December 2023

Presentation of the Holy Child

PLEASE NOTE: This is my last entry in my 2023 Journal. Tomorrow's post will appear in a new page on my website. Here is a link to that page. You might want to bookmark it for future reference.

One thing about having lived my life inside the church is that I’ve seen the days of Christmas land on every day of the week. When Christmas Eve lands on a Sunday, Epiphany will be on a Saturday. Epiphany is always January 6, after 12 days of Christmas. The first Sunday after Epiphany, which this year is January 7, is observed as the Baptism of Jesus. The flow is confusing for many because most congregations want to have some kind of Epiphany observance on a Sunday. In the congregation where we are now active, the focus of worship on January 7 will be on Epiphany. This congregation has a tradition of “Star Words” which is something that is new to us, but is an important part of the congregation’s observances of Epiphany. From my point of view, star words are a blending of a recognition of Epiphany with the star that the magi followed to find their way to Bethlehem and New Years Day. My sense of the tradition is that New Year’s Day in the Christian Calendar is the First Sunday of Advent rather than the secular holiday on January 1, but the church exists in the midst of secular culture and our society definitely celebrates New Years at midnight as the clock turns from December 31 to January 1.

So regardless of the cycle of readings and the flow of worship in the church, most church members think of today as New Year’s Eve and think of the day in terms of the Rose Bowl Parade in the morning and New Year’s Eve in Times Square in the evening. As a lifelong morning person it has long suited me to celebrate New Year’s Eve on Eastern Standard Time, so I generally don’t stay up late on the holiday. I’m not much for New Year’s Eve parties, and generally go to bed at the same time as other days. Having moved from the Mountain Time Zone to the Pacific Time Zone makes that easy for me. When it is midnight in New York City, it is 9 pm where I live - a good time for me to begin thinking about heading for bed.

Over the years, however, I have learned to make at least some nod to the secular holiday of New Years in the midst of Christmas recognition in the church. To make matters even a bit more confusing, the Revised Common Lectionary has a companion cycle of Bible readings for every day and most years I have used that cycle as a guide for my personal study and meditation. So I haven’t been big on New Year’s resolutions or other activities.

As a practical matter, church leaders can’t ignore the flow of the calendar in the lives of the folks in the pews, however. Most folks think in terms of New Years on the week after Christmas and while Christmas Eve services are among the largest in terms of attendance, New Year’s Eve is among the lightest in terms of the number of people in church. As a pastor one learns to go with those cycles. During my active career I was often pretty exhausted by the time the Christmas Eve services were concluded and I generally took the following weeks as a time of rest. When our children were in school, we often took a bit of vacation during the week following Christmas so I often was not in the pulpit the next week.

The Gospel for today is the story of the presentation of Jesus in the Temple where he was recognized as the Messiah by two elders of the temple, Simeon and Anna. Simeon’s age is not reported, but the Gospel of Luke refers to Anna as a prophet who was a widow and eighty-four years old. Were it to fall on me to preach, which it does not this year, I would probably comment on the power of the relationship between those of us who are elders and the very young in our midst. I remember well a Christmas early in the years I served in Rapid City, when I walked into the congregation on the Sunday after Christmas and picked up an infant from his mother’s arms and held him for the entire congregation to see and commented that every child is a Holy Child and that part of the recognition of Christmas is the recognition of the holiness of the children in our midst. I’m not active on FaceBook, but I look at the site for news of friends and relatives and it has become a practice for me to check out the page of the man who was less than a month old when I held him in front of the congregation during Christmas many years ago. Since I proclaimed him as a holy child, it makes sense for me to follow his life for continuing signs of the Holy Spirit.

The Gospel, however, does not speak of an ongoing relationship between Jesus and the elders in the temple. In fact it implies that both Simeon and Anna died shortly after meeting Jesus. Simeon, upon meeting Jesus, said, “Master, you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” Those words, usually slightly modified, are frequently read at the funeral of an elder. I’ve read them at many funerals over the years and so associate them with end of life. By giving Anna’s age the implication is that her life is nearly over, though there are Biblical stories of people who have lived longer than Anna’s eighty-four years.

The season of Christmas is an opportunity for faithful people of all ages to recognize the presence of the sacred in children. The church is a community that provides a safe place for elders and children to come together. Now that I have become an elder, I am deeply grateful for the presence of children in my life and in the community of the church. And sometimes, as was the case so many years ago, parents trust me to hold their children for a few minutes and experience the holiness that Simeon and Anna knew on the day of Jesus’ presentation in the temple.

Christmas day six

If you have been following my journal entries during this Christmas season, you probably expect me to write something clever about the gift of six geese a laying. It isn’t as if I haven’t considered the possibility of just that gift for our son’s farm. They raise chickens. Some years they raise chickens for meat, but they did not do so last year. The years that they have they joined together with two other families, each raising a third of a hundred chicks and processing all of the birds in a single day that requires the help of all of the families. I’ve had a bit of an aversion to processing chickens that dates back to my childhood and young adult years. When I was a college freshman I waited until I was sure that all of the chickens were in the freezer before going home to visit for the first time. I was convinced that otherwise they might butcher on the weekend I went home and I would have to participate in the process, which is not something I enjoy. When our children raise meat chickens, I quickly volunteer for childcare duty, preferring that to direct involvement in processing the birds despite the fact that I do eat chicken.

That, however, is not really a Christmas story. And our family mostly raises chickens for eggs. Egg production slows in the winter with shorter days, but they have enough chickens to have sufficient supply in winter and an excess in the summer.

I enjoy the eggs that I might consider making the gift of six geese a laying to the farm at some point in the future. Goose eggs are a delicious alternative to chicken eggs. They are much larger and a single egg can be substituted for two chicken eggs in most recipes. Eating a goose egg for breakfast provides richer flavor. It is, however, hard to find a carton for goose eggs.

Goose eggs, however, will remain in the future of the farm as long as they have young children. Geese can be intimidating. As much as we loved to hear my father and his siblings tell about how Aunt Phoebe got trapped in the outhouse because she was afraid of the goose and the goose would chase her whenever she appeared outside, I don’t really want to have aggressive animals around my grandchildren.

Of course it might be possible to engage in a bit of silliness over the various meanings of goose eggs. A couple of hundred years ago, British slang used the term “duck’s egg” to mean zero. That somehow morphed into goose egg for a “big fat zero.” In current slang, goose egg means the score of zero in a contest. It is also used to indicate a venture that produces no profit. My income from writing this year was goose egg. It really was. I didn’t get paid for any of my writing this year. Free lance writing gigs are harder to find each year and although I’ll keep looking and probably will find a few in the future income from writing will not be a big part of our family’s economic future. I’m also likely to earn goose egg in tennis, a game at which I am not a skilled player.

A goose egg is also the swelling that comes from a bump on the head and I have no desire to earn one of those, either. I don’t mind, however, being called a silly goose by my grandchildren, though I’d prefer not to have my goose cooked when it comes to their grandmother, which generally means I am in big trouble.

But I said I wasn’t going to write about six geese a laying and I’ve already completed more than half of this journal entry.

What I did do yesterday and hope to get back to today is build bee boxes. My plan is to expand my apiary by two colonies next year and there are few things in life that give me as much pleasure as building something instead of buying it. My bees, though generous with their honey, earned goose egg last year. The investment in start up supplies exceeded the value of honey produced, something that is very common in any agricultural venture. I should break even by the end of the coming year and be in positive territory after that. However, reaching that goal means carefully controlling expenditures on bee equipment. Making bee boxes just makes sense to me. In addition, I intend to switch my bee operation from Langstroth hives to Warre hives, something that probably only makes sense to bee keepers and doesn’t make sense to the majority of bee keepers for whom Langstroth hives are perfectly sensible. I prefer, however the smaller boxes and the style of beekeeping that is done with less intervention, fewer inspections, and more natural processes for the bees. I have read of bee keepers who put out Warre boxes and simply wait for wild bees to move in, though I will start my hives with purchased nuclear colonies as I did with the colonies in my Langstroth boxes. The distinction is not very interesting except to a few bee keepers and I won’t go into an explanation of why I am switching to top bar hives from using frames which has been shown to decrease honey production even though the switch makes sense to me as a strategy for long term bee keeping for an aging keeper.

Building things out of wood in the shop is a kind of Christmas present I give to myself. I love the smell of sawdust and the precision of making tight joints in wood. I am proud of the way the boxes are all exactly the same size and stack neatly with no gaps. I enjoy the feel of hand tools and the skill of driving home finishing nails with a hammer instead of using an air gun.

On the sixth day of Christmas my true love gave to me time to pursue my hobbies. And that is a deeply appreciated gift. I wouldn’t be nearly as happy having responsibility to care for all of the birds the song promises.

Five Golden Rings

Please note: If you are one of the people who yesterday tried to find my journal entry and instead found yourself on a page that began with an entry from years ago, I am sorry. Each year I create a new page to house that year’s journal. That new page is placed at the top of the list. However, yesterday’s attempt at publishing the new page included a directory error, so the new page didn’t publish, and the result was a mis-direction to a page of Journal archives. Oops! I have now corrected that publishing error and the page for 2024 is now at the top of the list of journal entries on the website. 2023 is the next item down on the list in the index of pages. I’ll be posting here today and for two more days, and on New Year’s Day, the posts will begin to appear in 2024. If you bookmark the location of my journal, you will need to change your bookmark to the new page. You can navigate to 2024 from this page by clicking this link. I’m sorry for any confusion this has caused.

There are a lot of children’s books that feature the twelve days of Christmas and show the gift for the fifth day to be jewelry. After all the traditional song names the gift as 5 golden rings. For the most part, I don’t run in circles of people who have a lot of jewelry, however. I do have one ring and it is gold. I’ve been wearing the same ring for more than 50 years now and I’m neither inclined to remove it nor am I inclined to need another. So, I subscribe to the theory that the entire song detailing Christmas’ twelve days is about gifts of birds. That applies not only to the golden rings, but also to milking maids, dancing ladies, leaping lord, piping pipers and drumming drummers, but more on those items later if I decide to continue this theme for the rest of my Christmas journal entries. I don’t often work ahead on my journal, so topics for the next week aren’t clear in my mind yet.

Five golden rings, however, is, in my mind a reference to a gift of five ring-necked pheasants. I know a little bit about ring-necked pheasants because I lived for twenty-five years in South Dakota where the Ring-necked Pheasant is the state bird. I suppose there is an entire journal entry on how the state ended up choosing a bird that is not indigenous to the state as the official state bird. And there is probably another entry possible about the fact that in South Dakota it is legal to hunt and eat the state bird. I don’t think that the residents of many states hunt and eat their state bird, but South Dakota isn’t alone in that quality. Alaskans are rather fond of eating their state bird, the willow ptarmigan. Like the pheasant, the ptarmigan is a bird that spends more time walking on the ground than flying, which might contribute to making it a bit easier to successfully harvest the birds. I am not a hunter. I don’t own a shotgun. The only pheasants I’ve ever harvested became victims of the fast-moving grill of my pickup truck combined with my slow reactions.

I do, however, enjoy eating pheasant. When we lived in South Dakota I had friends who were avid hunters who generously shared their bounty with us. Pheasants aren’t like the chickens and turkeys that they sell in the grocery store. Like other members of the grouse family, the birds have powerful breast muscles that can deliver bursts of power allowing the birds to take to the air in a hurry. They flush nearly vertically, which makes them interesting to hunt. And they can quickly reach nearly 40 miles per hour in speed. This means that the meat from the birds is more lean and less tender than that of farm-raised turkeys and chickens. If you don’t prepare it properly it can be dry and a bit stringy. As a result, I’m fond of cooking the meat in the crock pot, which makes it quite tender. One of my favorite ways to prepare the birds is to make them into pot pies. Just writing about it makes me feel like making one soon.

Fortunately for us, South Dakota is a destination for avid pheasant hunters from out of state and we have a friend out here in Washington who makes an annual pilgrimage to South Dakota to hunt the birds. Like other pheasant hunters, he has overstocked their freezer and we were the recipients of two packages of frozen pheasant from their house. They are in our freezer waiting for me to take them out for pot pies. That is a good thing because these days we rarely cook an entire turkey, preferring to purchase just a breast with the somewhat smaller thanksgiving gatherings at our house. That means that our turkey bones and leftover meat go into soup not leaving enough for pot pies.

Christmas, however, is not the season of home made pot pie at our house. With a family feast on Christmas Day and another planned for New Year’s Day we have a refrigerator of other leftovers that need to be consumed this week to make room for New Year’s Day groceries and leftovers. The pheasants in our freezer will have to wait.

So, with no extra jewelry and the pheasants remaining in the freezer for another day we don’t have many big plans for the fifth day of Christmas at our house. I think we’ll catch up on a bit of house cleaning and end of the year record keeping. It is time to start gathering the numbers we will need to file our income tax return. I have a couple of projects going on over at the shop at the farm including a new kayak that needs my attention and the wood that I will use to make the boxes for two new bee colonies that I intend to add to the apiary this spring. I try to get over there to work on those projects when I have a bit of spare time, which is most days now that I’m retired, but I am a bit surprised that I seem to be as busy in retirement as I was before. I’m not sure how I found time to work back in the days when I was employed.

However you celebrate, I hope that you have a blessed fifth day and that you keep the observance of Christmas in your mind for the entire season. Epiphany begins a week from tomorrow and that is an entirely new season in the Christian year. Blessings!

The Fourth Day of Christmas

I learned the song about the twelve gifts of Christmas from a true love to include four calling birds for this day. Later, I found that the oldest known published version of the words, in 1780, likely after years of oral circulation, referred to the birds as “colly birds.” Later editions spelled the word as collie and also as colley. I persisted in singing calling, as it made more sense to me. I didn’t exactly know what a calling bird was, but assumed it must be a bird with a distinctive song. It turns out that however you sing it, it is likely that the referent is to the birds we call blackbirds. Think if the Beatles singing “Blackbird singing in the dead of night.” Black birds are not a specific species of birds, but rather a description of what may be several different types of common songbirds.

Colly, or collie or colley birds are probably named for the color black as well. Col is the Old English word for coal. The Oxford English Dictionary traces the word’s use as an adjective to describe something covered in coal dust or the color of coal. Probably it doesn’t matter which words you choose to sing - you may be referring to the same bird.

Of course black bird can refer to quite a few different birds. I grew up on the ancestral lands of the Crow people. In their language the word is Apsáalooke, also spelled Absaroka. Even though early settlers translated that word into Crow and the name stuck and now is used by members of the tribe, it turns out that the original designation was likely to smaller black birds. The common blackbird is a species of true thrush and is also known as the Eurasian blackbird. Crows are bigger and have a hoarse, cawing voice. They are also known as common ravens.

It could all be quite confusing.

In our house we didn’t associate the day with gifts of birds of any type. We knew December 28 as our father’s birthday. The week between Christmas Day and New Year’s Day was generally filled with family activities in our home. We were free from school obligations and our parents’ business was generally slow. The National Forest Service and National Park Service didn’t schedule many flights in that week. Service jobs at the farm machinery store were light. Aside from an occasional rancher seeking a last minute investment for a tax write-off, there weren’t many people making major purchase decisions. The shop was in full inventory mode, which didn’t require full staff. There might be a few end of year paperwork details that needed attention, but our father seemed free to take more time off from work that week. Family adventures included sleeping, skiing, trips to Yellowstone National Park to view wildlife and have winter picnics, and my favorite, swimming at hot springs pools. When we got older, we often would spend one or two nights at Chico Hot Springs in the paradise valley of the Yellowstone between Gardner and Livingston. Chico has a large outdoor pool where you can swim in the warm water. We loved getting warm in the water, climbing out of the pool and rolling in the snow then returning to the water, which made our bodies tingle.

As an adult, I now understand that gifts weren’t the focus of our father’s birthday wishes. I think what he wanted most is what I most enjoy - getting the family together. We often gathered together our immediate family, included whatever friends might be available, and frequently had a liberal dose of aunts, uncles, and cousins. Many extended family members were farmers and even if they also had a few animals to feed, their winter work days were also shorter than summer hours.

I wonder how many years I purchase my standard gift for my father. He loved orange slice jelly candies, which could be purchased by the bag at the local dime store and were generally within my rather limited post-Christmas budget. Some years he received two or three bags from his children as my younger brothers seemed quite prone to imitation in my assessment. At any rate, he always did the same thing with the candies. After opening the gift, he would eat a singe one and pass the bag around and we would each get one. Then the bag would disappear until dinner the following evening when it once again would be passed around with each person getting a single piece of candy. The bag would be empty by New Year’s Eve. It seemed to me like a gift that kept on giving, as I always received a benefit from having offered the gift. It probably wasn’t the best way of learning about true giving, but, as I said, our father didn’t seem to focus his attention on gifts, but rather on having the family all together.

The younger brother who is nearest to me in age and who now lives the closest to me of my siblings has a season of holidays this time of the year. His birthday is December 24, his wife’s birthday is December 25, and their wedding anniversary is December 28. He also isn’t big on celebration events and has been accused by his wife of forgetting the occasions, which seems very strange to me given their proximity to Christmas, though his observance of Christmas is not quite like ours. He isn’t much on church attendance, something that is a stark contrast from my life and very different from our growing up years.

