

Northwest Youth Services is a Bellingham non-profit organization serving people ages 13 -24 who are experiencing homelessness in Whatcom and Skagit Counties. The agency provides a variety of different services including housing, help finding a job or enrolling in school, connecting with mental health services, restorative justice for juveniles, and referral to additional services in the community.

One of the ways that Northwest Youth Services delivers support to young people is through a day use center located on the lower level of our church building. The center is called “The Ground Floor,” and youth can obtain food, showers, laundry, and resting rooms. Case management for housing, vocational and mental health services are also delivered on site Monday through Friday.

While construction takes place at another Northwest Youth Services location, the overnight shelter for homeless youth is currently located at The Ground Floor as well. The two programs, day-use and overnight shelter, have different hours and there are times when there are no services available at the church building. On weekdays, the day-use programs end at 4 pm and overnight services begin at 7 pm. Overnight services end at 7 am and the day-use programs don’t begin until 9 am. On weekends, there are no day-use services. Youth who need emergency housing have services provided from 7 pm to 7 am.

Homeless youth don’t have a lot of options as to where to go at times when there are no services being offered. Sometimes they simply hang out at the building, resting on benches or stairs, walking around the parking lot, and waiting. Striving to provide an extravagant welcome to all, the congregation invites youth who are around the building during worship services to come in and join us for worship. I have gotten to know a few of the youth just a little bit through talking with individuals before and after worship. There are others whom I recognize by sight, but do not know, because they have been in the church parking lot when I have been coming and going to and from work at the church.

When we have meetings in the late afternoon on Sundays, there have been a couple of times when youth have rung the doorbell or knocked on the door, asking to use the restrooms at the church. The general policy for staff members is that when we are having public services, such as worship, and church volunteers are greeting at the door, the bathrooms are available to all. When we have small group meetings and the church doors are locked, we do not offer public restrooms. Staff members have discretion to allow use of the bathrooms if they have time to supervise and make sure that guests are not wandering about the building unattended.

As a result, I have been in the position, while being responsible for a small group meeting, of answering the door and having to inform a young person that the restrooms are not available. I simply do not have time or energy to keep track of a guest while I am responsible for leading a group. I do feel, however, that it is important to respond to the door bell when it is rung, so I speak with folks who come to the church with requests.

I have mixed feelings about turning away someone who is only asking to use a rest room. Because I work at the church and have access to the building, I have access to the restrooms. The nearest public restrooms of which I am aware are at Cornwall Park, about a 5 minute walk from the building. I feel a bit silly giving directions to a youth at the door, because I know that the person knows about the restrooms in the park and when you need a restroom, a half mile walk isn’t always your first choice. I’m not in the habit of denying someone access to such an important service. On the other hand, I have participated in discussions about general policy about these situations, and I agree that we should not place ourselves in the position of offering services outside of the service times of Northwest Youth Services.

The Bible is pretty clear about the mandate for followers of Jesus to help feed hungry people and to offer a drink to those who are thirsty. There is a familiar parable in Matthew 25 that speaks of the separation of the sheep from the goats. In that parable, the righteous ask, “Lord, when did we see you hungry or feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink?” The same question is asked by the condemned, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and not feed you, or thirsty and not give you something to drink?” I can’t help but think of that parable when I am standing at the doorway to the church informing a young person that we do not currently have public restrooms available. On a couple of occasions the young person has visited our church for worship and knows that there are restrooms just around the corner from the doorway where we are standing. I know that I am acting as a barrier between that person and a service that is needed.

I think that the experience should make me feel uncomfortable. My comfort isn’t really an important factor in trying to be responsible in relationship with people who have need. I have never experienced homelessness. I don’t know what it feels like to need a restroom and not have one available. I take easy access to restrooms for granted. If I am a bit uncomfortable, so too must a young person who is seeking a restroom.

I have seen signs in businesses that say, “restrooms are for paying customers only.” I know that there are other places that do not allow the use of their restrooms by homeless youth.

Conversations with Northwest Youth Services and the church are on-going, and the newly remodeled overnight shelter will soon be open, drawing youth to a different address than the church. In the meantime, I am trying to learn from the experience, to get to know the individuals who come to the church better, and to participate with the community in conversations about how to provide needed services.

When it comes to sheep and goats, I confess that sometimes I am a bit of each. I’ll have to trust God with the judgment on that one.


The United Nations has declared today to be the International Day for Biodiversity. Some scientists believe that our planet is in the midst of the sixth mass extinction event in the long history of the earth. Some extinction is inevitable. It is normal for species to evolve and become extinct over time. It is estimated that 98% of all species that have ever lives are now extinct. There are several things that cause alarm. The first is simply the rate of extinction. The extinction of species of plants and animals is now occurring at between 1,000 and 10,000 times more quickly than scientists would expect to see. Furthermore, the extinction can be directly related to the activities of a single species: homo sapiens, the most abundant and widespread species of primate on the planet. In addition, we humans are incredibly dependent upon the diversity of other species. We may be precipitating the extinction of our own species through our actions that threaten biodiversity.

Biodiversity is more than just a few selected and easily-identified species. It is the variety of all life on Earth - animals, plants, fungi and micro-organisms such as bacteria. These many and diverse species provide humans with everything we need to survive including fresh water, food and medicines. We cannot, however, get these benefits from individual species. We need a variety of animals and plants to be able to work together and thrive, in order for us to have a livable planet. We need biodiversity to survive.

the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has developed a red list of species in imminent danger of extinction. That list includes 40% of all amphibians, 34% of conifers, 33% of reef corals, 31% of sharks and rays, 27% of crustaceans, 25% of mammals, and 14% of birds.

Since time immemorial, humans have harvested other species to obtain the necessities of life. We have cut down trees to build homes and other items. We have hunted and fished to obtain food. We have picked fruit and grain and taken other plants for food. All of these activities have an impact on biodiversity, in part because we have been so successful that we have increased in number dramatically. Overpopulation by humans means that we are logging, harvesting, hunting and fishing at the highest rates in history.

It isn’t just the taking of other species for our needs, however. Many of the species most endangered are placed at risk because of the loss of habitat. Pollution, rapid industrialization, and over use of water are key factors in the dramatic habitat change that is affecting biodiversity. Plants and animals are faced with the need to adapt to huge changes in their habitat due to human activity including global warming. The UN says that if global warming was limited to 1.5 degrees C, global species extinction would be significantly lower.

Modern humans are different that our predecessors not only in our numbers, but in the impact of each individual. Ancient hunter/gatherer societies harvested, fished and hunted taking only the minimum amount needed for survival. Contemporary humans take more than is needed. Global overconsumption is evident in critical areas such as food and water, but also in our use of energy and precious minerals. Our planet is suffering because of the amount of human waste. All of that waste is not inevitable. We can change our patterns of behavior.

It is estimated that 1.3 billion tons of food is wasted each year. That is a lot of waste. The value of wasted food exceeds $1 trillion. That is a huge loss to human economies. Each time we make a trip to the grocery store or food market, we come home with more than we can eat. Food is lost due to the natural process of decomposition. By separating food waste from the normal stream of garbage and composting it we can decrease the impact of the waste, but the best way to avoid waste is to simply purchase smaller quantities and to pay attention to the shelf life of fresh fruits and vegetables.

Living in an area with many orchards, we have become more aware of our consumption of fruit. We eat produce from our son’s small orchard year round. We freeze and dry fruit when it is ripe. This year we will have even more fruit because there is a plum tree and a cherry tree in the back yard of the home we have purchased. Fruit is seasonal. The abundance of the orchard is not year-round, but confined to summer and fall. I happen to enjoy apples, so when we don’t have fresh apples from the trees, I purchase apples from the grocery store, where they are available year round. But there is a big difference in grocery store apples. In the late summer and early fall, when we are purchasing new crop apples fresh from the orchards, the fruit has a pretty reasonable shelf life. However, at this time of the year, the apples in the store have been stored in controlled atmosphere where temperature, oxygen, carbon dioxide, and humidity levels are adjusted to put them into hibernation. Those apples begin to spoil much more quickly. They lose their crispness within a few days. While we can eat a case of apples fresh from the orchard without significant spoilage, this time of year, we find some spoilage before we can consume a small bag of apples.

We would waste less food if we maintained a balance of when we purchase and when we consume apples. And that is just one type of food. All of the food we eat comes in seasons. A couple of generations ago, our grandparents lived in synchronization with the seasons. They ate certain foods when they were available. They wasted less food.

The International Day of Biodiversity is an opportunity for me to examine the behaviors in my life that have an impact on other species. The hope is that we will go beyond individuals and engage corporate and community action to slow the loss of diversity. The survival of our species hangs in the balance along with the others.

What I eat and drink

I used to brew kombucha at home. It is a fairly simple process, really. You brew tea and sweeten it slightly. I used decaffeinated tea and honey. Then you add the Scoby. Scoby is an acronym for “Symbiotic Colony of Bacteria and Yeast.” It is a slimy, pancake-like blob. I obtained my Scoby from another kombucha brewer and it grows quickly enough that after a few batches I had enough to divide and share. I brewed my kombucha in small batches in gallon jars, strained it, and then bottled it in smaller bottles with air-tight, reusable stoppers. The mixture was naturally carbonated and I practiced with several different flavor combinations. I thought I was getting pretty good at making berry and root beer flavors.

Kombucha helps maintain a healthy gut biome. The community of microorganisms that help the stomach and intestines process food into energy is complex and there are foods and beverages that promote a healthy biome.

I stopped brewing my own kombucha when we were preparing to move, however. I knew that it would be easy to obtain a new starter culture from another brewer and get back into the routine. However, I have not yet begun that process. For the first year after we moved, we were in a rental home and there are some potentially dramatic spills that can occur if the kombucha is allowed to become over carbonated. I’ve been known to have to scrub kombucha off of walls and even the ceiling when I didn’t use appropriate caution uncorking a bottle. So I just haven’t gotten around to starting up the process. My kombucha bottles are in boxes that have not been unpacked since our move.

So last night at dinner, I was drinking kombucha that I bought at the grocery store. It is a good, berry flavor, and lightly sweetened, but it is made with regular black tea, so it contains caffeine, and I try to avoid consuming too much caffeine, so I limit my consumption. Having a glass with dinner, however, is a nice treat from time to time. As I poured my kombucha, I was reading the label out loud to Susan. It says on the bottle that it “contains 9 billion living probiotics.” I wondered how they came up with the number for the label. I imagine that the process might involve taking a dropper full of the kombucha, putting it on a microscope slide, counting the organisms and then doing the math to figure out how many drops are in a bottle. From there it is simply multiplication.

As I joke, I asked how they know the probiotics from the amateur biotics. In some sense, I guess that all of the microorganisms that we eat become probiotic - that is they contribute to the process of helping the digestive system function. I’m pretty sure that I obtain enough probiotics from my regular diet that I don’t need the boost of a glass of kombucha. I don’t see it as a tonic. I simply enjoy it.

I’m not sure where I first heard the phrase, “You are what you eat,” but there is truth to the simple saying. Our overall health is more complex than simply consuming and digesting food, however. There is a lot of relatively recent information published about the vagus nerve. I think that advanced imaging and brain research has given scientists much better ways of understanding the nervous system. The vagus nerve is named from the Latin root “vag” which means wander. Our English word vagabond, comes from the same root. The nerve does wander. It goes down the back of the throat, back up and loops near the ears, goes by the heart, though the lungs, liver, stomach and finally ends in the intestines.

Somehow in my elementary understanding of how the nervous system works, I used to think of nerves as one way communication. The brain issues an order and the body responds. The brain directs autonomic functions such as breathing and heart rate. It also directs voluntary functions such as moving one’s arms and legs. But the nervous system is multiplex communication. The body informs the brain of important information. We are able to move because the brain receives information on where our various body parts are. I can feel my fingers on the keyboard and that information is as important for my brain as the ideas I am trying to express.

The vagus nerve plays a huge role in maintaining brain health. There is a direct connection between anxiety and gut health. Unlike the ancient notion of a human being composed of body, mind, and emotions, these aspects are intimately connected. We experience emotions in all of our body and, it turns out, we “think” in other places than our brains. Our nerves are important parts of mental health and even though modern medicine still distinguishes between mental and physical health, doctors are well aware that these are not separate systems that can be treated independently.

Therapists are beginning to better understand the relationship between nutrition and mental health, but even using the term “mental health,” shows our tendency to separate mind from body. We cannot be physically healthy if we are not mentally healthy and it works the other way around, too. We need to be whole - healthy in mind, body and spirit - in order to be healthy.

