A broken system

If you are a regular reader of my journal, you know that I have been critical of the health care system in the United States, especially in regards to the costs of a for-profit system. It is a simple fact that citizens of the United States pay more money for health care and yet our health statistics are much worse than places where health care costs are significantly lower. Our system is unnecessarily expensive and there are far too many centers of profit in the system. Paying more and receiving less is a problem, but a more important issue is that there is a significant percentage of our population who are completely priced out of the market when it comes to health care. People simply cannot access health care because they cannot afford it.

I’ll try to stay off of my price bandwagon today, however. I think another problem with the US health care system is that we have accepted a system that makes a rigid distinction between physical health and mental health. When a person suffers from mental illness, care difficult or impossible to receive. If a physical injury is sustained, urgent clinics and hospital emergency rooms provide care. People know that a call to 911 will result in emergency transport and care.

While the relatively new 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline is a significant step forward, a call to that number does not result in emergency transportation or admission to a care facility. Behavioral health, mental health, and substance abuse crises often result in victims and family members being unable to access any care at all. There is a significant shortage of psychiatric physicians. A cold call to a psychiatrist’s office is unlikely to result in being able to obtain an appointment in a reasonable amount of time.

Law enforcement agencies are often called for assistance, especially with behavioral health issues, but are ill equipped to provide care.

The issues are complex and many. The shortage of mental health care providers is due in part to a general shortage of doctors in our country. US medical schools have abysmally low acceptance rates. Selective medical schools admit a very small percentage of application. At Stanford Medical School the acceptance rate is 1.4%. Even medical schools with much higher acceptance rates reject a huge number of well qualified applicants. The University of Tennessee, for example has an acceptance rate of 8.7%. All medical schools in the United States receive federal funding. It would be possible for the federal government to pressure medical schools to increase the number of qualified students they accept, but no such pressure has been applied. Low acceptance rates are due, in part, to an organized effort by the medical establishment to limit the supply of physicians in order to keep rates of compensation high. Psychiatry as a medical specialty has far too few practitioners. Many people have no way to gain access to a psychiatrist.

The issue that is most critical when it comes to health care, however, goes beyond a shortage of doctors. In our country we have separated mental health, behavioral health and addiction services from general medical practice. Instead of having a system where emergency care for all is delivered through general hospitals and trauma centers, mental health, behavioral health, and addiction care are delivered through specialty hospitals. And it isn’t just that we have separated the places of health care delivery. More significantly, physicians are not trained to give care. An individual or family experiencing a mental health crisis cannot receive primary care from a primary care physician because primary care physicians are not trained in diagnosing and treating mental illnesses. The same goes for behavioral health and addiction. By dividing the care system we also have divided the education of care providers.

I don’t know how many times I have responded to crises in families that I serve and discovered that basic care is simply not available. I know of families that were experiencing an acute crisis who were told that the nearest place for care was 360 miles away and that there is no emergency transportation available to obtain that care. Whereas a patient in need of critical care for a cardiac illness might be transported by life flight, a patient in need of critical care for mental illness would be rejected by emergency medical transportation services. Mental health crises are not seen in the same category as physical health crises.

The tragedy of this division of services is that mental health and physical health cannot be separated. Mental health affects physical health. Rates of physical diseases such as coronary disease, diabetes, and respiratory illnesses are significantly higher in those who suffer from mental illness. Our minds and bodies are not separated. A physician who is not trained in at least general diagnosis and basic treatment of mental health is not able to provide care.

People who die from mental illness are just as dead as those who die of a heart attack, but while we have embraced a national system of training people in Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation (CPR) first aid and every first responder is regularly trained in providing CPR, there is no similar support for providing Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST) for first responders or the general public. Research conducted in several different countries on different continents has proven ASIST to be highly effective. However, physicians and other hospital care providers generally are not trained in this basic life-saving skill. First responders do not have the basic training required.

The tragic result is that our broken health care system not only fails to provide care to those who lack insurance and other financial abilities, it also fails to provide care to those suffering from mental, behavioral, and addiction illnesses regardless of their ability to pay.

We need to re-think our health care system at every level. Changes in deeply entrenched centers of profit are difficult to obtain. Highly controlled access to medical education that routinely excludes well-qualified students demonstrates a broken system. And the failure to provide access to basic mental, behavioral and addiction illness services means that people suffer and die unnecessarily.

Much work remains in order for us to mend this broken system.

Memorial Day

I wonder if Memorial Day is a holiday that grows in meaning as one ages. Certainly we have more memories than was the case when we were younger. We have experienced more loss, have attended more funerals, have known more people who have died. Part of my story is that I started playing taps at funerals when I was in my early teenage years. Many of those military funerals were for people that I did not know well. The first funeral I played was for a veteran of World War I. I knew that man, but he had been old all of my life and his death seemed like a natural part of our community. But I also played for the funerals of victims of the War in Vietnam who were much closer to my age. Yesterday I saw a photo on Facebook of a man who was active in the local American Legion squad when I was a teenager. I think that he served in the US Navy around the time of the Korean War. I know he is too young to be a veteran of World War II, but I am uncertain of exactly when he served. He has got to be close to 90 these days. I remember all of the small town Memorial Day parades that he helped to organize. I know that he called me several times to play my trumpet at ceremonies held around our town.

Monday holidays have always received a bit less recognition in our lifestyle simply because we have observed Monday as our day off each week for most of our active careers. Since we normally do not work at the office on Mondays, a Monday holiday is always a bit less dramatic for us. All the same, we do like to observe the various holidays. Yesterday we had a barbecue for our son’s family in recognition of the holiday. Barbecues for Memorial Day are pretty common. It is often seen as the beginning of the summer holiday season and outdoor eating is a summer tradition in the North. We had watermelon and the kids had a good time eating the sweet fruit and setting seeds in the back yard.

I do have a casual observation about the holiday. It was the second holiday weekend in a row for our little community. All of the tourist shops were open all weekend as they had been the weekend before. The first weekend was a holiday in Canada, with our neighbors to the north streaming across the border to enjoy the beaches, taste samples from the ice cream and candy store on the corner, eat in the restaurants and hang out at the local microbrewery. There were kites in the air and parking was a bit of a challenge in some places along the beach. Things looked very similar this past weekend, with citizens in the US enjoying our holiday. There were two noticeable differences between the two weekends. The first had to do with the license plates on the tourist cars. We see a lot of cars from British Columbia around here, but they were definitely the majority in Birch Bay a week ago. Not so much this past weekend, when Washington and Oregon plates were most common on our streets. The second difference is a bit of an embarrassment, frankly. When we walked on the beach yesterday, it was noticeably more littered with discarded beer cans, bottle caps, juice boxes and fast food restaurant packages. My observation is not a scientific study and one has to be careful drawing conclusions from such a selective sample, but it certainly felt to me like the Canadians had been more diligent in picking up after themselves.

I really don’t understand litter. It is so easy to make picking up after oneself a habit. I’m sure that there have been times when I left some litter by being careless, but I certainly had it drilled in me to not leave litter behind and to pick up after others. “Always leave a place cleaner than you found it!” was a bit of a mantra in our family when hiking, camping, and picnicking.

I hope that your Memorial Day weekend was filled with meaning and that the pain of the journeys of grief was not your dominant emotion. I find that having permission to remember includes permission to talk about all of the good memories. I certainly have a lot of fun stories of time spent with veterans. Whenever I play taps I remember a young man who was a camper at our Music, Arts, Dance and Drama camps in South Dakota. He was a talented actor and singer and he played the baritone horn. He was a creative and sometimes challenging camper to chaperone prone to staying up a bit too late and bending the camp’s lights out rules. I always took on the chore of checking all of the camp to make sure that campers were where they needed to be before I headed to bed and I lost a bit of sleep over his antics from time to time. One thing that worked for me as a camp director was to enlist him to play taps with me each evening. I would arrange to meet him on the porch of his cabin at lights out. I’d bring my trumpet and he’d bring his horn and we’d play together so the tune could be heard throughout the camp. That meant that I knew exactly where he was when it was time for all of the campers to be in their cabins. After we played he knew he had to head into the cabin. I have this fun memory of playing with him as he stood on the porch of his cabin with his horn to his mouth. He was dressed in a t-shirt and boxer shorts. After he grew up and became too old for camp, he served in Iraq. He came home from the war without physical injuries, but died by suicide not long after his return. His suicide shook me. For a while it was very hard for me to play taps.

Years have passed and I still play taps. I participate in Taps Across America on Veterans Day and I try to always say yes when someone requests that I play for a funeral or community event. I’m scheduled to play next weekend for an event at the church. And each time I play I remember my young friend. The sting and pain is less these days. The memory is familiar and comfortable. I pray that I never forget him. His life made a difference to me.

May your memories bring you joy and gratitude.

Watching Turkey's election

I’ve been paying attention to the runoff election in Turkey. It now appears that voters in the strategically important NATO country have opted for a seasoned autocrat over an untested democrat in a hotly contested election. After failing to gain the majority vote in the initial election, Recep Tayyip Erdogan pulled out a four percent win over Kemal Kilicdaroglu to be elected for five more years as president of the country. Pollsters and analysts, along with members of the opposition party and some outside observers such as myself had believed that an upset might be possible. This year it was not to be and Erdogan is set to continue to lead the country for five more years. The strongman is newly emboldened, the opposition is badly bruised, and the Kremlin is celebrating. This is the outcome that President Vladimir Putin of Russia wanted.

In his victory speech, Erdogan was quick to attack the opposition and the LGBTQ community. Both will be targeted even more in the months to come and free speech and human rights are likely to be further eroded in the years to come. Turkey’s system has few checks and balances and its longest-serving leader in modern times is not known for restraint.

It demonstrates the simple fact that autocratic leaders are as difficult to displace in the 21st century as they were in the 20th. Erdogan controls 90% of the media in Turkey, which makes it nearly impossible for an opposition leader to be elected. Almost 48% of voters spoke up for change, but 48% was not quite enough. And those voters have reason to be not only disappointed, but also fearful. There will be more religion and less freedom in public life. The divided nation has a failed economy and Erdogan has no solution for either. He is likely to make brash international deals, including concessions to Russia, in order to shore up his power, crush the opposition, and distract voters from rampant and unchecked inflation.

Democracy is relatively new to Turkey. The country will mark the 100th anniversary of the modern secular state in October. Many observers inside and outside of the country predict that the concept of secular rule, pioneered in Turkey by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who served as Speaker of the House, elected in 1920 and 1923. On October 29, 1923 Republic was declared and Atatürk elected the first President, ending an especially rocky time with a variety of coups and military leaders following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1908 in the midst of World War I. That powerful empire had held power since 1290.

Autocratic leadership becomes entrenched and very difficult to displace.

Turkey’s experience should provide a cautionary tale for American democracy. We elected an autocratic president in 2016 and nearly lost our democracy in a failed attempt to overturn the results of the 2020 election. With the Supreme Court given over to partisan leadership and unable to enforce simple ethics among its members, including public acceptance of bribes by at least one member, and a legislature that is unable to enact basic controls, including establishing a budget, our democracy remains on the edge of chaos. There are more than a few citizens of our country who would opt for an openly corrupt leader who never won the popular vote and who displays a similar strongman approach to that of other world autocrats such as Putin, Erdogan, and Kim Jong Un. That same strongman continues to be the front runner in one party’s primary contest to determine who will run for president in 2024. Were he to gain the nomination and secure the majority of votes in the electoral college, an antiquated quirk of our democracy that allows candidates who do not win the majority of the popular vote to be elected, one of his first acts when inaugurated most certainly would be to pardon himself of federal crimes for which he is currently under investigation. He has also pledged to pardon those already convicted of seditious conspiracy to overthrow the legitimately elected leadership of our government.

A major difference between our country and Turkey is that the strongman seeking leadership in our country is older and likely would be unable to remain in office for 20 years regardless of tactics employed to gain the position. Both of our parties have opted for leaders in both the Senate and administration who are considerably older than normal retirement age.

I don’t want to imply that our country will follow in the footsteps of Turkey, but I do think that we might learn from observing what has happened in that country and its slide away from protecting religious freedom and the rights of its citizens. Democracy is an inherently fragile form of government and it requires leaders in every generation who are able to defend its principles and hold to its ideals. That kind of leadership has difficulty emerging in our current mode of distrust of institutions and uncontrolled partisan media. A quest for short term power often displaces principles while behind the scenes money is allowed to run unchecked to manipulate elected leaders. Shouting and theatrics displaces reasoned arguments in political debate.

Our democracy is a bit older than Turkey’s, but it has faced many threats during its relatively short run. When secessionists gained control of most slaveholding states in 1861, our country was nearly toppled by a bloody and deeply divisive civil war. The after effects of that war continue to play a role in the political divisions of our time. We continue to face very real attempts to destroy our constitutional democracy, overturn fair elections, and the seizing of power by corrupt officials. As was the case in the 20th century in Europe and other parts of the world, autocracy has its appeal to those seeking calm and order. People can be induced to vote against their own best interests as has been demonstrated over and over again in elections around the globe.

Along with our friends in Turkey, I will continue to watch with a bit of fear and trepidation as political processes play out. Each generation in every nation needs those who are willing to speak out for the downtrodden and dispossessed. As was true of previous generations, the times in which we live are momentous. Democracy continues to need its defenders.

Mixing routines

We have a neighbor whose mother has a greenhouse. We walk by their home on days when we walk to the beach from our house and have chatted with them several times. Each spring they hold a sale of plants that have been started from seed and raised in the greenhouse. Last year we got some plants from the sale. The tomatoes did especially well and so we were looking forward to their sale and spoke with them about it. Since we are acquainted, they arranged for us to purchase some plants in advance of the sale. We also got a few plants from the annual sale held by the Whatcom County Master Gardeners, but we got to that sale late this year and they didn’t have many flowers. So yesterday, when our neighbors had their plant sale, we stopped by to pick up the remainder of the bedding plants we wanted to get in the ground. While we looked through the plants, we talked with our neighbors. They said they were glad to see us. We hadn’t walked by their place for a couple of days and they were worried about us because we are regular walkers.

We hadn’t given it a thought. It had been just a couple of days. One day we walked at Hovender Farm, a county park with a variety of trails. It was convenient because we had gone to town to do a bit of banking business and so we decided to walk through the wetlands at the park. Yesterday, we walked the berm, a trail that goes a little more than a mile along the beach in Birch Bay Village. We decided to walk there because we wanted a walk that was a bit longer than our usual jaunt to the beach and back. Now that the weather is good and we are moving towards summer programming at the church we have a bit more time to walk and we enjoy taking walks that are a bit longer. I’m sure that we will walk in a variety of different places in the weeks to come as there are so many wonderful and varied trails around here. We love walking to the beach, but we also enjoy trails that take us through heritage forests and through wetlands and other terrain.

I was a bit surprised that our neighbors had missed us when we didn’t walk by their house for a couple of days. I guess that we have fallen into the habit of walking the same route most days because it is familiar and convenient. I guess we’ve become a couple of old folks who are set in our ways so much that we are a bit of a neighborhood fixture. That isn’t the worst thing. While I don’t want to get stuck in a rut and I enjoy mixing things up, it is good to know and be known by our neighbors.

Because we walk by their place often and because they have a lovely yard and garden and are frequently outside tending them, we have gotten to know them a bit. We know their names and they know ours. We know that a mother and her son live in our neighborhood and that the woman’s mother lives and has a greenhouse nearby. We know that they work from home for an import company with headquarters in North Dakota. We have shared a few stories about North Dakota winters that interest them because they have been in that state in the winter before and know that we aren’t exaggerating when we talk of -30 temperatures.

Whether we are walking our usual route to the beach and back or taking a stroll in another location, there are always new things to see. The Canadian geese have hatched their chicks and the chicks are getting bigger. Geese can walk and swim shortly after hatching, but, like other birds, it takes them a while to learn to fly. The chicks are getting their feathers, but haven’t learned to fly yet, so there is a bit of a scramble for them to waddle away from us when we walk by. Of course we are no threat to them, but they don’t know that for sure and instinct leads them to want to keep distance between us and them. Unlike our human neighbors, they haven’t gotten used to us walking by their home.