At any rate, he and his wife are coming up from their home which is a little over an hour’s drive from ours, and will be staying at a resort near us this weekend to celebrate their various occasions. So tomorrow, we’re likely to celebrate the 5th day of Christmas with a big family dinner that includes four of our grandchildren, our son, and my brother and his wife. Having everyone gathered around the dinner table in our house is one of my most favorite experiences. We’ve been a little heavy on big meals, with a large Christmas dinner, and we’ll likely have another big meal on New Year’s Day as our son’s wife will be working and won’t be able to join us tomorrow. Last night involved cleaning up leftovers and putting a few choice items into the freezer to make room for a new round of leftovers.

We have plenty of crows in our neighborhood, but they are more frequent visitors to the neighbor’s garbage can than to the bird feeders in our yard. So we’ll celebrate with the gift of family, which to me is one of the greatest gifts of all. Merry, Merry!

The Third Day of Christmas

The third day of Christmas is celebrated as the feast day of St. John the apostle in Roman Catholic and Anglican churches. For some Christians, however, figuring out all of the traditions associated with John presents a challenge. To begin, the name John was common in Biblical times and there are multiple characters with that name.

John the Apostle was not the same person as John the Baptizer. That much is quite clear. The Gospels report distinct stories of those two. John the Baptizer was the son of Elizabeth and Zechariah who was born before Jesus. Tradition slates the birth of John the Baptizer as six months before the birth of Jesus. His feast day is June 24. John the Apostle is among the first disciples recruited by Jesus. Together with his brother James, John was recruited as they were fishing with their father, Zebedee. Their mother Salome is also mentioned in the Gospels. John is assumed to be the younger of the two brothers. His name is always mentioned after that of James in the Gospel of Mark, which is the earliest of the four Gospels that appear in the Christian Bible.

Jesus called James and John Bonarges, or “sons of thunder.” The reason for the nickname isn’t completely clear, but some point out their desire to call down fire from heaven on Samaritan towns that didn’t accept Jesus (Mark 9:38 and Luke 9:54).

There might be another John in Jesus’ inner circle. The Gospel of John mentions the sons of Zebedee only once, as being at the shores of the Sea of Tiberias when Jesus appeared after his resurrection. That Gospel does make reference to the “disciple whom Jesus loved.” That disciple is never directly names in the Gospel and it is not clear from the text which disciple it is.

At various times in the history of the Church, John the disciple has been credited with writing the Gospel of John, the three Letters of John, and the Revelation of John. Biblical scholarship leads one to believe that such credits are unlikely. Evidence including the timing of the writing, the structure of the language used, and other factors compels the majority of Biblical Scholars to say that the author of the Revelation of John is not the same as the writer of the other biblical books. There is less evidence to distinguish the letter writer from the Gospel writer, but there are those who believe that these also might not be of the same author. The timing of the first appearance of the Gospel of John in written form presents challenges to the traditional belief that it was written by the disciple John.

John the disciple has an authoritative position in the church after the Resurrection. He visits Samaria with Peter to lay hands on new converts there. Some traditions say that there was a theological difference between John and Paul. Paul wanted Gentiles to be admitted to the church. Some say John was opposed to Gentile membership, though the evidence is sketchy on this point and not all scholars agree.

To confuse matters more, Jesus also had a brother named James and the traditions of the two men named James are also confused at points.

What happened to John is not entirely clear. There are legends. Polycrates claimed that John's tomb is at Ephesus. Some legends say he was a priest and was martyred, though there is little direct evidence of how, when, or where he died. The Revelation of John was written at Patmos. Various relics including writing claimed to be the John’s autograph and dust claimed to be collected from his tomb cannot be verified in any manner as genuine or not.

In the traditions of the church and in the recognition of the third day of Christmas as the feast of St. John, a whole lot of different stories and perhaps multiple characters with the same name come together into a somewhat confusing blend of stories, traditions, and legends. Because of all of those layers of tradition and the length of time that separates contemporary believers from the historic events, it is impossible to establish hard facts that are not subject to dispute. Like many parts of the Biblical narrative, our impressions are colored by not only our imaginations, but the imaginations of generations of believers. Artwork featuring John sometimes portrays him as a youth without a beard. After all he is assumed to be the younger brother of James. But there are also Byzantine works of art depicting John as old with a white beard carrying the Gospel. The symbol of John in some artwork is an eagle.

While I enjoy the tradition of celebrating Christmas for 12 days, my personal health and diet would not benefit from 12 days of feasts. In our household the Feast of Stephen on the second day of Christmas and the Feast of John on the third day of Christmas feature various leftover foods from Christmas Day when we generally prepare way more food than we are able to eat. Our house is still full of sweets and baked goods as well as leftover turkey, gravy, potatoes, cranberries and other good food. We even have fresh pears from Christmas day, although we do not have any partridge as mentioned in the song about the 12 days. The pheasant in our freezer will stay there for several more weeks while we deal with other food that needs to be eaten.

Nonetheless, I’m not ready for everything to go back to normal quite yet. There are tasks associated with the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day that are part of my personal traditions. The new web page for my journal is in the works and will appear sometime in the next couple of days. There are records to update in preparation for filing our tax returns. And new to us the weather in the place where we now live is such that we can even catch up on some deferred yard work, something we never did when we lived where our yard was covered in snow at this time of the year, though even South Dakota is short on snow this winter.

However you celebrate, I wish you health and happiness on this feast of St. John whoever he may be.

The Second Day of Christmas

Today is the second day of Christmas in the Christian tradition where Christmas is more than a day, but rather a season lasting 12 days from December 25 to January 6, the traditional celebration of Epiphany. In the United Kingdom, South Africa, New Zealand, and Jamaica, as well as our nearby neighbors to the north, Canada, the Second Day of Christas is a public holiday and a paid day off for workers known as Boxing Day. There are many stories about the origins of Boxing Day. One of the traditions of the day is for rich families to prepare boxes filled with gifts and presents for poor people. In countries that observe Boxing Day it is a poplar day for making charitable gifts and volunteering in agencies that provide services to those who are hungry and lack adequate housing.

One of the stories about the origins of Boxing Day is that in earlier times, the richest people employed servants who had to work on Christmas Day to serve guests and attend to the festivities and celebrations of their employers. The day after Christmas, however, was reserved as a holiday for the servants, who were given boxes that contained their Christmas bonuses, often given in the form of gifts rather than cash.

We, however, live south of the border, so Boxing Day is not an official holiday where we live. I do hope, however, that Sanitary Services Company, the corporation that provides garbage collection and recycling services, will give the employees who had to work yesterday the day off today. I was surprised and a bit put off to discover that the company picked up garbage in our neighborhood and other neighborhoods on Christmas Day and will do so on New Years Day as well. Since those days were Sundays last year, we didn’t notice that they do not give their employees a break for Christmas. But yesterday the big blue trucks were cruising the streets of our neighborhood picking up garbage. Fortunately for us, we do not subscribe to weekly garbage pickup. Because we compost food waste and deliver it to the farm and also subscribe to two different kinds of recycling services, we only need pickup every other week. We will have to put out our garbage and the recycling that is picked up by Sanitary Services on New Years Day, however.

I may be unfair in my judgment, but it seems sad to me that some of the employees of the company do not get Christmas as a holiday simply because the company is unable to plan ahead enough to provide a day off from collection. I do hope that those employees receive some other day as a bonus paid holiday. I understand that there is probably extra compensation for employees to work on the holiday and some employees may prefer to work on Christmas in exchange for the bonus pay. I also understand that there are some jobs that demand that workers provide services on Christmas Day. I’m grateful that first responders, hospital employees, and those who work in care centers all work on holidays so that 24-7 care can be maintained. My sister, a city bus driver in Portland, Oregon, worked a regular shift yesterday so that bus services could be maintained for those who rely on the buses for transportation. She isn’t complaining. The extra holiday pay comes in handy to help with added costs this time of the year and she will get other holidays as vacation while employees who got Christmas off will be working. Garbage collection, however, seems to me to be somewhat less of an essential service. Having it come a day late means that employees would have to work extra hours in the week in order to provide five days’ service in four days, but it could be accomplished with a bit of advance planning.

That, however, is just my opinion. The company has reasons for its scheduling and has worked it out with their employees, who are represented by a union. I know also that they must have left their trucks full overnight and have to dump them early this morning because the local waste transfer station was closed yesterday and they had nowhere to dump the trucks yesterday.

In our part of the world we think of Christmas and Boxing Day as falling in the middle of winter. There is a gale blowing outside as I write, with small craft advisories and coastal flooding warnings issued. However, south of the equator, it is summer. Boxing Day is the traditional day for the start of the annual Sydney to Hobart sailing race in Australia. Each year a wide variety of different boats sail racing with others in their class divisions. There are divisions for ultra sleek, ultra modern sailing vessels with professional crews, and divisions for cruising boats with small volunteer crews. It is a big deal in Australia’s largest city and the city at the southern tip of the large island south of the mainland. Having been privileged to have visited both cities traveling by airline, I can appreciate the distance between the two and the challenges presented by an ocean passage despite it being summer weather with warmer water temperatures and milder weather. Storms do, however, affect the race even in the summer and racers take on considerable risks to participate. Fortunately they also are required to meet stringent safety precautions.

Through the miracle of time zones, the day comes earlier in Australia which lies on the other side of the International Date line, they are always 19 hours ahead of us, so the race has already started when I rise on the second day of Christmas. Photos of the start of the race are already posted online. Skies were mostly clear with a partial overcast and winds were strong for the race start. The photos show some crews in weather gear as they hang over the sides of the boats heeled over as they take full advantage of the winds and jockey for position.

Looking at the pictures is a holiday tradition for me. Remembering our visit to the land where the seasons are reversed is a joy. Whatever your traditions for the second day of Christmas may be, I pray that you will be able to extend your observances of Christmas beyond a single day and discover meaning and joy in the process.

Christmas in Bethlehem


I learned early in my life that not all Christmas wishes come true. The Montgomery Wards and Sears catalogues had a special place in our home. They were kept until the next edition of the catalogues came out. They were big books. We lived in a rural area where the telephone book was small, not nearly enough to boost a small child at the dinner table. For that job, we needed the catalogues. But when there was no child sitting on them, they could often be found in the hands of the children in our house, pouring over the sections that advertised a wide variety of toys. There were pages and pages of fancy bicycles. There were erector sets with thousands of pieces. I remember one that allowed the recipient to built a ferris wheel. There were train layouts that seemed like they would fill a room. We would sometimes mark the catalogues by circling items and putting our initials next to the pictures just in case Santa needed a reminder of which toys would make our Christmas wishes come true.

Just because a toy was marked, however, did not mean that it would come to our house. There were a lot of children in our house and there were Christmases when money was tight. The airport business slowed in the winter and our parents had to plan carefully to make it to the next busy season when income picked up again.

I have been looking forward to this Christmas for quite some time. We have friends who are in the Middle East this Christmas. The wife received a Fulbright Fellowship to teach and study in the West Bank. The husband is a talented poet who is a superb artist at catching great depth in a few words. They were supposed to be in Bethlehem for Christmas this year and I was looking forward to receiving their reports. At a party celebrating the fellowship and bidding farewell to them for their travels this academic year, I commissioned them to bring us stories of Christmas in Manger Square.

The October attack of Hamas terrorists on October 7 changed all of that. Manger Square, however, is empty of tourists this Christmas. Our friends have been evacuated by Fulbright officials to Amman, Jordan with anew teaching assignment. The Christmas observances in the birthplace of Jesus have been very subdued. Although the most intense fighting has been in Gaza, Palestinians in the West Bank, where Bethlehem is located, have suffered numerous attacks. Army and settlers have killed more than 240 Palestinians in the West Bank, including occupied East Jerusalem. The death toll in Gaza has climbed to over 20,000, including many children and others innocent of participation in attacks against Israel.

have made it a Christmas practice to look at images of Christmas Eve in Bethlehem since doing so has been made easy by the Internet. We have not been fortunate to travel to the Holy Land and the places reported in the New Testament scriptures, but I’ve poured over maps and images of those places so many times that they somehow seem familiar to me. This year there is an image that sticks in my head. I saw it in a brief video report prepared by BBC news. I couldn’t find a still image, but the image at the top of this journal entry is a screen shot taken from the video. It shows traditional figures of Joseph with a shepherd’s staff and Mary with the infant Jesus in the midst of rubble and barbed wire. I am not sure of the specific location of the scene, but if you look closely, there is a soldier dressed in black with an automatic weapon in the background. Another striking image is of the manger scene at the front of the Lutheran church in Bethlehem, with a scene where the Christ Child is wrapped in black and white, the traditional colors of Palestine, and lying on top of a pile of rubble with traditional creche figures scattered in the rubble.

Bethlehem is in the West Bank, that is Palestine, part of the territory surrounded by but not fully occupied by the modern state of Israel. Jesus was born to Jewish parents during a time of Roman occupation of the territory and the Bible reports that Joseph was of the house and lineage of Bethlehem a place where Palestinians have lived since time immemorial.

The manger scenes and the history that is being played out in the region recalls another passage of scripture from the Gospel of Matthew that follows the report of the visit of the Magi to the infant. It is a quote from the prophet Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.” (Matthew 2:18)

Rev. Munther Isaac of Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church in Bethlehem, the church where one of the manger scenes depicting the child in the rubble, said, “If Jesus is to be born today, he would be born in Gaza under the rubble in a sign of solidarity with us.” That is what Immanuel means - precisely that he is with us in the midst of our pain and suffering. This is how we understand it, and this is the message of Christmas.”

The devastation in the region is nothing short of apocalypse. Of the more than 20,000 killed in just over two months, more than 7,000 have been children. Bombing and the ground campaign continue to claim more and more victims each day with no let up for the holy observances of the birth of Christ.

The Bethlehem of my imagination, a place of sacred silence in awe of the birth of a child, does not exist this year. In place of the silence is the booming of the guns of war and the cries of parents mourning the deaths of children and of children mourning the deaths of parents.

If Jesus is under the rubble, where are we?

Each time we taste the bread and cup of communion, each time we address our common Creator in the prayer of Jesus, we acknowledge that we are kin with Christians around the world. That includes hundreds of thousands of refugees displaced by war. It includes those who live and worship in Gaza and the West Bank. Our Christmas prayer must include a call to ourselves to do whatever we are able to work for a just peace for all who live in the land we call Holy. There is no peace in Bethlehem this morning. Only weeping wailing and loud lamentation. We stand with those who grieve and recommit to the hard work of building peace in this broken world.


My mother’s mother’s name was Eva. It was pronounced with a short e rather than the long e that is probably more common with that name. However, Eva’s first daughter was named Verneva, a combination of her two parent’s names: Vernon and Eva. Verneva’s name was pronounced with a long e. Verneva went by the nickname Teddy for much of her life and we always referred to her as Aunt Teddy. I never met Eva. She died before I was born, but her presence was very real in our household with plenty of stories of her life and faith. She was the mother of five daughters, one of whom preceded her in death. She was very active in her Methodist Church and in Epworth League, where she held many statewide offices. She had a lot of courage, including proving up her own land claim living alone the required time in her own claim shack without electricity or running water though a cold Montana winter with the nearest neighbors more than a mile away.

I have not gone through all of the family genealogies. I have access to the genealogy research that was conducted by my mother and Aunt Teddy, but it remains part of the unsorted papers that I’ve vowed to get through in the new year. However, I don’t know of any other relatives with the name Eva. It seems to have been original in our family with our grandmother. As far as I know none of my cousins, their children and grandchildren have been given that name. Another thing I do not know is whether Eva is an alternate spelling of the biblical name commonly spelled Eve or if it is a shortened version of Evelyn. Evelyn, of course, is related etymologically to Eve. In either case, the a at the end of the name is a bit unique.

When we adopted our daughter, we expected to be asked to adopt an older child. If that had been the case we would have received a child who already had been named and it would not have fallen to us to choose a name. However, our daughter came home with us when she was just under a month old and although she had been called by another name by her foster parents, we were advised to name her. We had only one day to choose the name for the agency paperwork to be completed. We decided to go with the name we had selected had her older brother been a girl. Her middle name is Eve. We chose the more conventional spelling and pronunciation. Having given both of our children Hebrew names in part because of my love of the study of the Hebrew scriptures, we decided that conventional spellings were best. As it is both of our children have first names that are Hebrew and that are routinely misspelled by baristas and others because translating vowels from Hebrew to English poses a certain challenge.There are many alternate spellings of both names.

After we had adopted our daughter my mother once expressed a mild disappointment that we had not chosen to spell her middle name Eva, but that didn’t stop her from loving the child unconditionally and certainly the stories of grandmother Eva were a part of her upbringing.