Paying attention to gut health is important because that wonderful nerve that visits all of the organs in our body, the vagus nerve, is keeping up constant communication.

There are a lot of good reasons for me to get back to the practices of home food preparation that I set aside when we moved. Baking and brewing and using the elements of the earth to make good food helps us stay healthy in all ways. Judging from the small berries emerging, we are going to have a bumper crop of plums and cherries from our yard this year. And the orchard at the farm will once again produce more that we are able to consume. I guess it is time for me to be thinking of drying and freezing fruit - and of making kombucha.

I don’t intend, however, to count the number of living probiotics in each bottle.

Baby formula

There is a nasty cold making its way through the local elementary school. Our seven-year-old granddaughter caught it first. She developed a nasty cough and was home from school for four days before she was able to return to class. Her older brother caught it next. He seemed to have a slightly more mild case, and missed only two days of school, but he had an additional two weekend days to get to felling better. Somewhere in the midst of those sick children their mother began to have symptoms. Next it was their younger sister. Grandma also was coughing and blowing her nose. We learned from the school that nearly one third of the students had missed class with this cold. In one classroom, more than 50% of the students were out due to the virus. Most, like our grandchildren, were tested for Covid and the results came back negative. It was what our children’s pediatrician used to call the annual “Introduction to communicable disease” that comes with public school.

So far, I have escaped symptoms as has the children’s father. But the baby, only three months old, has had a couple of hard days. His most prominent symptom has been nasal congestion, but he also has coughed some and has had a fever that comes and goes. It is really hard on parents when a child is sick, maybe even worse when the baby is sick. The parents are up in the night, short of sleep, and worried.

Yesterday was a day when we could provide a bit of help for the family. Susan is pretty much recovered from her symptoms. She gave one child a ride to school while I helped with the baby. A time in the bathroom with the shower running worked like a vaporizer tent. That was followed by a bit of saline solution and suction of his nose and a short time of nursing with mother. Then I held him so his mother could attend to other necessary chores. He preferred to be held with his head elevated so he could breathe through his nose and before long he was sleeping in my arms, breathing easily. I didn’t want to put him down because I worried that his congestion might return. So I got to experience one of the great luxuries of my life, sitting in a rocking chair, holding a baby. He slept for a little over two hours and I was able to sit and rock for the entire time.

Sitting in a rocking chair for a couple of hours in the middle of the day is pretty rare for me. But it brought back some wonderful memories. Susan and I bought a new, unfinished rocking chair when we were expecting the birth of our first child. I sanded, stained and sealed the chair and it has been part of our living room ever since. I still love to sit in that chair.

I’ve told the story in my journal many times, but in the fall of 1983, just after we returned from an extended study leave at Pacific School of Religion, we received a call from a social services agency asking if we would consider adopting an infant. The tiny child was about as far away as one could be in our state, 425 miles away, and they were hoping we could pick her up before noon the next day. Somehow we recovered from our surprise enough to say, “Yes!” and our lives changed forever in the most wonderful way. We managed to borrow a couple of infant sleepers from friends who were expecting a child on our way out of town and that was all of the baby supplies we had when we got to the agency in the late morning the next day.

After meeting the beautiful baby and adjusting all of the straps in the car seat we had used with our son when he was an infant, we headed to a local store to gather supplies for the trip home. Diapers and baby formula were the first items on our list. We bought the powdered formula that could be mixed as needed and a couple of small baby bottles. We managed to figure out how to mix the formula and drove over half way home before stopping for the night at a motel. That night I was too excited to sleep. I stayed up most of the night just staring at the tiny baby in the crib. When she stirred, I picked her up. I changed her diaper and mixed formula.

Her brother had been breast-fed, so formula was all new to us, but it was for me a wonderful thing. It meant that I could feed the baby. I took my share of getting up with the baby in the night and there were a lot of nights when I would doze while rocking her in that chair. I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything.

Now she is an adult and a wife and a mother. But holding our grandson yesterday, I couldn’t help but think of when she was tiny.

So I don’t understand how we could have allowed so few companies to so dominate the baby formula market that shutting down a single production plant would cause a shortage and a crisis. I don’t understand why in the rush to abandon NAFTA and re-negotiate the USMCA treaty, negotiators placed a ban on the import of baby formula. I don’t understand how some representatives could vote against a bill to provide emergency funds to the FDA to restore supplies and investigate the shortage. I don’t understand how television commentators and internet trolls could suggest that babies held in detention by border patrol not be fed and the formula for them be given to others.

Feeding babies is a basic human task that falls to every parent and every grandparent. I don’t understand how it can be anything less than our highest priority as a country to address the shortage, to get the necessary supplies in the hands of those who need it, and to insure that changes are made to correct the problem. This isn’t a world-wide shortage. It is a problem in our country.

Maybe there are too many people who have never had the opportunity to hold a baby and feed her a bottle. Perhaps it has been too long since they have picked up a tiny one. Fortunately, I have been given that opportunity, and I’m not inclined to give it up.

Struggling with social media

I am not a big user of social media. Mostly I find it to be a waste of my time. I can learn more and encounter more new ideas by reading books than from the memes that pop up on the Internet. Nonetheless, I do spend a significant amount of time on the Internet. After all, I publish my journal on my website every day. I get most of my news from Internet sites. And I watch YouTube videos for entertainment. I was not an early adopter of FaceBook, but I finally signed up and created a profile years ago when our nephew was traveling in Central America. Facebook was a way to see his pictures and keep track of his travels. I found myself checking it daily to keep up on his adventures. Then he came home from his travels and stopped posting. I would go for long periods of time without looking at Facebook at all.

The Covid pandemic changed my use of social media dramatically. As face-to-face meetings began to shut down, I turned to Internet platforms to continue contact with my congregation. I posted daily prayer on my YouTube channel with links to the church’s website and FaceBook page. We started live-streaming worship on Facebook because the platform was convenient and did not involve large fees.

In the midst of the pandemic, my high school class held a 50-year reunion. I didn’t attend the events, which were lightly attended because of the pandemic, but I did join a Facebook group of school classmates. I posted some photos and even a school paper from our elementary days on Facebook as classmates shared memories. From that I received “friend” requests from several former classmates and I responded positively. I ignore the majority of requests, as I frequently receive them from people I don’t know. I also receive a number of requests from people pretending to be people I have known, so I check out the “about” information on every request to avoid making connections that are not meaningful.

As I made contact with former classmates, my Facebook feed began to change. I noticed more and more posts that contained extreme political views. Some of them were overtly racist, misogynist, or homophobic. Some contained outright lies that were materially false. Some promoted violence. I learned to use the Facebook feature that allows users to see less of certain types of content.

I tried, however, to avoid blocking posts by my friends. First of all, as Facebook goes, I don’t think I have very many friends. I don’t make friend requests. I do respond to requests when I know a person from some other context in my life. Secondly, I do not want to isolate myself from ideas with which I disagree. I want to participate in the world of ideas and I think that my critical thinking skills are honed through contact with ideas with which I disagree as well as ideas that are similar to my own. I don’t want to be a person who only speaks with those with whom I agree.

I don’t however, engage in online arguments. The few I have witnessed are devoid of reasonable rules of logic. They are nothing more than sophomoric shouting matches. I think my energies are better engaged in working to educate people with whom I have a chance of ongoing and multi-dimensional conversations.

Last night, I once again, directed Facebook to show me fewer comments from a high school classmate. I was offended by his continual passing on of racist and violent memes. I had begun to wonder if he ever wrote any of his papers for school as his Facebook posts are never things he himself has written. He simply passes on memes posted by others. Nonetheless, his choice of memes is offensive. Last night, as the world struggles to make some sense out of the Buffalo, New York attack by a white man directed at black shoppers in which 10 people died, a racist meme was simply too much. I decided to just stop reading those memes.

I suppose that my decision was cowardly. When lies are perpetuated and there are no voices to speak the truth, the lies become reality. Social media, along with the rest of society, needs voices to speak the truth and to call out those who circulate lies and hate. From a purely personal standpoint, however, it seems to me that pursuing a relationship with someone whom I hardly know and who is unlikely to read and learn from a cogent argument, is a waste of time.

As long as our congregation uses the Facebook platform to livestream worship, I will keep my account. I will log in from time to time to read the comments posted by those who participate in our church’s activities. I will read posts by people who are my friends offline as well as online. But I have no energy for those who simply pass on the posts of others without adding any of their own content. I have decided to spend less of my time with social media and more of my time working in other venues to educate myself and other church members about racism and systematic injustice.

I understand that there is a need to stand up for the truth in all of the platforms that humans use to communicate. I know that it is wrong to allow racism to perpetuate. I wouldn’t pause before naming a racist joke in a face to face conversation. I am still called to be antiracist in my words and deeds. But I am just one voice and I can’t save the world all by myself. I have decided to leave some of the necessary conversations of this world to others.

Last night a presenter in our church’s adult forum pointed out that in the Bible, God calls communities of people way more often than individuals. We are not simply called as individuals, but also as communities. Frankly, my high school class isn’t much of a community. We are connected by a bit of shared history and a few memories. As I continue to listen for God’s call, I think my time is better invested in relationships with the congregation I serve.

If i don’t respond to your facebook request, you can always try talking to me in person.

The wisdom of the janitor

When I was a seminary student, I worked part-time as a janitor in a neighborhood church. The job had flexible hours that did not interfere with my studies and we needed the income to buy groceries and other essentials. I had worked as a janitor before, trading janitorial services for a building for use of a small apartment the first year of our married life. The church job grew from cleaning to light maintenance and I earned a bit of extra funds by engaging in some larger projects, such as the installation of speakers in the sanctuary ceiling that required renting and constructing a scaffolding tower and hiding wires next to ancient timbers and beams. One of the jobs I did for the congregation was to install hidden casters in the legs of the large wooden communion table. The congregation was affiliated with the United Church of Christ and also with the Christian Church, Disciples of Christ. Part of their Disciples of Christ heritage was the tradition of celebrating Holy Communion every Sunday. Their large gothic sanctuary was a bit unusual for a Disciples of Christ congregation, which generally prefer simpler surroundings. It featured a large baptistry, suitable for baptisms by immersion, another unique feature of a gothic chapel. The original altar had been moved from its original place at the front of the chancel, and moved closer to the congregation. The current congregation wanted it to move even closer, but the table was too heavy to be moved by one or two individuals. The solution to making the table easy to move was to turn it upside down and cut out cavities in the bottoms of the legs and install special casters that had levers that raised and lowered the table. It was a huge project that had to be completed in one week so the table was usable on each Sunday. Somehow, I got the work done.

After I had completed the project, I was assigned the task of writing a poem about the life of a church in one of my seminary classes. I ended up writing about the communion table with wheels that brought the sacrament to the people. I gave a copy of the poem to the senior pastor of the congregation where I was janitor. He in turn, submitted it for publication in a denominational magazine. The poem was later reprinted in an international journal for blind people which was printed in Braille. It was the only poem I have ever had published. Also, because it was printed in Braille, it is the only thing I have ever written that was translated for publication.

I haven’t kept a copy of the poem. I think I may have had one that went to the recycling with other papers when I cleaned out files before moving here, but I know I would not have been able to find it, buried in a file cabinet with over 40 years of saved notes, sermons, and other treasures. I don’t really need the poem. I still have the story, which takes more words and more space than the poem.

I thought of that poem, and that experience yesterday. We had our first in-person staff meeting since we started working at our current church. We have worked there for nine months with weekly staff meetings held over Zoom. Some days we have all been in the building in adjacent offices and still have met over Zoom. The Covid pandemic has isolated us in very strange ways. It was so refreshing and delightful to simply sit around the table with the entire church leadership team. We shared lunch around a large conference table that provided room for distancing. The windows were open and we could feel the breeze circulating air in the room.

During the meeting, in addition to reveling in the joy of simply being together face to face, I got to hear more from the church accountant than I had previously heard. Being together made her feel invited to speak and she had some very insightful observations about the congregation and the engagement of members.

I also was incredibly impressed with the observations of our church janitor. I have known for all of my career that the position of janitor is an excellent place to observe the life of a congregation. Janitors clean the floors and rearrange the furniture. They pick up scraps of paper left behind after church board meetings. They get to see the doodles that bored parishioners make on worship bulletins. They learn to estimate accurately how many people are attending worship and meetings and how many cars are parked in the parking lot. They learn about patterns of attendance and they hear the voices of church members, sometimes at the point of frustration, sometimes at moments of celebration. A good observant janitor can tell you a lot about the general life of the congregation. When I was a janitor, I knew which places were most likely to be occupied during a worship service and which ones filled only when there was a special service at Easter or Christmas. I knew which members’ funerals were large and filled the church and which were more private and intimate.