In the wetlands, the lilies are blooming. the water lilies have enormous leaves and produce giant blossoms, quite different from what we see on ponds in the midwest. There is a small lake at the county park that is open in the winter, but becomes so full of lilies in the summer that it almost looks like it is solid ground. Of course if you stepped out into it, you’d be up to your waist in water and surrounded by lilies. There are places where canoes are allowed, but it isn’t very inviting for paddling because of all of the thick vegetation. But the lake full of yellow blossoms is an amazing sight and we like to wander on the boardwalk that takes us by the shore and look across the lake at the vista of snow-capped mountains to the East.

We have also come to be big fans of sunsets. The days are getting very long around here. It is one of the things about living so far north. Our summer days are long and our winter days are short. Adding in the change from standard time to daylight savings time and back makes the difference seem even greater. It isn’t fully dark until a bit after ten these days. It interests me that one of my reactions to the change is that I stay up a bit later. Like a farmer, I sleep a bit less in the summer. The sunlight streaming into our bedroom coaxes me from sleep around 5 am these days and I find lots to do in the evenings as well. I don’t feel like I’m stuck in a routine, but change with the seasons.

Our neighbors, however, are used to our routines and notice when we mix things up. It’s good to know there are folks who notice.

The rhythm of life

Two of our grandsons were at our house yesterday. Susan has been doing a bit of math tutoring for our oldest grandson and we often take care of our youngest grandson for a couple of hours each week to give his mother time to work on paperwork and communications related to her counseling practice. Schedules were shifted for a variety of reasons this week, so both boys were at our house together yesterday. Susan was at school, volunteering in the class of one of our granddaughters at the time the boys arrived, so I worked with the older one on his math while the younger played with toys. I fixed lunch for us and them and we ate when Susan returned from volunteering. We had lunch together.

After cleanup, which with a one year old is a bit larger chore than our usual, I took the tired little one and rocked him for a bit. He was soon asleep. As he slept in my arms, I found my eyes closing as I rocked. We have an antique clock in our study that ticks loudly and I was rocking the chair, with its associated sounds in rhythm to the clock. Those sounds must have been soothing to the baby for they did not interrupt his sleeping and the motion and sound made it easy for him to drop off for his nap.

Our lives are tuned to all kinds of rhythms. We are naturally attracted to patterns of sounds and live our lives in sync with those rhythms. Of course we are intimately connected with some basic life rhythms. Our hearts beat in a regular pattern, often somewhere in the neighborhood of 60 beats per minute. I have used my heartbeat as a baseline to determine the proper rhythm of music which means that I play certain pieces of music a bit slower than written because my resting heart rate is a bit slower than typical. I have a heightened awareness of my heart rhythms after suffering a brush with atrial flutter this spring. I’ve had the condition treated and am suffering no ill effects, but it has made my very sensitive to my own heart rhythm. It is not just classical music that has a connection to the rhythm of our hearts. When we lived in South Dakota, I learned that traditional Lakota drum music is timed to heartbeats.

Our breathing also has its own rhythm. We breathe at a slower rate than our heartbeat, but it is often in sync with the beating of our hearts. Much of the time our hearts beat and we breathe without paying conscious attention. Our autonomic nervous system regulates several physiologic processes of our lives without requiring conscious thought. That allows us to remain alive when we sleep and through times of distraction.

Rhythm and music are rooted in every known culture. Rocking a baby to sleep is common to all human cultures. Religious chants follow consistent rhythms. Military cadences organize large groups of troops. Repetitive or complex work often is performed to rhythmic accompaniment. Languages are spoken to consistent rhythms. Poets take advantage of the natural rhythms of speech to organize words into patterns that are memorable.

Scientists use observations of the natural rhythms of life as diagnostic tools to determine overall health. The skill of listening to rhythm with a stethoscope is a foundational skill of physicians. Sophisticated machines record the electrical signals of human hearts and aid in the diagnosis and treatment of diseases. Heart rhythms are only one aspect of medical diagnosis based on rhythm. Doctors also have tools for measuring brain rhythms which occur at different speeds. Subcortical structures are equipped for microsecond timing while the cortex is better suited to integrating sounds over a long time scale.

We tune our lives to larger rhythms as well, changing sleep patterns with the change of seasons, marking the years of our lives with celebrations and rituals, and adapting to the process of aging. We often speak of the phases of our lives in seasonal language, referring to the aging years as the autumn of life.

Part of musical intelligence is the ability to keep a steady beat. There are some basic rhythms that are easy to learn by memorizing music. Instructors will sing popular songs to help students learn the proper rhythm for administering cardiopulmonary resuscitation. Many people can recognize individual songs by the tapping unique rhythms on a drum or simply tapping a foot or finger on a hard surface. My brother is a professional percussionist and when we were teenagers he invested many hours in learning specific complex rhythms. For example, he taught himself to tap four times with one hand and five with the other in the same span of time. When had mastered that skill he practiced others: 3 to 7, 5 to 12, etc.

Researchers have found that children who recognize differences in rhythm patters and tap to a beat learn to read and spell more easily. The cadence of language is part of the process of learning to read. That is why reading aloud is so important in the process of raising a child. Educators know that reading aloud before a child has learned to read is an important part of the process of learning. Rhythm in speech tells us when important information starts and stops. Stressed syllables emerge at regular intervals and carry much of the information of speech. I paid a lot of attention to rhythm in developing my public speaking style. I find it very challenging to listen to public speaking that is not set to a consistent rhythm. I can be very critical of preachers who are less practiced in delivering words in rhythm. It is much harder to listen to someone whose pauses don’t fit into a rhythmic patter. A metronome is not only useful in training musicians, it helps public speakers become better communicators.

We speak of being “in sync” with another person. Groups of people can synchronize the rate of their breathing and even their heartbeats. Choral ensembles train to breathe together as part of making music.

Last night as I drifted off to sleep, I listened to the rhythm of frogs in the neighborhood through the open window of our bedroom. The sound lulled me to sleep as easily as the rocking chair put our grandson to sleep earlier. As I write this morning, I am thinking that awareness of rhythm is a key life skill. Perhaps the phrase, “of sound mind,” is a way of celebrating the rhythm of our lives. I hope I continue to be of sound mind in the years to come.

The pace of life

I maintain a fairly busy life, but it is not as busy since my retirement in 2020. These days I work half time and i go to the office only three days in a typical week. There are a few additional meetings, phone calls, Zoom gatherings, and emails outside of work hours, but I have time each week for my personal and home repair projects. There were times in my life when I was a lot busier, balancing home and a demanding professional career. I had lots of long days, evening meetings, on call responses in the middle of the night and missed days off. In a way, I think I may have set a poor example for our children. It was, however, a very good life and I thoroughly enjoyed being involved and busy. Church work is rewarding work and helping people has always felt like a good investment of my time.

Our son and his family have very busy lives. To begin with they have four children. I know that we felt overwhelmed with only two children at times. Four is a lot of work! Then there is the simple fact that our son works 45 miles away from their family home, which means commuting time in addition to a busy professional life with its share of evening meetings and long days. Add to that the fact that his wife Allison is a private practice mental health therapist. She works at her practice part time, seeing clients only on Saturdays, but those days are often 12-hour days without a break as she sees as many people as possible. In addition there is plenty of paper work, including scheduling, insurance claims, and billing concerns, that needs to be done during the week. It also means that on Saturdays, our son is primary care giver for four children. During the rest of the week, our daughter-in-law manages schedules, juggles appointments, provides meals and health care for the children.

On the side, both have plenty of farm chores. Chickens need to be fed and watered every day. In the spring, summer, and fall there is plenty of grass to mow. A one-hundred-year-old farm house is in need of constant repair. And four children have their share of projects. While they help with household chores there are limits and their chores frequently need adult supervision.

The only day each week when the whole family is at home is Sunday and that day is often filled with social events, visiting friends, and entertaining the nearly constant stream of folks who come by to see the farm, friends who come to play with the children, and family events.

I get tired just thinking of all of it. We try to help where we are able. I enjoy farm chores and since I keep bees at the farm, I am there nearly every day and I can help with repairs, mowing, and other chores. In place of going to the gym for exercise, I find fixing fence, chopping firewood, tossing bales and walking around the farm to be my preferred way of working out. To help with the juggle of life for the kids, I often give the oldest child a ride to and from school on Thursdays. I usually have plenty of errands to run and it works pretty well for me to drop him off at school and continue to the grocery store for a weekly stock-up.

Last week there was a birthday in the family, which meant a party with a lot of children on Sunday afternoon and a family dinner, which included us, on Tuesday evening. By the time I arrived on Thursday to pick up our grandson for school, everyone was dragging a bit. Their mother had to make repeated trips up and down the stairs to keep urging children to stay on task getting dressed and ready for school. The breakfasts were set out and the household was in motion, but moving a bit more slowly than usual. the twelve-year-old took multiple reminders to stay on the tasks of getting dressed, eating breakfast, assembling his school materials and such. It was the last minute when I finally got him into the car after he had to run back into the house to pick up a school item he had forgotten. Then he had to be reminded to fasten his seatbelt. He was a bit distracted.

When I arrived, the baby was on the kitchen floor, stacking pots and pans from a nearby cupboard. I look at him a couple of minutes later and he was sleeping face down on the floor. He had only a cat nap before another child woke him, but you could see he was tired. Later, while his mother ran a few errands, he took time to rock with Grandpa at our house and I think we both dozed off.

Their family system amazes me, but there is no surprise that people were tired at their house this week. On her birthday the six-year old was excited and bouncing. After a dinner of her requested menu of burritos, chips and salsa, beans and rice and vegetables, presents were opened. The big gift was a pedal bicycle which immediately went out into the yard for many trips back and forth to try it out. Then it was inside for cake, which was a sculpture of macaroons enjoyed by all. After blowing out her candle and enjoying the sweet treats she wanted to start a sewing project that had been one of her gifts. Grandma is the chief sewing instructor in the family and she was assisting but after making only a single stitch it was apparent that the birthday girl was too tired to finish. She next wanted to start building a lego set that she received, but after putting together the first two bricks there was simply no more energy. She put her head on the table and closed her eyes. Six years is a time of an incredible amount of energy, but even she has limits and it becomes time for sleep.

This weekend with Memorial Day is a much-needed respite for the family. The extra day off will be appreciated by all. Children spring back quickly when they get a bit of extra sleep. I’ll be at the farm as much as I can on Saturday and Monday to help catch up on chores.

I feel incredibly lucky to live so close and to be able to witness all of the fun of their family life. I’m grateful that the pace of my life has slowed a bit, but I enjoy being around to watch it all.

Still, I don’t feel bad when I take a lazy evening at home, sit and read in my recliner, or out on the back deck, or just sit on the front porch rocking back and forth in the glider. I don’t need the constant busy activities that once filled my days. Sometimes I wonder about how it will be for my son when he reaches my age. So far there are no signs of him slowing down, but I hope he finds a way to a slightly slower pace someday. Going slow certainly has its joys. I’ve no need to speed up the pace for now.

Different kinds of learners

It doesn’t take much reading of my journal to realize that I am a wordy person. I have lived my life in the world of words. I love to read, keep cards for two different library systems in my wallet, have a room in my house that is filled with books despite having fairly recently culled and given away boxes and boxes of books, and invest a significant amount of time reading online articles and journals. I wasn’t much of a student in high school, but when I got to college, I thrived on the academic environment. I went straight from my undergraduate degree to graduate school in the days when academic learning was based on shared research and lots of conversation and debate. Unlike the modes of Internet-based distance learning common for those seeking degrees these days, we were required to attend school in person, to participate in small groups and to engage in the exchange of ideas. And the schools I attended gathered other verbal learners who read a great deal and were eager to discuss what they had been reading. Even when we weren’t engaging in classroom activities, we would find ourselves discussing what we had read over meals, while recreating, and late into the night. The accepted standard for academics when I was a student was that we were expected to read a minimum of two hours for every hour of class time. And much of the material we were reading took many additional hours of discussion and re-reading in order to process the complex ideas.

I understand that that particular mode of education was not successful for everyone. There are many different ways of being intelligent and there are brilliant thinkers who are not verbal-linguistic learners. The academy of my day did not serve all types of learners well. It did not make many accommodations to those who suffered from dyslexia. It often ignored those with artistic or naturalistic intelligences.

Throughout my life, I have relished conversation with other verbal-linguistic learners. I love to discuss the books I am reading with others. I love to teach small groups with the skills I learned as a student, encouraging reading and discussion. Last night I was leading a small group in discussion of a book we are all reading in a regular online meeting. As I listened to others speak I was aware that we all were coming from a similar approach. We had studied the rules of logic. We knew traditional ways of forming an argument. We understood how to voice disagreement without attacking others. We were convinced of the power of rhetoric to change opinions. More importantly, we were carefully listening to one another. When someone made a strong point, others acknowledged the logic of their argument. When disagreement occurred, participants strove to make their point without attacking or criticizing others. We’ve been meeting together once a week for a long time and we have gotten to know each other well. The group is very good at welcoming new participants and the faces on the Zoom screen change as we go through the seasons, but the group definitely attracts people who enjoy a particular style of learning.

I am struck, however, by how many people I know who would not enjoy that particular type of group. I have a colleague who has an office that contains perhaps a quarter of the number of books that I used to have in my office when I was a full-time senior minister. When we visit she often tells me of television shows or movies that she has been watching, but I rarely hear of which books she is reading. She does write a bit, but her preferred format is very short pieces of less than a couple of hundred words. She complains about emails and web sites that have too many words. She knows about my web site and that I write a daily journal, but I doubt that she has ever read through a single of my daily essays. One of the first things she asks when I recommend a book for her to read is how long it is and whether or not it is available as an audio book.

She is a very intelligent and capable professional. She has an earned graduate degree. But she is not a reader and she would not enjoy some of the conversations that are part of my regular life.

Our society, of course, is comprised of many other different kinds of thinkers and readers. And in recent years, politicians have tended to exploit those differences by making conflict their main topic. Instead of presenting reasoned debate as a mode of persuading voters, they appeal to indignation, anger, and conflict. For example, compare the televised debates of the last two presidential election cycles with those of previous elections. Gone are the rules of logic. Gone is the practice of listening to what a debate opponent says. In their palace are hateful ad hominem attacks, theatrics and baiting. The rules by which classical debate is judged, pointing out fallacies in arguments and scoring points for consistent logic are practically nonexistent. Political debates are judged by popularity poll only and the one declared winner is often the one that is most entertaining as judged by flamboyant actions and lots of yelling.

Conflict is not, in and of itself, bad. In fact I believe that healthy conflict is necessary in order for societal change to occur. There is, however, a big distinction between healthy conflict and high conflict or malicious conflict. And there is very little healthy conflict in contemporary political discourse.

Because of my limited circle and my academic experiences, I have grown to expect others to be rational, but the truth is that humans and human societies are rarely rational. We are far more emotion-driven than rational. I think it has been a fallacy of mine to expect others to be rational and to be swayed by the rules of logic. There are times when I think my colleague who is not a reader is better equipped to lead in these troubled times.

I remain, however, a person of words. I try to think things through. I deal with the contemporary situation by reading a lot of articles and books. And even though others who think and learn the way I do may be a minority, there are still plenty of us around for the interplay of words, rational discussion, and healthy argument. We enjoy getting together for good discussion and healthy debate. It feeds my mind and my soul and I am grateful for my friends who are readers and thinkers and enjoy the world of words.

Fortunately for our wider society, we aren’t the only ones. There are plenty of others who, like my colleague, do well in the world of images, videos, social media, and learn in different ways. Our world has need of both types of thinkers, especially those who can accept and appreciate others who learn in different ways.

Minor ailments

My grandmother used to say that my grandfather suffered from “selective hearing loss.” By that she meant that he was better at hearing the things he wanted to hear than hearing the things he didn’t want to hear. There is little doubt that my grandfather did have significant hearing loss towards the end of his life. But it also was true that he sometimes wouldn’t pay attention to some conversations. I’m pretty sure that there were some times when he simply didn’t listen when grandmother was talking.

Grandmother was widowed after more than 50 years of marriage. They had shared a lot of experiences in their time together. Both were born in Dakota territory before North Dakota became a state. They had survived the Great Depression together, sold their farm, moved to Montana, launched businesses in two towns, and raised seven children. They had seen their sons go off to war and return. My grandfather’s funeral was the first time that I served as a pallbearer. There wasn’t much lifting on my part. My cousins Tyrone, Larry Lee, Walter, and Thane took the four corners with cousin Dickie and I taking handles in the middle. The taller cousins picked up the casket and we had to walk with our arms bent because it was raised too high for us to carry at our normal height. They packed all the weight, though there wasn’t that much. Grandpa had become pretty small and frail before he passed away.