The name Eve has become a bit of a family name now as it is also the middle name of our oldest granddaughter. Her first name also starts with an E, so the marks on the door frame of our house where we record the heights of our grandchildren has several lines with “EE” and the date she was that particular height. Our grandchildren like to be regularly measured, with an eye toward the other line on the doorframe that is measured as the minimum height to ride in a car without a child’s booster seat in Washington. EE is just a bit shy of that mark, but she likes to keep checking.

Eve, or Eva, as it appears in the Latin Bible, is the name of the first woman in the Bible. In the Genesis story, she is formed by God by separating a side of the first man, Adam, to form a partner for him. Her name is the same Hebrew name as the breath that God blew into Adam when he was created. It means life or living. The name has also been translated full of life and mother of life. For us, when we were choosing names for children before the birth of our oldest child, it seemed like a celebration of new life in our midst and a wonderful name for a child. It certainly fits well with our daughter and granddaughter. I have no regrets with the choice of the name or with the choice of spelling.

Although the use of the word Eve when applied to a day like today, which is Christmas Eve, comes from the word evening, and not from the Biblical name, I’ve always drawn a connection. Christmas Eve is an expression of the expectation of new life born each year in our world. It is a night of candlelight celebration of the gift of light. It is a night when we always read the prologue to the Gospel of John which begins, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of humanity. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” I memorized the entire prologue years ago and recited it from memory at many Christmas Eve services while holding a candle. The association of life and light with the names of my grandmother and our daughter is firmly cemented in my brain.

Tonight is that night. My role in the church has shifted. I’m a voice in the choir for the candlelight service, not appointed to speak any of the traditional words. But I will be thinking of life and light and of Eve and Eva on this night. It will not disappoint. The gift of life is a cause for genuine celebration no matter how dark the times may seem.

A letter to Santa

I am trying to remember if I have ever written a letter to Santa Claus. It seems like I must have done so at some point when I was a child. Our family was big on reading and writing. We practiced our writing by writing letters to relatives. When I was a child, I remember that we had deadlines for writing thank you letters to those who gave us gifts. But I can’t recall any specific instance where I wrote a letter to Santa Claus.

Part of it might have been the simple case that my parents weren’t into making a big show of Santa. There was one gift, unwrapped, under the tree for each child from Santa on Christmas morning. Santa also filled our Christmas stockings. In our house Santa was big on tradition. For example we not only always got an orange in our Christmas sock, we also got the story of when our father got an Orange in his Christmas sock when he was a boy. The main thing that kept stories of Santa alive in our house was not that our parents would make up elaborate stories, but that they urged us to participate win the magic of Christmas for the sake of the younger children. I remember asking my mother if Santa was real and hearing that while Santa might not be a person who lives at the North Pole, Santa certainly is part of the spirit of Christmas and generosity and that whatever I thought about Christmas, I should be careful not to ruin the magic for the younger boys. I was careful not to tell them what I thought about our parents at least helping Santa with the gifts we received and filling Christmas stockings, but rather to speak approvingly of Santa’s generosity.

I knew that just because I wanted something didn’t mean that I would get it as a Christmas gift. I could pour over the Sears and Montgomery Ward catalogues all I wanted. I could mark the items that I thought I wanted for Christmas, but there were plenty of things that I wanted that never made their way under our Christmas Tree. After all, there were lots of children in the world and Santa didn’t have an unlimited budget. When I was very young we were asked to help Santa with presents for the children of a friend from Rhodesia. This was before the nation became independent and was renamed Zimbabwe. Our parents purchased presents to send to the children and had us play gently with the presents and have our pictures taken with them so that the presents could be declared “used” for the purpose of avoiding very high import fees. We knew that we wouldn’t be keeping the toys and that they were destined for children in a far-away place.

The main reason I didn’t ever think it was a priority to write to Santa, however, was that I couldn’t imagine that Santa needed a letter from me to know what I wanted. After all, we sang the song: “He sees you when you’re sleeping. He knows if you’re awake. He knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake.” Someone with that kind of a surveillance network probably didn’t need a letter from me to know about me. This was before the whole Elf on a Shelf phenomenon, but to the extent that I believed in Santa as a person, I also believed that Santa knew what we wanted for Christmas. Writing a letter seemed a bit like begging. In a way it seemed like Santa had already decided what to get us and that it might be more useful to write a letter to my Aunt Lois in Washington, DC and I for sure knew better than to write a letter to her asking for a specific gift.

So this might be a first for me for all I know.

Dear Santa,

I know that you are busy and that you are receiving letters from a lot of children at this time of the year, but if you want to know what I want for Christmas, I really don’t need presents. I have a lot of good things in my life and I am happy with the possessions I have. In fact, I have too many things and I need to figure out how to get rid of some of my possessions, so I don’t need more things. Thank you.

However, there are a lot of children in the world who won’t be able to write letters to you this year and I’d like to remind you that there is much they need. As you know the War in Ukraine has created the world’s largest human displacement crisis. There are a lot of children who have been forced to leave their homes and who don’t have an address from which to write a letter to you. I ask you to remember those children and help them and their parents find a place to call home.

And I’m sure that you know that over 20,000 Palestinians and Israelis have died in the Israel-Hamas War. Many of them have been children. For those who have so far survived the horrors of that war, I hope that you will bring them safety. I hope that they can one day live without fear being a constant companion.

In South Sudan, they are still recovering from a Civil War. This year 7.8 million people are facing crisis levels of food insecurity. A lot of them are children. If you can, please bring the gift of food to the the hungry children of South Sudan.

The entire population of Afghanistan has been pushed into poverty in the economic collapse of the nation. The children of Afghanistan don’t need wealth, just enough financial security to have food and shelter and maybe a bit of clothing as well, if you have room in your sleigh for those much-needed gifts.

And there are others, Santa. I’m sure you know about them as well.

And for myself? Perhaps I need just a bit of your spirit of generosity so that I will be motivated to give more to join you in helping the children of the world.

Thanks, Santa. Merry Christmas!


Christmas letters

It is the time of the year when we really look forward to going to the mailbox. All year long we get a lot of items in the mail that we don’t appreciate. We’ve never checked the price, but think that offers of extended warranties for our vehicles don’t make sense for us. Both of our vehicles are 12 years old and we prefer paying their maintenance costs over the cost of newer vehicles. Since we aren’t aware of ever inquiring about vehicle maintenance plans, we don’t know why the companies insist on calling us and sending us letters that look like they might be official, but we’ve gotten pretty good at identifying the letters and placing them in the recycling bin before opening them. From time to time they come up with a way of making them look like they might be something else and we open one reminding us that most letters where we can’t identify the sender aren’t important.

We are also annoyed by the number of sales flyers and catalogues we get from companies from which we have ordered an item online. If we use the companies to shop online, we are unsure of why they think we need a paper catalogue.

Since we have opted for paperless billing and paperless banking, there aren’t too many important items that come in our mail. We occasionally will receive an explanation of benefits or a bill from a health care provider. Despite all of the attention given to paperless billing and payment, we find that health care providers generally do not employ state of the art methods when it comes to billing. We hope they are better at keeping up with medical practices than they are at keeping up with business practices.

In addition to not being candidates for extended car warranties, we probably aren’t good candidates for new car purchases, either. That doesn’t stop one car dealership in Rapid City, South Dakota from having updated their mailing list to include our new address after two moves. Cruise ship companies are also good at following us through multiple moves. They are still sending flyers to my mother who died in 2011, and who lived with us at that time. One company has a unique misspelling of her name that makes it easy to identify other companies who have accessed their mailing list.

We do occasionally use the coupons that local grocery stores send. We don’t intend to purchase ready made meals that arrive via package deliver services.

But this time of the year we do look forward to our daily stop at the mailbox because it brings us greetings from friends. We enjoy catching up on the news of people who live in distant places with whom we might not carry on regular correspondence, but who send us greetings at Christmas time.

There are a lot of different and interesting styles of Christmas greetings. Some people send a card only. Some cards have a line or two of personal greeting and news. Some contain only a signature. In recent years there has been an uptick in custom cards. We like the ones that at least have pictures of significant events. We pour over them for images of children to see how they have grown. We get cards with wedding pictures of people we knew as children and are amazed at how quickly they have grown.

We get a few multiple page letters with a digest of the previous year. Some of these require a few minutes of concentration to follow events in the lives of relatives whom we may not have ever met. One style for these is the yearly digest that goes through the events of the previous year month by month. Another style is the catalogue of family members with the highlights of the year. Some of our friends keep us informed of their extended families, so that we can keep up with people we cherish who might not send us cards, but with whom we can keep up because of the letters of a parent or grandparent.

There don’t seem to be as many correspondents who have come up with poetry as has been the case some years, but we did receive one letter with a humorous poem set to the rhythm of a familiar song.

For years and years when Christmas was a very busy and hectic time for us, we sent our annual greeting late. Sometimes we got it out by Valentine’s Day. Sometimes we got it out earlier or later. Some years we never got a letter produced though our intentions were there and we were a bit disappointed with our failure. Now, however, we are retired. We don’t have a heavy work load around Christmas. We still weren’t motivated to get to work on our letter at Thanksgiving, but we have taken the majority of them to the post office and are down to just a few more that need to have personal notes added and be addressed. Maybe our friends won’t notice the difference, but we are a bit surprised that we should get all of them in the mail before Christmas even if some will arrive after December 25.

Email has helped us as we are able to send out some of our annual greetings as email attachments. This is our preferred way of corresponding with those who send us their greetings by email and the way we keep in touch with most of our overseas friends. Because we draft our annual letter on the computer, it is easy to send it as an attachment to an electronic message.

But we have enjoyed spending a few evenings sitting at our dining room table and addressing letters. With us we have the cards and letters we have already received to re-read. Often a letter we have received sparks a comment we will write on a letter we are sending. The process of remembering friends is very meaningful to us.

Who knows? Maybe we’ll tackle the job even earlier next year.


The summer I turned 14 I worked for my uncle and cousin on their farms. I drove tractor and worked summer fallow. I worked the harvest, driving field truck and learned to drive as wheat was transferred from the combine to the truck without stopping. But most of the summer, I worked on the huge project of sanding a combine preparing it for paint. My uncle had purchased a combine that had belonged to a custom combiner and had been damaged in an accident while loading it onto a truck. Combines have large areas of sheet metal and this one had some major crumples. A few new parts were purchased and installed, but most of the square footage of the combine involved sheet metal panels which had been removed, straightened, and reinstalled. My cousin, who had trained as an auto body technician, did a good job of taking out the dents, and left behind cracked and peeling paint. My job was to sand all of the bare metal and all of the painted surfaces so that primer and paint could be applied to make the combine look new again. Between the primer and paint, every surface had to be sanded again. I spent days sanding that combine. I would return to the house after ten hours of sanding and shower all of the dust off myself. We had to take short showers and daily showers weren’t allowed to most family members because all of the water on the farm was hauled in. You learn to be good at conserving.

It was that summer that I began collecting mechanic’s tools. My cousin set me up with a used metal toolbox, which I sanded and painted. I was allowed to keep tools that I found that had been dropped in the yard. My first finds were two 9/16 box wrenches and a 9/16 socket for a 3/8 ratchet. About a month into my summer my cousin brought home a 5 gallon bucket of wrenches and sockets he had purchased at a farm auction. I was given the task of sorting through the tools and replacing all of the missing wrenches and sockets in my cousin’s large toolbox in which he had duplicates of every tool. The tools that were left over were then sorted into three piles. One pile were tools that I needed to fill out a set of wrenches and sockets for 3/8 and 1/2 ratchets. They got put into my tool box. Another pile were duplicates that neither I nor my cousin needed. Any tools that were made by Craftsman were selected from this group to get as many Craftsman tools in my box as possible. If I could substitute a tool I previously had with a Craftsman tool the swap was made. The third pile, much smaller, was Craftsman tools that were damaged. A few wrenches were bent. One had broken jaws. And there were ratchets that didn’t work. These tools were taken to the Sears store in Great Falls where they were replaced with new tools under Craftsman’s lifetime tool warranty. Those replacement tools were the first new tools in my mechanic’s tool box.

Over the next few years, I added to my mechanic’s tools. I obtained punches and hammers and pliers and screw drivers. My father sold tools to family and his employees at half price because he wanted to encourage his employees, especially his mechanics, to have quality tools for their work. I saved money from various jobs, including assembling machinery at my father’s store to purchase tools.

It was around that time when I began to care less about my carpenter’s tools. I think a claw hammer was the first tool to be transferred from my carpenter’s box to my mechanic’s box. Some of my carpenter’s tools were borrowed by my brothers and never made it back into my box. Others were lost. A few were even rusted because they got left outdoors, something that was very much frowned upon in our house. Eventually, my tools all got consolidated. By that time I did not own a crosscut saw. Fortunately my hand plane made it into the drawer in which our father kept his planes and those he had gotten from his father, a drawer which I eventually inherited, giving me a complete set of hand planes. But in the in-between days of my teens and early 20s, my focus was on mechanic’s tools. I don’t know what became of the hand-made wooden tool tote that I had built when I was ten. The tote was built as one of my first woodworking projects. It was very similar to the one my father had made when he was young and the one my grandfather used when working on a job site. I cut out all of the pieces from dimensional lumber with a hand saw. The rip cuts were especially difficult for me. I cut every piece 1/4 inch oversize and sanded the pieces to fit. I assembled the box with glue and nails under my father’s direction. I pre-drilled nail holes with a brace and bit so that there were no splits in the wood. The handle was a piece of hardwood closet rod that was a challenge to sand so that the ends were perfectly rounded. After the entire box was sanded, by hand, I painted it. The first time I painted it, it was red because I liked the color. Later, I painted it John Deere Green in one of my first opportunities to use canned spray paint.

Now, at age 70, I wish I had kept that box. I wish I had kept the gray tote my father had made when he was a boy.

For the past three weeks, I have been supervising my oldest grandson as he makes his tool tote, based on the design of those other boxes. I allowed him to use the chop saw for his crosscuts. I made the rip cuts for him on the table saw. His box is put together with screws in the glue joints instead of nails. I did have him pre-drill and countersink the screws as a learning exercise. He got to use a power driver. I let him use the bench sander to round off the ends of the handle. Next week he’ll apply stain after spending nearly an hour sanding the box inside and out yesterday.

I don’t know if he will value this tote and keep it when he gets older. I do know how valuable it has been for me to supervise his project and teach him skills that have been passed down for generations in our family. I’ve already given him a fair supply of his own tools to put in the box. I’ve taught him a lot about how to use those tools. There will be more tools to come. Like his father, some tools will be new to our grandson. Some will come from his father. And a few, like the claw hammer and the carpenter’s pencils will be gifts from his grandfather. There will be more from that source. I really enjoy buying tools and anyone who knows me knows I don’t need any more tools.

Memories of loss

Since time immemorial, at least for thousands of years before the arrival of European settlers, Coast Salish People lived around the bays and inlets of the Salish Sea in Northwestern Washington. The largest bay in Whatcom County, now known as Bellingham Bay, was known as see-see-lich-em, which roughly translated means safe port. We live on the next bay to the north, Birch Bay. Between the two bays is Lummi Peninsula, where many Laq’temish (also known as Lummi) people live to this day.

Individual settlers arrived in the 1840’s and a wave of settlement reached the area in about 1853. The Treaty of Point Elliot was negotiated and signed in 1855 ceding the land where the contemporary city of Bellingham is now located. The treaty is controversial and many claim it was imposed without full disclosure and that promises made orally to local natives were not matched by what was written and that the result of the treaty were different than those agreed to by the tribes seeking to avoid war and bloodshed.

The name Bellingham was given by George Vancouver, who visited the area in 1792. It was named in honor of Sir William Bellingham, who never visited the area.

South of the original Bellingham townsite on the bay the town of Fairhaven was platted. It drew its name from the translation of the Coast Salish name for the bay. See-see-lich-em became safe port became Fairhaven. It was one of several small communities that were later merged into what is now Bellingham.

In the early days of settlement, coal mining and timber cutting were the major activities of settlers. The first Christian church organized in the region was First Congregational Church, organized in 1883. The congregation completed its first building in 1884. A bell, arriving shortly before the building’s dedication traveled around the horn of South America from the east coast of the United States, donated by a New England congregation. That bell became a major player in the story of the community. It served as the community’s fire bell and rallied volunteers to render aid after a major fire devastated the city of Vancouver to the north. The bell also announced the distribution of free meals during the Great Depression. The bell is now in its third building and is still rung by pulling the rope from the steeple each Sunday. My granddaughter and I rang the bell to announce last Sunday’s service in our church.

For some, who have lived in the area for a long time, the sound of the bell on that particular morning, came with a host of bittersweet feelings and memories. Earlier that morning one of the historic buildings, the historic Fairhaven Terminal Building, in the Fairhaven neighborhood of South Bellingham. The building was fully engulfed in flames when firefighters arrived.