The church office manager also has a unique perspective on the life of the church. The person most likely to hear directly the complaints of members and who answers the phone day in and day out knows the mood of the congregation. The one who does all of the scheduling and calendar management understands the church programs and sees how they are coordinated and connected as well as how diverse they are.

It was such a treat to listen to and discuss the current state of our congregation with the accountant and janitor and office manager and other members of the church staff yesterday. A good pastor listens carefully to those people, and I felt honored by their observations that have previously been unknown by me. People say things in face to face meetings that are never said over Zoom.

Lunch yesterday was a good reminder of the power of human connection. I know that we are not finished with Zoom meetings. I have an important one this evening. I have agreed to teach classes that are offered over Zoom. I’m becoming more skilled at managing break out rooms and screen sharing and recording and other technical aspects of the program. All there same, I long for and treasure those times when we share church together face to face. And I’m glad I’ve learned to listen to the wisdom of the church janitor.

A tale of a cookie recipe

Here in Birch Bay, Washington, in a small plaza called Birch Bay Square is a grocery store. The store has an in-store bakery that makes the largest coconut macaroons I have ever seen. I enjoy coconut macaroons and have been known to buy as many as a half dozen when making a stop at Wheat Montana during a trip. But the notion of a giant macaroon isn’t particularly enticing to me. Bigger isn’t always better when it comes to cookies. And in the case of a coconut macaroon, I fear bigger means that the texture of crunchy exterior and creamy interior is probably not balanced. However, I haven’t tasted one and I have no plans to buy one anytime soon.

I consider myself to be a bit of a cookie snob. I’m not proud of it. I confess that it is a sign of privilege to prefer one cookie above another. Part of the pleasure of eating, however, are the stories of the foods we consume. At our church we are collecting recipes and stories together. I find the stories to be compelling and worth collecting and there are some recipes that are definitely linked to stories that are rich in tradition and meaning.

Today, for my journal, a bit of the story behind the story, if you will. To begin with, I don’t know the story behind coconut macaroons. I do know one thing, however. Macaroons aren’t French. I took three years of college French and although my accent is terrible, I’m pretty sure that there is no “ooh” sound in French. The closest sound in French is an “aw” sound, pronounced as in the English word, “gone.” It is critical in the story of cookies because there is a French cookie called a Macaron.

A Macron is not a macaroon. Macaroons are made with coconut. Macrons are flavored with almonds. When we traveled in France, way back in 1978, I had the opportunity to taste a Paris Macron. It had a gentle almond flavor, but what was most noticeable was the thin layer of jam or glacé between the two cookie halves. As I remember the cookies from long ago, I recall bright colors that aren’t quite natural, such as pink and green and yellow, the products of food coloring. The cookies made enough of an impression to create a memory for me, but they don’t come close to the most amazing things we ate during our visit to France.

Searching for recipes for macaroons, however, I discovered that a Paris Macaron isn’t the original French cookie. This news has set me on a bit of a quest. However, it turns out that I have no chance of obtaining the recipe for the original French Macaron, despite the fact that the president of France, Emmanuel Macron has a name similar to the famous cookie.

One story is that Catherine de’ Medici introduced the macaron to the tables of the royal court of France in the 16the Century, but that is a legend and it is likely that the cookies originated much earlier. In fact etymologists say that the word macaron comes from Italian. Chances are the cookie traveled through Italy before becoming popular in France. It is probably not possible to trace the origins of the cookie, which are now lost in the annals of history.

The cookie that has caught my attention is not the original, but it has ancient roots and many traditions. More importantly, it has a great story. Macarons des Sœurs were created by two 18th Century nuns, Marguerite Gaillot and Marie Morlot, who lived in an abbey in the small town of Nancy, in Lorraine, in the north-east of France, on the bank of the river Meurthe. In 1792, a decree abolished certain religious congregations and the sisters were expelled from the abby. The nuns took refuge with a local doctor and supported themselves by making and selling macarons. Since that time Macarons des Sœurs have been sold in Nancy without interruption and the recipe has remained a closely guarded secret. When Marguerite died, Marie passed the secret recipe to her niece with the admonition that she should give it to no one until she was unable to make the cookies and then, and only then, she should pass the recipe on to only one person. The recipe should never be written down, only shared orally to one person at a time. The recipe remained in the family for generations and eventually was passed to the Aptel family and from them to Jean-Marie Genot in 1991, who passed the secret of the macaron to his son Nicholas in 2000.

You can only obtain genuine Macarons des Sœurs from one bakery in the world, Mason des Sœurs Macarons, in Nancy, France.

Chances are pretty slim of my ever having one of those cookies to give it a taste, but if I ever do, I will relish the opportunity. In a way, however, I don’t need the cookie to share its joy, because I know the story. And sometimes the story is enough.

The world is filled with church cookbooks. We have quite a few ourselves, with recipes collected by congregations in at least four states. There are some really good recipes in those cookbooks, too. But the project at our church has a different goal than producing yet another cookbook, which I suppose could include my recipe for coconut macaroons. Our total is to collect the stories behind the recipes. Feasting on our stories is every bit as pleasurable as feasting on food. The stories have just begun to arrive. I have been formatting them for display in the church, so I get to read all of them. It has already been a treat. I have learned stories of traditions passed down for generations in families, of recipes born of a shortage of time and resources, and of recipes that provide connections in places where none might otherwise exist. I’m pretty sure that there will be plenty of romance and even a bit of intrigue.

I think it is likely that this is not the last journal entry I will make with a story of food.

Still adjusting

There was a super blood moon last night. The moon appeared red because the earth passed between it and the sun causing the light that was reaching the moon and reflecting back to the earth to have passed through the earth’s atmosphere bending the light waves and making the moon appear red. In addition to the color caused by the eclipse, the event occurred at a time when the moon is passing close to the earth in its orbit, making it appear to be larger from the perspective of viewers on this planet.

However, I didn’t see the super blood moon. It was cloudy and rainy here all night long. The forecast is for rain showers to continue at least through noon today and for the cloud cover to remain all day long.

It rained in the morning yesterday, too. When it was time to plant the children’s garden after worship the rain forced us indoors. The children planted seeds in pots that will be transplanted to the garden after they sprout and there is a classroom with windows that is directly opposite the children’s garden, so the children could see where their plants were going to be growing. they could see the strawberry bed and the herb garden, but it wasn’t quite the same as if we had been able to have them planting directly in the garden beds.

Around here you learn to make alternative plans in case of rain. And you learn that two items of clothing are important: a good rain jacket and waterproof shoes. Dry feet can make a world of difference in soggy climates.

Years ago, when we were living in South Dakota, we attended a gathering of indigenous people sponsored by the first people’s fund. I remember being fascinated by the northwest coast Salish people and the hats, woven of cedar bark that they wore. Their distinctive shape, coming to a point at the top with a broad brim made the folks from the Pacific Northwest easy to identify. Now that we have moved to the land they call Lummi, the traditional land of the Lhaq’temish, I know immediately why those hats have been worn by people in this region for thousands of years. They shed the rain very well and keep the wearers’ heads dry.

There are folks whose lives are disrupted by seasonal affective disorder. For them, cloudy days followed by more cloudy days can dampen their spirits. I don’t seem to be particularly sensitive to that condition. I seem to have made the switch in climates without suffering falling spirits. I do, however, miss seeing the moon and stars.

It isn’t that we don’t have times when the sky is clear. We do. There are often sunny times on rainy days. And we have days and nights when it is not raining and when the clouds part. I have been able to sit on my deck and watch the stars and the moon. It doesn’t rain all the time here. It just rains more often. The average rainfall is slightly more than double the average where we lived in South Dakota.

There are times when I wish I could see the night sky better. I miss the feeling of being out on our deck in South Dakota and looking up at the clear sky. I suppose that I am forgetting how much colder it was there, but I’ve never been bothered by the cold very much.

Another thing I miss from our South Dakota days are the deer in our yard. We have deer around here and we see them from time to time, but they don’t come into our yard. We live in a neighborhood where the houses are closer together and the yards are smaller and the deer tend to stay in more open spaces.

What we do have here that is different from our South Dakota home is birds. I used to love to watch the great blue herons at the lake. I would take their pictures and enjoy seeing a pair from time to time. A couple of days ago we counted 15 great blue herons as we walked along the shore. There is a rookery near here with a concentration of nests and the herons find plenty to eat as the tides go in and out of the bay. And it isn’t just herons. We get to see many different types of ducks and geese and swans. There are a host of smaller shore birds, and of course the gulls and crows provide nearly constant entertainment. Watching gulls fly on a windy day is a lesson in aerodynamics.

Last evening, under cloudy skies, but between rain showers, we watched a hummingbird on the purple wisteria in our back yard. The tiny bird was going back and forth among the cascading purple flowers. Although the plant is toxic to humans, the tiny birds are adapted to the chemicals in the wisteria. We are treated to glimpses of them much more frequently than was the case in our South Dakota home.

Part of moving from one region of the country to another is learning about the differences in plants and animals with whom we share this planet. Different things grow here, where the temperature doesn’t get as cold, or as hot as it does where we used to live. I’m learning about temperature, too. A bright sunny day here is generally at least 10 degrees cooler than a similar day in South Dakota. People may not have parkas for winter weather around here, but they have sweaters and jackets close at hand year round. I didn’t expect to notice the chill in the air as much as I do. Perhaps, however, that is a sign of the simple fact that I am aging. I notice children out in short sleeves and short pants when I’m bundled up in a jacket.

So here we are in a new place with new neighbors and new things to learn about the world. It is the season to plant gardens and watch them grow. It is a season with much to learn. Fortunately all we have to do to see new things is to go outside.

Planting seeds with children

For congregations that follow the Revised Common Lectionary, the first lesson during Eastertide comes from the book of Acts. Most of the year the first reading is from the Hebrew Scriptures, commonly called the Old Testament, but for the period between Easter and Pentecost, it is traditional to read from the Book of Acts for that reading. Interestingly, today’s reading from Acts is about a controversy in the early church about whether the new faith movement would be extended beyond the community of Jewish believers. Jesus was a Jew and much of his early ministry was based in synagogues and other places where faithful Jews gathered. After his death and resurrection, early church leaders struggled over whether or not to welcome Gentiles as Christians.

The congregation we are currently serving generally only reads one text from the lectionary each week, and most commonly the reading of the Gospel is the chosen text, so we haven’t been spending much time or energy learning about the dynamics of the interplay between the multiple readings of the lectionary. If I were preaching on this text to adults, I would probably spend a bit of time and energy explaining a bit about the complexities of Jewish dietary laws and customs and how decisions about what to eat were a part of the distinctions between people in the time of the early church. Those who didn’t follow the traditions about what to eat and what to wear and how to spend their time were labeled Gentile and identified as non believers by those who adhered to Jewish laws. The thought that the two groups could come together in the same religion was a challenge for many people. There were faithful followers of Jesus who argued that Christians should be required to follow all Jewish customs and traditions including circumcision. Others argued that one need not be Jewish to be a part of the emerging Christian community.

I, however, am not going to preach to adults today. I am responsible for the time with children in our worship service. Children are capable of understanding complex ideas, but they need to be presented with care and with understanding of the psychosocial, faith and moral development of children. For preschoolers and younger elementary children, we generally focus our attention on the universality of God’s love. God loves people whose traditions and customs are different from ours. In today’s text, Peter speaks of his vision in which he comes to understand that all foods come from God and that all that God creates is good. While other faithful Jews are taught that some foods are clean and some are unclean, Peter declares that all good things come from God and that everything that comes from God is good.

Even very young children know the sensation of thinking that some foods are good and others are less desirable. Every parent knows the feeling of having prepared good food and watching a child reject it. “I don’t like this food. It is yucky!” Helping a child remember times when they have rejected a certain food can be a key to helping them understand that dietary laws can create hard feelings between people.

Of course the 5 or so minutes that we have for “Time with Children” in a worship service is not enough time to deliver a complete lesson to our children. We will expand our teaching through additional activities. One of the planned activities for children in our church today is the planting of our children’s garden. The eight raised garden beds will be planted with food and flower crops that will grow over the next few months. The children will be involved in caring for the plants and will be able to witness harvesting plants for food. Some of the herbs or other plants in the gardens will not be recognized by the children as food and there will be opportunities for teaching and learning through the season.