I went to college in the town where my grandmother lived in her widow years. Those were tough years for her. Grief layered upon grief toward the end of her life. She outlived four of her sons, including my father. When we would visit her, one of her repeated complaints was that her eyesight wasn’t as good as it once had been. “I can’t see as well as I used to. I can barely read the newspaper and they print the news in such small type!” she’d complain. I suggested to her that she didn’t have to read every word of the newspaper each day when she would point out how small the type was in the classified ads. She’d claim that she didn’t because she couldn’t read that small type. But every time one of my high school classmates made the newspaper, perhaps by being listed in the police reports for speeding or being involved in a fender bender accident, she’d send me a clipping with the name circled in pen. When a classmate was named in some legal posting, perhaps a bankruptcy or a legal notice to creditors in the settlement of an estate, there would be an envelope from grandmother with a clipping. Despite her failing eyesight she read the small print in the newspaper with great comprehension and thoroughness.

Maybe selective hearing loss combined with selective vision loss to make a strong marriage.

I have often thought of selective hearing loss in the years since my grandparents died. It seems to be a malady suffered by politicians and media personalities on a regular basis. Just the other day a political figure stated in an interview that their party would “never go after the spouse of an opposition candidate.” The statement was so patently false that the otherwise sympathetic interviewer blurted out a couple of examples of times when members of that person’s party certainly did attack the spouses of opposition candidates. The person being interviewed continued with their statements as if the interviewer had said nothing. It seemed to me to be a clear case of selective hearing loss. Make the statements you want and ignore the questions that you don’t want to answer. It seems to be a common interview technique for politicians.

I’ve heard plenty of examples of selective hearing loss. My grandfather’s case, however, never seemed to be severe enough to be a threat to their relationship.

I got to know one set of Susan’s grandparents very well in the early years of our marriage. We lived in the same state as them for seven years and were able to visit fairly frequently. They were married for more than 60 years and would, on occasion, speak harshly to one another. If you didn’t know them you might think that they annoyed each other a lot more than was actually the case. They had both learned to accept a few harsh words from their mate without it making them feel bad. Another quirk of their relationship was that as they aged, the would complain more and more about having sleep difficulties. Sometimes we would visit when a great aunt was also visiting. The three of them would each claim to have not slept a wink morning after morning. they seemed to function pretty well for people who weren’t sleeping at all. I always thought that their complaints were a bit exaggerated. It seemed to me that they must have slept more than they claimed.

And now, we’ve been sending out invitations to the celebration of our 50th wedding anniversary less than a month away. The years have passed quickly for us and we are a bit surprised to find ourselves reaching such a milestone. My parents didn’t have that many years together. My father died young, one of the four brothers who died before their mother. We have been very fortunate in the health department and have enjoyed our life together. The upcoming event, however, has got me to wondering what quirks of our personality will be remembered by our grandchildren after out time has passed. Will they remember their grandmother kissing the top of their grandfather’s mostly bald head? Will they think we have become obsessed with certain topics of conversation that are of little or no interest to them? What stories will they tell their children and friends about their grandmother and grandfather? After all, we live just down the road from four grandchildren and we visit with another one regularly over Skype or FaceTime. They know us pretty well.

I may not suffer from selective hearing loss, but my short term memory certainly isn’t as good as it once was. I find myself saying, “What was I going to do?” a lot. I try to tone it down a bit when the grandchildren are around. I don’t want them to think I’m losing my mind. But it makes me wonder what stories about us they tell their friends. And I don’t hear as well as I once did, especially when a room is crowded and voices are loud. Perhaps I’m developing selective hearing loss. I guess you’d have to ask my wife to know for sure.

Great literature

I love reading lists. I pour over the titles of books read in book clubs, recommend by teachers, and selected by critics. I try to avoid paying to read websites, and often shun the paywalls of news outlets, but I believe that the introductory price of about $1 per week is a good investment because it allows access to the New York Times Book Review. I have asked high school and college English professors for their reading lists.

Although I am a prolific reader and have read a lot of books from the time I was able to obtain my first library card as a child, I have felt that somehow I haven’t covered the classics quite as well as I should have. A few years ago, I undertook a disciplined approach to reading more classical literature, using a reading list compiled by a college professor as a guide. It was a difficult discipline for me to maintain. I was still working full time and doing a lot of reading for my work and, frankly, some classical literature is boring. One of the things I learned at that time was that I needed to get glasses with as large lenses as possible and then have the optician make the reading portion of the lens as big as they could so that my eyes didn’t tire from straining to read through the wrong part of my lenses. The result has been at least a decade of being very happy with my glasses and an increased capacity for reading.

As a lover of books and a reader of lists of books, I have, of course, been intrigued by the lists of books banned from school libraries in some communities. I’ve long held that banning books is a repressive and authoritarian practice that in the end does not work. People will seek out reading that is meaningful to them and banning a book from a library can often spark book sales. Those who think that they can control literature by banning and destroying books probably should read more books about history. Book bans didn’t work for the Nazi regime in Germany. They didn’t work for the apartheid government of South Africa. And they won’t work for Republicans seeking to make culture wars their ticket to the votes of their base. One of the treasures of my library is a copy of Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire that was a gift from a colleague from South Africa in the 1970’s who purchased the copy and read it while studying in the United States, but knew that it would be confiscated if found among his possessions when he returned to his native South Africa. The book bans were part of the collapse of the apartheid regime. The attempt to control the thinking of the citizens of the country simply did not work.

So, I am enjoying making a point of reading a bit more children’s literature these days. Among the lists I consult is the CBS list of the 50 most frequently banned books in school libraries. There are some good reads on the list. If you haven’t read “And Tango Makes Three” by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell, illustrated by Henry Cole, I recommend it. The children’s book is based on the real-life story of two male chinstrap penguins at New York’s Central Park Zoo. After zookeepers saw the pari trying to hatch a rock as if it were an egg, they gave the penguins their own egg. The two subsequently raised the chick, Tango, as their own.

Seeing Ted Cruz hold up a copy of “Stamped” by Ibram X. Kendi and Jason Reynolds at the confirmation hearings of Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson was enough to make me want to read the book. Its frank portrayals of racism are pretty direct. I doubt that Senator Cruz has actually read the book, although the children’s book might be closer to his intellectual capacity than the Kendi book we have in our church library, “How to Be an Antiracist.” If he has read either, I suspect that they could spark guilt in the senator. It wouldn’t be difficult for him to see himself as the opposite of an antiracist. Guilt, however, may not be one of the Senator’s most practiced emotions.

However, I’m more interested in reasons why people read books and lists of favorite books than reasons people are trying to keep others from reading books they don’t like. As a result, I’m delighted to pour over the BBC’s new list of the 100 greatest children’s books of all time, recently released. The news service conducted a poll of 177 experts - critics, authors, and publishing figures - from 56 counties. Each voter listed their choice of the 10 best children’s books. Over 1050 titles were recommended. Those were then scored and ranked to produce a top 100 list. The end result was a list that spanned a wide range of history. The oldest book that made the list, “Panchatantra,” is a collection of Indian children’s stories dating back to the 2nd Century BCE. The newest is “A Kind of Spark,” was published in 2020. 74 of the books on the list were first published in the English language, with the next most popular language being Swedish, with 9 entries. Books published between the 1950s and 1970s were most prevalent, which might say something about the ages of the experts who contributed to the list. It certainly resulted in a list with a lot of books that I have already read.

I resonate with the number one book on the list, “Where the Wild Things Are” by Maurice Sendak. The epic adventure combines fear, courage, love, and loneliness in about a third of the words I use for a daily journal entry. Each page’s pictures bring surprise and delight. It’s a good one.

The number two book is just over a century older, first published in 1865. It is Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.” It is one of the books that introduced me to the concept of fantasy with its anthropomorphic creatures and surreal scenarios. It certainly has had an impact on popular culture with ballets, operas, films and other expressions abounding.

I’ll also concur with the #3 and #4 picks, “Pippi Longstocking” and “The Little Prince,” and I’m proud that I first read Le Petit Prince in French. Reading children’s books is a good way to learn a new language.

Of course, reviewing 100 books would take me far more words than a single Journal entry and this entry has already gone over my usual. You can check out the list on the BBC website.

The sounds oysters love

I’ve been reading a novel by Amy Harmon titled “A Girl Called Samson.” I’m not a huge fan of historical fiction, but from time to time I pick up and enjoy such book. Harmon’s novel is entertaining with just the right amount of complexity to keep my interest as she unfolds a bit of her research about the founding of the United States. There are details in the lives of the characters that are, I am sure, based on that research. For example she reports the use of fireworks at a military celebration held during the Revolutionary war. Despite the words of our national anthem about “the rockets’ red glare,” I don’t particularly associate fireworks with that period of time. Fireworks, however, have been a part of human celebrations from 200 BC, so it makes sense that there were fireworks available to be used as part of celebrations during that period of history.

Somehow, we in the United States have arrived at July 4 as the holiday when we are most likely to use fireworks. Perhaps there is a connection between the use of pyrotechnics and our national holiday that goes back to the revolution itself. Historians report that fireworks were part of the first recognition of July 4 held in Philadelphia in 1777. Of course there are lovers of fireworks for whom once a year simply isn’t enough. We hear plenty of blasts around new years as well as those surrounding July 4.

Our Canadian neighbors have different days for their pyrotechnic blasts. There are a few Canadians who light of fireworks on Guy Fawkes Night in early November, a British annual commemoration of the failure of the Gunpowder Plot to disrupt parliament. Bonfires are also part of that observance. Fireworks are also part of the annual observance of Victoria Day. Victoria Day used to be observed on May 24, the day of Victoria’s natural birthday. However, as part of the observance of Monday Holidays, it is now observed on the penultimate Monday in May (the last Monday preceding May 24). Today is the day for that observance.

I’m not really expecting fireworks. We have noticed an influx of Canadian tourists visiting our community on the weekend that signals the start of the summer vacation season for them. They are, for the most part, pretty quiet and those who celebrate with a trip south of the border don’t seem inclined to the kind of celebrations that bother others with the noise.

In honor of Victoria Day, the annual Oysterfest, a community celebration fo the oyster fishing industry was moved this year from its traditional October date to Victoria Day weekend. Saturday saw lots of local celebrations including a street fair, cooking demonstrations, ferry rides, and kids’ activities. A $20 dollar ticket allowed celebrants to sample oysters at several different local restaurants up and down the street. It is pretty clear that the festival, while celebrating the local oyster farming industry, is aimed at attracting tourists from Canada.

There is a rather obscure connection between sound and the oyster industry. It was enough for me to make a connection between holidays where fireworks are used and our local celebration of a Canadian holiday. Centuries of over harvesting, habitat degradation and disease have pushed the global oyster population to the brink of extinction. It is estimated that 85% of global oyster reefs have been lost in the past 150 years. Reefs were destroyed by dredge fishing which destroyed the habitat by scraping the oysters from the sea floor leaving no natural substrate for them to regenerate. Our local oyster industry is based on extensive farming operations. Oyster larvae are bred in hatcheries. Most of the local oysters are imported from hatcheries in Hawaii. The “spat,” as larvae settled on oyster shells are called, are placed on the seabed in Drayton Harbor where they are raised to maturity. This is an expensive process and accounts for the high price that oysters command.

Scientists researching natural ways to attract oyster larvae naturally spawned in the ocean to beds that have been restored by placing oyster shells on the sea floor. They have discovered that oyster larvae react to sounds. They played sounds of seagrass meadows, healthy rocky reefs, and other underwater recordings and discovered what sounds oysters prefer. By introducing artificial sounds to and underwater environment scientists have been able to attract baby oysters. Among the sounds that are inviting to the creatures is the sound of snapping shrimp, which indicates a healthy reef. For oysters at least, playing the sounds of the sea is an effective technique for habitat restoration.

It isn’t exactly fireworks, but the use of sound as part of the restoration of natural oyster habitat is a fascinating display of human ingenuity.

As a newcomer to the ocean’s edge, however, I haven’t got the faintest clue without snapping shrimp sound like. I don’t have the skills of a successful oyster farmer. And I don’t know which sounds are most attractive to tourists from the north who come to our community and spend their money at local businesses. I’m thinking that most of the tourists who head our way are drawn more by the quietness of our little village than by our sounds. We see the tourists setting up their chairs and umbrellas along the shore and simply soaking up the sunlight and enjoying a long holiday weekend when the weather allows them to be outside.

So, of course, it may be a disappointment to our guests that it is raining this morning. The forecast calls for rain today and tomorrow after sunny and warm days last week. At least our guests got Friday, Saturday, and Sunday as days to sit on the beach and many of them may be intending to pack up and head home today in order to return to work tomorrow, so the rain probably didn’t put much of a damper on their holiday. All of the oysterfest activities seemed to come off without a hitch on Saturday.

Unlike my ignorance about the sound of snapping shrimp, I do know what rain on the roof sounds like. It is a gentle sound that invites calm and rest. It might be a good day for a nap.

Building community

I read in an article on the New York Times website about recent polling data from Morning Consult that found 58 percent of American adults feel lonely. The study not only showed current polling data, but also compared results from previous studies. Among other information in the study is data showing that young adults are twice as likely to be lonely as seniors. 42% of young adults aged 18 to 24 report always feeling left out, compared to just 16% of people aged 55 or older.

Reading a single article about data obtained from polling does not make me an expert, but as I read and interpret the data, I see a direct correlation between feelings of loneliness and the decline in participation in church. Back when I was actively working as a senior minister, the Journal of the American Medical Association published the results of a survey that found that hose who attended religious services more than once a week had a 33 percent lower mortality risk compared to those who never attended. In that study, it didn’t matter which religion. Longevity benefits came from different religions. It has been a while since I read that data, but my memory is that the health benefits came not from a particular set of beliefs, but rather from regular participation in a community.

As participation in religion continues to decline and churches around the world experience fewer and fewer regular participants, there is a marked decline in community. No other social institution is emerging to replace religion as a major source of community. I am not aware of data that directly links religious practice with loneliness, but the demographics show that a connection is likely. The population of most churches is decidedly older than that of the cities in which they are located.

The decline in community participation was exacerbated by the Covid pandemic. When the pandemic temporarily closed in-person services, people turned to social media to attend worship. A significant number of people who stopped attending religious services during the pandemic have not returned to regular in person attendance. Average attendance has not recovered. Many churches continue to offer online worship. Despite significant investments in equipment and infrastructure to support online worship, the church continues to decline in participation and membership.

I am convinced that there is a direct relationship between the decline in participation in churches and the increase in loneliness and its affects on individual and communal health. We are experiencing a failure of community.

When illness or travel result in my missing weekly attendance at church people miss me and I know that this is the case. I feel a sense of obligation about weekly worship attendance. Of course, for most of my life that obligation has been specifically related to my employment. As a church leader, showing up was part of my job. I know, however, that when my current job concludes this summer the sense of obligation will continue. If I decide to stay home from worship on a Sunday, I know that there will be people who will miss me. I know that because there are others who I miss when they do not attend worship.

Knowing that one will be missed creates a sense of obligation. Meeting that obligation creates a sense of community. The cost of freedom from obligation is a lack of community. Obligation is not optional. You think twice before opting out. There is a lot of popular talk about setting boundaries and decreasing a sense of obligation. I hear over an over about people decreasing participation in church in the name of setting boundaries and being more efficient in the use of their time. In the long run, however, the communities and people to whom we commit ourselves play a central role in what gives our lives joy and meaning. It is perhaps counterintuitive to some people, but there is a cost to the freedom from the obligation to participate regularly in worship and that cost is a decrease in joy. The failure of community has a direct impact on the health and well being of individuals. Loneliness has become epidemic.

I am not saying that becoming a member of a church solves all problems of loneliness. There is a big difference in the way younger people participate in churches from that of older members. Younger church members, including younger clergy, are far less likely to involve their entire families in church. Throughout my career there was a strong sense of obligation for my family to participate in the congregations I served. We rarely see the spouses of the other clergy in our church attend worship. Clergy are taught to create boundaries between their personal lives and the congregations they serve. Younger church members are less likely to attend worship weekly, opting for less frequent participation. That combined with the fact that they are more likely to attend alone instead of as a part of a family results in feeling less connected to the community. They don’t sense the obligation that I have experienced. They also don’t experience the support of the community in the same way that has been critical to my life and well being.