Yesterday I was in the neighborhood to do a bit of last-minute shopping across the street from where the now fenced-off remains of the structure are located. The hills are steep in that part of town, reminiscent of the steep hill that volunteers carried the heavy church bell up by hand in order for it to be rung for the first time at the dedication of the church. Small clusters of people gathered on the street to look at the activities of city employees and construction workers seeking to provide temporary shoring to make the building safe for fire inspectors to enter. The whereabouts of the owner of a cafe housed in the building remain unknown and the building is so near to collapse that investigators have not yet been able to enter to search for possible remains.

I am a newcomer to this area. I do not have personal memories of the building which once housed the offices of the mayor of the city. I do not have an attachment to the historic neighborhood where it is located other than the joy of shopping at the large independent bookstore located across the street and at the other end of the block from the burned building. But I could sense the grief of those who had gathered. It was the topic of conversation in the store across the street and mentioned by the clerk who served me.

There have already been posts on social media hoping that the site will not be transferred to developers who might build a modern apartment building in the place of the iconic brick building that housed a cafe, and a separate coffee shop with office above. What to do with the site remains a question for the future. It will be a challenge to make a full inspection of the building. Later it will be a challenge to take it down and move the rubble. The streets are narrow and there will need to be an extended period of lane closures. For now the busted out windows, collapsed roof, and crumbling bricks are a stark reminder of the destructive force of fire. These old buildings were made of heavy timbers milled from nearby trees. Despite a quick response and modern fire fighting equipment including water canons, the building could not be saved. It is beyond repair.

Sensing the grief of long term residents made me think of the grief that must have been experienced by Coast Salish people as they saw the places that had served generations of their people as safe homes, fishing and hunting sites become occupied by settlers who did not know the stories and meanings attached to those places. The invasive and extractive activities of coal miners and timber cutters must have caused great grief for those who had lived for so long with the natural beauty and resources of the area.

Time moves on. Change comes. And now I have become a resident of this area. In years to come, I will be one who can remember before the fire and what the Fairhaven Terminal looked like before it was destroyed. Like people have done for thousands of years, I am collecting the stories of this place.

Grief ever present

I have taught stress management classes on and off again for all of my professional life. When I was a seminary intern, I taught a stress series that was designed by Granger Westburg, founder of Wholistic Health Care Centers. Near the end of my career I taught stress management for law enforcement officers as part of my duties as a Sheriff’s Chaplain. Stress theory has evolved a great deal over that span of time, but there are principles that have remained the same.

At the core of my understanding of stress theory are two important core truths. The first is that all living involves stress. Without stress a structure cannot stand. While we can experience distress when our lives have too much stress, we also can experience distress when there is no stress. The concept is more complex than can be explained in these few words, but it can be helpful to simply understand that all living things experience stress. You cannot escape stress. There is no such thing as stress-free life.

A second truth is that stress arises from grief. Researchers and therapists have been using an instrument called the Holmes-Rahe Life Stress Inventory to measure the level of stress. Also known as the Social Readjustment Rating Scale this instrument ranks 43 life events according to the likelihood that the event will cause enough stress to result in hospitalization. Virtually every item on that scale involves grief, from the death of a spouse to changes in residence. Not all grief stems from death. A loss of any kind results in grief.

I used to use the illustration of a sock lost in the washer or dryer to speak of the stages of grief:
How can my sock be missing? - denial
Damn, my sock is lost! - anger
I’ll keep the mate because if I throw it away I’ll find the lost sock - bargaining
It makes me sad, I loved that pair of socks - depression
Oh well, I guess I’ll wear this pair - acceptance

It helps to understand that when major grief enters our life, such as the death of a loved one, we have been gaining skills at navigating grief throughout our lives by experiencing other losses.

While it can be helpful to understand grief in terms of five or sometimes seven stages, there are limits to that way of thinking. Grief isn’t always sequential. It doesn’t always follow a set order. You can be angry and depressed at the same time for example. People frequently get into cycles of repeating various stages of grief, especially when experiencing a major loss. Furthermore thinking of grief as a sequence with stages can lead to the erroneous conclusion that one might “get through” grief and reach a place where grief is no more.

As our understanding of grief grew through research and study, we began to learn more about the nature of trauma and its lasting effects. While we weren’t sure of it decades ago, counselors now generally accept that there are effects of trauma and loss that do not go away. People can gain skill at living with grief and become more at ease with its presence, but there is no cure of grief. There is no place at which one arrives after a period of grief that is a full resolution.

All of which is to say that a human life is a process of accumulating layer upon layer of grief. Returning briefly to the lost sock, most of us have experienced the loss of multiple socks in our lifetime. Just yesterday I pulled on a sock and tore through the heel as I slid it over my foot. It wasn’t the first time that had happened. I could immediately recall other lost socks as I returned to my sock drawer to grab a fresh pair. The death of a loved one might bring to mind a previous death of a beloved pet. Retirement might cause the recall of having been laid off from another job. A change in residence might bring up memories from a previous health crisis. Taking on a loan might spark memories of lean times when income was short.

We are complex beings and rarely experience our emotions one at a time. Tears of joy and tears of sadness often mix on our cheeks.

In my work with those who have experienced sudden and traumatic loss, I learned not to promise recovery. While well-meaning friends might say, “You’ll get over this,” I would never use those words. I never promise a grieving person that they will get over what they are feeling. Instead, I sought to connect grieving persons with others who were experiencing grief, but who had been living with their grief for different amounts of time. Knowing that you are not alone and that others are familiar with what you are experiencing can be helpful as you learn to navigate life with a permanent loss.

Once again as I send out holiday greetings this year, I am aware that the season is not all happiness, fun, and games for many of those I greet. Christmas can stir memories of loss. Holiday parties can be lonely places for some. The rise in stress of trying to create a “perfect” celebration can spark a wide range of emotions. Christmas can be anything but merry for some folks. Having lived for many years, I have accumulated many layers of memory, some joyous and some less so.

In the days of the early church, Advent was often a somber season, with extended periods of prayer and fasting. I am grateful for the many moods of the season and appreciate the journey of many days of anticipation and preparation knowing that there is room for sadness as well as joy. There is time for grief as well as expectation.

My Christmas wish for all is that we will be granted permission to experience the holidays in ways that are authentic and true to our own experiences. May we together explore the many moods of the season knowing that we are not alone.

Learning to give

One of the joys of our lives is seeing our children as parents. Both of them are truly wonderful parents. And we have really high standards. After all, the children in their lives are our grandchildren.

I watch our son on the floor under a pile of his children. His work days are long and opportunities for rest and sleep are infrequent. His work is stressful and demands more than a basic 40-hour work week. There are evening meetings and it is common for him to need to deal with work-related phone calls when he is at home. He an his wife are developing and managing their farm in addition to their work and home responsibilities. Life is tough and challenging, but he manages with such grace. And he plays with his children with such love and affection that I can’t help but be delighted.

Watching him reminds me of my father. Our family was spread out and my oldest sisters were starting their families while we were still living at home. I can remember my father coming home from work and lying down on the floor for a bit of rest. He had injured his back in his young adult years and sometimes getting flat on the floor was the best way for him to get comfortable. As soon as he got to the floor, however, there were children and grandchildren who came to climb on him. He always greeted them with a huge smile. The children were an antidote for the stresses of his life.

Our son never met my father face to face. He was born several months after my father’s death.

It is a blessing for us to live in the time of video communications. We converse with our daughter and her family over Skype or FaceTime several times each week. No matter what is going on in my life, I feel such a deep joy when I see their faces on my devices. Our grandson has a ready smile and is quick to offer his mom a hug. She spent years as a preschool teacher before becoming a mother and has just the right skillset for her preschool son. He is intelligent and creative and confident and well behaved.

Fortunately for us we have excellent access to our grandchildren. Their parents encourage their relationship with us. While our daughter and her family live a long ways away, our son and his family are just down the road from us. We share meals nearly every week. I keep my bees and boats and tools at the farm.

One of the roles we try to play in the lives of our grandchildren is to offer them opportunities to show compassion for others. Yesterday our three oldest grandchildren lit the three candles in the advent wreath at our church. They were eager to serve in this manner and to be a part of the leadership of a worship service. Later this morning they will be at our house to help bake Christmas cookies for giving plates that they will deliver to others.

Baking Christmas cookies has become a tradition with our grandchildren. It can be a bit of a messy adventure, but the spirit is always great and the children are generous in their applications of toppings on the sugar cookies. They always have a container of cookies to take home at the end of the adventure. This year it made sense to spread that joy to a wider circle. Susan found plates inscribed with a poem: “This plate belongs to everyone; wherever it may go, with each new sharing of its gift the love and blessings grow. So fill it up and pass it on to family and friends to start the circle one more time, love’s journey never ends.” Those plates will be filled with treats, including sugar cookies, and delivered to others.

We have already had the joy of seeing our grand children’s generosity. It has become a tradition at our house for our grandchildren to go out on Halloween to trick or treat at the neighbors. Then they come back to our house where they eat a few of their treats, but they return a lot of unwrapped candy to our treat bowl and enjoy giving it out to other neighborhood children as they come to our house.

They are encouraged by their parents to share the bounty of the farm. Gifts of flowers, berries, vegetables and eggs are routinely given to neighbors, teachers, and friends. Watching our grandchildren as they learn the joy of giving is a very special gift that we receive from them.

The world in which our grandchildren are growing up is often dangerous and cruel. Daily we read in the news of children who are killed in waves of hatred and violence that sweep up innocents. Children are equipped by parents and grandparents with weapons of lethal force and use them to destroy the lives of others. We cannot ignore the pain and suffering that is present in this world.

We do not know the ins and outs of global politics. We cannot control the events that cause so much suffering for so many. What we can do is to teach our grandchildren to be kind and to have empathy for other people. We can help them to learn to share and to give without expecting anything in return. Fortunately for us, we have the parents of our grandchildren as partners in teaching them the values that we have inherited from generations of loving families.

We know that we cannot shield our loved ones from all danger. We raise our children in love that they might learn to love, and then send them out into the world where they encounter the realities of anger and hatred. Their lives will not be free from all pain and suffering. Grief will come to them as it comes to all. We believe, however, that they will be better equipped to face the realities of this world if they approach it with care, compassion, understanding, and empathy.

Besides, whenever they make cookies at our house, grandpa is sure to get a few.


I think it might have been fair to describe me as a child who had his head in the clouds. I was always looking up. I tried to identify every airplane that took of from or landed at our small town airport. I knew all of my father’s airplanes not only by sight, but also by sound. There were a couple of airplanes that were flown by different pilots at different times and I learned to tell when it was our father at the controls. I have been keen to notice airplanes all of my life. the place where we live is under the approach path to Vancouver International Airport for planes making left traffic for runway 26L. Since onshore winds are more common than offshore winds, that is the flow of traffic to the longest runway in use most days. I know this because I look up at nearly every airplane that passes over. A few miles east of our house, at our son’s farm, there is a significant amount of air traffic of planes that are being flown for training and test purposes. We routinely see some of Boeing’s newest designs in company colors in slow flight or flying low level patterns as part of their ongoing testing. We also see almost every kind of airplane from single engine trainers to judo jets flying training maneuvers over the farm.

I have noticed, however, that my head isn’t in the clouds quite as much as once was the case. I’m a little more careful to keep my eyes on the path when I am walking. I’m slightly more prone to tripping than I used to be, though I admit I have always been a bit clumsy with my feet. I once walked into a tree and broke my glasses when walking the block from the school to our house because my attention was focused on the sky. These days, however, I can’t look continuously at the sky while walking without becoming a bit light headed. And I have reached the age when my doctor asks me about falling on every visit. I want to avoid broken bones and other injuries that can come from not paying attention to where I am walking.

Yesterday as we walked up the path and turned alongside the settling pond a couple of blocks from our home a bald eagle was watching us from the top of the birch trees. I might not have even noticed the magnificent bird had my wife not pointed it out to me. I could have, however, reported on which homes in our neighborhood have cleaned out the moss from the cracks in their sidewalks and which ones have not. I paused for a second to gaze at the eagle and realized that once again I had been looking at my feet while I was walking.

I don’t want to become a person who fails to see the wondrous beauty of the place where I live. Our home is on a rise from which we can see snow covered mountains year round. We are a 15 minute walk from the beach of the Salish sea with some of the most dense bird population in the world. Snow geese and trumpeter swans come to our county for winter vacation every year. The sunsets over the islands are magnificent. I am blessed beyond counting with beauty all around me.

Truth be told, my head hasn’t been in the clouds as much as I think it was when I look back. I am nearsighted and have worn glasses since the first grade. My youngest brother has always been able to spot fish in the river that I could not see. He can see dear and elk on distant hillsides that I would not notice were it not for him pointing them out to me. Another product of reaching the age where I now am is that I am more aware that my memories are not as accurate as they seem to me to be.

Being nearsighted, however, does have some advantages. I think it is one of the factors that has brought me to feel so close to our youngest grandson. He has Dissociated Vertical Deviation (DVD), a condition in which both of his eyes wander. While most of us use binocular sight - both eyes focusing on the same object - to determine depth and distance, his eyes don’t always give his brain the information it needs. Sometimes his images of the world split and float up or down with the independent movement of his two eyes.

He is developing at his own pace. At an age where many of his peers are walking independently, he walks holding onto furniture or the fingers of a helper. When left on his own, he sits and scoots or crawls to get around. He has extraordinary fine finger coordination and spends a lot of time on tasks that involve things that are very close to his face. I need to get a bit closer to him before I see full recognition in his eyes. He is a quiet kid. Our children and other grandchildren were chatterers at his age, making all kinds of vocalizations and keeping us busy making lists of all of the new words they were employing. He only says a few words and often will say something only once without repeating. His favorite animals are the chickens and the kitten who come close enough for him to touch and to be seen in focus. He wears glasses and hasn’t rested them, so we know that they make his world clearer.

Because of his age and the timing of my retirement I have had the blessing of being able to spend more time with him than any of our other grandchildren. I have lived nearby all of his life. I see him multiple times every week. I am often on the floor playing with him.

Today is Gaudete Sunday, the day when we are reminded to “Rejoice in the Lord Always.” I find it hard to identify joy in a war-torn world where violence seems to be so inevitable. I find it hard to identify joy when I contemplate the pollution and environmental destruction that we are bequeathing to our grandchildren. But I can rejoice and know true joy by getting down to the level of our tiny grandson to see the pinecone, rock, or seed he hold put to show me. I can rejoice and know true joy by sweeping him into my arms and watching his face as he puts his hands into by beard. Despite wars devastation, joy is not absent from this world. I can light the candle of joy in good faith because of the gift of a child. Faith is renewed.

Christmas memories

Yesterday was the last day of school before Christmas break for our Washington grandchildren. Our grandson in South Carolina has a slightly shorter break. He goest to school some days next week. The kids here go back to school on January 2. I think the children in South Carolina don’t go back to school until the 4th. At any rate, the break is two full weeks plus a day for the kids here. That’s longer than I remember the break being when I was an elementary school student. Our oldest grandson commented, “It isn’t often that you get a 17-day weekend.”

While the extended vacation probably poses some childcare issues for some families, it is a welcome change of pace for our family. Were’ve got enough adults to cover and the time gives an opportunity to spend a bit more time with our grandchildren. We live within walking distance of a community center operated by the local park district that has an indoor gym, and they were showing the movie “the Santa Clause” with Tim Allen. The free gathering offered an opportunity for pictures with Santa, cookies, popcorn and hot chocolate, as well as an opportunity to watch the movie with a group of other families from the neighborhood. It was a good opportunity for us to have the three oldest grandchildren over to our house for a pizza supper, the movie, a sleepover, and blueberry pancakes this morning. Their father and younger brother will join us for breakfast before taking the grandchildren home. j

I was listening to the radio earlier in the week and there was a discussion of holiday movies. Watching movies wasn’t particularly a part of my family’s traditions, so I don’t have a list of movies to watch over and over during the season. I do remember several holiday specials that were broadcast on television. We watched several Charlie Brown Christmas specials. I think I first saw “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” on television as well. My memories of Christmas break from school, however, don’t focus on holiday movies. I know some people who feel that watching “Miracle on 34th Street,” “It’s a Wonderful Life,” or even “The Muppet Christmas Carol” are important traditions for every year.

Christmas was a fun holiday for us as children because our father’s business was fairly slow at that time of the year. There would be some important sales in the week after Christmas as farmers and ranchers took at look at the impact last minute investments on their tax liabilities, but the shop didn’t have a rush of needed repairs and our shop didn’t have much merchandise that was part of normal holiday gift giving. Dad seemed to be able to take a bit more time off from work and we found some great family adventures. Most years our Christmas adventure included a trip to a nearby hot springs pool. Swimming outdoors in the winter is a special treat and we found the thrill of getting out of the hot pool, rolling in the snow and then returning to the pool to be a fun annual tradition.

We are hoping to build some holiday memories for our grandchildren even though we live where there is no snow on the ground. We could easily find snow by driving up into the North Cascades, but there a plenty of fun activities that we can pursue without needing to go anywhere. There may be some time for the children to make gifts for their parents before Christmas day, and I’m sure that there will be time for Christmas cookie baking and decorating at our home next week.