Today, making connections between the rather obscure arguments about dietary laws in the Acts text and the activities of planting the garden is a pretty long stretch for us as teachers. I’ve been working with children (and adults) long enough to know that not every lesson results in immediate understanding. We all learn from repetition. Hopefully one of the lessons that we repeat over and over regardless of which text the lectionary hands us is about the goodness of God’s creation. The Psalmist writes that the earth is Gods and the fullness thereof. Every place we go is holy ground. We are called to provide care for all of the bounty of the earth. Planting seeds and caring for plants is a sacred calling.

Interpreting the lesson with adults is no less challenging. On a day when the news headlines report yet another horrific mass shooting that appears to be a hate crime aimed at African Americans, texts that challenge us to reach beyond the divisions and distinctions we make between ourselves and other human beings are critical. Our faith calls us to reject racism in both its obvious and more subtle forms. We sing hymns and proclaim a faith in Christ who transcends the distinctions we make between ourselves and others. Yet racism and sexism and homophobia and many other forms of discrimination persist in our society. Clearly we have a lot of work to do to teach our children and ourselves about the pain caused by discrimination.

We are planting more seeds with our children today than just the ones that will produce a small harvest from a few garden beds. Children always learn more from how we behave than from what we say. They watch how we treat other people. They observe the biases we display. They learn lessons, both good and bad, from the lives we live. It is a great honor, but also a great responsibility to be entrusted with part of the teaching of the children of the church. The time we have with children, even the few moments designated in each worship service as “time with children,” is precious. Sometimes, we can use them to teach lessons to adults as well. And every teacher knows that we learn from every act of teaching.

May God bless the seeds we sow today.

The past becomes present


I grew up with stories of the great depression. My parents lives were shaped by the dirty thirties. They were children when the wall street crash occurred, and knew very little of the stock market and its impact on the wider economy. What they did know was the shortage of money and the incredible weather they witnessed. Who they were and who I became is also influenced by the major historical event of their young adult years - World War II. I know some stories of my parents during the war years, but stories of the depression marked many family gatherings. Aunts and Uncles and other relatives all had stories to share. My father’s family was struggling to hang onto the family farm near Minnewaukan, North Dakota, and might have lost the farm were it not for a special depression refinancing program of the Bank of North Dakota. North Dakota had dozens of social programs during the Depression that made a huge difference to farm families. The Bank of North Dakota and the North Dakota Mill and Elevator Company were owned by the state and those two institutions provided the small margin by which the farm survived those tough years.

I heard many stories, in my growing up years, of Black Sunday, when the storms were so severed and the dust clouds were so dense that the sun could not be seen for an entire day. I imagined those storms and looked at the historic pictures like the one in this journal post of dark clouds rolling in and overwhelming everything.

Stories of the depression and how folks survived came to me from the family I married into as well. I know about barn dances thrown to make a few extra dollars and “lemonade” that was sold on the side. I can re-tell stories of working on the county road crew for $1 per day and being grateful for the job.

With all of those stories in my memory from years of growing up, Thursday’s windstorm that swept across the Dakotas stirred some intense emotions. Winds exceeded 100 mph in Tripp, South Dakota. That isn’t the speed of the winds in a tornado, though there were tornadoes spawned by the storm. The straight-line winds of the rapidly-moving storm were above 90 mph in several communities across the central and eastern portions of the state.

The worst of the storms did not affect the side of South Dakota where we lived. The Black Hills are a unique geographical feature with their own weather. It was out on the open prairies where the winds and dust blew. At least two people in South Dakota and another in Minnesota have died as direct results of the storms.

Extreme weather stories continue to come from around the globe. Hay River, in the Northwest Territories of Canada, south of Great Slave Lake, is completely flooded. All 4,000 residents of the community as well as members of nearby First Nation communities have been affected. Ice jammed the Hay River as it flows into the lake and waters from recent rains backed up and overwhelmed the city. The airport is closed. Just getting emergency supplies and help to the town is a huge challenge.

Flooding has been the major story in Queensland in Australia for nearly a month. Just a couple of days ago officials reported another missing person due to water overflowing local roads. Reservoir levels are high and officials have been forced to release water from them, causing downstream flooding. Record heavy rains continue to fall through the entire region.

Cyclones and dust storms, fires and floods, stories of disaster abound all around the world. All life depends on a healthy planet, but the interwoven systems of atmosphere, oceans, rivers, land, and ice that form our natural environment, are under great stress. Human activity is definitely linked to severe weather events. Scientists report how human use of fossil fuels has contributed to the gradual warming of the climate, giving increased energy to storms.

It is easy to come up with plausible doomsday scenarios.

The shift that has been a part of my thinking recently is that I am no longer thinking of climate crisis as something in the future. The crisis is presently upon us. I lived in South Dakota for 25 years of my life. I know that the state is full of people who have conservative political views. I know that there is no shortage of climate change deniers in the state. But the storms that swept across the state on Thursday and the storms that will continue to come don’t make any distinctions as to political views. Their effects are equally shared by all. It doesn’t matter whether or not you think the weather is affected by human activity when the wind takes out the trees in your neighborhood, rips off the roof of your school, or throws a chunk of wood through the windshield of your car. A victim is a victim regardless of their ideas or views.

Having grown up with so many stories of the great depression, I have been conditioned to think of hard times as something that was faced by other people in other places in other times. It is almost as if those folks aren’t quite real, even thought I heard their stories first hand. They had survived and the times had changed. Now, however, it is impossible for me to believe that all of the hard times are behind us. The stories that marked the lives of my forebears may be very similar to the stories that will mark the lives of my grandchildren.

We haven’t seen the end of the severe weather. Hard times lie ahead for many people in the world. Preparing for disaster is simply prudent behavior these days. Unlike the days of the great depression when stories reached the newspapers days and weeks after the events, we are able to receive live reports from the midst of the storm. May we receive the news as warning rather than entertainment and realize that we are not immune to the effects of severe weather.

A porch swing

My father’s parents owned a large home in Red Lodge, Montana when I was growing up. We lived fairly close, so we didn’t often spend the night at our grandparents’ house, but we visited often. I can remember breakfasts in the kitchen, Thanksgiving dinners in the dining room, and family standing around and talking in the yard. I remember going down to the basement to look at the rag rugs that our grandfather made. I remember hiking from their backyard up the steep hill to the airport. But when I think about that house, there is a lot I cannot remember. I couldn’t draw an accurate floor plan. I know there were bedrooms upstairs, but I can’t remember where the bathrooms were located or how many there were. I think my grandparents’ room was downstairs, not up, but I am not completely sure.

I do, however, remember the swing on the front porch. It was about 4 feet long - room enough for two persons. It was hung on chains from large hooks screwed into the rafters of the covered porch. I can remember sitting on the swing going back and forth before I was tall enough for my feet to reach the floor.

Somehow that swing has become one of my treasured memories. It came to my mind when we purchased our current home, which has a small south-facing front porch. None of the other homes where we have lived have had porches suitable for a porch swing. One of my first reactions to this house, before we decided to make an offer to buy it, was that the porch might be a good place for a swing.

I got my porch swing yesterday, at least sort-of. With five grandchildren, full of energy and enthusiasm, I decided that a swing hung from the rafters was an invitation to some wild activity that could, potentially, endanger the beautiful window that looks out onto the porch. In place of a “real” porch swing, I purchased a wooden glider that swings from a base on the floor. It is about the size that I remember the swing on my grandparents porch - just right for two people.

There were rain showers yesterday afternoon and evening and it was chilly outside. This is our first spring in this house and only our second spring in the Pacific Northwest, so we don’t exactly know what to expect, but it seems like spring has been a long and drawn out season with lots of rain and not many really warm days. Temperatures in the 50s and 60s are comfortable, but just a little bit cooler than I think of as days to sit on the porch.

Nonetheless, when the swing arrived, I set to work right away to unpack it and assemble it. The swing was complete except for being short of one 1/4 inch flat washer. I rummaged through my toolbox in the garage, but found no suitable washer. A quick trip to the farm, where I have such things fairly well sorted resulted in finding the needed washer and the swing was soon ready for a test sit.

After supper, we put on our shoes and jackets and went out to swing for a little while. It was very pleasant to sit there and watch the folks going back and forth in the neighborhood. But it was chilly and before long we were back indoors. As has been true most evenings this spring, we were soon on the other side of the house in front of the fireplace, a very good place for reading books and talking about the day’s events and activities.

When I think of it, a porch swing seems to be a piece of furniture that is appropriate for our stage of life.

In the early afternoon yesterday, we were talking with our daughter-in-law. We had watched our three-month-old grandson while she worked at her counseling practice for a couple of hours. He is at a stage where caring for him is an easy job. He is quite content without his mother for a couple of hours, sleeping in our arms, or lying awake and looking at the world. He is at the stage where he likes to lay on a quilt on the floor and move his hands and feet, but doesn’t yet roll over and will stay on the quilt. The sunlight through the window, a soft toy just within his reach, or simply the movement of his hands and feet entertain him pretty well. But when his mother returns, he hears her voice and thinks about eating and begins to fuss. She will ask us if he had been fussy all the time she was gone, but the answer is usually that he was not. The challenge to our day yesterday was that his older brother was not feeling well and we got a call from the school. I picked him up from the school and brought him home. It was no surprise, as one of the girls had been out of school for a couple of days with a cold earlier in the week. Their mother, however, was greeted after working with clients for a couple of hours, by one child who arrived home with cold symptoms and hungry for lunch and another who was crying to be fed. After she got the kids settled, she sat for just a moment and we asked what we could do to help. She said, “Everything! I need everything.” It was just a brief moment of being tired in the midst of a very busy life. Our son had been away from home late in the evening for meetings a couple of evenings this week, she had had extra responsibilities with a child home from school. She had to bundle up the baby and whichever child was home from school and take them with her when she gave the other children rides to and from school. The baby is up in the night needing feeding and sick children need attention and her clients face crises and there are a lot of demands on her time. I know the feeling. What would really help is a nap. I remember the days of young children at home, juggling work and home and a host of other responsibilities. I’m busy these days, but not that busy.

Porch swings might be more suited to grandparents who have the luxury of sitting down for a while. It is going to be several years before our son and daughter-in-law have much time to sit on a swing, watch the world go by, and think.

Perhaps, with proper care, our swing will be around for duty at their house when their children are grown. Maybe by then they will have gotten around to adding a porch to their house. For now, both the swing and the luxury of time to sit on it live at our house. I would like it to be just a little bit warmer, however. I can always find something to complain about.

Mental Health Awareness Month

Last evening as I was preparing to facilitate our weekly Adult Forum, I commented to Susan, “How did it get to be Wednesday already?” She responded, “How did it get to be the middle of May already?” I know that the perception that time is passing quickly is a natural part of aging, and that these conversations will continue as the years pass, but her statement caught me short for a few minutes. It is the middle of May. May is Mental Health Awareness Month. I had fully intended to have the resources from the United Church of Christ Mental Health Network on becoming a WISE (welcoming, inclusive, supportive and engaged) Congregation for Mental Health before May began. I haven’t even written about Mental Health Awareness in my journal this year and the month is almost over.

Every year millions of people face the harsh reality of living with a mental illness. The victims of mental illness, along with their families, learn about the stigma associated with mental illness. They learn, often in terrible ways, about the lack of emergency services for those suffering mental illness. They learn that educating the public about mental illness is a long, uphill battle.

Like so many other families whose lives have been affected by mental illness, our family has discovered that effective treatment of mental illness is possible and available for those who are fortunate enough to find services and networks of support. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) has become for us a very important organization. Through its programs and our own experiences we have learned that mental health is a critically important part of overall health. The organization has been a lifeline for us of information, advocacy, and networking.

It is through NAMI, however, that I have learned about the growing number of Americans who are experiencing mental health symptoms. The COVID pandemic has not only exacted a toll on the physical health of millions, causing life-altering illness and death. It has also contributed to a sharp rise in mental illness in our communities.

This year’s theme for Mental Health Awareness Month is “Together for Mental Health.” It is a reminder of the need to work together with others to advocate for mental health and for access to adequate mental health care for all people.

Prior to 2020, I spent a lot of time in the emergency rooms of hospitals. As a suicide first responder and suicide survivor support specialist, I was part of a team dispatched by law enforcement to provide support to grieving families. In 2019, the community where I lived dedicated a new state-of-the-art emergency room in our hospital. The treatment area was the result of years of planning and tens of millions of dollars of investment. It was staffed by some of the best trained and best equipped emergency specialists in the nation. It was NOT the place for a person to receive treatment for mental illness. Our community built this tremendously expensive and well equipped emergency room while at the same time, the behavioral health unit of the hospital was across town, had no fully-staffed emergency room - not even a single room, and was full with a waiting list of those seeking treatment. Families needing emergency mental illness treatment often had to drive more than 300 miles to receive care.