I understand that the world has changed. The pressures on young people are very different from those I experienced. I am in no position to tell others how to live their lives. I am, however, concerned about the lack of community in the lives of many of today’s young people. They may feel less obligation, but they also feel less joy and fulfillment that comes from participation in a community. I don’t know how the church should be responding, but I do hold a strong conviction that the church needs to continue to be there for each generation. Forming and sustaining community is an essential task of the church in every generation. The decline of the contemporary church represents a failure of community. And, as research has demonstrated the failure of community results in declines in health and well being.

I plan to keep the obligation. I’ll continue to attend worship in person. It is not only good for me, but also for the others with whom I worship. We belong to each other and that creates obligation. It also creates community.

Debt ceiling talks

Over the years of my career, I have tried to help various church boards devise effective strategies for controlling expenses. Along the way I’ve learned a lot about how to develop budgets that work. There are a lot of challenges when building a budget for a nonprofit. Projecting income is one of those challenges. Many congregations use pledges to help build their budget. Individual members make pledges or estimates of giving that are totaled to give a starting point for financial planning. The problem with these systems is that there are people who are generous givers who do not want to make a pledge. Some feel that doing so creates an obligation that they might not be able to fulfill, Although most pledge cards clearly state that the estimate is not a contract and that a pledge can be changed at any time by contacting the appropriate church officer, there are folks who simply don’t want to make that kind of a commitment. Another problem with pledging systems is that they are dependent upon a significant amount of work to solicit and motivate members to fill out pledge cards. The total number of pledges is due in large part to how successful the congregation has been at convincing members to pledge. Some years, finance boards are reluctant to ask people to give and to make a pledge. This reluctance is reflected in the amount pledged, but it might not be reflected in the actual amount given. A low pledge number, however, can cause a finance board to panic and to cut expenses in order to balance a budget.

A budget, however, is a plan and not the reality. I’ve spent countless hours struggling to build balanced budgets that have not been accurate in projecting either income or expenses. Learning to read the numbers and project trends can be a helpful tool, but volunteer leaders may have very different levels of experience and different expectations for the process.

There are expenses that a budget committee can control and there are expenses that they cannot. Program expenses, such as resources for education programs and be constrained by careful planning. Fixed expenses, such as utility costs, cannot. I’ve seen budgets that were based more on wishful thinking than on experienced reasoning.

In addition to a career of working with church finances, I have served on the boards of several nonprofit organizations with fiscal responsibilities. One of the hardest lessons for boards to learn, whether those of churches or of other organizations, is how to control spending. I’ve sat in long meetings reviewing every bill that needs to be paid as if a board could choose whether or not to pay a particular bill. One board on which I served voted each month on each individual check that was issued. It was a tedious process. However, all of that deliberation was ignoring the fact that the debt had already occurred. You can think that an expense is unjustified, but if it has already been made, it is irresponsible to not satisfy the debt. A board may vote on whether or not to pay an electricity bill, but it would be irresponsible to simply not pay the bill once the expense has occurred. The place where a board can wield meaningful power over expenses is not at the point of paying bills. To be proactive about controlling expenses requires being involved in purchase decisions. A system for approving purchase orders is far more effective at controlling expenses than a system of approval of invoices received.

The United States Congress, however, seems to have not learned this important lesson. The news is full of stories about negotiations surrounding a congressional vote on extending the debt ceiling. Some of the debate is meaningful. The government should be conscious of debt and excessive debt can interfere with effective government. Money paid in interest is money that is not available for programs. Excessive debt can cripple individuals and institutions. Borrowing should be carefully considered. However, holding last minute talks about the debt ceiling ignores the fact that the debate is about expenses that have already occurred.

There is a big difference between fiscal responsibility and defaulting on payments of expenses that have already occurred. The continually rising debt of the United States government is the result of spending bills that have already been approved. Refusing to borrow additional money to cover expenses already approved does not control spending. Rather it creates financial instability as creditors become leery of extending more debt, driving up the cost of borrowing.

Legislators can make all kinds of pretty speeches about controlling debt, but those speeches don’t actually control debt. The only way to control debt is to control expenses. The difficult process of exercising restraint and spending less is very different than grandstanding when the time comes to pay the bills for expenses already occurred.

Of course, I am not actually involved in any of those talks. I simply read about them in the news. I’m sure that there are people of good faith in the administration and people of good faith in the congress. Different people can have different opinions and different priorities. they have, however, arrived at a process that appears to me to be way too reactive to produce results. The bills need to be paid. A budget process that looks at the big picture, instead of considering projects item by item could have far more impact. Talks about future spending are more productive than negotiations over whether or not to pay bills for expenses already incurred. None of the principals in the negotiations, however, are consulting me.

That is probably a good thing. I am definitely not experienced in the kinds of numbers they are brandishing. I have worked with budgets in hundreds of thousands of dollars - far smaller than the billions and trillions that are involved in federal government spending. While the principles may be similar the sheer scale of federal finances places them beyond my comprehension. I do know, however, that there is very little studying of the history of the federal debt and which policies have resulted in extending the debt. Those who are making the most noise about the debt are often the same people who have supported excessive spending in the past. In that respect it is not different from a nonprofit board.

It will be interesting to see how this all unfolds. I’m not holding my breath waiting for rational thought and responsible spending, however. I’ve followed the history of the federal legislature enough to project a few trends and I’m fairly good at projecting trends. The trend toward irresponsible behavior and out of control spending continues despite all of the pious speeches aimed at the media.

Strolling on the beach

The weather turned warm here this week. It was a bit as if we went straight from winter to summer with no spring, though that isn’t quite fair. Our spring was a bit delayed and fairly short, but we have had a season of flowering trees, tulips and daffodils. The iris are finally in full bloom and it feels like the countryside is waking up. Our little village, which is still very much a summer community is starting to wake up and we are noticing the first crush of summer people this week. The little cottages, often closed up for winter, are starting to show life with cars parked next to them and folks opening the windows to air them out. Beach chairs and umbrellas are starting to appear alongside the bay. The summer only businesses, of which our community has several, are mostly open, with a few just opening on weekends for now. There are a few places where it is a bit harder to find a parking place after a winter free from that problem. We notice a lot of British Columbia license plates. It has been a while since plates from that province have been the majority of the cars parked at local restaurants.

We walk every day and most days we take a walk to the beach, walk a short distance along the bay, and then return up the hill to our house. We recognize the folks who have homes along the way and sometimes talk with them as we walk by. Now, with warm weather, there are a lot of folks we don’t know whom we pass on our walks. Some of the cottages are rented as air B & B or VRBO. Others belong to extended family groups and are occupied by different people during different weeks. There are always new people and when the weather is warm we see a lot more folks whose names we do not know.

With the warm weather and long days, we decided to walk after supper last night. There is plenty of daylight and we were free from evening meetings. After a pleasant dinner on our patio we cleaned up the dishes and headed out for our usual walk to the beach. The tide was all the way in. When the tide is high, Terrill Creek, which we cross on our way to the beach will reverse its flow with water running from the sea to a slew about three miles from the outlet. The beach also is dramatically smaller, which means that where people are really spread out at low tide, we are much closer to each other. When we walk along the beach at high tide when the weather is warm, we are much more likely to talk to the folks sitting on the beach simply because we are all together in a small area.

At the shore we passed a family who appear to be staying at one of the small beach cottages. A preschool aged boy caught my attention. He was sweeping an insect net through the water. I don’t think there was much for him to catch in his net other than a bit of kelp. A big rope of bullwhip kelp would be heavy enough to tear the fragile net. I commented to the young one that it looked to me like he was set to catch something interesting. He said he might catch a fish and told me that he had caught a fish with his fishing pole. I saw the short child’s pole, blue like the net in his hands, lying on the beach gravel. There were a few other toys spread around. An older brother had a large fishing pole and was reeling in line that had been cast out into the shallow water.

In the short time that we walked around, I heard from the younger brother all kinds of things. He told not only about his fishing exploits, but also that he was having pizza for supper. He asked me if I had seen a movie about a happy (or was it hungry?) dinosaur. When I told him that I had not, he said it was probably because it was brand new. Obviously he expected that I would soon make it a point to see the movie, which he found to be interesting.

As we continued our walk, I had to chuckle at how much the young land had told us in a very short amount of time as we walked by. Obviously his mother, who was sitting nearby in a beach chair, didn’t enforce the “don’t talk to strangers” rule at the beach.

I am cautious around children who I don’t know. I don’t want to frighten them and I know that a strange old man can be seen as a threat to children. But I love the enthusiasm and excitement of children and enjoy talking with them when I am confident that it is a safe place for them. The presence of the nearby mother assured me that our conversation wouldn’t be perceived as dangerous. It might have been a bit more threatening had I been alone, but I was walking with my wife, who also loves to talk with children. And the more relaxed atmosphere of summer weather at the beach allows folks to let down their guard just a little bit. Even with all of the tourists our little village is still rural and isolated, far from the dense urban core of Vancouver, just across the border.

I’m ready for summer evenings and leisurely strolls along the beach. I’m ready for short conversations with the summer people. Not all of them will be as excited to tell me as much as they can like the preschooler we met yesterday, but I’m sure i’ll learn some other interesting things from the folks we meet. It does seem unlikely, however, that I will bother to look up the movie about the dinosaur. If I have another conversation with the child, I’m fairly confident he’ll tell me all about it.

People and trees

Last evening, as we were beginning a meeting, a friend told the story of having a large poplar tree on their property cut down yesterday. The tree was dying, its core rotted into a soft mess similar to wet cardboard. It needed to be removed from its place in the yard where it would have caused extensive damage had it been left to fall. It was near power lines and not far from the house. The decay of the tree was affecting other nearby plants, causing the entire yard around it to be in a process of decay and decline. The tree was removed by a professional arborist service, who had a large bucket truck and the proper tools to fell it and cut it into rounds without damaging the power lines or nearby buildings. The process of deciding to remove the tree wasn’t particularly difficult for the couple living in the home. The tree had nearly completed its life cycle. It needed to be removed to prevent catastrophic damage. The hollow core illustrated that they had made a wise choice. All the same, the tree is going to be missed. The couple live in the home where the woman’s grandfather grew up. He remembers that tree as having been there all of his life. Poplar trees are a variety that has a relatively short life span - generally around 50 years - so it probably is actually a bit younger than the grandfather. The rotting core of the tree prevented an accurate ring count at the stump. Still, it was a dramatic moment and the yard looks different than it did before the tree was removed.

Several other participants in the group had stories of trees being removed. A couple of us commented on a large pin oak that was removed from the church grounds last Saturday. The tree was healthy, but was growing in an area where it had become too large for its space. The tiny plot of land contained our children’s garden and the shade of the tree and the falling leaves and other parts of the tree made gardening beneath it a challenge. The main reason the tree was removed at this particular time, however, was to prepare for the installation of solar panels on the church building. It will be replaced with a new tree, a variety that is more suited to the small plot of land. I understand the decision to remove the tree, but there is still a sense of loss about the tree. It grew right outside the window of our office at the church. Its shade is sorely missed as the weather has turned hot in our area. We have been pulling our blinds because our desks face the window. And we were not at the office on the day the tree was removed so we didn’t get a chance to say good bye. We’ve been told that the neighbors gathered as the tree was being removed with lots of conversation about how the tree had become a fixture in the neighborhood and many were sad to see it removed.

A week earlier, some of us had listened to a talk by the German forester and best-selling author Peter Wohlleben. One of the comments he made in his presentation was that the major tool of the profession of forestry is the chain saw. Humans manage forests by making decisions and removing trees. He suggested that healthy forests were thriving on the planet for millennia before humans began “managing” them and that not all of the decisions made by humans in relationship to forests had resulted in more forest health. He suggested that perhaps the wisest stewardship of forests is to do nothing and trust the cycles of life and death of the plants and animals themselves.

Certainly human intervention has, in many cases, had unintended consequences. I grew up in an era and a place of careful fire management in national forests. The strategy was simple. Detect and extinguish fires as soon as possible. Airplanes were used to patrol the forest for fires. Smokejumpers parachuted into remote areas to fight fires when they were detected. When fires grew large, huge amounts of resources poured into the area for a full scale attack on the advancing flames. Only later did researchers discover that the result of such intense fire suppression was that the forests became even more vulnerable to much larger fires. We have seen enormous fires in our national forests that have left behind huge areas of destruction that are the result, in part, of not allowing the natural small fires to burn through the underbrush of the forest. Scientists now recommend allowing some fires to burn naturally and even prescribe controlled burns as a natural forest management technique. Of course controlled burns do not always remain controlled and there are incidents where fires started or allowed to burn have gone out of control and caused damage and destruction to homes and other private property.

The truth is that there is much about the cycles of life in a forest that we do not fully understand. Our cities are filled with non native species. Native trees have been removed and replaced with ornamental plantings. Forests have been harvested for wood for construction and paper production. Many of the heritage forests in this area are not truly old growth forests. Most have been logged at some point within the past couple of hundred years. There are many trees and forest systems on this planet whose natural cycles are much longer than a human life. Unlike the poplar tree that grew from seedling to near collapse in about five decades, some of the trees native to this region have lifespans of a thousand years and more. Human forestry science is, by comparison, a relatively new discovery. We haven’t been studying the health of forests for that long when compared to the life cycles of some of the trees native to this area.

Hopefully we are learning from our choices and their consequences. Hopefully we are keeping records that can be passed down to future generations about the things we have learned so that human knowledge can benefit from experience that is longer than the span of a single life. We do the best we can, making decisions in our own context with the advice of other members of our community. Some of those choices we will life to regret. Others may open the way to healthier forests. Along the way we are collecting the stories of trees and how they enrich our experiences. And, sometimes, we grieve the loss of trees and miss their presence.

Time and work

At the church where we are serving as Interim Ministers of Faith Formation there is a system of electronic time cards. Each employee has a spreadsheet with a page for each pay period. On that spreadsheet hourly employees record the number of hours worked each day. Those of us who are not paid by the hour use the same spreadsheets to indicate which days we have worked and which we have taken as vacation or sick leave. The spreadsheets are marked with the days that are holidays shared by all employees.

We are exempt employees, which means that we are paid a monthly salary and are not paid by the hour. Our time sheets function to show which days are taken as vacation and sick leave. In our case, since Susan and I each work half time, a week’s vacation is considered to be 20 hours off from work, with a day off constituting four hours.

I’m not explaining the system well, which isn’t important - at least it isn’t important for readers of my journal to understand the system. It works for the church and the church has been fair in its compensation of us. Since I work part time, it has been easy for me to make sure that my work is done when I have needed to take a day off from week. When we have taken vacation days, as was the case when we were full-time pastors, we have arranged for the life of the congregation to continue in our absence, which sometimes means accomplishing tasks before and after the vacation to make sure that the work is done.

I have worked at hourly jobs a few times in my life, mostly during my student years, I have kept time cards accurately and reported the hours when I have ben working. I find, however, that the arrangement of a salary for accomplishing the work without keeping track of hours fits the way that I think about time more accurately than a time card.

In a job such as serving a congregation, it is difficult to know when one is working and when one is not. We go into the office three days a week most weeks in our current position. However, there are weeks when we need to be at the church more days. There have been a few weeks when we have had to go into the church six or seven days. And we are sometimes working when we are not at the church. We do a lot of job planning at home. We talk about how to accomplish tasks and make plans as we walk. Sometimes we consider church work over dinner. Most weeks, I host one or two Zoom meetings from home. I prefer not to have rigid boundaries between work and home life. Some of my best ideas for sermons and other worship elements have come when I was in the shower or mowing the grass. Conversely, some of the solutions to problems of home repair have come from ideas I had while sitting at my desk at the church.

The way I think about it is that ministry is a matter of identity. It is who I am as much as what I do. Ministry is often presence with another person. When I am visiting with a grieving family or planning a wedding with a couple, I am not paying attention to the time. Some things take more time than others. Some things require that I not be a slave to a clock. I honestly do not know how much time it takes to craft a sermon. I do know that a good minister will invest as much time as it takes. I also know that some weeks it takes more time than others. I also know that a minister will never accomplish all of the tasks that could be accomplished. I have often said that part of the art of ministry is learning to go home with undone work. There is always something more that I could be doing.