There was a school assembly at the elementary school last week. We weren’t able to attend as we had an appointment in Bellingham, but it wasn’t like the Christmas programs that were part of our childhood. I remember feeling a bit of pressure around school Christmas programs that seemed to always involved us having to get dressed up and sing in front of an audience. We also had the Christmas pageant at church that involved another bit of performance for an audience of parents and community members. I wasn’t that big on performance in those days and it seemed like a bit of relief to have those programs finished so we could really be on vacation for a few days.

At our house there was always at least one kid with a paper route and papers had to be delivered every day whether or not we were on vacation. Being on vacation, however, meant that I could usually recruit a little brother to help speed the deliveries and often on Christmas day our father gave us a ride in the car that really speeded up the process. When I got old enough to drive, I’d help my younger brothers with their paper routes. I remember on Christmas morning when I got a car stuck in a big snow drift and when I walked home to enlist our father’s help he grabbed a shovel and we all walked back instead of taking another vehicle. I learned how to shovel out a stuck car that day. It is a lesson I’ve employed several times since.

Last week when listening to the radio, there was an invitation for people to call in or email about the best and worst Christmas gifts they ever received. I thought back over my life and didn’t come up with either an all time best or a really bad present that I have received. There are a few that I remember, like the year our family got a trampoline, and the year our father built a color television from a HeathKit between Christmas and New Year’s Day. Instead of watching the Rose Bowl Parade in black and white, we got to watch it with a bit of orange and green while our father kept adjusting the various color adjustments of the new television. For the most part, although we gave and received presents at Christmas, the gifts weren’t the center of the celebrations and aren’t the center of my memories.

It makes me wonder what our grandchildren will remember decades from now. I pray that their memories are as fun as mine. Maybe they will even include the recall of a sleepover at grandma and grandpa’s home.

A risk not worth taking

Decades ago when our son was a preschooler, a physician ordered an MRI of his brain in an attempt to understand his decreased sensation in one of his hands. The scan revealed a small area in his brain, only 1/32 of an inch in depth, that is not typical. We know now that it is likely the result of a small event, similar to a stroke, that occurred early in his life, likely in the birth process. The effects of this condition are simply a part of his identity. He is dramatically left-handed. He does not suffer significant disability as a result of this and has been successful in his career and in his roles as husband and father.

The discovery of the small brain anomaly was relatively rare at that time. Nuclear magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines were new and had not been used in many cases and were vary rarely employed on children. The machines are noisy and require the patient to lie very still. Our son was sedated in order to obtain the diagnostic images. In addition to the discovery of the tiny area in his brain, doctors were concerned at what they thought was an atypical brain stem angle. We were advised of this condition and it was recommended that repeat studies be conducted. For a while we followed the recommendations, taking him in for repeated MRI studies. After a while, however, when the test results were always the same, I questioned the frequency of the tests and the need for repeated sedation of our son. Our family physician made inquires and the orders for repeated tests were withdrawn. Later we learned that there never was an abnormal brain stem angle. There had been so few MRI test of the brains of young children that the range of what was determined “normal” was based on too small of a sample. It turns out that our son’s brain stem was always within the normal range. Doctors just didn’t realize what that range was.

As a result, though I have never been the subject of an MRI study, I have considerable experience with the machines. I was present in the study room for each of our son’s studies. I could view the machine and see him in it. Even though all of the technicians and attendants stepped out of the room when the machine was in use, I was allowed to remain with our son. Prior to entering the study area, I was advised of the precautions that were taken. First of all, I was to have no metal on my person. My keys, belt buckle, and any other metal I had brought with me was placed in a locker. My wallet was also placed in that locker because of the magnetic strips on credit cards. My glasses were left in the locker because of their metal content. I was outfitted with a personal dosimeter to record my exposure to radiation. I was taught and questioned by technicians and signed a release before entering the room. Our son was dressed in only a hospital gown and did not take any personal property into the exam room.

MRI machines have powerful magnets. There are at least two reported cases of accidents with the machines involving family members who were near the devices while their family members were being examined. In 2018 a man in India was killed when an oxygen tank he was holding next to an MRI machine was pulled toward the magnet and broke flooding his lungs. According the the McClatchy News, last February a Brazilian gun advocate was accompanying his mother while she underwent an MRI scan in São Paulo when the weapon he was carrying in his waistband was pulled out by the magnetism of the machine and triggered, fatally injuring him. I was unable to find any information in either case about what, if any, precautions were taken in either case to inform the accompanying family members about the risks of being near the machine. I know that in my case, I was advised of the dangers of taking any metal into the room.

Last June a 57-year-old patient was properly screened by technicians prior to her examination in an MRI machine manufactured by GE Medical Systems according to a Food and Drug Administration report. She was asked if she had any potentially magnetic objects on her person to which sh answered, “no.” As she went to lie down in the bore, or circular opening of the machine, a shot rang out. The patient was carrying a concealed weapon that she had not disclosed during the pre-procedure screening. The weapon was triggered. A shot rang out. The woman was struck in the right buttock. She was immediately examined by a physician who was present and the report describes the entry and exit holes as “very small and superficial, only penetrating subcutaneous tissue.” Nonetheless she was taken to the hospital, as per protocol, and later told doctors she was “okay and healing well,” according to the FDA report.

She joins the Brazilian who was attending his mother and the man in India who held an oxygen tank next to an MRI machine, on a very short list of people who have been injured by taking metal near an MRI machine. At the same time she joins a very long list of people who have been injured or killed by their own concealed weapons.

Weapons manufacturers and dealers along with gun advocates advocate the use of concealed weapons as a safety measure. Because the weapons are concealed there is no accurate count of how many people routinely carry loaded weapons into places where they pose risks to those who carry them and to others. The facility where the woman was injured has signs that specifically prohibit the carrying of any weapons into it. Those signs were not seen or were ignored by the injured woman.

People obtain and carry loaded weapons to increase their sense of security, but in many cases the real effect of the behavior is exactly the opposite. They are more at risk than if they were not carrying the weapon.

When I went to the hospital with our son all those years ago, it never occurred to me that I might want or need a weapon. I have never owned a handgun. I have never needed one to feel safe. I’m happy to report that so far my buttocks are uninjured. I hope to keep it that way.

A disturbing case

I have written about suicide and suicide prevention often. Each time that I do, I struggle with how to discuss a difficult subject in ways that lead those who are struggling with depression or who have thoughts of suicide towards help. Many suicides can be prevented when those suffering receive the right help. Suicide and thoughts of suicide affect people in all walks of life, at all ages, and all circumstances. For many who need help, that help can begin with a phone call to 988, the National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. Just as people are urged to call 911 when they face an emergency that requires police, fire, or ambulance, a phone call to 988 will yield immediate connection with local resources for those in crisis.

Police in Canada have charged Kenneth Law, a 57-year-old former chef, with 14 counts of second-degree murder. He is accused of supplying a poisonous chemical to people who died by suicide. The accusations include using multiple web sites and email contact with those considering suicide to sell kits that contained a deadly substance and instructions on how to use it to end one’s life. In addition to the murder charges, Mr. Law has been charged with an additional 14 counts of aiding and counseling suicide in connection with the same deaths. He faces life in prison if convicted of the murder charges.

According to BBC, Mr. Law’s lawyer has said the Mr. Law intends to plead not guilty to the charges.

On the one hand, talking about the case and sharing information about Mr. Law might lead someone who is suffering and seeking the means of suicide to those means. I will not mention the name of the chemical Mr. Law distributed because I do not want to inadvertently provide a suffering person with the means of suicide. However, after spending significant time with dozens of survivors of suicide and having responded to the scenes of suicide for decades, I know that those most affected by suicide loss feel a need to talk about suicide. Sweeping such conversations under the carpet and making suicide a taboo subject can make the process of living with suicide loss even more painful for those affected. I will not shy away from the subject despite the challenges of writing about it.

So I will repeat myself. If you or someone you love is suffering from depression or struggling with thoughts of suicide, please call 988. It is an emergency and life-saving action is required.

Those who die of suicide often have said to others, prior to their deaths, that they feel like no one would miss them if they died. Sometimes those who suffer convince themselves that their loved ones would be better off if they died. Those thoughts are tragically deceptive. I’ve responded to the aftermath of too many suicides. I have spent too much time with survivors who have lost loved ones. I know that each time a person dies they leave behind a large number of grieving people whose lives are forever changed by the loss.

Mr. Law, who remains in police custody, has been associated with multiple deaths of victims under the age of 18. The 14 murder charges involve victims aged 16 to 36. He has been implicated in the deaths of at least 90 people in the United Kingdom. Police believe he may have sent more than 1,200 parcels containing lethal substances to around 40 countries. The impact of this single individual is stunning.

From what I have learned, his story is surprisingly simple. He was employed as a chef prior to the Covid-19 pandemic. When he was laid off from his job, he was desperate to find a means of financial support for himself. He combined his knowledge of chemicals gained from his career in food preparation and preservation with the ability to build websites and began to sell what he called “poison kits.” It seems he had no illusions about what he was doing. He was profiting from providing the means for persons to die.

To be clear, the charges have not yet been proven in court. Mr. Law maintains his innocence. But his arrest and continued incarceration illustrate that prosecutors have substantial evidence to the contrary. This journal is not the place for the trial of Mr. Law. That will be left to law enforcement and the courts of the countries where the deaths occurred.

Reading about the case, however, has left me with the fear that vulnerable people will continue to search the internet for the means of suicide. It seems clear that on the internet there are people who are encouraging others to kill themselves, encouraging vulnerable people to self harm, and providing the means for harm and death to occur. That stark reality is a threat to all vulnerable people and their families. It is very possible that persons seeking help will mistakenly find the websites of those counseling death.

With all of its richness of information and possibilities of connection the Internet provides access to resources for people who might not otherwise find those resources. That access and those resources are available, however, only in the context of significant risk. Persons seeking help can inadvertently discover just the opposite.

Whenever I have the opportunity, and one of those opportunities is right now, I urge people to avoid typing the word “suicide” into web browsers without adding an additional word such as “lifeline,” “response,” “prevention,” or “hope.” Support and understanding are available, but there are merchants of death and grief who pose as helpers.

I began my education in suicide prevention back in the early 1970s when I volunteered as a phone counselor at a suicide prevention hotline. The experiences of more than 50 years have resulted in a heightened awareness of the risks that are present in our communities. I will continue to follow the case of Mr. Law as it proceeds through the courts. I hope that coverage of the case will not include information that leads more victims away from help.

Please join me in telling others about 988 and the National Suicide and Crisis Hotline. Each death prevented saves countess suffering from grief and loss.

Easing into a new way of thinking

It is taking me a while to adjust to my role as a retired pastor. To be fair, when we first retired, I wasn’t really ready to be retired. I feel so lucky we were called to serve for two years in an interim position - in which I worked half time - as a way to ease the transition. Since the end of July, however, we have been fully retired and I have been learning that there is a place in the church for retired pastors. It is something that I knew in theory before. Retired pastors have been important parts of the congregations we have served. At one time, we had ten retired pastors participating in our congregation in Rapid City. I often felt that their participation was critical to my being able to serve the congregation. The job of being a pastor is much bigger than any individual. There was always one more call that needed to be made, one more task that needed to be done. I struggled to find pulpit supply when I needed to be out of the pulpit. Retired pastors provided much needed support and feedback to me as a pastor.

For many years I participated in and often facilitated a clergy book discussion group in which the majority of the participants were retired. My role in the group was a challenge to me. Clergy groups are often places where pastors can let their hair down a bit. It isn’t usually very dramatic. Clergy often don’t have very long hair. But we turn to each other for support and there can occasionally be a complaint or an expression of discontent with some of the struggles of congregational life. That clergy book group, however, was not a place for me to engage in that kind thinking and talking. There were plenty of meetings when the majority of those present were members of my congregation. They were colleagues, to be sure, but they were also members of a congregation I had been called to serve.

Now the roles are reversed, so to speak. I am the retired clergy person trying to find appropriate ways to participate in the life of the church. Moreover, I live in a place where there are a lot more people and a lot more congregations than were I served for most of my ministry. There are four United Church of Christ congregations within a short distance of our home. Each has its own pastoral leadership and style. One of the new roles to which I think I am called is to be supportive of pastors leading those congregations. I try to pay attention to them, to find out when there is something I can do to help make their ministries succeed. That might mean providing pulpit supply from time to time. It might mean providing a listening ear, offering a shared cup of tea or coffee, or taking a pastor out to lunch. I don’t know all of what it means, but I am trying to learn.

One thing that I am sure is not needed is criticism. As much as I might want to serve as a mentor, the younger pastors I know don’t want mentors. They are not looking for constructive criticism. They don’t need to have their sermons critiqued. They feel no need of advice on how to use their time, plan their work, or set priorities. I have resolved to eschew the role of critic. And that is not easy for me because things are very different for this generation of clergy than they were for me. I am aware that I am a relic of another time. It isn’t easy for me to think of myself that way, however. There is much for me to learn.

Recently I heard the report of a pastor who had returned from sabbatical. The pastor is younger than I was when I received my first sabbatical. Times were different then. Although I received regular sabbaticals in the 25 years I served in Rapid City, it was the first call of my career in which I had access to sabbatical. I served congregations for 23 years before I was able to go on sabbatical for the first time. This was not because the congregations I served were negligent. It was because times were different. Sabbaticals during my career were times of Sabbath and rest, to be sure. But they also were times of study and preparation for the service that was to follow. Sabbaticals included a recommitment to the call of ministry and to the congregation being served. One of the marks of sabbatical for me was professional writing.

Earlier in our careers, when Susan and I received an extra two weeks of study leave one year after having served for several years, we wrote a significant professional paper and submitted it to seminary faculty for review. When I went on my first sabbatical, I completed and submitted for publication 26 weeks of curriculum for Christian Education of youth aged 15-18. My second sabbatical was funded by a generous grant from the Lily Foundation and included a post-sabbatical time of study and writing. Each sabbatical of my career, of which there were four, included a significant reading list, the production of professional writing, and an extensive report to the congregation. We came out of an academic model and pastoral sabbaticals are based on that model. Study is a major theme of that model. Reading, writing, and following spiritual disciplines is incorporated. This journal grew out of a sabbatical. I began the discipline of daily writing during a sabbatical in 2006. In 2007 I started to publish those daily entries on the web and I have maintained that discipline ever since.

The sabbatical report I heard recently, however, didn’t involve any writing. There was no mention of a single book that was read. The report was rambling and unfocused and included the admission that much of it has been prepared at the last minute. It was hardly a reflection that had grown out of three months of professional leave. My reaction was to feel very critical. I couldn’t understand how the report served the congregation at all. It was hard for me to see how the congregation’s investment in the sabbatical had benefitted anyone except the pastor who seemed to have just used the time as paid vacation.

I’m pretty sure that part of the role of a retired pastor is keeping my mouth shut. It is likely that I have gone too far in writing about the report in my journal. Times have changed. The current generation of pastors is different than mine. The old academic model is no longer relevant. I do pray, however, that the emergence of new leadership does not require forgetting the lessons of the past. There were great benefits to the church and to professional ministers from the old ways of doing things. It would be a shame to lose all of those benefits. Enough said.

Must Have Toys

Recently I caught part of a radio report on trendy toys. The story was remembering he frenzy over Cabbage Patch Kids, the soft dolls that became so popular that demand outstripped supply for a couple of years. The story implied that the riots that erupted in stores over the purchase of the toys was one of the first examples of the Black Friday phenomena that has seen outrageous behavior on the part of shoppers. The frenzy over Black Friday television sets has been so extreme at times that people would spend the night waiting in line for retail stores to open on the day after Thanksgiving.

I remember Cabbage Patch Kids. The basic story of the dolls is that the originator and original manufacturers of the toy did not anticipate the demand. For the first few years, it was made by Coleco, a smaller manufacturer. Later the dolls were licensed to Hasbro and after that to Mattel. They are still available, but at least somewhere along the line, manufacturers dropped the signature of Xavier Roberts that was stitched on the backside of each doll. Roberts, the developer of the dolls used a German technique for fabric sculpture called “needle molding” to produce the original dolls. Each doll was distinct from every other doll and unique.

I know exactly when they became popular. It was Christmas of 1983. I remember because our daughter was born in September of that year. I was often up with her in the middle of the night and sometimes I would turn on the television set. I could not believe the furor over the dolls or the behavior of shoppers. There were instances of fights and riots breaking out in stores. One merchant was throwing the dolls at crowds in hopes of getting the aggressive and angry shoppers to leave the building. People were being injured by other shoppers.

I also know that our daughter got a Cabbage Patch doll. I am not exactly sure when that toy came into our household, but I know that we didn’t participate in a riot to get it. What I remember is that the doll was about the same size as our daughter was when we took her home. In fact we had a dress that our daughter wore as an infant that fit the doll.

Ever since Cabbage Patch Kids, toy developers and manufacturers have sought to come out with the current year’s must have toy at Christmas.