Unfortunately that community is not unique. Access to mental health care is denied to millions in our country.

Sadly, mental illness can be fatal. I know that pain and grief first hand from years of being the bearer of the news of suicide to family members and attempting to provide on-going support to them. I know that pain and grief from hundreds of support group meetings. Just last week, the life of a talented and beautiful 16-year-old ended in a state park less than a mile from my home. Yesterday the medical examiner ruled the death a suicide and means hanging. I don’t know the family. I never met the young woman. I cry for their loss. The tragedy is deepened by the knowledge that proper intervention and treatment might have saved her life.

Global evidence-based research has revealed that when people who are contemplating suicide receive intervention from a person trained in ASIST (Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training) their chances of survival increase to 80%. ASIST intervention is even more effective with teens than it is with older adults. For the vast majority of persons suffering from mental illness, effective treatment is possible. We know how to save lives. We know how to treat mental illness. Yet far too many people suffer with no treatment at all because they and their families do not know where to turn.

People whose lives are affected by mental illness deserve appropriate support and quality care. They can live healthy, fulfilling lives.

In the United Church of Christ, at our 2015 General Synod national gathering, a resolution was overwhelmingly adopted to develop a network of churches that are welcoming, inclusive, supportive and engaged (WISE) for mental health. At that meeting, Rev. Alan Johnson of Boulder, Colorado, told delegates about his son’s psychotic break from bipolar disease, his own episode with depression, and his brother’s death by suicide. “The sound of silence about mental illness can be profound,” he declared.

That silence will continue unless we speak up. As a teacher in the United Church of Christ, my silence is inexcusable.

The month of May is not over. I have the rest of this month to speak and advocate. And May comes every year. I have the rest of my life to join with others to encourage congregations to adopt WISE covenants, to support the Mental Health Network, and to become advocates for “all persons with mental illness who are falling through the fraying safety net.”

Research shows that one in four Americans experience some form of mental illness in any given year although the severity of the disorder can vary widely. One in 17 Americans lives with serious and persistent mental illness. That means that every week, when we gather to worship, we are worshiping with victims of mental illness. Our silence increases the stigma and contributes to the discrimination.

Now is a good time to set aside the silence and to speak.

The library

Like many other congregations, our church has a library. It has a comfortable room with a large conference table and walls lined with bookshelves. There is evidence that in the past someone has tried to keep the books organized on the shelves in a way to make individual titles easy to find. There is a printout of a database of the inventory of the library that someone made, although I cannot find the database on the church’s computer system. There are stacks of books that are not shelved and a checkout system that isn’t completely clear. The only records of books checked out in the last couple of years show a single user of the library. I have spoken with a couple of members of the congregation who didn’t know where the library was located in the building.

I suppose it is the problem of libraries everywhere. There are people who see libraries as places where books are curated. They can understand the need to have books and will put significant effort into acquiring books, but the books tend to stay in the library. The purpose of a library, in my opinion, is circulation. How do we get the books out of the library and into the hands of the people?

The library roughly falls under the authority of the Faith Formation Board in the structure of the church. The board relies on volunteers to help organize the library. The pandemic has meant that many volunteers have not been able to come to the church to do the physical work of organizing and shelving books.

In the meantime, they have called an Interim Ministers of Faith Formation who love books. My first reaction to the library was to check around the church to see what funds might be available for acquisition of new books. I found that the church actually had credit at a local bookstore. I fell into the role of facilitating an adult group in the church that studies books. I discovered another book club in the church. I began asking around about what books the members were reading. In most cases I found that the church library does not have copies of the books that the groups are reading. In the case of the group I facilitate, I arranged for copies of the books we read to be donated to the library. I checked with the Mission and Justice Board about their projects and discovered an interest in having the library curate books on specific justice topics such as global warming, climate justice, and gender identity.

I don’t want to take over the church library, but I do have some passion about helping the library discover how it can best serve the people of the church.

Acquisition alone, however, will not serve our library well. We have limited storage space. Already much of the children’s library is in a locked room in the church basement. We circulate the materials through a set of shelves of children’s books at the back of the sanctuary and keep the books rotating so that children who attend worship with their parents have access to books that have some connection to the seasons of the church and the themes of worship.

The children’s idea led to an idea to put up short-term displays in the church narthex of books for adults. We have added the idea of soliciting short reviews and book recommendations from members. Inspired by a local bookstore that has displays of the “picks” of the staff of the store, we are envisioning a display shelf with mini reviews of books and recommendations from church members.

All of this involves work and it involves a degree of coordination. I’m not sure that running the church library is the highest priority for my time as a church staff person. Last night as I was thinking about the church library, I had a “when I retire” moment, thinking that it would be a fun project to tackle as a volunteer after I am no longer working for the church as an employee. It might not be the kind of involvement that is welcomed by the church staff who follow us, however.

I’m sure that part of my attitude about libraries comes from having a son who is a community librarian with whom I talk regularly about his work. Community libraries are so much more than buildings full of books. They are major service providers in the community. In many communities libraries are the only point of access to the Internet available to those who do not have homes. Community libraries provide meeting spaces, community gatherings, and a host of educational services.

The love of libraries, however, didn’t originate with our son. In fact, there is solid evidence that his love of libraries was influenced by his parents. My first college work study job was in the college library and having access to the library was instrumental in my college education. When we reached graduate school with access to multiple libraries including the gigantic and wonderful Regenstein Library of the University of Chicago, with its 4.5 million books in a seven-story building, I was enchanted.

We collected books for all of our married life. When the time came for us to move from South Dakota, the distribution of our library was one of the hardest tasks. A little less than one quarter of the books we had on our shelves in South Dakota have made the move to our new home. There have been books that i have missed. In one case, I bought a copy of a book that I had previously given away.

The obvious answer to our downsized book collection is frequenting the libraries in our community. We have library cards to two local libraries. Our church library could be an additional resource for people like us. It is, however, a resource only if the books are used. It only works if people check out the books and read them.

Whether or not I planned it, the church library has become a product of passion for me. We will be meeting a church member at a local bookstore to discuss enhancing the collection soon. New volumes are being added to the library. New ideas are being shared to increase awareness and circulation.

The next step is to recognize passion for books in others and to identify partners in re-thinking our library. I won’t run out of things to do anytime in the foreseeable future.


Jesus told his followers not to become overwhelmed with worry. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke both report what may have been the same teaching about worry. Here is the version from Matthew from the New Revised Standard Version:

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by worrying can add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the gentiles who seek all these things, and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.” (Matthew 6:25-34)

Not worrying, however, is easier said than done, especially for some people. We often joke in our family about the “worry gene.” Without any evidence based in genetic research, it seems like there is a tendency to worry that is passed from generation to generation. I personally am not much of a worrier, but I have family members who are. The stories of some bring understanding to their worries. My mother-in-law often worried about a lot of things, including things that were beyond her control. She and I are both early risers and sometimes we would talk in the mornings before the others were up. She would have a long list of things about which she worried. As I got to know her better, it seemed to me that her tendency to worry was due, in part, to some very difficult years in her childhood and teens. Her father died when she was young, leaving her and her mother without any means of financial support. Her siblings were out of the home, but she had to set aside some of her plans and dreams to work alongside her mother at any job that would provide a bit of income. They lived in one of the most impoverished counties in the United States during the Great Depression and they didn’t have many options. There were times when they were hungry and short of food. I can’t tell her whole story in this journal entry. I don’t know her full story. But what I do know about her is that the tendency to worry came in part from her experiences of hard times.

There are, however, people who are worriers even though they don’t live in a particularly worrisome environment. Over the span of a career as a minister I have met people who fretted over their finances even though they lived privileged lives. Their worry about becoming poor prevented them from being generous, even to family members, and from my perspective, robbed them of some of the joy of living. I have listened to perfectly healthy people who were worried about injury and disease to the point that it prevented them from taking reasonable risk and caused them to miss out on grand adventures.

I once read or heard that there is a Buddhist teaching that every person has one of five faults: worry, anger, depression, self blame, and sensual soothing. I’m not clear on the whole teaching, and I don’t know if there are only five faults or if everyone is affected, but I do know that some people slip into worry more easily than others.

I don’t think that I’m much of a worrier. I don’t lose sleep over much these days, and when I did lose sleep it seemed to me to be about genuine risk and threat. There have been times when I worried about the health and safety of our children. It is natural for parents an infant to worry as they learn to provide care for a new human being who is very vulnerable. It is also natural for parents of young adults to have some fears about the dangers their children face.

For the most part, however, I have the ability to face a reasonable amount of risk. I was a downhill skier before we wore helmets. I’ve kayaked and canoed in white water. I’ve piloted hang gliders and airplanes. I have always convinced myself that I was careful about safety and that the risks I was taking were reasonable. But I have taken risks that others would not take.

The world in which we live today, however, is enough to make anyone anxious and worried. After two years of pandemic we know that the effects of Covid can be severe and fatal. We know how vulnerable we all are. We know that vaccines, though effective, are not a guarantee.

We have sufficient evidence of human-caused global climate change to raise our fear that this planet might become uninhabitable for humans. At a bare minimum humans face the reality of mass migration, widespread starvation and global pandemic. It is not hard to worry about the world our grandchildren are inheriting from us.

Those among us who worry the most may in fact be right about the dangers we face. This may be a time when alarm is the appropriate response to the circumstances in which we find ourselves.

And yet we find ourselves with Jesus’ teaching. “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.”

I pray that I will find just enough worry to enable me to live responsibly today without being overwhelmed by anxieties about tomorrow. It is, I believe, a delicate balance.

Sunday shopping

After church yesterday, we decided to make a quick stop at a grocery store near the church to pick up an item that I had forgotten when shopping earlier in the week. We don’t usually shop on Sundays, but we wanted this item for our salad for our Mother’s Day dinner. It seemed like a simple chore. I had no idea how many people go grocery shopping on Sundays. We drove through the parking lot, aisle by aisle without seeing an available parking space. When we saw someone loading their groceries into their car, there would already be another car waiting for the parking place. Some aisles had two or three extra cars just waiting for a space to park. I left the parking lot and drove around the block, thinking that parking a bit farther away would work. I had no luck finding parking. When I got back to the busy street in front of the store, I gave up and headed for home. It just wasn’t worth wasting gas driving around looking for a parking place. I also knew that with that many cars in the parking lot, the grocery store would be crowded and I just didn’t want to deal with that much hassle on my Sunday.

As it turned out, we had a lovely Mother’s Day dinner. We ate with our son and his family. Our son cooked salmon from the Lummi market, a vegetable dish and made fruit smoothies. We brought a salad and baked potatoes. It was a fine feast and the crowded grocery store and one ingredient were forgotten.

Since the beginning of the Covid pandemic, we have been hearing of supply chain problems and shortages. Frankly, the shortages never had much of an impact on us. We never had huge supplies of toilet paper on hand, but we never ran out, either. We noticed when some items were not available at our local stores, but we had what we needed for our lifestyle. I’ve heard about car dealers who can’t get inventory to sell, but we are not in the market for a car. I know that some repair shops are having trouble getting parts, but once again, it hasn’t had a direct effect on us.

We talk about the vulnerability of the nation’s supply chain and issues of logistics from time to time. It is clear that the systems of manufacture and transportation that support our lifestyles are fragile and that interruptions and delays and shortages of some items are more frequent with the added problems caused by the pandemic.

I wonder, however, if the supply chain issues are not just a temporary problem, but rather, like some other aspects of the pandemic, a sign of a permanent shift in our culture. The incredible abundance that we had taken for granted is a privilege that is unknown in most of the world. The fact that we have dozens of retail outlets available seven days a week is a luxury unknown to most people.

I know that my reminiscing about days long gone isn’t very helpful, but I have reached the age where I am full of stories. I can remember growing up in a town where most of the businesses weren’t open on Sundays. Our town had a few local shops, but there were plenty of items that weren’t available in town. We had a Montgomery Wards catalogue store where you could browse catalogues for department store items. Most of us had catalogues at home as well. When you wanted an item and had set aside your money, you went to the store and placed an order. It took a couple of weeks, and sometimes more, for your item to arrive. We were used to waiting. We didn’t expect instant gratification. Our local grocery store had some fresh produce most days, but their truck came only once a week, so some items would run out and other items were not as fresh as we have come to expect these days. I do not remember those times as being hard or sad. We were not unhappy.