I think in terms of work that needs to be accomplished and not in terms of the number of minutes or hours that “belong” to my employer. A work supervisor who wants to micromanage every minute of the time of those under their supervision might choose to track how many hours I spend inside the church building, but I know that much of the work of the pastor occurs in other locations. I also know that my mind wanders sometimes when I am physically in the church. I’ve even been known to make a personal call from my church office. I do think, however, that the work I accomplish exceeds expectations. Frankly, I have always been a good value for those who pay my wages.

I don’t think in terms of how many hours I work. I’m sure that there is someone in our church who has a clear idea of whether filling out the time sheets for the accountant is a work task or a personal task. That same person might make a distinction between reading a book when I am responsible for leading a church discussion group focusing on that book and reading a book because it is part of my spiritual growth and devotion and reading a book for entertainment. I don’t bother with that distinction. I read books at work and I read books at home. I have church books on my desk at home and on the shelves next to my favorite chair. I also will occasionally pull out a novel or collection of poetry over my lunch at my desk at the church. I know that reading poetry helps me write better prayers, but I don’t have a formula for how much poetry is necessary to be a good crafter of prayers.

I’m pretty sure I would drive an efficiency expert up the wall. I have no need to be super efficient. I have a few good habits that allow me to accomplish tasks. I spend part of my time in prayer and reflection. I make space to think creatively. And I don’t put much effort into filling out time cards accurately. I can’t tell you how many vacation days I’ve taken. After all, the church has an accountant to keep track of that. She’s probably a lot more efficient than I.

Watching the market

Over at the farm, the pullets are out of the brooder and into the regular coop, though they are isolated from the older hens by a bit of fence as the acclimate to their new surroundings. Hopes are high for the highest egg production to come this summer. Work on a new farm stand is nearly complete with final coats of paint going onto the sign that will alert those driving by on the road that there will be farm items for sale. The kids are getting excited about the possibilities for summer sales of fruit, flowers, and eggs. They have had a taste of honey and are beginning to imagine that there will also be jars of the golden substance to sell, though I’ve cautioned them that a harvest beyond family needs is unlikely this year.

I don’t want to put a damper on all of the enthusiasm, but the reality is that there are a lot of dynamics that influence farm income and many of those dynamics are beyond the control of a small farm. Months ago, when the new chicks arrived at the farm, egg prices were at record highs. They had hit a peak and cartons of eggs were priced as high as $9 in the grocery store. Across the nation there were stores with eggs at over $1 each, prompting local stories of a spike in egg prices during the Yukon-Alaska gold rush. The spaces that were normally filled with eggs were nearly empty and there was talk of a shortage of eggs. The price of eggs at farm stands in the area rose above $5 per dozen, with locals predicting $10 egg prices this summer. At that time, our kids’ farm was recovering from a predator attack that left several chickens dead and egg production fell below the family’s consumption. A year ago, people were giving away laying hens for free. The excitement about raising back yard chickens driven in part by Covid-induced isolation, had waned and there were plenty of folks who were willing to go back to the grocery store for their food. By spring, the market had reversed. When it was time to get new chicks, there was a shortage and a spike in the prices. Careful attention to the market and quick action resulted in the family finding the needed chicks and mortality in the brooder was low, returning the population of predicting hens to a higher level than last year. Egg cartons are being collected in anticipation of a supply to sell at the farm stand.

Meanwhile, the price of eggs is plummeting at the grocery store. Watching the volatility in the egg market has become as entertaining as watching the price of gas at the pump. The big difference is that so far the grocery stores haven’t erected huge outdoor signs with digital displays to show the price of eggs.

Last year, deadly avian flu wiped out a significant number of hens across the nation. While the outbreak didn’t reach the farm and we saw little effect in our area, it affected the prices of eggs both at the store and at farm stands. Producers, dealing with inflated feed and fuel costs, began to ask more for their produce as supply fell. Demand rose in the grocery stores as Covid-weary shoppers sensed a dip in supply. Nothing makes items fly out of the grocery store like empty shelves. Memories of having to drive around town to find a package of toilet paper spurred shoppers to stock up. Huge egg distributors, like Cal-Maine Foods raked up huge profits.

However, individual producers didn’t share in the wealth. They didn’t have the capacity to quickly respond to market forces.

Wholesale prices on eggs began to fall in late March and prices in the grocery store have been following. They are up a bit from lows in early May, but the shelves are full once again and prices are holding steady. According to the US Department of Agriculture, the number of laying hens has been steadily rising reaching 314 million in April. Last year the egg market was dominated by news of bird flu. This year it is dominated by the absence of the disease. Meanwhile shoppers, including our household, have responded to high prices by learning to consume less. The usual rise in demand that comes at Easter was much smaller than usual.

More eggs, less demand is a recipe for falling prices. A farm stand with hand-painted signs has to find its own market niche. A slightly hidden driveway means that the new farm stand at our kids’ place will be slow to find its clientele. I hope that the grandkids’ excitement isn’t crushed by weeks of unsold produce. The stand will have to have an established clientele for fall sales of dahlia tubers to occur at all. And, as I’ve warned the kids, I don’t expect the bees to produce enough honey to sell this year. The colonies are thriving and all is going well, but I’m a first-time beekeeper and the learning curve is steep. I find it very hard to predict what might happen.

A farm stand might be a good way for the children to learn more about the ups and downs of the economy. Failures combine withe successes as strong teachers. Farms are subject to lots of forces that are beyond their control. Predators and disease are big factors. Market prices are volatile. And as every farmer knows, success or failure is always affected by the weather. Spend enough time with farmers and you will either learn to be silent or hone your skills of discussing the weather. It is serious business in agricultural communities.

Meanwhile, I haven’t begun to eye the cost of quart and pint jars yet. I know that there was a shortage and a spike in prices when people were forced to stay home due to the pandemic. I’m hoping for a good supply at the thrift stores when the time comes. Glass is easy to clean and sterilize. I’m well aware that I’m no good at timing my purchases. I have, however, become quite content just watching the bees without any need to get ahead of the process without expectations of abundant honey harvest.

Writing prayers

One of the joys of my job has been writing prayers and liturgy. I had a couple of superb teachers in seminary who encouraged their students to strike a balance of scripture, tradition, creativity, and innovation. We faced assignments like writing prayers, lyrics to hymns, and a variety of other worship elements. We learned about the history of liturgy and the traditions of worship. We participated in worship on a regular basis and learned not only from assuming the roles of leaders, but also from worshiping with our peers and using the liturgies they created. Our experience was different from the education received by contemporary seminarians, who do most of their coursework in isolation, attending classes online and participating in a variety of different worshipping communities. Sometimes I am tempted to say that we received a better education, but that isn’t accurate. It is different, but it is far too soon to judge the new leaders who are emerging in the church.

I know that serving in the role of pastor has led me to several changes in how I think and how I approach the tasks of leading worship. I believe that I am a better preacher than I was when I first graduated from Seminary. Years of practice combined with real time feedback from the faces and participation of congregational members have been good teachers. There is a big difference, for example, between classroom studies and exercises and actually facing a grieving family and leading a funeral for their loved one. Having been married for decades and having been the parent of children who married has taught me a great deal about wedding ceremonies.

One of the big changes in my life came late in my career. When the Covid-19 pandemic virtually shut down in-person worship for a while, I struggled with how to be pastor of my church. There was a lot of new technology to learn in a short time. We had to learn how to make podcasts and post videos on social media in a very short amount of time. I had to stretch my imagination to keep a ministry that had been based on personal relationships alive in a very stressful time. One of the things I did was to write and record a prayer for my congregation every day. I used a tripod-mounted camera to made video recordings. I decided to feature our church building as background for the videos, selecting a different space in the church each day. In addition to familiar places such as the chancel, entryway, classrooms, and offices of our church, I sought out less familiar places such as the organ pipe chambers, the basement mechanical rooms, the storage shed and the benches of the organ and pianos. I tried to write fresh and original prayers every day. The challenge was significant, but also rewarding. I learned a lot about how to write meaningful prayers that provided much-needed connection in a season of isolation.

In retirement, I have accepted another challenge when it comes to prayers. I am still doing a fair amount of teaching, serving as an Interim Faith Formation Minister. I meet with multiple classes and study groups every week and I have been recruited to teach online classes for a nation-wide Faith Formation Leadership and Certification program. Inspired by the beautiful prayers crafted by Walter Brueggemann, I accepted his challenge to craft a unique prayer to begin each class I teach. It took a bit of practice, thinking individually of the students in the class, the materials to be covered, and the realities of life in our complex world. The feedback from students was immediate. They expressed appreciation for my prayers. Their reaction inspired me to develop a discipline of regular writing of prayers.

I have long invested time and energy in the process of crafting prayers. I have worked hard to craft prayers when invited to deliver an invocation at a city council meeting, a legislative session, or a community event. I used to look forward to the annual gala of Black Hills Works, an agency providing services to individuals and families with learning and living challenges. During the last few years of my ministry, I was invited to deliver the invocation each year and I would spend time with persons served and agency employees collecting memories and experiences to incorporate into each annual prayer. That experience has taught me skills that help when crafting prayers for the classes I facilitate.

Although I currently do not have responsibility for leading worship outside of regularly leading the time with children, I continue to expand my collection of prayers. I read the prayers of others regularly, including several collections of prayers by Walter Brueggemann. I’ve even toyed with the thought of publishing a collection of prayers. I have met a very skilled editor who has been helping me with organization, formatting, and revising some of the prayers I have written. She is focusing on prayers focusing on the care of Creation that I craft for one of the groups in our congregation. Her efforts might lead to something worth publishing.

Of course, I don’t write prayers with the vision of collecting them into a book. I write them as single-use elements in on-going relationships between teacher and student, leader and participant. My prayers are designed to provide a moment of genuine worship for people engaged in very busy lives. They are crafted to bring us together and help us focus our attention on the presence of God. They are designed to help us be present and pay attention to the holy in our midst. Their primary value is their use in their intended context.

This week, I have the delightful task of creating a few special prayers for a wedding. I haven’t officiated at a wedding since I retired and I’m finding the invitation to be stimulating and exciting. I keep coming up with prayer sentences in my imagination as I go about my daily tasks. I’ll find my mind wandering when sitting at my desk or even while reading a book, trying to come up with just the right words for a couple’s special day. I am honored and grateful to have been given the invitation.

I now the adage: “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” Fortunately, I am not a dog, and although I am old, I find great joy in new challenges and in the discovery of new ways of combining words for use in prayer.

Anniversary anticipation

I’ve been having fun conversations with a young couple. They have set their wedding day for June and are excited about planning their ceremony. I met them at our church where they have become active, volunteering and participating in small groups. The bride to be is in one of the small groups that I facilitate and I have made it a practice to write a prayer for each meeting of the group. She asked me if I would write a prayer for their wedding, and I was honored and happy to say, “Yes!” to her request. Last night, the soon to be groom was helping run the sound board for a variety show at the church and he lingered after the show was finished to help with cleaning and picking up before we headed home.

Their story is very different from mine. They have been together for 12 years and they have been planning to marry for quite some time, but it took a while for them to find the right combination of available time, health of family members, a sense of financial security, and other factors. Then the covid pandemic put a damper on all public gatherings and they decided to wait. Now, in less than a month, the day will come. They’ve arranged for the use of an historic house that is now owned by the city park district and rented for such special occasions. They’ve invited their family and friends to gather, they’ve planned for refreshments. It is going to be a wonderful celebration.

The announcement of their wedding reminds me of something that happened to us the summer that we were married. Not long after our wedding ceremony we attended the 50th anniversary of a couple who were members of our church. There was a bit of attention paid to us because we were newly wed and they had been married for 50 years. At one point in the celebration they asked the husband of the couple the key to the success of their marriage. He replied, “The trick is to decide that you will stay together - no matter what - all the way through the initial adjustment period.” When asked how long the initial adjustment period was he said, “As near as I can figure, it is somewhere longer than 50 years!” It was a joke that got a laugh from the assembled crowd.

Now it is 50 years later. A few days after this young couple celebrate their wedding, we will celebrate our 50th anniversary. If asked about the key to our long and happy marriage, I’m not sure what answer I could give. I don’t have a joke like the husband in that long ago celebration. And I certainly don’t have any wisdom that will help this couple as they navigate all of the ups and down of a life together.

What I do know is that there is a fair amount of good fortune - luck - involved. We were lucky to have found each other when we were young. We have been lucky and blessed with good health. My parents had a wonderful marriage, but my father’s cancer ended his life before his 60th birthday. They didn’t get 50 years. I’ve known a lot of couples whose stories are similar. There is nothing about our marriage that is stronger or more compatible than theirs. We simply have been blessed with good health to live together for a long time.

Quality, of course, is not measured by the number of years. There are very good marriages that have lasted much shorter lengths of time. There are plenty of widows and widowers who are left alone through no fault of theirs or of their partners.

It happens that I also know a couple in our church who are celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary in June this year. I laugh a bit when I think of our 25th anniversary. We didn’t have a big celebration on the day. In fact, the members of our congregation had a cake made for the coffee hour after church in our honor and Susan was not there when the surprise was revealed. She and our children were out of town visiting her parents. We had different work schedules in those days and she was working part time. We’ve always found special ways to mark our anniversary, but haven’t always held our celebration on the exact day of our anniversary. This year our children and we are hosting a gathering of friends and family, but it will be a bit earlier than our actual anniversary day. Our daughter’s husband’s parents were married the day after we were wed and so she and her husband have two 50th celebrations to attend. One is in Washington the other in Virginia - not far from Washington, DC. Had we insisted on our celebration being the actual day, it would have been nearly impossible for them to make the distance between the two locations in time. It was easy for us to coordinate with his parents to come up with a schedule that works for their family.

I’m looking forward to the gathering. I want to make sure that we have some family pictures taken to join the gallery of photographs on our living room wall. We will want to remember the occasion and savor those memories. Part of the preparations has been the purchase of a new ice cream maker. We had homemade ice cream for our wedding reception - made by Susan’s father. We’ll have homemade ice cream following the same recipe for our 50th anniversary party. This time I’ll have the assistance of our grandchildren in making the ice cream.

At our party, however, I’d rather not have anyone ask me about wisdom about a successful marriage. I’m not sure I have any wisdom to offer other than to love each other and treasure each day because each day is precious. We’ve been lucky to have been able to share so much. We’ve always worked together professionally as well as working side by side in making a home and raising children. We’ve had the support of wonderful family and friends. in the end the length of our marriage has not been determined by wisdom. In fact, I’ve been very fortunate that Susan has been tolerant of my folly. And I know that the young couple in our church who will soon be married have their own wisdom that is worth noting. In some ways they may be more wise than we. I pray they will be as fortunate as the years pass.

A busy day

I have fond memories of talent shows at summer camp. The impromptu performances were part of many of my church camp experiences. They featured a few campers singing songs, telling stories, telling jokes, and lots of silly skits. When we were camp managers, we tired to always have an act for the talent shows featuring camp staff. I made a laundry tub string bass and we played and sang songs with other homemade instruments, including a jug we blew across to make tones. I can still remember some of the silly skits that were made up for the fun of performance. Church camp audiences are a pretty supportive lot. It is a good place to get a taste of performance without much risk.

The church we are now serving has a tradition of a variety show that is reminiscent of church camp talent shows. The organizers of the variety show are quick to state that it is not a talent show - people can choose to demonstrate a talent, but there is no judging of whose talent is better or worse than another. The show is, rather, intended to demonstrate the variety of talents present in the congregation. The show will be held this evening, and I know we will hear a bit of poetry, listen to a few jokes, be regaled with a few stories, and entertained by some musical offerings. The show will follow a soup, competition. The competition is all in fun. Volunteers have made batches of their favorite soup which will be served as part of a light supper. Diners will vote for their favorite soup by using a random number displayed on the serving dish. A winner will be announced based on the votes of those eating supper. There will be a free will offering that will go to support camp scholarships for those attending church camp this summer.