One of the next toys to take the holiday season by storm was Tickle Me Elmo. We had one of those in our house, too. Unlike the Cabbage Patch doll, Elmo required batteries. When the belly of the doll was squeezed he giggled in a captivating manner that was quite infectious. The doll also vibrated when it giggled. Our daughter also had a sweater that had a picture of Elmo on it and a hidden pocket that held a small device that made the sound. I had so much fun with that sweater that we kept the device and I used to enjoy putting a fresh battery in it and using it to entertain children for many years after our children were grown.

Somehow our house fortunately bypassed one of the next big fad toys to hit the market. In the late 1990s Furby was the hit for a few Christmas seasons. The radio program commented that Furby is back for Christmas this year. The fuzzy creatures, based on a character in a movie, would randomly begin making sounds that approximated speech, but could not be understood. They were supposed to be speaking “Furbish.” Their language never caught on. There were a lot of original Furbies that had their batteries yanked out in the middle of the night because they wouldn’t stop “talking.” I understand that the 25th anniversary edition of Furby has an on and off switch to address that concern.

Trendy toys continue to show up from time to time. Not every Christmas season produces a must have toy, but there have been several toys since that have netted a lot of profits for manufacturers and merchants. Our kids were old enough that we pretty much escaped the Pokemon craze that erupted about the time they were graduating from high school. A little later it seemed like every kid had to have a Razor scooter. Beyblades, Zhu Zhu Pets, and Hatchimals have all come and gone in popularity. I once read that merchandise based on the Disney film “Frozen” produced a half billion dollars in sales in a single season.

Not every season produces the one big toy that gets all of the attention. There are Christmases when no toy becomes a “must have.”

As parents and now as grandparents, we haven’t been very interested in which toys are the most popular and which are creating the most sensation. Rather we have tried to find toys for the children in our lives that have lasting value. Our grandchildren still play with Lego bricks that were purchased for our son four decades ago. Basic toys such as blocks, dolls, and bikes are a hit with each generation.

Our grandchildren range in age from 12 down to 1 and there are a few toys that have been played with by all five of them. Not long ago I spent some time with the youngest playing with a set of stacking cups that had been a gift to the first of our grandchildren on the occasion of his first birthday. There is also an activity cube in their home that has been played with by all of their children.

I won’t be buying a Furby for any of our grandchildren this year or any other year. I don’t think we’ve got a grandchild who would be interested in a Cabbage Patch Doll. I am, however, kind of hoping that one of our children would think it appropriate for grandpa to buy a Tickle Me Elmo for their child. Maybe that is the kind of toy that needs to live at grandpa’s house.

Christmas Tree Memories

I have a partial memory of a Christmas Tree expedition when I was a child. Our family got our trees by going into the National Forest and cutting a small tree. The process usually involved a thermos or two of hot chocolate, a brisk hike in weather that was often cold and snowy, and a bit of conversation about which tree would look best in our living room. We didn’t use a Christmas tree stand in our home. Instead, we had a huge cooking pot that was filled with sand. The bottom branches of the tree were removed so that there was a foot or more of bare trunk, which was inserted into the sand. This allowed us to keep the cut tree fresh by watering it throughout the time it was displayed in our home.

In my memory we have taken a jeep into the mountains. There were always jeeps around our parents’ business. They were used as ground support vehicles for their flying service. The first vehicle I learned to drive was a jeep. I drove it around the airport, checking perimeter and runway lights and replacing bulbs as needed several years before I was old enough to have a license to drive on the streets. The thing that is slightly confusing about my memory is that we had a large family and jeeps are not large vehicles. In order for my memory to be accurate, we must have taken more than one vehicle on this trip because our family would not all fit into a single jeep.

What I remember is that this particular jeep had a couple of front seats and in the back there were two short bench seats that faced each other. Occupants in the back rode facing sideways to the direction of travel. In my memory the Christmas tree is shoved into the back of the jeep. There is barely room for those of us in the back to sit with branches poking every direction. The back of the jeep has to be left open for the tree to stick out the back. There were no seat belts, and I don’t remember how many others were in the back, but I don’t think I was alone. I was crammed back there with others. The main thing I could see was tree branches. It was cold.

I don’t think I rode that way very often. The memory is probably of a single trip in which I rode in the back of a jeep with a tree. Memories, however, become confused after many years, so there are probably elements in the memory that come from other times when we went to cut our family Christmas Tree.

When Susan and I completed our college and graduate school educations and got settled in our first home, getting a Christmas Tree for our home became a priority. I think that we purchased a tree from a local vendor a few times, but many times in the years we lived in North Dakota we took members of the youth group down to the Slim Buttes to cut trees for our churches and our homes. The buttes had long-needled Ponderosa Pines and the smaller trees that were suitable to cutting weren’t always perfectly shaped like the trimmed noble firs that are often sold in commercial lots. The aroma of a fresh-cut tree, however, was worth the time, which usually involved driving around 80 miles round trip.

After North Dakota, we moved to Boise, Idaho, where once again we went into the forest to cut trees some years and bought our trees from lots other years. Once we moved to South Dakota, the forest was closer than town, though we liked to drive deeper into the hills to cut our tree. Like the Slim Buttes, the Black Hills have a lot of Ponderosa Pines, but we preferred to search for a place where we could cut a Black Hills Spruce tree. We liked to take at least half a day to drive up into the hills and hike away from the road in search of our annual tree.

Over the years we had many adventures, including the year when it was below zero and we had my mother along with us. When we got to the area where we cut the tree it was too cold and the snow was too deep for Mom to hike away from the car, so we found a place where we could get a tree relatively close to where we could drive. I parked off of the road and had to put chains on the vehicle to get back onto the road. Another year, Susan and I were looking for a tree when the starter on our pickup failed and we ended up spending the night in the truck before hiking eight miles to a place with a phone. Our friends came and rescued us and towed our pickup to a repair shop. We hadn’t yet cut a tree, so they helped us get one and hauled it to our home.

Over the years, we have gained a lifetime of stories and good memories.

When we retired and moved to Washington we decided that it was time for a new tradition. Although we live within a short drive of spectacular mountains with national forests, we decided to purchase live trees. Our son and his family live on a small farm with plenty of places to plant trees. One year we purchased a Douglas Fir tree. That tree is doing well and in a century or so should be over 100 feet tall. Since our son’s family also purchase trees for planting we now have a small grove of former Christmas Trees.

Last year we purchased a dwarf spruce tree that we planted in the yard of the home we live in. That has been fun and the little tree is doing well, but we don’t have much room to plant other trees in our small yard. This year’s tree is a Norway Spruce that will find a place in the growing grove at the farm. This tree will grow quickly, so might even be taller than the Douglas Fir for a few years.

We haven’t kept a formal record of our various tree expeditions, but we have established a firm family tradition. Yesterday, our little tree was ready to move from the garage to our living room. We’re just enjoying the tree for a day before we decorate it. We don’t have jeep and we wouldn’t cram it full of kids and a tree and drive it with the back opened up if we did have one, but we still are having fun creating memories.

An important debate

I think that there is an important debate behind the debates that are being held on US university campuses in recent months. On the surface it appears as if there is a great deal of polarization among students over the war in Israel and Gaza. Students are using the usual campus forums to debate. Reactions to the brutal Hamas attack and Israel’s uncompromising response have been intense. Jewish students have reported many incidents of antisemitism. Muslim students have reported Isalamophobia. The University of Pennsylvania’s president has resigned after criticism of her testimony to Congress about antisemitism on campus.

It is a difficult time to get to the debate behind the debate, however.

The stakes on the surface are so high. Even prior to the attacks, the leaders of Hamas have spoken directly of their desire to destroy the modern state of Israel. Innocent civilians, including women and children, were killed, tortured, and taken captive simply because they were Jewish. Israel’s response has been the almost total destruction of much of Gaza with weapons that are indiscriminate about the age, gender, or status of the victims. Food and fuel supplies have been cut off to the citizens of Gaza. People have been forced to flee without access to food and medical care. Hospitals and schools have been destroyed.

Real people are dying. That is what happens in every war.

In the face of this great human tragedy it is difficult to remain objective. It is hard to define the rules of conversation and debate.

To be clear, the Constitution of the United States protects free speech. People are not supposed to be punished for speech alone. That does not mean that there are no responses to anything that is said at any time. Words are powerful. The distinction between speech and behavior is impossible to draw in some circumstances. The example that is often used is that free speech does not entitle one to cry “fire!” in a crowded theatre, where such an utterance would cause panic and the possible injury of people in a rush to evacuate the room. While there are limits to that particular example, it is clear that hate speech has often been directly related to acts of violence.

Universities, in general, including private institutions such as the University of Pennsylvania, have sought to protect the right of students and faculty to speak freely, including the right to take controversial ideological stands. Also, in alignment with the Constitution, they have set up policies to protect the right of free speech. But they have also set limits on types of speech which generate hate and stir violence. The protection of free speech and the prevention of hate creates a delicate balance with which each generation of scholars and university leaders must constantly grapple. It is often a source of controversy on campus and beyond the borders of campuses.

The huge divisions over the Israel-Gaza war have continued to intensify since it began. Students and faculty with different views on the conflict have been targeted and criticized for their positions. Graffiti, including swastikas, has defaced University properties. Jewish students have been made to fear for their safety simply by identifying themselves with their faith. Arab students have been the victims of threats of violence simply because of their appearance or cultural backgrounds. Universities have a direct responsibility to protect all students and keep them safe.

The congressional hearing at which Elizabeth Magill, the recently resigned president of the University of Pennsylvania made her controversial testimony was an attempt, in part, to discuss the limits of free speech and the appropriate response to hate speech. Ms. Magill seemed to equivocate in her response to intense questioning, testifying under oath that calling for the genocide of Jews was “context dependent.” She has since apologized for her choice of words. That was insufficient to prevent a major donor to the university from withdrawing a generous offer of funds.

I understand the need for nuanced judgement in response to the intense emotions of the deep divisions on college campuses. However, I have to agree that Ms. Magill’s response was deeply troubling. Calling for genocide is clearly hate speech. Advocating the killing of people because of their religious beliefs cannot be tolerated. The history of the 20th century is a clear situation that such speech can lead directly to violent behavior and the slaughter of innocents. A University leader needs to be clear and unequivocal that calling for genocide is always wrong and such a call must be condemned in the strongest manner possible. I also understand that the aggressive questioning in the congressional hearing presented Ms. Magill with a theoretical situation, not an actual one, and that her legal training and scholarship led her to offer an answer that left room for further discussion and debate.

The debate behind the debate in my mind is over how to define the limits of free speech. When does an expression of freedom of speech become a true threat - a statement that communicates a clear intent to cause physical harm? Obviously the use of the word genocide constitutes a clear threat. Genocide is always wrong. Calling for genocide is always wrong.

On a deeper level, it is clear that indiscriminate killing does not solve human problems. Hamas did nothing to advance the cause of Palestinians with its terrorist attack on October 7. The situation of Palestinians in Israel is clearly worse than before the attack. On the other hand, it can be argued that Israel’s destruction of much of Gaza, including schools, hospitals and homes, is not advancing the security of the citizens of Israel. It is difficult to see how the war is leading to solutions for any of the parties.

Meanwhile the resignation of a University President is not resolving the important debate over free speech that must continue on US university campuses. We need clarity. Students must learn that the actions of the nation of Israel are not the intentions of all Jews in all places. Putting all people of a faith into one category is dangerous and wrong. They must learn that the actions of Hamas do not reflect the intentions of all people of Arab descent. Putting all people of a particular heritage into one category is dangerous and wrong.

The debate needs to continue, but it is a debate that must be carefully executed with words that inspire, not words that lead to violence. The choice of words is important. Universities must be places where language is taken seriously and the choice of words is undertaken with great care. University leaders need to model the careful use of language in every context.

Happily not keeping up

Being 70 certainly has its advantages. One of those advantages is that I have no need to deal with social media. That isn’t completely true, but for example when all of the craziness erupted over Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter and rebranding it as X, I simply deleted my account and took the app off of my phone. I participate in FaceBook, but I’m not very active on that platform. Since I signed up, I have only accepted friend requests from people who are actually friends of mine. If I don’t know a person, I don’t respond to their friend request. I look at my FaceBook feed from time to time, but I rarely respond. And I am liberal in my use of the feature that allows me to “see less of this kind of post” in my feed. I still have a Linked-in Profile, but I haven’t updated it in a few years and it is interesting to me mostly when I read the various offers to apply for jobs that occasionally are posted on my feed. Frankly, I am not qualified to be an elementary school principal and I don’t think I’d be good at the job. No, I have no interest in starting an online undergraduate degree program at Walden University. I watch a fair amount of YouTube videos, but haven’t posted on my channel since I retired.

My ignorance of, minimal participation in, and frequent ignoring of social media are things that are not options for younger professionals. There are many careers that rise and fall on social media. Social media is key to staying in touch with constituents, raising funds, conducting meetings, and advertising. People with good social media skills are an asset to any organization.

Our church, as is common with many congregations, offers worshipers the option of participating in services over Zoom and over FaceBook. I don’t know the statistics on how many people participate that way, but when we led worship at a small church recently, about 1/5 of the participants were online. I’d be interested in knowing whether or not 1/5 of the income comes from online donors, but only out of a general sense of interest in how the church operates. I don’t need to monitor those details now that I am retired.

Our recent experience with our cell phones, about which I wrote yesterday, did, however, remind me of how much more dependent we are on digital communication than used to be the case. Over the span of my career, I felt that I was never very good at using the telephone. In most cases, I simply preferred face-to-face contact over talking on the phone. I didn’t particularly enjoy the many phone calls that are naturally a part of being a minister. I know that when we started our ministry in Rapid City the fact that I would leave the office and go visit people when a phone call would suffice was a minor irritation to our church secretary. In fact I reluctantly got a cell phone to address that concern. Admittedly once I got a cell phone, I increased its use each year until we reached our current level of dependence upon the devices.

I did, reluctantly, learn to pray with people over the phone. I learned of the importance of the skill the hard way. Once, when I was burned in an accident, a phone call and prayer from a colleague was terribly reassuring and pastoral and I remembered how I felt when I had the opportunity to reach out to others who were experiencing stress or health issues. I never felt as effective praying over the phone as I did in person, but I learned that there are times when less effective is better than not responding at all. I feel a similar way about online worship. Both as a worshiper and as a worship leader, I find online worship to be less meaningful than being in church in person. I did, however, promote the expansion of online worship in our congregation, spurred by the Covid-19 pandemic. And Susan and I have worshiped online when various things, including the pandemic, prevented us from attending in person.

One of the joys of our Interim position at First Congregational Church of Bellingham was that we were allowed to go to the church and be present in the sanctuary for worship even when the building was officially closed and online worship was the only way most members could participate. Leading the time with children online was a challenge for me and nowhere as fun or meaningful as having real children in front of me, but I learned to do it with a certain level of competence.

Now, however, it is a relief to not have to be in front of the cameras. I’m quite certain that I would not have been a good television personality, though I occasionally joke that I ended my career as a televangelist because of the pandemic.

One of the things I don’t understand about online church is how the finances work. In the congregation where we are members, the offering is practically left out of the service. There is no invitation to give, no doxology, no prayer of dedication. The plates are passed during the postlude at the conclusion of the service, but most participants don’t put anything into them. I suppose most people, like us, give through automatic withdrawals from our bank accounts. We review our pledge once a year and then pretty much forget about it. It seems to work. The lights are on and the employees receive their paychecks.

It is a relief to me that I don’t have to understand all of those details this day. Change will continue to occur at an alarming rate, but I don’t have to keep up. I don’t mind being called a dinosaur. It doesn’t bother me to have a 20-something clerk in a store tell me that my phone or computer is “old.” Even being called a dinosaur doesn’t bother me. I’m retired. I don’t have to be state of the art.

It surprises me how much stress that eliminates. I’m happy not needing to keep up any more.

Old technology

It took almost the entire afternoon yesterday - over 4 hours - for us to obtain new cell phones, migrate our data, and retire our old cell phones. At the same time, we switched providers though we kept the same phone numbers. I don’t know if the switch in providers was a factor in the process taking so much time or not. It was a factor in the fact that we had already spent a significant amount of time the day before without accomplishing the same process. Our intended timeframe was interrupted by a special promotion from the new company that didn’t go into effect until yesterday. It is a long story and not all of the details are of interest to others, but the process provides some points of illustration about our culture.

Before I go any further, however, I want to tell the story of a blue princess telephone with a rotary dial. Back in 1978, we moved into a parsonage in southwest North Dakota. It was our first experience of living in a house as a married couple. We had lived in a series of apartments prior to that move. In some of those apartments we had had our own telephone. In some we had shared a phone with others. In those days telephones were connected to the wall by a wire. We didn’t have portable phones. We didn’t talk on the phone in our car. When we worked at a church camp during the summers, we didn’t have a telephone. There was no phone service at the remote mountain location of our camp. Back to 1978, however. We went a bit “wild” with our new home. We had the phone company install a desk phone in the study of our new home. A wall phone was installed in the kitchen. And we asked for and got a third phone - a real luxury - a phone in our bedroom. This third phone was special because you could turn off the ringer so it was silent. That way, when a phone call came in the middle of the night, we could answer without getting out of bed, but we didn’t have the jarring of hearing the phone right next to our heads. We’d hear the phone in another part of the house, but be able to answer from bed.