Having access to almost anything wanted and being able to obtain next day or second day delivery of nearly everything advertised on the internet has not made us happier. It has made us a bit less patient. It has made us a bit less self-sufficient. It has made us a bit less careful. If I forget an item when doing my usual grocery shopping or if I decide I want an ingredient for a change in menu plans, I am used to being able to make a quick stop. But we wouldn’t go hungry if groceries were a bit less convenient. We have a well-stocked pantry. We have a freezer. We have food for many meals on hand at our house at all times. We get eggs from the chickens at our son’s farm and it won’t be long before the garden is producing lots of fresh food. There will be fruit from the bushes and trees soon.

I don’t think that we need to solve all of the supply chain issues. I don’t think that needing to wait for certain items is necessarily a problem. We have been spoiled by the ease of retail shopping.

I understand the power of a shortage or of the fear of a shortage. I have friends who stocked up on toilet paper at the beginning of the pandemic. More than one bragged about the huge supply they had amassed. I fell victim to those feelings briefly yesterday when we went to the grocery store. I was tempted to drive around the parking lot again and again. Had I done so, I would have eventually formed a strategy to win a parking place. I don’t know how much gas I would have wasted in the process. I don’t know ho much more stressed it would have made me. My competitive spirit was set off by the shortage. It took me a few minutes to realize that I didn’t need to go to that store. We didn’t need to have the perfect menu. And, by simply going home I gained a bit of time. Since we have a three-month-old grandson and his siblings, I have lots of ways to invest my time that are more fun and more meaningful than looking for a parking space.

An occasional shortage might be good for us all.

A bit of anticipation

There is a buzz of excitement in our church this weekend. This morning the congregation will officially meet Pastor Phiwa Langeni. Our lead pastor, Sharon, Benton, is on sabbatical and Pastor Phiwa will be our visiting pastor during her absence. I remember our excitement in 2006, when we were able to take a sabbatical funded by a grant from the Lily Endowment. The funds from the Endowment made it possible for our congregation to experience the leadership of visiting scholars during our absence. Each sabbatical is different, and each congregation is different. In our case, we had three visiting scholars, each serving the congregation for a month. One was a biblical scholar, another a church historian, and the third a novelist and writer.

Part of the process of sabbatical is for the congregation to learn about different leadership styles and meet different leaders in the church. The Lily Endowment invests in sabbaticals because research has shown that sabbaticals strengthen the relationship between pastor and congregation. Our congregation is delighted with the leadership of Rev. Benton, who has been the lead pastor for seven years. We find ourselves in a different place now than when she came to be our pastor. So many things have changed. After two years of Covid pandemic, the stye of worship, which is both online and in person, is a very visible change. Less visible, in some ways, are the changes in other aspects of our life together. There are fewer in person gatherings in our congregation. Our boards and cabinet still meet exclusively over Zoom. Faith formation groups are meeting over Zoom.

We are part of that change as well. After a successful 20-year ministry, the congregation’s Minister of Faith Formation retired in June 2021. In August of that year, Susan and I began to serve as Interim ministers in that position. Part of our interim tenure is an examination of Faith Formation Programs and a fresh look at how the congregation wants to configure leadership in that area of its life.

One of the tasks of the congregation in this sabbatical period is a broad process of self-examination. We are called to reflect on who we have been, who we are now, and who we are called to be as a congregation. Interims are opportunities to evaluate, envision, and take action to move forward.

All of this leaves the congregation with a bit of uncertainty about its future. It is clear that there is no way to go back to the way things used to be. The pandemic has changed us forever. The leadership of Pastor Sharon Benton has changed the congregation. And there are many changes that we like. It isn’t a bad thing to be able to have a church board meeting without having to leave home. We are learning to connect and communicate in new ways. Our online worship enables us to include people who were not able to participate in our previous in-person-only configuration. We have become more mission-focused and are learning to look outward. We are examining how to become more invitational and more intentional in offering welcome to others. Our online presence is giving people a way to find out about and connect with our congregation.

Still, there is a bit of nervousness about the future. Being nervous, however, isn’t all bad. It puts a bit of excitement in what had become routine.

We work at the church and we have not yet had the opportunity to meet Pastor Phiwa face-to-face. Today will be our first introduction and Pastor Phiwa will be meeting a lot of new people for the first time.

Pastor Phiwa serves as the “Ambassador for Innovation and Engagement” in the national setting of the United Church of Christ. That job title is one that is brand new to the denomination. We all have a bit of curiosity about its meaning. What does an ambassador for innovation and engagement do? How will the tasks of that job inform the ministry of Pastor Phiwa in our congregation in the next three months.

Three months will pass quickly. We know that we don’t have a lot of time to get to know one another, much less engage in the important work of beginning to formulate a vision for the next phase of our life as a congregation. We suspect that we are at the beginning of big changes, and change is exciting.

I suspect that attendance at worship, both online and in-person, will be pretty big today. Mother’s Day usually is a good day for church attendance. Add to that the excitement about meeting a new, albeit temporary, pastor, and we should expect a good crowd. A good crowd means reunions for friends who have been separated by pandemic and other events in the life of the church. It will be good to be together.

I suppose there is a tendency for us, after decades of serving congregations and a lifetime of being immersed in the church, to be a bit skeptical of change. We have seen enough planning sessions, goal-setting events, and leadership changes in the church to know that not every innovation sticks. Sometimes it seems that the more we change, the more we stay the same. Sometimes old ideas get rediscovered and old vision are reimagined. It would be easy for us to be a bit skeptical of all of this talk of planning, visioning, and changing.

I am convinced, however, that God is indeed doing a new thing with our congregation. Who we have been and who we are now is not the final word on who we are becoming. New members will come, some of us will be a part of the journey for a little while and then the time will come for us to move on. This sabbatical is an opportunity to pause and take a look at where we want to go. New leadership will give us an opportunity to experiment with new opportunities.

When I was a child and teen, I looked forward to going to camp each summer. It was always an opportunity to try out new ways of being in relationship with others. This sabbatical reminds me of summer camp. It is easy to imagine Pastor Phiwa as our cabin counselor. Some of those counselors from my youth made a big difference in my life. There were lifelong lessons learned. With a similar excitement, I’m looking forward to worship today and the experiences of the months to come. It is sure to be an adventure of epic proportions - one we will remember for the rest of our lives.

Watching the sunset


I’m sure that my neighbors have identified me as a newcomer. Of course they know that we moved into our house last October, so we haven’t been here for a year yet. More than that, they know that we are new to this area. They can tell because I don’t mow my lawn in the rain. When the grass is wet, it clumps up under the mower, sticks to my shoes, and makes a general mess. I wait until it is fairly dry before mowing. That isn’t a problem for me because I have a very small lawn. It takes less than a half hour to trim and mow. Most days have a period of sunshine and some days it gets dry enough to mow. I just wait. That makes me stand out from the locals, who just mow their lawns regardless of whether or not it is raining.

That points to another thing that may make me stand out from locals. I notice when it is raining. People who have lived in this country for a long time seem to be totally unaffected by the rain. They don’t bother with rain jackets or umbrellas when it rains. If you see someone with an umbrella, it is a sure sign that they are not from around here. Not long ago, we saw someone struggling with an umbrella on a windy day. I found myself thinking, “She’s got to be a tourist. Locals don’t bother with umbrellas.”

On the other hand, I’ve gotten to the point where a little rain doesn’t deter me from using the barbecue to cook dinner. I’ve always enjoyed cooking on the barbecue. I’ve smoked a turkey for Christmas when it was below zero outside. The super cold weather helps regulate the temperature of a charcoal fire. You have to keep the fire fed, but it isn’t hard to maintain just the right temperature for slow smoking. Our grill has a cover, so I can put the food on the grill and close the cover and it doesn’t matter whether or not it is raining.

We have a neighbor that has a really nice Traeger Grill and a canopy to keep it out of the rain. I’ve never seen them cook in the back yard. I’ve never smelled smoke from that grill. It has an electric stoker, so you can set the temperature and it will maintain it precisely. I’m guessing that using the grill is a summer activity and they don’t consider it to be summer yet. We’ll see.

So yesterday I did not mow my lawn. It was sunny in the morning, and I could have mowed my lawn, but I wanted to plant a tree over at the farm and by the time I got my trailer, picked up the tree, got to the farm and dug a hole, it was nearly noon. I did a little mowing at the farm and a few other chores and it was after 1 pm when I got back home for lunch. After digging a short nap was in order and after that Susan and I took a walk. By the end of our walk it was spitting rain and I used the rain as an excuse not to mow the lawn yesterday. I’ll get it done in the next couple of days. It probably would be good to mow the mushrooms that are growing in the grass.

I did however make cowboy potatoes with onions and cooked chicken on the grill for dinner. I had the potatoes in a pouch made of aluminum foil and I have a meat thermometer with a remote probe so I can see the temperature without lifting the lid from the grill. It is pretty much a process of set it and forget it, checking the temperature occasionally. The hot food was all done at the same time and we had a lovely dinner without hassle. Clean up with the grill is easy, too.

Some time after dinner, Susan pointed out to me that there was a brilliant sunset visible from the north facing window of our bedroom, so we went down to the beach to watch the colors. The rain had stopped and the clouds lifted and the colors were brilliant against the clouds, reflecting off of the water. We commented on how lucky we seem to be to have moved to the sunset coast for the sunset years of our lives. Fridays generally are free from church meetings, so we’ve learned to appreciate them, but we don’t have too many meetings these days and can appreciate the sunset lots of evenings. We know that our pace of life is pretty calm compared to life at the farm where four children and two adults juggling work and school and home means a lot of activity every day. A few minutes to just look at the sunset and appreciate its beauty is a luxury - a perk of being retired or at least semi-retired.

I’m reveling in that designation. I’m semi-retired, so I don’t feel the obligation to join too many committees. I’m semi-retired, so I don’t have to mow my lawn on my day off. I can find a few minutes to do that almost every day of the week. I can barbecue every night if I want. I have just a little bit more time for my daily routines. If I want to linger over a cup of tea after breakfast, I can go out on our front porch, which faces south and has a roof overhead so it is dry even when it is raining. I can sit and sip and make a list of what needs to be done that day.

When we were actively working full time, we used to comment on the retired folks who only had one or two things on their schedule. If they had a doctor’s appointment, it would be the only thing they would schedule for a half day. A meeting at the church might be the only item on their calendar. We used to juggle calendars and fill them up. Now we’ve become those folks with fewer things on the calendar. It is a sublime luxury. I don’t accomplish as much as I once did. I get to the end of the day feeling like I should have gotten more done. I should have mowed the lawn yesterday. On the other hand, I rather enjoy watching the sunset and taking things slowly. Life is good and the pace seems just right for now.

A privileged life

Frequently something happens in my life that makes me stop and think, “I’m really a very fortunate person!” Its is true that I am. I have enjoyed all kinds of privilege in my life. I have met and worked with a number of people who have victims of all kinds of terrible things. Being privileged doesn’t mean that one will be happier, or more successful, or more accomplished than someone who has been a victim. It does, however, allow one to frame one’s life in a different way. When I think of my life, gratitude comes up over and over again. I am grateful for my parents and the family they raised. I am grateful for my siblings and the things they have taught me. I am grateful for my marriage and for my in-laws. I am grateful for my vocation and for the congregations who have called me and nurtured me. I am grateful for the opportunities I have had to travel and meet people from around the world whose life stories are very different from my own.

And, in the midst of this life journey, something so amazing happened that I continue to be filled with awe and wonder decades later. I became a father, first through the birth of the amazing miracle of a complete human being who came from his mother so amazing that I am still overwhelmed to think of his fingers and toes and eyes and ears and the uniqueness of his personality. Two and a half years later, out of all of the potential parents seeking to adopt and out of all of the children waiting to be placed, an agency in North Dakota placed his sister in our home, who was and is no less of a miracle. Just remembering what it felt like to hold her for the first time takes my breath away.

They have grown into the most remarkable adults who have learned to be good friends to others, to contribute to their communities, to provide leadership, and to follow vocations that are meaningful.

And they have brought grandchildren into our lives: five of the most amazing, incredible, wondrous human beings, each a miracle beyond description.

Yesterday, we had the good fortune of spending some time with the oldest of those grandchildren. He is eleven years old, delights us with the stories of his life, entertains us with the books he is reading, and knows more about Lego and Star Wars and Harry Potter and a dozen other subjects than I will ever know. We often have time when we are with him and his siblings, but yesterday was special because he was at our home while the rest of his family was engaged elsewhere.