Given my history, my love of church camp, and my support of faith formation and education programs at our church, it was pretty evident that I couldn’t refuse when one of the organizers of the variety show asked me to come up with a performance. I agreed to tell a story. Last year I had a humorous story that took less than 5 minutes. This year, I haven’t given much time to preparation. I’m still refining the story I plan to tell. One of the big challenges for me is trying to figure out how to tell a complete story without taking much time. The variety show can tend to go on and on - something that somehow was less of a problem at church camp, when the number of acts was relatively low. The last thing I want to do is to contribute to keeping people up on a Saturday night. I have good reasons to rise early on Sunday mornings and tomorrow will be no exception.

So throughout the day, I’ll be attempting to figure out ways to make the story interesting, engaging, and short. Those three qualities don’t always go together. A short story that doesn’t engage the audience isn’t the best option. An engaging story that takes too much time is also not my preferred contribution. How do I give enough details to get the audience hooked on the story without taking too much time? It is a question worthy of a bit of pondering as I go through my day.

One of the things I enjoy about my current phase of life is that my days are full. The variety show isn’t the only thing on my schedule for the day. After I complete a few chores at home, I’ll head to our son’s farm where we have several projects we want to tackle together. This time of year there is always mowing, trimming, and picking up grass clippings at the farm. I have a project in the shop, making some new tops for bee hives. My bees have been very busy over the last couple of weeks and soon will be ready for honey supers on their hives. They’ve already made some honeycomb in addition to all of the new brood cells in the hive. Yesterday a bit of honeycomb had to be removed as part of a hive inspection. I shared the sweet delicacy with our grandchildren, who were delighted with the bees’ offering. It is way too soon to begin harvesting honey from the hives, but things are looking good for significant honey production this year. All of the blooming plants in the orchard and other places around the farm are providing lots of pollen and nectar for the bees.

We usually try to have at least one meal with our son and grandchildren on Saturdays. His wife is a mental health therapist who has a private practice. She schedules all of her sessions with clients for Saturdays, which means for a long work day for her, often with 12 hours of client visits. It also means that our son is pretty busily occupied with care of 4 children and a farm to run while she is working at her practice. We like to help the family a bit on these busy days. Sometimes they come to our place for one of their meals. Other times we might get carry out and take it to the farm. Today, since we will be having supper at the church, a lunch plan seems like a good way to go. The local master gardeners are having a sale at a local park that is a good place for a picnic, so perhaps we can combine a family lunch with an opportunity to pick up a few bedding plants. Our tiny yard doesn’t have much garden space, but we have already gotten our tomato plants, a few rows of spinach, some pepper plants and a bit of zucchini growing. And, of course, we have dahlias that we put in a new bed this year. They are beginning to show a couple of inches from the soil and the promise of their large and colorful blossoms give promise and inspire us to get to work with gardening.

It will be a busy day and near the end of the day, I need to have a good story. It’s too bad i don’t have some of my old camp buddies around to inspire me and give me some good ideas. On the other hand, I’m thinking that it is possible I remember our old skits as being far more entertaining than they were in reality at the time. I suspect I’ll be ready for bed by the time I get home this evening.

The poetry of bees

I am not a poet. My genre is essay, as readers of my journal will recognize. In fact, I didn’t read very much poetry at all for decades. When I became a college student, I learned to read and process information quickly. I had been primarily a recreational reader up to that point in my life. As a child, I would check out as many books as the library would allow, take them to my treehouse and read them one after another. I got into the habit of reading in my bed every evening. Over time, my brain made a relationship between reading and sleep. During my high school years I would read myself to sleep nearly every night. When I went to college I had to break that habit. I needed not only to read without going to sleep, but I had to be able to retain and use the information I was reading. I quit reading in bed. In fact, I developed the habit of reading in the library, sitting up at a library table in a hard chair. I still like to read that way. I often read while sitting at our dining room table and my study desk is a library table.

I have made an accommodation as I age and now have a very comfortable lazy boy recliner that sits next to the bookshelves in our front room. I enjoy sitting in that rocker and reading. I have a very good lamp that sits next to that chair that makes reading easy.

I eventually did learn to read poetry. I read a lot of poetry now. I have a shelf near my recliner that is filled with books of poetry. I’ve found that I prefer reading books that I own to reading ones from the library when it comes to poetry. The reason is simple. I read poetry slowly. I read it differently from the way I read other books. I learned to appreciate poetry in part by reading it out loud. As a pastor, I read the bible in public a lot. Most weeks I read a psalm to the congregation. I also read poetry from the prophets. I learned to read slowly when a poem presents itself. For example, I have a book of poetry that I bought in February that is sitting on my desk as I write. I haven’t read all of the poems in the book yet, but there are poems that I have read three or four times. I feel that I have the luxury of time when I encounter a book of poetry. I allow the poems to sink in. I return to poetry books that I have previously read over and over again.

OK, I’ll come clean. There are four books of poetry on my desk. My name is Ted and I am addicted to buying poetry books.

Of course not every poem needs to be read slowly. If you’ve read the Iliad and/or the Odyssey, you know that the story is carried well in dactylic hexameter, but you don’t need to read slowly to search for the depth beneath the words. Anyone who has encountered Robert Service knows that it doesn’t take weeks to get through The Cremation of Sam McGee. The story drives the poem and once you start, you rush to the conclusion:

The Northern Lights have seen queer sights
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee.

I can sit down and read through a book of Billy Collins’ poetry as quickly as I devour a novel. And I have a volume on bee keeping that is not poetry that I am reading very slowly. The presence of verse isn’t the only factor in determining the pace of my reading.

I am not a poet, but that doesn’t keep me from trying. I am an occasional participant in a poetry group that meets every two weeks. Each week there is a homework prompt, given at the end of the meeting. Participants are challenged to wrestle with the prompt and produce a poem for the beginning of the next meeting. During the meeting there are two additional prompts and participants are given just a few minutes to write. The big prompt, however, is the one that allows time for a bit of polish. I can write something that resembles a poem in five minutes, but if I take a week to mull, re-write, edit, delete words, think up new words, and refine, my product is better. It isn’t good poetry, but it is better than the first draft.

The prompt that has been stirring me in preparation for next Monday’s meeting of the group was given by my wife. It is a quote from The Emmisary by Yoko Tawada: “The sliding door rattled like a freight train, and as Mumei opened up his eyes, morning light, yellow as melted dandelions poured in.”

As soon as I read the line, my mind went to the bees returning to the hive. They’ve been visiting a lot of dandelions lately and the hay field is full of butterweed. I stand near the hives and watch, mesmerized by the sound and sight of thousands of bees buzzing all around me. They rarely touch me at all, and they won’t sting if I simply stand or sit quietly. At the hive entrance, I can tell which bees are leaving the hive and which are returning. One signal is that the returning bees have their back legs covered in pollen and the pollen is as bright yellow as the flowers in the field. They approach the hive entrance with legs yellow as melted dandelions.

The bees create a certain poetry. It is like the volumes that I keep by my recliner. I return to them over and over again. Unlike the poems that I usually read out loud, however, I am silent when in the presence of the bees. Speechless and wordless, I’m unlikely to come up with a poem to share. The experience, however, is distinctly poetic. Were I a poet, I would have already captured the experience, but I am not and I am just a bit panicked trying to come up with something to share with the group. As pleasant as it is, watching bees is not putting words on paper.

The paradox of self care

I love a good paradox. That love of pulling together seemingly opposite realities is part of the mental challenge of my vocation. I enjoy talking about some of the paradoxes of Christian theology such as the doctrine of the trinity, the dual nature of Christ (fully human and fully divine) and the nature of death and resurrection.

About 20 years ago I asked a colleague how his ministry was going and he answered, “What can I say? It’s a job.” I was a bit dumbstruck and had a hard time coming up with a response to his comment. It was so foreign to the way I looked on our vocation that I couldn’t tell if he was joking, or if he simply saw it so radically differently than I. I had previously encountered laypeople who considered the ministry to be the same as any other job, and who would cite some of the benefits of ministry, including work flexibility, longer vacations than some other professions, and sabbaticals as examples of the job being easier and better supported than some others. But to have a colleague who though of our shared vocation as just a job threw me.

As early as my ordination paper, written before I was ordained, I have spoken outwardly of the ministry as being more of an identity than a task list. Ministry is who we are rather than what we do. I have continued to try to model that conviction in the congregations I have served. I have spoken of that approach to search committees and pastoral relations committees and Committees on the Ministry. I know that my approach was sometimes a challenge for my family because they were frequently included in how people saw me and they developed expectations of my children that were different than the expectations of the children of other professionals in our community. It was a bit of a double bind for our children because both of their parents were ministers and because we have continually served the same congregation.

It turns out, however, that the colleague who commented, “What can I say? It’s a job” wasn’t alone in his thoughts and feelings. In fact, he may have been a bit ahead of his time. As the years have passed, I have discovered that my way of thinking about our vocation is definitely “old school” and more and more contemporary pastors view the ministry as a profession - a job among many other jobs. These days it is very popular for clergy to speak of the separations between their personal lives and their role as a pastor. Often those opinions are couched in the language of creating boundaries.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all in favor of personal boundaries. I was among the first advocates in our denomination for mandatory and recurrent boundary training for ministers. I have taken boundary training courses every few years throughout my career and now carefully track my trainings so that I attend at least one every three years. Boundaries are essential for effective ministry. The history of the church contains far too many examples of exploitation by ministers and exploitation of ministers that resulted from poor definition of boundaries. The people I served deserved to know that their relationship with me was safe. Even though there are many examples of abusive ministers, I needed to have ways of demonstrating that my service to the church would not become abusive of those I served.

I know that ministers often betray boundaries when they experience unmet needs. They begin to project their desires and wants onto the congregation and to place fulfilling their needs over the needs of those served. I served on a clergy sexual abuse investigation task force for many years and have been involved in trying to provide a measured and careful response to those who have exploited and abused members of their congregations. I know that these infractions are real. I also know that those who commit those acts often defend themselves by calling themselves victims and saying that the church failed to meet their needs.

Learning to take care of one’s self is critical to effective ministry. Knowing what one’s needs are and how to get them fulfilled in appropriate ways is essential to long term endurance in our vocation. But I react negatively to all of the talk of self care that is so popular these days. Remember? I’m old school. This is where another paradox enters the picture. The things that provide the best long term self care for pastors are things that bring them closer to their congregations, not the things that create space between them and those they serve. There is a difference between maintaining healthy boundaries and creating barriers.

The core of clergy self care does not lie in days’ off, comp time, or long vacations. It lies in practices of prayer and participating in loving and caring relationships where one knows others and is known by others. Clergy self care is the result of drawing closer to those served rather than withdrawing to a greater distance.

A wise mentor once told me, “When you have a difficult relationship in your church, pray daily for the person who seems to be a problem. If you cannot pray a prayer of gratitude for their good qualities, at least pray a prayer for health and strength so that you won’t be the one to conduct their funeral.” It has been a very important piece of advice for me when I have encountered conflict in the church. I found that praying daily for my congregation was an essential skill to maintaining a long term ministry. In order to make time to pray my work days were sometimes longer than some other professions. I got up earlier than some of my colleagues because I think most clearly in the morning.

The more those I serve come to know me as a person, with my own thoughts, feelings, and intentions, the better they are at providing the support I need. When I learn to show my weakness and vulnerability, our relationship grows stronger.

It is a lesson that my colleagues will have to learn on their own, however. It makes me wish I could be around to see them in 20 or 25 years when they have gained a bit more experience and perhaps a bit more wisdom. I fear, however, that some of them will simply leave our vocation in search of another before that occurs. After all, I’m pretty old school in the way I think.

Internet church

On Sunday a friend commented to me, “I’ve about had it with Zoom.” He was referring to the constant stream of meetings over the Internet that have become common in our post-pandemic world. I understand how he feels. I hosted an hour-long Zoom meeting on Sunday, Attended a two-hour Zoom meeting on Monday, had a one-hour meeting over Zoom last night and have two Zoom meetings scheduled for today. So far this week, I attended worship in person, but there was a Zoom version of the service possible, and had one in-person meeting yesterday. I've got another in person meeting scheduled for this afternoon, between Zoom meetings. I’ve become fairly proficient in operating on the Zoom platform. I know how to share screens, mute and unmute speakers, and use various Zoom applications and add-ons. I have a catalogue of background screens saved on my computer. I have special lighting so that my face is easy to see. And I’ve become fairly proficient at guiding others through the process of using the platform.

Like my friend, I’ve also about had it with Zoom. It isn’t the particular company, it is the process of spending so much time meeting over the Internet. It simply is not the same as being with other people. I’m grateful that I live in a time when connecting over the Internet is possible. I love to Facetime, Skype, or Zoom with our daughter and her family in South Carolina. I enjoy talking to friends who live in distant places over the computer. But Internet meetings and conversations have their limits. You can’t give or receive a hug over Zoom. Having a worship leader invite us to gather something to eat and something to drink isn’t the same as being served communion. I find situations where someone else is hurting or grieving to be especially challenging. In a face to face situation, I know how to sit with another’s grief. Much of my approach to supporting those who are dealing with grief is not based on the words I say, but rather my presence. I sit quietly and listen. Over the computer, however, I find that simply sitting quietly doesn’t communicate the support that I intend. Last night there was someone in our meeting who is facing the loss of a loved one after a stroke. I was able to express my concern and support when we were face-to-face on Sunday. However, our Zoom meeting left me feeling that I should have said something more. Somehow, I fear my concern didn’t come over well in the online format. Others said kind and supportive words and I nodded and listened, but I feel a need to go directly to the grieving person.

That is just one example out of hundreds I have experienced trying to use the format to facilitate church ministries.

I am especially worried that churches are using the Internet as a tool of convenience. When Covid first hit and we learned to broadcast worship over the Internet, I thought that one of the benefits of the format is that we were making it possible for those who are shut in due to illness to participate in worship. When I was an active minister, it was hard work to take worship to a nursing home once a month. I rarely was able to visit home-bound or institutionalized members more than a few times each year. Now we had technology to bring church to those who were living in isolated settings. However, three years later, I fear that too many churches have take the easy way out of serving those in isolate settings. Our worship services are available over the Internet, so we assume that we are doing all we can to reach those who cannot be in our building. In reality, we are doing less work and, I fear, being less effective with remaining in contact with those people. I know if I were in an institution, I wouldn’t find being able to watch a worship service on a computer screen to be the same as worshiping.

I acknowledge that online worship is here to stay. There are people who participate in church online each week who are not going to be coming into the church building. As one person commented to me, “Why should I give up my one free morning each week to get showered and dressed and drive to church when I can watch in my robe and eat waffles while church is on the screen?” I know that it isn’t the same experience, but the substitute experience is appealing to some of our members.

I’ve watched a few funerals over the Internet because it was the way I knew to participate, but I don’t feel like I have provided the grieving family members with the kind of support that I can when I am able to be present in person and greet them face to face.

Part of the agenda of two of my regular Zoom meetings this week was planning in person gatherings. One group spent about 15 minutes over Zoom excitedly planning a shared meal set to occur six weeks from now. That same group is planning to host a major gathering in the fall. Last year’s meeting featured the keynote speaker on the big screen in the sanctuary. This fall they are hoping to have the keynote speaker in person even though there will be a way for participants to join online.

We are hungry for contact and the Internet only provides part of what we need.

The Covid-19 pandemic came at the end of my career. It would be very different had I been faced with pandemic challenges at the beginning or near the middle of my time as a pastor. I would have learned new skills more quickly. However, I count myself fortunate that my active ministry took place when it did. I served a decade before I had access to a computer. I was able to have in-person ministry the focus of my career. I’ve always thought I would have been a very poor televangelist. I’m far better at writing a letter than sending a tweet. I’m pleased to think of myself as “old school.”

The church, however, continues to need leaders who are caught up with technology and able to steer us through the realities of our current situation. Nostalgia won’t build the future. I’m just glad that leadership is falling to a new generation of pastors. I simply don’t have the skills for the next generation of life in the church. After all, I’ve about had it with Zoom.