Another fun detail is that the phone in our kitchen had a 25 foot cord between the wall unit and the handset. With that phone we could walk into the study, the garage, and the dining room as well as be in the kitchen. It was a real luxury compared to the usual 6 food cords that meant that you had to remain in the same place as you talked on the phone. Of course we didn’t talk on the phone much in those days. Long distance calls, which were all calls outside of our county, were 11 cents per minute. We didn’t want to rack up big bills.

Relevant to the story is that in those days, no one owned their own phones. Our phones were leased from Bell Telephone Company, also known as American Telephone and Telegraph (AT&T) before an anti-trust settlement mandated the breakup of that company into several regional carriers. On January 1, 1984, the operations of AT&T were transferred to seven regional holding companies. Part of the breakup of the company was that individuals were allowed to own their their own phones rather than lease them. We purchased the phones in our house at that time. The newest of those phones was that blue princess phone with a rotary dial that could have its bell silenced.

We kept and used that phone until we had our land line turned off in 2020 when we moved from our house in Rapid City, South Dakota. It had served us in three different homes. It sill works and is compatible with wired phone systems in operation today. However, we no longer have a land line. We rely on our cell phones for all of our communications. If we wanted, however, we could pay to have a land line in our home and that 50-year-old technology would work as designed.

Back to yesterday’s events. At one point in the process of transferring our phone service, one of our cell phones experienced some kind of failure. I don’t know what the problem was. I’m suspicious that the person helping us in the phone store simply kept pushing buttons and making changes to the phone that overwhelmed it, though it is possible that the phone experienced some other kind of malfunction. The result was that the data transfer could not take place from that phone to the new one. We ended up going home and bringing a computer back to the phone store so that we could migrate data from the backup instead of from the original phone. Susan made the trip to pick up the computer while I waited at the phone store as my phone took over two hours to transfer all of its data.

As she was making the trip, I worried for a while. It felt very vulnerable to be in town away from my spouse with neither of us having access to a working phone. I didn’t have access to a vehicle should she need help. She didn’t have a way to call me or send me any messages. Neither of us could contact either of our children. It was a situation that we routinely experienced in years past. There were no problems. She returned safely. We got our new phones working. Life goes on.

While this was going on the clerk in the store kept saying that part of our problems was that one of the phones we were retiring - the one that failed - was simply “so old” that it could not work with “modern” systems. She strongly urged us not to wait “so long” before replacing phones in the future. I’m not sure exactly when we got that phone, but it was sometime in 2018. The phone is between five and six years old. We got it near the end of its production run. That particular phone was sold between the spring of 2016 and the fall of 2018. It was state of the art just 7 years ago.

I’m not sure how we became so dependent upon devices that won’t last more than five years, when there are devices that serve for 50 years or more, but there are definite drawbacks to modern technologies. I know we can’t go back. I don’t own a horse and buggy and am unlikely to ever own one. I hope, however, that we find ways to avoid the throwaway nature of contemporary technology. I’d be willing to give up some of the modern conveniences of our wireless society in order to avoid a bit of the waste of rapid obsolescence. Then again, I myself am old. I suspect that the store clerk who was unafraid to keep pushing buttons and googling solutions doesn’t even know how to use a rotary dial phone.

Winter's arrival

Yesterday while I was at the farm, I walked directly across the field from the garage to the shop. I guess directly is the wrong word, because there is no straight-line route between those two buildings. You have to go around the machine shed, which has the chicken coop attached on one end and between the chicken coop and the septic mound, but it is shorter to go that way than to go the other direction around the machine shed. I walk the route of the short cut year round, but in the winter, I only drive my vehicles on the other route, around the back of the machine shed and in front of the barn where there is concrete. I learned that lesson the hard way the first year our son had the place. I pulled my pickup around the other way to make it a bit easier to back my utility trailer into its parking place underneath the roof overhang next to the barn. I felt the pickup sink a bit and my stomach going with it. I tried to drive very carefully, but I felt the tires spin. I stopped immediately, turned in my hubs, and shifted to 4 wheel drive low range, but it was too late. All four wheels were spinning. Well, I guess only three, because I only have a locker in my rear differential. At any rate, I knew better than to make things worse, so I swallowed my pride, made a call for help, and waited until the neighbor showed up. Fortunately, he was able get to my two line from the concrete and didn’t have to go get his tractor to pull me out.

Anyway, yesterday when I headed to the barn, I noticed the squishy feeling that comes in the winter for the first time this year. From now on, until things dry out in March or April, I’ll often be wearing my muck boots at the farm. Fortunately, almost all of the shoes I own these days are waterproof, so I didn’t get wet feet yesterday, but in a few days, my regular walking shoes might be too short for some places in the yard.

The flooding is not from a creek. There is no creek close to the old homestead. It is simply from a rise in the water table. It has happened for so many years that those who came before us knew how to locate the buildings on high ground so that they don’t flood, although it can get damp in the yard and sometimes in the dirt areas of the barn.

Winter, defined not by the arrival of snow or sub-freezing temperatures, but by the rise in the water table, has arrived at the farm. I think it was about 50 degrees yesterday and there were a few rain showers. The showers were an improvement over the heavy rainfall that we experienced earlier in the week under an atmospheric river.

Another sign of winter in these parts: The Amtrak service between Portland, Oregon and Seattle, Washington is not running. service is scheduled to resume this evening after a 48-hour shut-down. Passengers who could not reschedule have had to make the trip on a bus. The tracks are shut-down due to a landslide of mud and debris near Vancouver, Washington. Amtrak trains that run on the tracks near our home, between Seattle and Vancouver, British Columbia, are not affected. The confusion at train stations isn’t quite as dramatic as the airport when weather forces the cancellation of flights, but with ten round-trip trains each day, a significant number of passengers are affected. Fortunately, this delay came before the official start of the holiday rush. Starting next Monday, Amtrak will be adding two more daily roundtrips to accommodate the expected number of passengers.

Last winter wasn’t as wet as the previous year when landslides closed the train line, the Interstate, and two State roads, used as alternatives to the Interstate. Our son, who commutes on Interstate 5, was twice forced to spend the night in the town where he works because of road closures that winter, and train passengers could not be re-routed to busses because the roads were also closed.

Another sign of winter’s approach is the closure of some area roads due to flooding. The Nooksack River crested late Tuesday right up at the top of the bank, but did not flood the town of Ferndale. However, there were land closures on Slater Road and Marine Drive, two of the roads we take when we go to Lummi Island, due to flooding.

For someone who grew up with spring floods and lived 25 years in a place where flash floods came with summer thunderstorms, the adjustment to winter high water and flooding means that I have to pay attention. Mind you, I am not complaining. I haven’t had to shovel any snow this year and it is unlikely that I will have to shovel again this winter. I’ve taken to wearing my heavy winter parka at temperatures well above those that prompted the use of that coat when I lived in South Dakota. I tell myself that it feels colder because of the high humidity, but I fear it may be that I’m just getting older and less tolerant of the cold. I don’t have a desire to test myself against -20 temperatures, but wonder if I’m a bit less hardy than I used to be. I’ve still got my insulated coveralls, but haven’t had to break them out so far this winter. I do have a propane heater that I fire up when working in the shop at the farm, though I haven’t noticed any temperatures below freezing inside of the barn yet this year.

On the other hand, I really have good rain gear. We don’t let rain stop us from our daily walks, just as we didn’t let snow stop us when we lived in South Dakota. So far, I’ve always been able to have the right clothes to get outside wherever I have lived.

One thing for sure, I don’t dare complain about winter weather to any of my friends who live in places with more snow and cold. They would surely see my complaints as a form of gloating. We don’t have it bad where we live.

A hero's retirement

Regular readers of my journal know that I’m not much of a sports fan. The sports I enjoy the most are ones in which I know the players. Over the years, I’ve been to youth baseball, high school basketball, youth soccer and youth hockey games that I have enjoyed immensely. The University of North Carolina Tarheels won a national basketball championship when our son was a student at UNC and I paid attention to college basketball, at least the final four, for several years. I’ve been a Chicago Cubs fan since we lived in Chicago and I was watching on television when they won the World Series in 2016. Our daughter and her husband are fans of the New York Giants football team and we watch games with them when we are visiting, though this hasn’t been the Giants’ year. When I was an active pastor I paid enough attention to sports to carry on somewhat intelligent conversation with church members who were sports fans, but they probably sensed that I was less than a dedicated fan when I didn’t know the names and statistics of individual players.

Even someone who doesn’t pay attention to sports, however, can’t live where we do and completely ignore the big sports news from just across the border. Last night, in Vancouver, Christine Sinclair played her last game for Canada as the Canadian Women’s Soccer team won over Australia 1-0. The stadium attendance set a record for a women’s soccer match in Canadian history with 48,112 fans filling the stadium not far from Burnaby, Sinclair’s home town. Sinclair is retiring at the age of 40 after nearly 24 years as part of the Canadian national team. She made her first appearance on the national team at the age of 16 in 2000.

One of the emotional moments of the evening occurred before the game, when 190 youth soccer players walked in long lines onto the field, one for each of Sinclair’s 190 international goals. Sinclair scored the first of those goals on March 4, 2000 at the age of 16. She has two gold and one bronze olympic medals, earned as part of the national team. It is no wonder that she has become the hero of so many youth soccer players in Canada. The youth all wore red jerseys like their hero. Some of the jerseys stretched down to the knees of the young players. Vancouver’s BC Place was ceremonially re-named Christine Sinclair Place for the night in her honor.

It is a big deal across the border.

Listening to CBC radio, which I often do because we get a really strong signal living where we do, I learned that Sinclair has used her recognition to work tirelessly for equality for women, especially in sports. The commentators couldn’t resist reporting a statistic about the lack of that equality, however. Not only a member of the national team, Sinclair supports herself as a professional soccer player. She will play out the rest of this season for the Portland Thorns of the National Women’s Soccer League. Her contract for her final year with the league will net her $380,000. Compare that with Christiano Ronaldo, the highest paid men’s soccer player, whose contract will net him $260,000,000. The three top men’s soccer players earn a combined salary of half a billion dollars. Professional soccer has a ways to go before achieving equal pay for equal work.

I confess that I don’t understand the enormous amounts of money in professional sports. Of course the salaries of the highest paid players are well in excess of average salaries. On average, soccer isn’t the most lucrative sport. Average salaries are higher in professional basketball, baseball, and formula 1/Grand Prix racing. Average salaries exceed a million dollars in other professional sports: ice hokey, football, cricket, and golf. Those salaries are beyond my comprehension. I was never famous and I never approached the top of my field, but my best year as a pastor didn’t approach the pay earned by a professional cyclist, let alone a boxer, track star, or tennis player. I’m not complaining. I was treated well by the congregations that hired me and I didn’t go into my vocation for the pay. I would not have been successful with a career in any professional sports field.

Nonetheless, over the span of my career it is clear that I earned more than female pastors with similar experience doing similar work. Great strides have been made toward pay equity in our church, but those changes came later in my career. In general, the increase in the number of female clergy over the span of my career has resulted in women moving into positions of leadership in the church and higher salaries. That progress, however, has been slow. The United Church of Christ just elected its first female General Minister and President last summer. The head of our national church is not the highest paid pastor in our denomination, however. Large local congregations offer salaries that are higher than judicatory positions pay.

Like I said, we pastors don’t enter our profession in search of high salaries.

I join with my Canadian neighbors in celebrating the remarkable career of Christine Sinclair. I am especially moved by the ways in which she has inspired and motivated so many children and youth and especially young girls to pursue their soccer dreams. The vast majority of those young players will not make a career of sport, but many of them will translate their passion for sport into more active and healthier lifestyles regardless of how they earn their living. And perhaps - just perhaps - the national news stories about the lack of pay equity in professional sports will shed light on inequities in salaries that are based on gender in all fields. Society benefits when the lack of fairness is addressed and corrected.

I join my Canadian neighbors in wishing Christine Sinclair the best in whatever comes next in her life. May she continue to inspire youth and continue to speak up for equity and fairness for all.

News from Jordan

Last night some of us were speaking with a friend who is in Amman, Jordan. Well, it was last night here in Washington. In Amman, it was early this morning. I often have trouble wrapping my mind around the differences in time zones when speaking with friends or relatives who live far away. Our friend is in Amman temporarily. His wife is a Fulbright Scholar. The Fulbright Program is a cultural exchange program with the goal of improving intercultural relations and cultural diplomacy between the people of the United States and other countries through the exchange of persons, knowledge, and skills. The program enables students, scholars, teachers, professionals, scientists, and artists to study, teach, conduct research, or exercise their talents abroad. Citizens of other countries are enabled through the program to do the same in the United States.

The couple, who are both our friends, were supposed to be living and teaching in Bethlehem. Since we found out that they were selected for the program, I have been looking forward to their Advent reports from the historic place where Jesus was born. Those reports, however, are not coming from Bethlehem. Due to the deadly Hamas attack from Gaza and the response of Israel, the Fulbright Program has withdrawn its scholars from the region. Although Bethlehem is not in Gaza, but rather in the West Bank, it was deemed too dangerous for the exchange program to sponsor scholars, especially in light of the spread of the deadly violence that has claimed victims in the West Bank as well as in Gaza and surrounding territories.

Our friends are having a unique experience in Amman. While the professor is teaching at a university, her husband, a writer, has been working and exploring from their rooftop apartment. The commute to the university is a ten or fifteen minute walk from their apartment depending on the flow of pedestrian traffic through a major intersection in the city.

Jordan is a desert country. Most of its territory is very lightly populated, with nearly all of the country’s 8 million residents living in cities. About half of the population of Jordan lives in Amman. Amman is the capital and largest city. It is a modern city built on numerous ancient ruins. The historic Citadel includes the pillars of the Roman Temple of Hercules. On a different downtown hillside, the Roman Theater is a second-century stone amphitheater that can seat 6,000 persons. Mount Nebo, in Amman, is the site where Moses was able to look across the Jordan and see the promised land - a place toward which he lead the people of Israel in the Exodus from Egypt through forty years of wilderness wandering. The church we served in Rapid City has a mosaic cross that was made by an artist who sells his work at the Mount Nebo site. There are many layers of history in the city. The stories that our friends are gathering are as interesting as they might have gathered had they spent this year in Bethlehem. They are just different stories.

In Amman, as would have been the case in Bethlehem, their experiences involve living among Palestinians. around 2 million Palestinian refugees currently live in Amman making up about a quarter of the population of the city. Displacement and movement of populations has been the story of the region since at least the time that the people of ancient Israel came into the land that was known as Caanan in biblical times. In modern times, the Arab-Israeli War that lasted a little over 9 months in 1948 and 1949, led to the shifting of population and the creation of large numbers of Palestinian refugees. In that war, Israel was able to keep the area that was allotted to it by the Partition Plan and also to capture approximately 60 percent of the land allotted to an Arab State. Neighboring countries emerged as brokers of order within the borders of the newly established state of Israel. Egypt occupied the Gaza Strip. Jordan ruled in the West Bank. Refugees fled the violence. People were forced to leave their historic homes.

The stories of displacement have continued throughout the years that have followed. Different regional countries have played different roles in Israel over the years. And different neighboring countries have become home to Palestinians who have experienced multiple generations of refugee status. For those of us who read of the region in the news and even for those who have made occasional tourist visits to the area, it is hard to imagine what it means to live in a state of near permanent disruption with neighbors who have been refugees for all of their lives. Our friends, however, have been given the opportunity, through the Fulbright Program to live in Amman for an academic year and experience living in the midst of the people who have inherited the long history that has led to the current Israeli-Hamas war.

Perhaps we can learn from their experiences this year a bit more about the complexities of the stories of the region. Certainly, we will learn a bit more of the experiences of everyday citizens in the region. After all, cultural understanding is the primary goal of the Fulbright program. Our friends travels and their return and reporting to those of us who remain here in their home are intended results of Fulbright-funded travel experiences.

So far, however, understanding is a bit of an overstatement. There is so little that I understand about the war and its impact on the lives of the people who live in the region. One of the results of the current war is another wave of refugees. It is still uncertain how many people will be displaced by the war, but already millions are on the move. Some will end up in Jordan, traveling to be with relatives who have lived their for generations as the result of previous wars.

I am grateful for this small window on a world and experiences that are so different from those that have shaped our lives. At the same time I am worried about the safety of our friends though they are not in harm’s way at this time. I look forward to their return and opportunities to have longer conversations than Zoom technology can afford.

For now, like most of the rest of the world, we watch from afar and attempt to understand.

Word of the year

It comes as no surprise that I am a language geek. I love words, dictionaries, and language in general. Although I am not gifted in the use of other languages, I have a fairly decent command of English, both in writing and in speaking. My use of the term geek, however, is obviously dated. Geek was the word of the year a decade ago in the Collins Dictionary. I don’t think it ever made word of the year in the other dictionaries, though it probably made the top list in Websters somewhere around that time.