He told us a story about something that happened in his school this week that made me remember an event in my life, when I was near the age he is now. I hadn’t thought of that event for decades.

First, my story. I had been told by several people whom I respected that bullies aren’t really as tough as they seem. They are mean because of things that have happened to them, and they need people to set limits for them. Bullies need people to stand up to them, and call their bluff. There was this kid in my school who was bigger than me and who taunted me over and over again. He kept challenging me to come out and “fight like a man.” I don’t remember why we would have wanted to fight. I don’t think I ever did anything that hurt him or made him mad. At first, I tried to ignore his challenges, but the name calling persisted and got worse. I decided that what needed to happen was for me to stand up to him. I’m not sure I know what I expected to happen, but I think that I thought that he would back down if I actually showed up for a fight.

We met on an empty lot on a corner not far from the school. I stood up to him and clenched my fists. He hit me in the nose, broke my glasses, and gave me a nosebleed. As I remember the story, I didn’t succeed in throwing a single punch. I managed not to cry. I had broken my glasses so many times before that I knew how to apply tape them back together until we could make a trip to the optometrist’s shop to have them fixed. And nosebleeds were so common in our household with four boys that it wasn’t a major event. I don’t remember what happened next, except that I think the bullying stopped. I don’t remember him taunting me or calling me names after that. We went on with our lives. We continued to live in the same town. It didn’t turn into anything bigger than a short and mis-matched fight that got over almost as soon as it began. I clearly lost the fight, but there were no long-term ill effects.

The story our grandson told us was about a bully at his school. The victim of the bully, however, wasn’t our grandson. I don’t know all of the details, but some boys were bullying another child, who is a friend of our grandson. Our grandson thought that there was a teacher who was aware of the bullying but who did not intervene to stop it. Our grandson, however, did. He helped his friend escape the place where the bullies had temporarily trapped him. Our grandson’s actions were noted by the teacher. He was recognized and thanked for his actions The bullies got into trouble with the school. Our grandson felt good for having done the right thing.

I think every grandparent deserves to hear stories in which their grandchildren are the heroes. It seems that decades from now our grandson probably won’t remember this week as a major event in his life, but I will remember what it felt like to hear him tell of his courage to do what he thought was right in the face of the bullies for the rest of my life.

I am thinking of re-writing my Curriculum Vitae. Instead of telling of my work experience, and the articles I have published, and the awards I have received, perhaps I should list my accomplishments in order of importance: “I am the husband of Susan, the father of Isaac and Rachel, and the grandfather of Elliot, Emmala, Eliza, Patrick, and Eero. I’ve done some interesting things in my life, but nothing more amazing than being a husband, father, and grandfather.”

Losing our history

In 1607, English settlers established a colony on a small island near the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. The called the tidal river that flowed by their chosen site the James River and they named their settlement Jamestown. The settlers chose the site because the river offered protection from attack as well as safe harbor for ships. In those days, rivers were vital avenues of communication as well. According to most historians Jamestown was the first successful English colony in North America. It has been described as the birthplace of democracy in America. It was the site where, in 1619, before the arrival of the Pilgrims at Plymouth Colony, the first General Assembly was held, basing government on the rule of law and individual freedoms.

That version of history ignores the democratic principles already at play in indigenous communities. And, when I was a student, little was said in our lessons about Jamestown about relationships with the Powhatan people, which was complex and often violent. It is also true that a few months after that first General Assembly a ship arrived at Jamestown carrying captives from Angola, establishing slavery in the colony.

There are many things about early settlements that have remained hidden from the formal histories we teach. That is a reason why preservation of the sites, careful archaeological excavation, and continuing research is essential to learning the truth of our history. In 2013, archaeologists excavating the site of the original fort at Jamestown discovered evidence of cannibalism during the brutal winter of 1609-10, known as the Starving Time. The search for the truth of our history is on-going.

However, that search is now being threatened by the river that was the reason those colonists chose the site for Jamestown. The tides on the James River are becoming higher and more damaging. The water table is rising. Storms are more frequent and more severe when they come. Dangerous flooding is common, occurring several times each year. The Jamestown site is often closed to the public for safety reasons.

According to Katherine Malone-France, chief preservation officer at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, “there is basically a five-year window at Jamestown.” Waiting ten or fifteen years will mean the permanent loss of irreplaceable historical evidence. The Jamestown site has been placed on the list of America’s 11 most endangered historic places. The danger that threatens the survival of the Jamestown site is climate change. “There are multiple challenges and they’re all related to climate change,” says James Horn, president of the Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation. “Essentially, we can’t get rid of the water.”

Once, when discussing the threat of nuclear war in a classroom, a teacher commented that the destruction of our planet and the loss of all human life would do more than cause human extinction. “All humans die,” he said. “But until now, the history has been maintained. We have kept records and told stories. The threat of nuclear destruction is more than the threat of human death. It is the threat of the loss of all memory - the loss of the stories we have kept sacred for thousands of years.

Although we have lived with the threat of nuclear war for all of our lives, our awareness of the global climate crisis is somewhat more recent. For most of our lives we have lived as if our expanding consumption of the earth’s resources could somehow continue. We have only recently begun to understand that our behavior, including the rapid consumption of fossil fuels, threatens the survival of human life on this planet. And now we are learning that this threat is not somewhere off in the future. Experts are telling us that the challenge is present right now. We may lose our opportunity to learn more of the truth of early European settlements on our planet if we don’t act right now.

Work to repair the 100-year-old sea wall at Jamestown is expected to start soon. Plans are being developed to overhaul the drainage system and install protective berms with pumps to lower water levels. These projects will cost tens of millions of dollars and the funding is not in place. It is likely that a good portion of the fort and surrounding area will be underwater within 35 years.

We are losing our history. We are losing our capacity to learn the truth of our past. Our story is being erased before our eyes.

It isn’t just one site, though Jamestown is particularly important because of its ability to teach us about the multi-layered and conflicting stories of how settlers came to this continent. If we lose access to ongoing archaeological research at the Jamestown site, we lose an important opportunity to learn the truth about our history.

When we read the biblical prophets, we discover that there was a turning point in their narrative. In the beginning of the books of the prophets, they are warning of coming disaster for Israel. Disobedience of God’s laws; failure to establish justice for widows, immigrants and children; and the consolidation of wealth, resources, and information are cited as the reason that the people face disaster. At some point in the narrative, however, the predictions of doom are replaced with descriptions of the actual destruction. Prophets are no longer warning about the future, but rather describing the present.

We are at such a turning point in the history of humans on this planet. Scientists have been warning us of catastrophe that will result from human-caused climate change. Now those disasters are no longer in the future. Rising sea levels, increased desertification, and more powerful storms are already upon us. We feel the heat in the summer and breathe the smoke from fires. We wade in the flood waters and witness the erosion of the land and the melting of the glaciers. Climate change is no longer our future. It is now our present. We are losing our history right now.

It remains to be seen whether or not the story of human habitation will continue on this planet. The choices we make right now have great impact the outcome. May we, like the people of old, listen carefully to the prophets and heed their warnings.

Spirit of the Waters


I was born and raised in the traditional lands of the Crow people, whose autonym is Apsáalooke, also spelled Absaroka. I come from generations of immigrants, who left the lands of their birth for a variety of reasons, including fleeing war, seeking a better life for their children, and following a dream of economic gain. My people were settlers and farmers, ranchers and drifters. Some of them were colonizers, who confiscated the land of indigenous people and participated in the attempted genocide of natives, though we don’t know their stories well. What we do know is that our ancestors were part of the great sweep of people whose coming to this continent nearly resulted in the destruction of indigenous people and their ways.

The indigenous, however, are survivors. Despite military and cultural pressures they endured. The Crow language and Plains Indian Sign Language persist in the face of efforts to wipe them out. Like other plains tribes, they have been forced onto reservations. Some have converted to Christianity. Others remember the Crow Way and the teachings of the Tobacco Society.

We have continued to be somewhat migratory people in our generation, living in multiple states. We raised our children in North Dakota, Idaho, and South Dakota. We lived on the traditional lands of Dakota, Shoshone-Bannock, Shoshone-Paiute, and Lakota people. In each place we have tried to give honor to and learn from those who cared for the land since time immemorial.

Now, our life’s journey has brought us to the place of the Lhaq’temish, the people whose land is called Lummi. Their sovereignty and right to this place was recognized in the treaty of 1855. The treaty has often been violated, but remains the supreme law of the land. As has been true of the indigenous people in the other places we have lived, the Lhaq’temish are generous people who seek to preserve the land and the creatures of the region. They are fishers, hunters, gatherers, and harvesters of the abundance of nature. Their way of life is inextricably linked with the lives of the orca and salmon.

Last night we were honored to participate in the Bellingham Blessing of the Spirit of the Waters Totem Pole Journey. The 3,000-pound totem pole, created by the House of Tears Carvers, is being moved from the Snake River to the Salish Sea aiming to inspire, inform, and engage Pacific Northwest communities through intergenerational voices, ceremony, art and science. The sharing of spirituality, ancestral knowledge, and cross-cultural collaboration is part of a wide movement to remove the Snake River dams to restore the health of the salmon runs. Restoring the salmon is essential to the health of the orcas and the Lhaq’temish people.

The Native leaders have requested the support of religious leaders of many faiths. Our congregation partnered with Unitarian, Mennonite, Lutheran, and Wicca groups for a blessing of the totem.

As we stood in the light rain, the totem rolled up on a trailer. The two giant salmon that form the base were at the back of the trailer and in front of them was the large orca with a baby orca on its nose and a human on its back behind the tall dorsal fin. Carved out of cedar and painted black, white, gray, brown, blue and red, the totem made a commanding presence as speakers addressed the crowd and led us in song and ceremony. Drummers, singers, a flute player and a choir all led us. Prayers from different traditions were offered. We all were invited to lay our hands on the totem, to touch it and feel not only the amazing cedar wood, but the spiritual power of the traditional carvers and the generations of people who have called us to solidarity with those who seek to save the salmon.

The ceremonies were different from those of plains tribes. There was no offering of sage and sweetgrass. The totem was sprinkled with flowers. But there were many similarities. The drum and flute reminded us of Lakota ceremonies. The spirit of inclusion and welcome were evident.

From Bellingham, the totem will travel to Eugene, Astoria, and Portland, Oregon before traveling up the Columbia to Celilo Falls and on to Pendleton on the Umatilla Reservation and on to Lewiston, Idaho in Nez Perce country. In Pocatello, the Shoshone Bannock will bless the totem before it returns to Seattle and Tacoma for additional ceremony.

Blessing, of course, is always a two-way street. Those who officiate at blessings find ourselves to be blessed by that which we bless. Every Christian minister learns this truth by participating in the baptism of children. We are blessed by them more than they are blessed by us. Last night we placed our hands on the totem, but our experience was one of receiving, not giving, blessing.

The more we learn of the science of our current climate crisis, the more difficult it becomes to discover hope. I find myself reading many books describing a very dystopian future. More than a few people have suggested that we are facing the extinction of humans on this planet. At a bare minimum, environmental destruction has already set in place mass migrations that will continue to grow in intensity as people move toward the poles to escape the heat and barrenness in equatorial regions. Desertification is already causing people to leave places where humans have lived for as long as there have been humans on this planet. With migration comes additional cultural pressures, strains on supplies of food and other essentials, shortages of housing, and more.

In the midst of our concern and grief over the losses we have already experienced, there are moments of hope, joy, and connection. Led by the Lhaq’temish last night, we glimpsed the possibility of hope. If people can rediscover our place in this world and turn away from the voices of domination of nature; if the dams can be breached and the salmon restored; if we can listen to and follow the leadership of our indigenous sisters and brothers; perhaps we can rediscover the resilience that has enabled the tribes to survive so much devastation and destruction. In that there is deep hope. I count myself as fortunate to have been there to witness the journey.

Thinking of food

When we married, I knew how to cook eggs and bacon for breakfast. I could make oatmeal and pancakes. I knew how to make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I could cook spaghetti and make a passable spaghetti sauce. I learned how to cook a few more dishes from reading cookbooks that we received as wedding gifts. Three of those cookbooks come to mind: 1) The Impoverished Students’ Book of Cookery, Drinkery, & House keepery; 2) The Something Went Wrong What Do I Do Now Cookbook; and 3) The Joy of Cooking. From the first of those books, I learned to cook rice and how to make a passable tuna fish casserole. From the second, I learned about ingredient substitution. The third book, now nearly 49 years old, is still in our kitchen and I refer to it regularly. The page with the recipe for whole wheat bread is so worn and stained from food spills that it is barely legible, but it is just one page that I’ve read multiple times.