Watching the bees

I grew up around ranchers and I know that the good ones enjoy watching their livestock. I’ve spent many happy Sunday afternoons going out to check the cattle with my cousin and other ranchers. Sometimes we would just watch as they grazed in a field or gathered around bales being fed. When heifers were getting near to delivering calves, they deserved special attention. Although there are occasions when a rancher needs to intervene and assist, much of even calving season involves carefully watching. The same is true of sheep ranchers. They learn to notice things about their animals that give them clues as to the overall health of the flock. We raised meat chickens when I was growing up, but I never was much of a chicken farmer. I thought the birds were stupid and the chores associated with their care were not that much fun for me. But there are those who are fascinated with chickens. We have a nephew who speaks of their egg hens as personal pets, identifying the traits and habits of individual birds, bringing them into the house, and holding them in his arms. Our son and his family aren’t that carried away with their chickens, but they do keep the chicks that they will raise to laying hens inside for a while until they get feathers and are ready to go into the brooder. The meat birds arrive later in the summer when it is warm outside and stay in the garage. I have noticed, however, that the children, especially the two girls, enjoy watching the chicks and later the growing birds as they go through their life cycles. The laying hens acquire names and are treated as individuals.

I have never been a rancher, however. Outside of pet cats, whose care was shared in our family, we have not kept animals. My life has centered around caring for and serving people. And I did become attached to them. Not that I didn’t become attached to our children’s pet cats. They were wonderful companions. During our years in South Dakota I became an observer of the deer and wild turkeys that came into our yard. I became able to recognize individual deer and observed a few bucks and does that we saw repeatedly. The turkeys are creatures of habit and I learned when to expect them parading through our lawn, looked forward to the showing of new chicks and laughed at their antics.

But I have a new category of livestock this year and I have a whole new appreciation for the process of observing their activities. I started two colonies of bees from nuclear colonies at the farm this year. I’ve been observing them daily. At first it was chilly and the bees were getting used to their new home, so I fed them each day. The sugar water syrup was a bit of supplement to tide them over until they could begin to actively harvest nectar from the yard and orchard. Now, temperatures are rising and I will stop feeding them. Soon they will receive new covers for their hives, this time without the feeders. I don’t want the sugar water feeding to affect their honey production later in the summer and they are very active now and there are abundant sources of nectar on the farm.

I’ve only been stung once since I started caring for the bees and that was my own fault. One has to pay attention to them when working around them, but they are not aggressive. I can stand near the hive entrances with bees buzzing all around me and they simply go about their business without paying attention to me. l have a bee suit, but it is only necessary for complete hive inspections when I am disrupting the hive to look at individual frames of bees.

I am fascinated by them and am surprised to learn that I enjoy simply watching them. At first when you look at the entrance to the hive, at first all you notice is a flurry of bees. If you sit and observe, however, you will recognize which bees are departing the hive and which are entering. Those milling about the entrance are waiting to get in. Those leaving will take to flight as soon as they reach the entrance. The bees returning from the field will have lots of pollen on their legs, especially their hind legs. Right now, with plenty of dandelions around the pollen is bright yellow and easy to see. Pollen from different plants can be different colors, and I am fascinated to see how the bees will look as the season progresses. Outside of the bulb flowers such as tulips and daffodils, most of the flowers are not yet producing blossoms. The fruit trees, however, are filled with blossoms. Later the berries will start to blossom and there will be plenty of other flowers. I think I will learn a lot about where my bees are finding nectar and pollen by simply watching them. Right now, when we have a very warm day, I can hear them working in the apple and cherry trees. The sound of flying bees is almost as intense in the trees as it is near to the hives.

The forecast is calling for warm days, so I will be removing the entrance restrictors from the hives today and I am excited to see the increase in bee activity after they don’t have to wait in line to enter and exit the hive. There are new bees emerging from the brood every day and the number of bees in the hive can increase exponentially. They now have access to three times as many frames for building comb and raising brood as was the case in their small nuc boxes before they moved into the hives. They have had time to spread out and the queen has been busy laying eggs. For the next little while, I’ll observe the growth of the hive primarily by checking the weight and just watching.

It may be that bee keeping is a perfect hobby for those who have time to simply sit and watch. I know that I’m drawn to activity that appears to be just wasting time around my bees. I know that I seem to need to check them every day although they are not dependent upon my activity right now.

Maybe I’m becoming more of a rancher in my old age.

Striving for Emotional Intelligence

Throughout my life, I have sought to gain a bit of emotional intelligence. I did quite a bit of study towards becoming a pastoral counselor during my seminary years and I learned about human emotions and their expression. I completed an internship as a pastoral counselor serving the Wholistic Health Care Center in Hinsdale, Illinois during my seminary experience. For a time, I sought certification with the American Association of Marriage and Family Counselors before deciding to focus my ministry on leading congregations rather than on becoming a pastoral counselor.

That experience has been helpful to me in my own life. Often I need to be aware of and sort out my feelings. Emotional intelligence, however, is more than the ability to name one’s emotions. It also involves being able to communicate emotions clearly to others. That process has been a challenge for me all of my life. I think that part of the challenge has to do with gender norms of the time and place where I grew up.

Many of the adults around me when I was growing up were rather stoic in their approach to emotional expression. I didn’t see much emotional expression from many of the adults I loved and admired. Like other boys my age, crying was discouraged. I learned to keep my emotions to myself. The one emotion that seemed to be socially acceptable to express is anger. I saw adult males who expressed their anger by shouting, though I don’t remember any of the men in my family ever having their anger get out of control. There might be an occasional raised voice, but I never suffered any abuse or trauma from the adults in my life.

Later, when I was becoming an adult, I learned a bit about how to recognize my own emotions but I continued to keep them to myself for the most part. I learned that it was difficult for me to show others when my feelings were hurt. Often, when I tried, others’ impression was that I was angry. In my own mind, I saw a distinct difference between having my feelings hurt and being angry, but apparently I wasn’t very good at expressing pain. I learned to keep my pain to myself for the most part.

People expect pastors, especially male pastors, to be strong. Over the span of my career I often was present in situations when those around me were experiencing loss or trauma. I needed to remain calm and provide perspective when expressions of grief and loss threatened to overwhelm those whom I served. There were times when I needed to receive others’ anger. I’ve been yelled at when I did no harm. I’ve understood that anger is a normal part of grief and that sometimes it is helpful to accept another’s anger without getting defensive.

For the most part, I have been served well by my emotions and I have learned to express compassion and empathy with others who are undergoing intense emotional experiences. I have been surrounded by loving and compassionate people who have accepted me as I am and who have provided support to me.

Still, there are times when I get my feelings hurt and I realize that I have failed to communicate that pain effectively. Sometimes those closest to me have to endure my expressions of pain because I am unable to go directly to the person who has hurt me. I have assumed that part of being an effective pastor is to be able to endure and move beyond pain inflicted by others.

Yesterday my feelings were hurt. It was the result of several small things that had occurred. I’m certain that there was no intention to hurt me and I think that the person who is responsible for my pain is unaware of my feelings. I simply cannot figure out a way to tell that person without making it seem like I am attacking. I fear that any expression of my pain to that person will be interpreted as anger in a situation where anger is not warranted. It seems like trying to talk to that person will only bring out defensiveness that will not help our relationship.

As a result, I stewed privately for a while before I finally came to my senses and found a trusted confidant to whom I could express my pain without having to create a scene with another or simply sit on my feelings without expressing them. As usual, that trusted confidant was my wife. For the past 5 decades she has lovingly listened when I expressed my frustrations and fears over pain inflicted by others.

I suppose that it might be said that I have not yet achieved emotional intelligence. I have a level of awareness, but am still not the best at expressing my emotions. There are plenty of people who have never seen me cry, and it is unlikely that I will change that part of my life, though I am open to growing and not beyond practicing new behaviors until I have reshaped my habits. What is clear to me is that I am still struggling with how to appropriately express my emotions. I’ve written this entire journal entry as a way of sorting out my feelings and exploring how to express them.

What I do know is that I am unlikely to stay hurt. There are many ways to move beyond pain. My life has not been a painful experience. I’ve learned that I can heal quickly from most things that cause me pain. It is likely that the act of writing this essay has eased my situation to the point where I will be able to put it behind me and resume a balanced relationship with the one whose behaviors and words put me out of sorts yesterday.

As has been the case in the past, having this journal has proven to be therapeutic for me - and far less expensive than consuming a lot of mental health care. If you’ve read this far, you’ve become my therapist. Thanks for reading. I feel better already.

Ancient wisdom

Last evening we sat with friends in the performing arts theatre at Bellingham High School and heard a conversation between Thor Hanson and Peter Wohlleben. Peter Wohlleben is a German forester and the author of the best selling book, “The Hidden Life of Trees.” His latest book, “The Power of Trees” is a passionate argument for protecting forests and a discussion of how forests are the key to our survival. Like other contemporary foresters whose works I have read, he speaks not only of the power and majesty of individual trees, but of the wisdom and integrity of entire forest systems. Just as we humans are incredible communities of bacteria, forests are communities of plants that have complex networks of communication and behavior.

The evening included real information about the danger that humans are facing in the current climate crisis. There was information about how modern forestry practices, based on harvesting trees at the current rate are simply unsustainable. The event, however, was not an evening of doom and gloom. It was surprisingly hopeful to hear these serious scientists and students of our planet talk about real changes that need to be made and about the ways in which those changes are possible.

As I listened to Wohlleben speak of the great wisdom of ancient forests that has been accumulating for hundreds of years, I reflected on some of my own teaching. In a class that I am leading about the book of Isaiah and in my preaching over four decades, I have often spoken passionately about human ideas, and concepts that are the product of multiple generations of thinking and reflecting. Some of the most important cornerstone ideas of theology took a long time to develop throughout the history of our people. We did not come to the radical monotheism of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all at once. Rather the important theological conviction that there is one God came about through generations of thinking, believing, and speaking about God and the nature of the divine. The multi-generational nature of theological thought is especially evident in the book of the prophet Isaiah which contains a vision of the relationship of God and humans that itself took hundreds of years to compile. While the historic figure name Isaiah lived in the 8th Century before the common era, the book reports events in the history of Israel that occurred hundreds of years after the life of the figure whose name the book bears. It is the product of a school of prophecy rather than just an individual prophet.

The practice of forestry is something that has only been a part of human history for perhaps three centuries. There are, however, ancient forests in our world where individual trees are more than a thousand years old. It shouldn’t surprise us that forestry practices are short-sighted, given the fact that its very nature is for individuals who have a life span of less than a century are attempting to “manage” a living network with individuals who have lived for more than ten times as long. Wohlleben spoke of the ancient wisdom of trees, developed over centuries and thousands of years. It is not possible for us as individuals to fully comprehend forests.

Hanson reminded us that while we think of trees as static, always staying in the same place, forests are incredibly nimble at moving around the planet. As forest ecology shifts in response to global climate change different species of trees spread to new locations on the planet. The spread of trees from one location to another is actually faster than the spread of species of birds. It was exciting to hear him speak of the incredible agility of forest systems to adapt and change.

Both authors reminded us of the power of observation. There is so much we can learn by simply paying attention to the living things in our world. Human memory is not the only kind of memory on our planet, and human wisdom is not the only kind of wisdom.

We received a hardcover copy of Wohlleben’s book, The Power of Trees at the event and I took a copy of “Buzz: The Nature and Necessity of Bees” by Thor Hanson to the event and received an autograph from the author. We also have a copies of The Hidden Life of Trees and The Secret Wisdom of Nature in our home. I’ve known about Wohlleben for several years, while I only recently discovered Hanson’s books. I’m sure I will be reading more of his books as time passes. Both men are incredibly talented communicators whose books are challenging and interesting.

Wohlleben spoke of the simple fact that by participating in a book event we are all part of the business of cutting down trees for human consumption. We might be quick to criticize the forestry industry, but we all participate in the economy that extracts forest products while failing to fully comprehend the dynamics of forest health. it is a reminder of how much there is for us to learn.

Hope, however, comes not only from our ability to learn and to recognize that we are part of the problem. It comes also from understanding that ours is not the only generation of life on this planet. We are capable of learning the wisdom of previous generations and passing it on to future generations. It is necessary for us to tap into this multi-generational wisdom in order to face the complex problems of our time.

I also find great hope in my newfound hobby of caring for bee colonies. Individual bees have very short lives compared to humans, but the colony is incredibly resilient and has a life far beyond any individual bee. In caring for the bees in “my” hives, I have to think in terms of the life of the colony and understand how colonies create honey stores, reproduce and form additional colonies, and carry genetic wisdom that spans centuries. It doesn’t surprise me that the history of bee keeping is filled with the stories of clergy who have taken up the study and care of bees.

As I enter my seventies, I realize how short one human life is and how much there is to learn. Fortunately, we have discovered ways of tapping into wisdom that is far greater than a single generation. And I am fortunate to have the kind of friends who are as excited about listening to these talented writers as am I. Together we can explore wisdom far beyond ourselves and our time on this planet.


As we were getting ready for bed last night, I commented to Susan that I haven’t done very well at celebrating all of the May holidays this year. May is a month with a lot of holidays.

Although we finally have been experiencing genuine spring weather around here, I didn’t go in for May baskets or dancing around a May pole on May 1. I know that in some countries the holiday is recognized as International Workers Day, but since the US and Canada, the two countries that share a common border near my home observe Labor Day on the first Monday of September, May Day doesn’t come up on my list of major holidays. The military parades that are common in some Communist countries don’t get me too excited to celebrate. I suppose I could have gone in for the flowers and spring celebrations, but somehow I didn’t. My poor wife didn’t get a May basket from her husband. He got a kiss anyway but there was not chasing around the house involved.

Then on Wednesday, I let National Life Insurance Day pass without any special notice whatsoever. I’m not real big on life insurance in the first place. There was a time when we had young children and a big mortgage and my salary was critical to the support of our family when life insurance was part of our family’s financial plan, but those days have passed. Our circumstances have changed and I let the day pass without a card or even a friendly phone call to our insurance agent. I’m not sure that they make commercial cards for the holiday anyway. I’m not much for the kind of cards that go for more than those in the display at the dollar store.

Thursday, May the 4th is supposed to be a day for everything Star Wars. You know, May the Fourth be with you, and all. I was into Star Wars movies for a short time. The first movie was released the year before I graduated from seminary. Going to a movie was a big deal in our lives back then because we didn’t spend much money on entertainment. We certainly weren’t among the first to see the movie, but we did catch it in a theater. By the time The Empire Strikes Back was released we were serving churches in small towns in North Dakota where there were no movie theaters. My father was undergoing treatments for cancer and I made regular trips to Montana to visit him. The theater provided a bit of escape from some of the harsh realities of life and the special effects of the movie were really impressive to me. By the time the second trilogy appeared we had a teenage son who convinced us to wait in line to see the movies near their release dates. Afterward, we got a VCR and we had boxed sets of the movies that we watched several times. I guess if I were going to celebrate May the 4th, however, I might prefer to do so by assembling a large Star Wars Lego set with my grandson, but frankly, he’s not as interested in Lego as he once was and the big 2,000-piece X-Wing Starfighter is a bit pricy for his grandfather. If I had thought about it, I could have afforded $6 for a Darth Vader mini figure keychain, but I let the day pass without mention.

Yesterday, of course, was Cinco de Mayo. I’m not sure how big the holiday is in Mexico. I think that outside of the town of Puebla, I don’t think it is a big deal. It is a marketing day for Mexican-American restaurants. The day commemorates Mexico’s victory over the Second French Empire at the Battle of Puebla in 1862, but you won’t find much Mexican history in the advertisements around here. I suppose I could have gone for a bit of carne asada at the El Tapatio Food Truck on the corner of Grandview and Vista. They do know their way around marinate and a barbecue. The closest I got was fish tacos at CJ’s Beach House. The tacos had perfectly grilled Mahi Mahi, but it’s not quite the same as asada and beer.

So, I guess that one shouldn’t get up their hopes for me to make a big deal out of National Nurses Week today. The week begins on May 6 each year and concludes on May 12, Florence Nightingale’s birthday. And if you are into nursing, don’t expect a big party at our house on Monday for National Student Nurses Day.

It isn’t as if I have some objection to holidays. I enjoy a good celebration. And being semi-retired you’d think I’d have extra time on my hands to plan all kinds of parties. But frankly, I’m not wandering around bored with my life and a lot of free time. There are weeks when I think I’m doing pretty well to make a daily check on the bees, get my work done at the church, do my share of cooking, get the lawn mowed, make a few home repairs, play with our grandchildren and take a daily walk with my wife. We do have plans to go out for a book signing and author event this evening. That may be the only date with my wife this week, unless you count dinner at the beach house last night, which I certainly do. It isn’t a very fancy restaurant, but it is conveniently near our house and the food is good and the people friendly.