The fact that I’m reflecting on word of the year is another indication that I’m a language geek. This is the time of the year that the major dictionaries announce their word of the year. Word of the year is not a particularly old tradition, but the Oxford English Dictionary has been publishing lists of most popular new words for 20 years. These word lists started in 2003 and have been published at the end of each year since. Some of the words make it into my vocabulary. Others enjoy a brief period of recognition in pop culture and then fade.

I’m a big fan of the Oxford English Dictionary. I used to look at the multi-volume printed versions with envy when I visited libraries or bookstores. I contemplated the purchase several times when shopping in used book stores. The problem with all paper dictionaries, however, is that they are quickly dated. That is why the OED no longer publishes a paper version. If you want the latest in dictionaries, online is the way to go. Furthermore, one dictionary, even one as good as the OED, is insufficient for a language geek. I like to refer to several different dictionaries and this time of the year, I generally pay attention to the word of the year from at least Oxford, Websters, and Collins. Sometimes I Geek out and consult a lot of different dictionaries’ word lists. Lately, I’ve found myself looking at quite a bit. In some ways it seems a bit more conservative than some of the other online dictionaries. For example, most dictionaries have already released their word of the year for 2023, but the word of the year for this year has not yet appeared. And when that source does name its word of the year, it is usually one that is already in my vocabulary.

For example, the 2022 word of the year on is woman. I don’t often consult a dictionary for that definition, feeling that I have a pretty good understanding of the meaning of the word. The OED word of the year for 2022 was goblin mode, a term that I doubt will ever enter my vocabulary. Actually, OED has often chosen words that seem to reflect a bit of popular mood, but that don’t really stick as mainstays of our language. When was the last time you used chav, hovered, omnishambles, or youthquake in conversation? I suspect that part of the reason that OED frequently chooses words that don’t become common in years to come is its attempt to be comprehensive and consider the widest scope of the language. Words make it into the OED that simply don’t appear in other dictionaries, which makes it delightful for someone like me, but a bit cumbersome for some others. And for a language geek, one dictionary is never enough.

Ever since I received a copy of the Websters Collegiate Dictionary as a gift, I’ve included Websters in my list of sources. I used to balance my use of Websters by consulting the American Heritage Dictionary, because of its tendency to be more conservative in changing definitions. The American Heritage, however, is so conservative that it simply has failed to keep up. The latest version of that dictionary was printed in 2018 and the 2018 version is really just a light update of the 2011 version. I don’t think they do a word of the year.

So, more than half of the way through this essay, I’m finally getting around to the OED word of the year for 2023. Once again it is a bit of a disappointment for me. At least I don’t think I’m going to find it in my everyday vocabulary. The word is rizz. I have to bypass the spell checker in my word processing program just to type it. It is a slang term that is essentially the shortening of the word charisma. When used as a verb it can mean anything from attract to seduce. Rizz is used to describe the ability to attract a partner. I guess I don’t have much use for the word, as I haven’t been in search of a new partner. I’ve been happily married since 1973, and I’ve never found myself in a situationship.

Rizz made number two on the Merriam Webster list, narrowly loosing out to authentic. That is a word that I often use and will continue to use. Furthermore, it strikes me as meaningful in part because it is quite different from the Collins 2023 choice, AI. The thing about artificial intelligence or AI in my opinion is that it isn’t really intelligence at all. At least it isn’t authentic, even if it does seem to have a certain amount of rizz. Even when I try to use the words of the year, it sounds a bit unnatural. It certainly isn’t authentic for me to write using all of them.

I’m pretty sure that rizz isn’t going to make it into my regular vocabulary.

Still, one of the joys of language is that it is always evolving. For most of my life the main source of new words has been the rapid development of technology. Early in my life, the space program provided a host of new terms. In the early 1980s computer technology began rapidly adding words to the language. Many of the computer terms have become standard vocabulary. The fun thing about those words is that they often are the same in a host of different languages. Terabyte has the same meaning in Japanese as it does in English.

Maybe it is a reflection of my age, but I simply do not have the same level of interest in social media that I have in technology. My own personal language is less likely to grow in all of the new words coined on twitter. Oops, that is no longer the right word. I’m not sure that X is even a word, even though it did make the Webster’s short list of potential words of the year for 2023.

Rain in the forecast

The forecasters are warning that the rains are coming. According to some forecasters, our area could get as much as four inches or even more between tonight and Tuesday evening. That is about the usual amount of rain for the entire month of December. Rainfall, however, is pretty common around here in the winter. For the most part, systems are in place to deal with the excess water. And right where we live, we have not seen any problems due to flooding, even in November of 2021, shortly after we moved into this house when areas to the north and east of our home were inundated. There are parts of the river valley that have not yet recovered from those floods two years later.

The problem isn’t just the rain. Flooding seems to be most severe when there is a lot of fresh snow on the mountains followed by warm rain on that snow which causes rapid runoff. It is very different from other places where we have lived. On the east slope of the Rockies in Montana where I grew up, the rivers rose in the spring and early summer when warm weather returned to the high country. If the snows melted slowly, the river would rise, but there wouldn’t be significant flooding. If, however, temperatures rose suddenly and the snow melted at a rapid pace, the river would rise beyond flood stage and spread out to the surrounding country. We had a place that was in the river bottom and there were a lot of times when we saw the water rise in the yard. It never got high enough to affect the man cabin, but we wee aware that it was a risk and county regulations prevented building any new homes on our place unless they were raised up several feet above the level of the current buildings.

Here, however, flood season is in the winter. The mountains to the east of us are high enough that several peaks are covered in snow year round. Those mountains have been receiving lots of snow this fall when rains fell down where we live. It is that new snow that can melt quickly with the combination of warm weather blowing in from the Pacific and heavy rainfall. Locals report that November is the month when this is most likely. It takes a while for us to adjust our thinking.

The weather phenomena that is forecast for the next few days is called an atmospheric river. I don’t remember hearing that term used before we moved to this place. I suppose it is possible that there are no such phenomena on the plains of the upper midwest where we have lived for most of our lives. I think, however, that it is more likely that language evolves and the ways we talk about weather now is different than the ways we used to speak of it. According to Wikipedia, other names for an atmospheric river include tropical plume, tropical connection, moisture plume, water vapor surge, and cloud band. Cloud band strikes a familiar chord. I’m sure I’ve heard weather forecasters refer to cloud bands many times.

As for this week’s predicted heavy rainfall, major flooding is not being predicted at this time. The rivers and reservoirs are ready to handle the influx of water. The Nooksack River, which we cross a couple of times between here and our church, is set to crest around 16 feet on Wednesday. That’s below flood stage of 18 feet. Locals are preparing for flooding in case the forecasts are mistaken, but right now it looks like we’ll mostly see a few rainy days, the river will rise a bit, and that will be about all that happens.

I have to remind myself of how different things are in this new home. When officials say that the flood stage of the Nooksack in Ferndale is 18 feet, they are referring to feet above sea level. That’s right. When the river runs through the town just south of where we live, it is pretty close to the place it runs into the ocean. Although our house is on a hill and safe from flooding even in the event of a Tsunami, we walk almost daily alongside Terrell Creek, which flows into the ocean about a mile away. Where we walk the creek is tidal. At high tide, the creek flows away from the ocean as seawater rushes up the creek for almost three miles. When the sea level drops, the water flows the other direction and fresh water enters the bay. We can tell how high the tide is before we reach the beach by observing the creek.

I’m still adjusting to the differences in the weather in our new-to-us home. We had a couple of days when the temperature dipped below 30 degrees last week and I wore my winter parka in the morning on a couple of those days. When we lived in South Dakota I didn’t break out my parka for temperatures in the high twenties. I waited until it got really cold. That coat was good for the days when temperatures slid below zero. But here, I feel the cold differently. I’m sure that part of the difference is a product of my age. I’m older now than I used to be. But more of it, I suspect, has to do with the high humidity. I feel the cold more intensely.

Another major adjustment is that we now own really good rainwear. I’ve got a rain jacket and rain pants that allow me to go walking on those days when the rain doesn’t let up. I’m pretty sure I’ll be needing those garments over the next few days. There are several locals whose game is upped even more than that with two types of rain gear. They have regular rain jackets and pants for rainy days and storm gear for the times when rain showers have become downpours and the winds from the sea blow hard enough for the air to fill with water.

Atmospheric river or cloud band. Whatever you call it, it is heading our way. Whatever comes I’m pretty sure it won’t hold a candle to a good South Dakota blizzard. And somehow, among the things I don’t miss about South Dakota is shoveling snow.

Trying to understand

I am a boomer. My father served in the United States Army Air Corps during World War II. He was awarded a Purple Heart. When a Millennial, Gen X, or Zer says, “OK boomer!” they are usually referring to attitudes, actions, or words that could well have come from me. I acknowledge that there has been a considerable amount of privilege that has come to me from the accident of the timing of my birth. One of the things that the World War II generation did when they came back from the war was to amass a great deal of wealth. A fair amount of that wealth has now been handed down to their children. I have inherited a small portion of that wealth. Being a boomer, however, is about a great deal more than wealth. I can sense some of the differences in generations by looking at my youngest brother. Although raised as a part of our family, his birth mother was my oldest sister meaning that he, technically, is not a boomer. It isn’t clear whether the differences between us apply to others of our generations or are due mostly to family placement, but there are a lot of differences. I am not only talking about the fact that he is a way better fisherman than I.

The privileges of being a boomer are accompanied by challenges as well. It is generally accepted by psychologists that trauma affects multiple generations. Being raised with stories of trauma has significant effects on the life of those who did not experience the trauma first hand. I’m not sure I inherited much generational trauma. In the first place, many World War II veterans were reluctant to talk about their war experiences except to others who served. “Loose lips sink ships,” was a common slogan. They were trained to keep secrets and many of them took their war experiences to the grave with them, though a few revealed a lot of those secrets near the ends of their lives, often in a sort of confession to clergy, so I have heard my share of war stories.

More than the personal stories of soldiers, however, I have heard thousands of stories of various forms of heroism. Often those stories were not first hand experiences, but rather tales that had circulated through a lot of different storytellers before they got to me. The person telling the story had heard tell of something that happened. An amazing amount of those stories involve someone sacrificing life in order to protect others. A soldier intentionally falls on a grenade, losing their own life, in order to protect comrades. A pilot orders the crew to bail out and then goes down with the airplane to steer it away from buildings that house others, dying in the crash. There are hundreds of variations of the story of someone choosing to die to protect others.

I recognize the heroism in their actions, even if the stories have been embellished through many retellings. I think, however, that in real life there might be more heroism in the ways people chose to live their lives than in the way they died. My father once told me that he expected to die young in an airplane accident. He went so far as to warn my mother of that possibility before they were married. As it turned out he was never involved in a fatal airplane accident. He died a few months before his 60th birthday as the result of an aggressive brain cancer. Along the way, he gave a great deal more to others by living a life of service and generosity than might have been accomplished by dying in an accident. He was always quick to tell that his Purple Heart medal was more the product of deferred maintenance and a poor airworthiness inspection than some act of heroism on his part. He was one of the finest airframe and engine mechanics and one of the most critical inspectors of his generation. It is impossible to know how many lives he saved by being meticulous in his work on his own airplanes and those of many other pilots.

The stories of heroes who died for others remain. I hear them often. Usually I accept them as stories of the incredible capacity of self sacrifice that seems to be a part of the highest of human character. Sometimes, however, questions remain.

Yesterday I read a report of a protester who soaked themself in gasoline and lit themselves on fire at the Israeli consulate in Georgia as an extreme act of political protest. The protestor has been taken to a hospital for treatment and so far has survived, but it is clear that it was their intent to die. Reading the article immediately reminded me of those who died by self immolation in protest of the Vietnam War.

I am confused when I try to understand such actions. I suppose that the protestor believes that the action will draw attention to their cause and that people will change their minds and actions as a result. It has never been clear to me, however, how adding another death to the thousands killed in war makes things better. Because in such cases it is impossible to know what is going through the mind of the person who lights themself on fire, it is impossible to distinguish between an act of suicide and an act of sacrifice. Having spoken to dozens who survived suicide attempts, I know that part of suicidal ideation can be a belief that sacrificing one’s life somehow makes things better for survivors. Having walked with hundreds who have survived the death of a loved one from suicide, it appears that none of those deaths made things better for those who kept on living. It is not fair to judge protestors. We don’t fully know their motivation. The distinction between suicide for a cause and suicide caused by psychological illness is impossible to make.

As we mourn for the victims of the Hamas attack and for the innocent victims of the war that has followed I’ll add the victims of extreme protest to my prayers. It seems that there is a great deal of needless death. I cannot tell for sure who are and who are not heroes. I am convinced, however, that the loved ones left behind are true heroes. May God grant them understanding in a world that often seems to have gone wrong.

Christmas shopping

I remember going Christmas shopping in Chicago. We lived in that city from 1974 to 1978, so it was one of those years. We went down town. Often we rode the train in Chicago, but it seems to me that we drove our car for this trip. My memory is not completely clear on this detail, however, and it has been a long time. When we did drive down town, finding parking was always an adventure, but there were parking garages and parking was around a dollar a day at that time. We didn’t have too many dollars, but we didn’t go down town all that often. Our destination was the big Marshall Fields.

For a kid who grew up in a small town in Montana, the scale of downtown Chicago was amazing. The building that was then called the Sears Tower, now called the Willis Tower, was brand new, opened the year before we moved to Chicago. It was, at the time, the world’s tallest building and it employed more janitors and cleaning staff than the entire population of the town where I was born. Marshall Fields Department Store was another amazing building to me. Occupying an entire city block, the 13-story granite building stretches from the corner of Washington and State to Randolph and Wabash. At the time the entire building with two atriums and banks of escalators and elevators was occupied with the largest department store I had ever seen.

I had a pretty good sense of direction when navigating Chicago, at least when we were outdoors. The city is laid out on a grid, eight blocks to the mile and is fairly easy to navigate once you understand that streets all have number designations depicting the distance from State and Madison streets downtown, a block south of the Marshall Fields store. But whenever we went into the Marshall Fields building, I would get mixed up on my directions. When we would emerge from the building, it was common for me to start walking in the wrong direction because I had become disoriented while in the building.

As far as I can remember, we did all of our Christmas shopping in the same store that year. I don’t have a very high tolerance for shopping in the first place and I’m sure that walking around that store, visiting its many different floors and departments was enough of an outing for me. It seemed to me like you could buy anything you wanted in that store, from clothes to toys to luggage to furniture. The Walnut Room was a fancy and expensive restaurant. I’m not sure whether or not we ever ate there, but it was fairly rare for us to eat at downtown restaurants.

What I remember is that we could find what we wanted to purchase in a single building. In those days we had only one credit card and it worked at only one brand of gas station. We usually carried less than $10 when traveling in Chicago. The thought was that you didn’t want to have too much money out of fear of getting robbed, but you didn’t want to have no cash or you might get beat up by a frustrated robber. We paid for most purchases with checks, and we could write checks at Marshall Fields with proper identification. Out of state checks might have posed a challenge, but we had a bank account with a Chicago bank. We didn’t have much money, so each check written involved subtracting the balance in our check register to make sure we had sufficient funds. Times were different.

The memory of Christmas shopping at Marshall Fields came to me yesterday. We did a bit of Christmas shopping yesterday. Between appointments and a short time of doing some volunteer work at the church, we had time to visit a favorite toy store, and a discount shop. We were pretty successful for our first day of Christmas Shopping. Our grandchildren have specific items that appeal to them and often some of them are difficult to find in brick and mortar stores. We know how to find items online, but that is not our preferred way of shopping. We like to support local retail stores. We don’t like all of the business policies of large online retailers. We like to see what we are getting before making a purchase. And there is something fun about going together and thinking about what our grandchildren would like. We managed to find some items for each of our grandchildren. Not bad for a first outing and we were actually doing some Christmas shopping before the first of December - only on the last day of November, but it is early for us.

Of course we paid with our debt card held over a reader that allows a purchase with a tap. The money comes out of our checking account while we stand in the store. I can check the balance on my phone if I want. And we were in Bellingham, where it is very rare to have to park more than a block from your intended destination and both of the stores we visited yesterday have large parking lots with plenty of available spaces. There is no single store in Bellingham that would have everything we needed for Christmas shopping. In fact, we came home and ordered two items online last evening. They will be delivered to our house within a week - plenty of time for us to wrap one of those items and mail it, along with other gifts, to our daughter’s home in South Carolina. We’ve got about two weeks or a bit more before items mailed would arrive after Christmas day.

Maybe I’ve grown more patient as I’ve grown older. Maybe the process of shopping is different when purchasing gifts for grandchildren rather than gifts for siblings. Maybe the luxury of having a small nest egg in a saving account makes shopping a bit easier. Whatever the reason, I had a good time yesterday.

Sunday is the first week of Advent. I’m ready for the preparations to begin - and I’ve even gotten in a jump start on some of the Advent chores.

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