When we had been married just two years, we became managers of Camp Mimanagish, the summer camp of the Montana-Northern Wyoming Conference of the United Church of Christ. We were responsible for planning, grocery purchasing, and preparing meals for groups ranging in size from 30 to over 100. Our camp was more than 40 miles from the nearest grocery store, 20 of which were on a rough dirt road. Our kitchen and dining hall had been constructed as a temporary building for the Civilian Conservation Corps and barely passed muster for the county health inspector. We operated that kitchen for the last two years of its operation before it was replaced with a new building. We learned to cook complete meals for large groups. We made a lot of food from scratch.

We have shared meal preparation duties for all of our marriage. Each of us has special recipes and skills when it comes to food preparation. Susan almost always prepares soup in our household. I do most of the break baking. We generally prepare different menus, though both of us know how to prepare some of our partner’s recipes.

We don’t eat out very often. In general we prefer to cook our own meals. It is one of the reasons we enjoy traveling with our camper. We like to cook our own food. We feel like we have more control over portion size, ingredients, and other factors when cooking for ourselves.

That doesn’t mean that we don’t have favorite restaurants. When we can find local lamb, I will occasionally prepare Gyros, but when we are in Rapid City, South Dakota, we head to a cafe run by Turkish friends. We make tacos and enchiladas, but we also enjoy the fare from Bordertown Mexican Grill. We prepare fresh seafood from the Lummi Nation Market, but for a special treat on occasion we like to go out for seafood. We have learned to cook a few Japanese recipes, but there is a local sushi place that does a better job than I. When we want Thai food, we end up going out.

New to us since we have moved is our discovery of food trucks. There is an El Tapatio truck that parks on Grandview Road a few miles from our home that goes well beyond tacos. Their beans and rice remind us of Costa Rica. At the end of last summer we discovered the Wild Alaska fish and chips stand. It is a trailer, not a truck, and it spends the entire summer at the same address on the waterfront in Blaine. Somehow we ate there just enough to miss them when they went away for the winter. Their return to their summer location was May 1 and yesterday, on May 2, we picked up two orders of fish and chips for a special supper. It is a luxury and an indulgence, but we don’t do that kind of frying at home. It is probably a good thing for our health that we don’t eat that fare regularly, but it is a treat on occasion.

I know from our years as camp managers that food service is hard work. When you aren’t cooking you are cleaning. The hours are long. Most people eat their breakfast and dinner more than 12 hours apart. When you serve three meals a day, the days are long every day. I love to cook, but any fantasies I ever had about operating a restaurant have long since faded in the reality of the hard work involved.

Since I know how hard people in food service work, I try to be generous with tips and I try to treat those who work in restaurants with respect and, when possible, a sense of humor. Yesterday, when ordering our fish and chips at the window of the trailer, the clerk was having trouble with the computer that records sales. Somehow, it wanted to assign the name of the previous customer to my order. Another employee tried to correct the situation. I tried my best voice of Flower from the old Bambi movie and said, “Thats OK, she can call me Isaiah if she wants to.” It got a laugh from the older person. Later when the older person asked me if I had gotten the condiments and plastic ware for our order, I replied that we were taking it home to eat and we had plenty of vinegar at home. She responded, “You’re my favorite customer.” I replied, “You’re my favorite fish and chips place.” It was silly banter. She at least learned my name (“Mr. Isaiah Ted”). I don’t know her name, but we had a brief connection on the human level.

I can remember being a bit embarrassed by my father’s love of talking with every stranger he met. He would go on and on with a waitress or cook when we went to a cafe. At the time, I wished he’d just place an order and get on with it. Now, I understand him completely. I’ve become him. Even more fun, I notice that our son shares the love of talking with the people who serve us in coffeeshops and cafes. I’ve even noticed that he can embarrass his children on occasion.

We all eat. We all appreciate food. It is a good way to connect with other people.

Language practice

I think I started piano lessons when I was six years old. I remember the graded piano books that lived in our piano bench. I remember being taught how to hold my fingers on the keys, how to identify middle C, and how to read the notes on the staff. At about the same age, we had flutophone lessons in school. The plastic recorders are considered to be a pre-band instrument for teaching reading of music. I think we paid $1 each for the instrument and a book of tunes. When I was in the fourth grade, I began to learn the trumpet in a school band. Our school had band for 4th and 5th graders. I think we must have sounded awful, but we learned to play scales and a few songs. By the time I reached sixth grade, I was allowed to focus on the trumpet as my instrument and I stopped taking piano lessons. I had, however, by that time learned to read both bass and treble clefs.

The topic of music clefs came up yesterday in our bell choir rehearsal. We have a very small bell choir at our church and we play pretty basic music. Most of our pieces are arranged for just eight bells. With four ringers, each of us is responsible for only two bells. That’s just two notes - the lower one in my left hand, the higher one in my right - the same direction for the arrangement of bells as the notes on a piano keyboard. So far we are only ringing notes int he treble clef. I am on the recruit for new ringers for our ensemble. I’d love to have enough people that we could ring the entire five octaves of bells that our church owns. I love the sounds of the larger, deeper bells.

In our discussion of clefs, I commented that I am a trumpet player, which means that I can read treble clef, and I am a tenor, which means that I can read bass clef. The reality is quiet a bit more complex, because music for tenors is written in different clefs. There is music for tenors in the treble clef, and there is even a tenor clef, which is neither the bass nor the treble clef. Identifying notes in written music is not that complex, but it does require a bit of practice.

I was thinking of my ability to read music, because being able to identify the notes is not the same as being able to accurately play them. Music notation describes both pitch and rhythm and playing any instrument accurately requires practice. The piano requires one to read multiple lines of music and play multiple notes simultaneously. Quite a bit of band music displays only one line of music, though it is common for brass quartet and quintet music to show multiple instruments in a single score. Bell choir music shows all of the notes in the piece and a ringer needs to identify which notes they are playing an distinguish them from notes other ringers are playing. That process is pretty much automatic for me. Some ringers mark their music, using colored highlight pens to mark the notes they ring. I know some who use different colors to indicate which hand is ringing. I find those marks to be a bit confusing and prefer to have the music unmarked.

I suppose that knowing how to read music is a bit like knowing a second language. Although I know a few words in several different languages, I am not fluent in any language other than English. Despite studying Hebrew for one year, Latin for two and French for four, my ability to read those languages is limited. I know a smattering of Spanish and Lakota words from having friends who are native speakers of those languages, but I’m pretty limited.

I do, however, think of myself as having a degree of fluency in three different languages and three different types of language. I read and write English. I read and write music. And I read and write mathematics. There are limits to my understanding of all three languages, but I have a basic understanding and a level of fluency in each one.

There are connections between the languages. Music follows mathematical patterns. This is true of both pitch and rhythm. Vocal music is generally sung in a spoken language. English and Latin are the most common languages for western church music, though there are hymns set in most spoken languages. I can generally keep up with singing from the Dakota Odowan, a hymnal used in Dakota, Lakota and Nakota congregations.

Within the English language, there are several distinct forms. In addition to regional accents and vocabularies, we generally use different word patterns when speaking than when writing. Spoken English has much more repetition, additional run-on sentences, and often includes sentence fragments as well as complete sentences. There is a huge difference between listening to a practiced storyteller and someone who is reading from an academic manuscript.

I worked hard at mastering the differences between spoken and written language throughout my career, in which I spoke regularly and also wrote. Now, as a retired preacher, I find myself to be a bit critical of other speakers who seem to exhibit less mastery in the distinctions between the written and spoken word. It is a challenge for me to listen to a speaker who shows little precision in pitch and rhythm without becoming critical. Inappropriate pauses, changes in volume and pitch distract from the message.

I am grateful for opportunities to engage in amateur music, whether it be ringing handbells, singing choral music, or playing my trumpet. I think that those experiences help me hone my skills as a speaker. Public speaking, like playing an instrument, requires practice. Practicing music helps hone skills as a speaker.

Now, I need to practice my skills as a listener. A bit less criticism and a bit more tolerance for mistakes is in order. After all, they let me ring handbells in worship. I should understand that some preachers just need a bit more practice.

Not business as usual

I’m not a big fan of meetings. I know that is a strange thing for a minister to say. Our lives are pretty much made up of meetings. I have had to be a student of group decision making for my entire career. With retirement, however, there came a bit of release for me. I no longer am at the center of church meetings. I continue to be a member of the church and I am active, which means that I participate in meetings, but my emotional investment is considerably lower than it was during my active career.

I have, however, attended two memorable meetings so far this year. Both have taken place over Zoom. The first was the annual meeting of our congregation. During the budget discussion at that meeting, questions were raised about the budget proposed by the Church Council. There were members present who felt that the financial priorities of the church were a bit misplaced. Specifically, the argument focused on a desire to have a smaller percentage of the budget dedicated to salaries and a larger portion dedicated to mission and outreach. Despite my claim that I am less personally attached to the outcome of meetings, I have to admit that there were a few awkward moments in the meeting simply because I am a member of the paid staff of the church. While I understand the desire for more mission and outreach, and I agree with those who are arguing for change, it was a bit awkward to have a few moments when it seemed like the argument was about me and my salary.

That meeting took 3 hours. It was grueling, not because of the arguments presented, but rather because of the time it takes to allow people to speak their minds and say the things that they need to say. The meeting was very well moderated, and I don’t think that I could have done a better job handling the discussion. Sometimes the work of the church is simply messy and takes a lot of time.

Then, yesterday, the annual meeting of the Pacific Northwest Conference of the United Church of Christ took place. Again, we were meeting over Zoom. Again there were enough participants that it was difficult and time consuming for those who wanted to speak to be heard. Again the hangup was the debate over the proposed budget. Again, there was the challenge of separating the ideological arguments about financial priorities from the people who are directly affected by major shifts. Church organizations have relatively few employees and those employees are always a bit vulnerable. Folks make direct associations between the individuals and the offices they hold. It is difficult to avoid a sense that individuals are being attacked when the intention is quite different. At least one person who served on the committee that prepared the budget took some of the comments that were made personally. Tempers flared.

Once again, the meeting was well-moderated. The leadership team was open to extended discussion and flexible in their plan. This time the meeting was not able to go on and on for extra hours. Instead, the decision was made to extend the conversation to an additional meeting, allowing more time for discussion and changes to the budget. We left the meeting without having adopted a budget or elected officers for the coming year. The only vote we took during the entire time that had been allotted for the annual meeting was the approval of the minutes of the previous meeting and the vote by acclimation to adjourn.

It is clear that churches and other institutions in our society have come to a point where business as usual no longer is functioning for the institutions.

I’m sure that there are not many who participated in the meeting yesterday would agree with me, but from my perspective as a newcomer to this conference is that part of the problem is that we, as a conference, have too much money. I know that sounds strange. Churches are not the centers of financial wealth in our society, nor should they be. But for most of the span of my career there has been an emphasis in all non-profit organizations, including churches, on developing reserves, investments, and streams of income different from simple direct gifts from members. Conferences still rely on OCWM donations from congregations, but they now have many special funds, streams of income from investments, and reserves. In a sense, those reserves have paid off during the pandemic when funds were cut short for many institutions. Individuals and congregations are all examining their giving patterns and meeting rising costs is a challenge for churches and other organizations.

Churches and church organizations, however, do not exist to play it safe or to avoid risk. Being financially secure is not the same thing as being faithful. I’ve seen a few church organizations come to the end of their lives over the years. Churches don’t die because they run out of money. They die because they run out of people.

I am not afraid to see the conference draw down its reserves. I am not inclined to put much energy into the messages of the doomsayers who remind us that we can only draw down reserves for so many years before running out of money. I don’t believe that the true reserves of a church are measured in bank balances. I don’t think running out of money is the worst thing that can happen.

It is a mystery to me that an organization founded in and steeped in resurrection is so filled with fear of dying. I’ve watched as the church has undergone reorganization, as staff members have come and gone, as offices have been large and small, throughout the span of my time as a minister. The fact that we are no longer in a position to do business as usual doesn’t seem to me to be a tragedy. It is, rather an opportunity.

Something new is emerging. And when new things emerge it is often unclear how things will unfold. Living with uncertainty is part of the life of the church. If a few long and sometimes uncomfortable meetings are part of the cost of building the future together, I guess I’ll have to lay aside my aversion to meetings and participate to the best of my ability.

Made in RapidWeaver