I won’t miss all of the celebrations this month, however. Mother’s Day is worthy of a celebration since I’m surrounded by some pretty incredible mothers. I have deep appreciation for Susan, for our daughter and for our daughter-in-law. They all are wonderful mothers and we are so fortunate to have them in our family. And Mother’s Day always lands on a Sunday, so I am less likely to forget it than some other holidays.

I’ll probably remember Memorial Day as well. I’ve adjusted to it being the last Monday of May rather than May 30, and if I forget it this year, I can always celebrate the next day and claim, I’m a traditionalist.

I hope the holidays of May bring a bit of brightness and joy to your life.

Stickers on my fruit

My new home is in a state that produces a lot of apples and other fruit. One of the things that we enjoy is a late summer or early autumn trip over the Cascade mountains to some of the fruit growing areas of our state. A box of apples and other boxes of peaches, apricots, cherries, plums, or other fruit are common purchases. We were purchasing fruit to take home before we moved out here. When we came to visit our children and grandchildren, we made a point of stopping at fruit stands to enjoy the fresh fruit and purchase some to take home. One of the luxuries of my life is made possible by special methods of fruit storage, is that I can purchase apples to eat at the grocery store year round. However, I generally avoid purchasing the individual fruits from the big bins in the grocery store produce department. Instead, I seek out small bags of apples that are also common in our grocery store.

I’ve got a couple of reasons for avoiding the individual fruits in the bin. The first is that the apples on display are very large - usually more than one portion in a fruit. I prefer to have a smaller apple that I can reasonably consume in a single meal. The second is that I find the price look up (PLU) stickers to be incredibly annoying. They aren’t easily removed. They don’t scrub off when you wash the fruit. You have to have good fingernails to slip one under the tiny labels and after you remove it, adhesive remains on the fruit. It isn’t a big deal when the sticker is on a banana, as I peel the fruit before eating. However, I don’t peel apples. I enjoy eating the skin.

Common wisdom around the grocery store is that the stickers are edible. However, that isn’t quite the case. The official statement from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t exactly say that the stickers are edible: “Because produce stickers have contact with food, the intended use of these stickers is the subject of premarket approval by the Food and Drug Administration, to ensure that any substances that may migrate to food from the use of the sticker is safe. As these stickers are intended to be removed before consumption of produce, the F.D.A.’s review does not include the exposure that would result from regular consumption of these labels. However, as these substances are of low toxicity, any exposure from the occasional, unintentional consumption of a sticker would not be expected to be a health concern.”

That is a lot of words, but I’m pretty sure that “of low toxicity” isn’t exactly the same as “edible.”

There is another problem with the stickers. We compost food waste at our son’s farm and it is easy to notice, from the compost piles, that the stickers do not compost. They remain as contamination in the soil after the composting is complete. That means for those who use the composting services of the garbage collection company are inadvertently contaminating the compost produced there as well.

Maya Thiru, a ten-year-old from Markham, Ontario, Canada, has become the public face of a campaign to end the use of the stickers. Friends of the Earth Canada (FOE) is an environmental advocacy group, contacted by Maya, that has been helping her get the word out. She has challenged other kids to collect the stickers on sheets of paper and mail them to legislators and governmental officials as part of a campaign to have the stickers included in the federal single-use plastic ban.

It’s a good thing I occasionally read CBC Kids articles - something a grandpa does in search of topics to discuss with his grandchildren. I might not have realized that the reason the stickers don’t compost is that they are made out of plastic.

Despite some public awareness campaigns like the one that features Maya in their advertisements, objections to the stickers hasn’t caught on - at least not in the places I shop. I find it especially annoying to see them on all of the fruit and vegetables in our local co-op grocery store, a place that generally charges higher prices for higher quality organically-produced fruit and vegetables. Here is a bit of trivia for you. The numbers on the stickers help stores to distinguish between conventional and organic produce. Stickers that start with the numbers 3 or 4 mean the item was grown conventionally, and those starting with 9 indicate the item was grown organically. That’s right, farmers go through a long and careful process to be able to sell their produce as certified organic only to have tiny plastic labels stuck to the food with water-proof glue. And, for the record, the tiny labels are not themselves organically produced.

We have a special recycling service called Ridwell, that collects and recycles plastic film. This enables us to reduce the amount of garbage from our house that ends up in the landfill. We are trying very hard to keep as much plastic as possible out of the landfill. Part of that effort is to simply use less plastic. We are careful to use reusable bags when shopping instead of taking bags from the store. We try to limit our purchasing of plastic items. And we seek places that recycle as much plastic as we are able. Ridwell, however, cannot recycle PLU stickers, so putting them in our recycling bag simply creates contamination in the recycling process. As far as I know the only way to responsibly get rid of the tiny stickers is to follow the advice of Maya Thiru, and stick them to letters to legislators asking them to ban their use.

I’m pretty sure that a ban wouldn’t appeal to the sellers of fruit and vegetables. The stickers are used around the world, so they are on imported items like avocados and tomatoes and mangos. They enable stores to stock organic and conventional produce next to each other and charge appropriate prices at checkout.

Those little stickers drive me up the wall. I know, I sound like an old Andy Rooney tag at the end of a 60 Minutes television program. Maybe this, and other journal entries of mine, is the product of the ramblings of an aging brain. Still, I wish someone would find an alternative to those annoying stickers.

Pure poetry

A note from a dear friend brought me news of a new granddaughter and put a smile on my face. For a moment I remember stories of the mother of this precious new one: stopping for frozen yogurt when she was a girl, being at church camp with her when she was a teen, standing in front of her as she made marriage vows to her husband. I got to watch her grow up. She always seemed to me to be a bit more mature than her peers - a bit more wise than her years. It doesn’t surprise me to think of her as a mother though life has meant that we live states apart and I’ve never had the chance to see her with her children. In a way it is harder to imagine my friend as a grandma than it is to imagine her daughter as a mother and I can’t figure out why. I have every reason to believe that my friend is a wonderful grandmother. I think any child would be lucky to have a grandma like her: brilliant, talented, self-assured, strong - a real example of what a person can become with hard work and a loving community.

This new baby is fortunate to have been born into a strong family system with loving marriages and caring relatives. Two sets of grandparents have time and energy to dote on the little ones and support their parents. Aunts and Uncles surround them with joy. When I heard the news, my instinct was to wish I could have been there to see the reaction of her uncle. The brother of the mom was so excited when he first became an uncle and his joy was such a delight to witness. Every child deserves to have their entrance into the world greeted with similar expectation.

Like this new little one, I was lucky in the uncle department. Both of my parents have several siblings and the crowd of aunts and uncles and cousins was impressive when we all got together. I’m getting old. None of those aunts and uncles are alive these days. Their bodies succumbed to the ravages of time, laid lovingly in the ground, their ashes spread to the four winds, their memories as powerful as their personalities had been. The Bible speaks of a great cloud of witnesses. I can see faces in the clouds and hear voices on the wind and remember some of the things they taught me. I learned about dry land wheat farming. I arranged tiny tiles into a mosaic while my aunt played the piano. I was taught to hand split cedar shakes for a cabin roof. I still cook the recipes of an extended family. I can hear an uncle’s voice to this day each time I back up a vehicle with a trailer. Indeed I was fortunate with uncles and aunts.

Maybe it is just a sign of old age. Maybe I’ve always been this way. I am reluctant to check the news headlines today. I much prefer to imagine the joy of a new baby born into the family of my friends than to read stories of suffering children which will surely fill the pages of the news. I want to live in a world where little ones are loved and wanted and nurtured and given care. I know that there are too many who find too early the horrors of trauma and hunger and abuse and neglect. I don’t have to exercise my imagination to see the faces of the victims and hear the stories of the survivors. I could preach a sermon about how our children are exposed to to much violence in the media, but I know in my heart that our children are exposed to too much violence in real life.

I don’t want to hide from the world. I don’t want to pretend that I am unaffected by the news. I do, however, want to linger with the words sent me by my friend: “We are elated and she’s healthy and beautiful!!” Two exclamation marks from an accountant who doesn’t waste anything. I don’t need an emoji to feel the joy, joy, joy. I’ve long been more effusive with words than my friend, but I know her feelings are as intense as mine. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if my friend’s husband paused over the display of children’s bicycles in his favorite bike shop. Even though it is way too soon, I know he is itching to buy a bike for his granddaughter. He’s that kind of a guy. The child will not suffer for presents at any of her birthday parties.

Last night I gathered with friends to share and discuss the poetry of Ada Limón, the 24th Poet Laureate of the United States. “Poetry is elemental, necessary, & deeply human.” From time to time I try to write poems, but I am no good at it. I once heard novelist Jess Walter say, “I write bad poems.” I think I share his gift. I, too, write bad poems. The problem with me is that I am an essayist. A thousand words is nothing for me. I flail at the challenge of coming up with a dozen that convey anything at all. I suspect that every poem I attempt begins its life with at least twice as many words as it needs. Sometimes I wonder if God gets tired of all of my words. Perhaps I pray like the lonely woman who sat in the chair in my office and talked nonstop for fifteen minutes so that I couldn’t get any words in at all and I am not at all sure what she meant with all the words she said. She just needed to talk. And I guess she needed me to listen even if I couldn’t understand all she had to say. Does God listen to my prayers that way? Should I learn to say less? If I were more disciplined, I’d take this essay and remove half of the words and then do it again and again until it became a poem.

Instead, however, I’ll read the note from my friend again and again: “We are elated and she’s healthy and beautiful!!” Eight words making a perfect poem. The news can wait.

Balancing risks for health

The weather is finally starting to warm up around here. I’m taking great delight in walking in my shirtsleeves and remembering to wear a floppy hat to keep from getting sunburned. It seems like only yesterday that I was wondering which jacket to wear to go for a short walk outside on chilly gray days. We’ve been busy at work, with our church hosting the Conference Annual Meeting last weekend and then playing a bit of “catch up” with a few chores that were deferred in order to host the meeting. I seem to be keeping busy with my time away from work as well. I stop by the farm every day right now to check on the bees and give them a bit more syrup. I’m feeding them as they get settled in their new hives and spread out across the farm. I am fascinated to watch them as they come and go from the hives on a warm day. The bees returning from foraging land on the hive with their hind legs covered with bright yellow pollen. There is no shortage of dandelions around the hives and many of the bees are gathering pollen from the flowers that are considered to be weeds by many. I’m trusting that some of the bees are also gathering pollen and nectar from the trees in the orchard which are in beautiful bloom. there are also plenty of tulips and daffodils right now. Other flowering plants are a bit behind, but the farm is just beginning what will be a summer full of blossoms.

Yesterday we were able to leave the church a bit early. A couple of meetings were cancelled as various church staff members are catching up from the busy weekend that was followed by a large funeral on Monday. The early departure from the office made it possible for us to catch the monthly spirit assembly at the elementary school where our granddaughters are students. The kindergarteners presented a special bee song and dance during the assembly and our youngest granddaughter had been especially excited about the performance and reminded us of it several times. We joined other parents and grandparents on the bleachers in the gym as the students found places to sit on the floor. Many of the kindergarteners wore yellow and black for the event and they had made yellow and black paper hats as costumes. Our granddaughter, however, happened to have a bee costume. The costume was a hand-me-down from friends and she was just the right size to wear it to school yesterday. She was so excited that I am in awe of the teacher who could shepherd a whole room full of kindergarteners through the day yesterday before the assembly.

How different the crowded school gymnasium was from the way things were just a few months ago! The school was totally shut down two years ago out of fears of spreading illness. A year ago, assemblies were limited and we wore face masks when attending any events at the school. However, yesterday there were only a few masks in sight and the school was once again packed. We are fortunate to have enjoyed good health during the pandemic and have been eligible for vaccinations throughout.

I was thinking of my bee hives as we joined the line of parents and grandparents leaving the school. The bees do not practice social isolation. My hives are carefully designed to have what is called “bee space” between the frames. Bee space is often attributed to Rev. Lorenzo Lorraine Langstroth, who manufactured precise hives in the middle of the 19th century. A space of 3/8 inch seems to be just right for the separation of the frames. That means that inside the colony the bees crowd so closely together that they are always in contact with another bee. Our line of people wasn’t crowded to within 3/8 of an inch of separation, but we were no longer observing the 6 foot separation that we strove to maintain during the height of the pandemic.

As the nation emerges from the pandemic, information is emerging about the negative health effects of isolation and separation. While there are very real dangers of spreading viruses and becoming ill from close contact with others, there are also health risks associated with isolation. US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy has warned that our country is facing an epidemic of loneliness that is as dangerous to health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Loneliness is reported to increase the risk of premature death by almost 30% through health conditions including diabetes, heart attacks, insomnia, and dementia.

Of course a healthy life involves balancing risks. The risk of contacting a dangerous virus are not insignificant and should not be ignored. And now we are learning that the risks of social isolation and separation are also dangerous and can become life threatening. Achieving a balance between those risks requires a bit of artful management. We are learning to be better about the use of masks, staying home when we have symptoms, and respecting reasonable distance for those whose immune systems may be compromised. As has been the case for some time, research into mental illness lags behind other medical research and we are slow to respond to some of the risks and engage appropriate therapies.

Fortunately my career and my interests have kept me in close contact with other people. I have a network of family and friends. I can count on grandchildren greeting me with a hug every day and I am fortunate to have my partner and lifelong companion sharing my home. While our family has not completely avoided the virus, we have learned to use tools such as face masks and occasional days of separation to maintain our physical health and prevent the spread of the virus when it has affected various family members.

I still like my space. I’m not ready to move into a high rise apartment building with entrances that are crowded like the entrances of my bee hives. But I am grateful to have so many wonderful people in my life. For now, loneliness isn’t one of my big problems.


I have a bee jacket with a hood for working with my bees. Among its features are a mesh facemark, tight fitting cuffs, and a waistband that seals around my clothing. They make full suits, that cover the pants and protect the whole body from bee stings. I’ve worn the bee jacket when working with the frames of my hives, necessary when in installed the nuclear colonies and when doing a full hive inspection. At those times, there are a lot of bees flying and crawling around and I am more able to relax, move quietly, and react calmly to the presence of bees. However, I don’t feel the need to wear a bee jacket when I’m just looking at the hives, adding feed to the feeders, or doing other things. The bees are not aggressive and if I don’t bat at them, they have no reason to sting.

However, last night, for the first time since I’ve been keeping bees, I got stung. It wasn’t a very major event. It hurt at the time, and I could feel the site of the sting until I was able to remove the stinger. There is no lingering pain and the event is completely over.

I was at the hives to fill up the feeders after another day of busy bee activity. These days, when I look at the bees, I see them returning to the hive with their legs covered with bright yellow pollen. I can instantly tell which bees are leaving the hive and which are returning. Because they have access to all of that pollen, I have not needed to provide pollen cake for them. I am feeding them because they haven’t had time to build comb for storing honey. We’ll get set up for that in a little while, but for now, I take them a little sugar water each day. Mostly I enjoy observing the bees.

I had a busy day yesterday, and I didn’t get over to the bees until after supper. It was raining lightly, so the bees were mostly settled in the hive. There was a little activity around the entrances, but most of the action was inside of the hive. I wondered if they had spread out into some of the empty frames in the hive, so I decided to remove the top super and then lift the cover to peer in on the frames in the top box. I was delighted with what I saw. There were bees everywhere inside the hive. It looked like they were building out at least three or four frames that had been empty a few days ago.

I carefully reinstalled the cover and top super. I filled the feeder and put the cover on the top of the hive. I turned to take a look at the second hive and I felt a bee crawling up my pants leg. I tried to gently brush the bee down toward my sock so it could get out the bottom of my pants, and just as I put my hand down, I felt the sting. When I had placed the cover back on the hive, I had gently brushed a few bees off of the back side of the hive, so that they were on the side of the hive away from the entrance. Since they had previously been inside the hive and hadn’t departed through the entrance, they were disoriented. I failed to notice that one of those bees had ended up on the ground and was crawling around looking for a way to return to the hive. My feet were near where the bee was crawling, so it went up my shoe and crawled up my stocking. When it reached the top of my sock, inside of my pants leg, where it was dark like the inside of the hive, I felt it on my skin. That’s when I brushed it and it turned defensive. The sting was the last act for the bee. Individuals die when they sting. The use of the stings is to protect the colony.

I was sad to have a bee die from my carelessness. It won’t have any impact on the colony. There are tens of thousands of bees in the colony now and the individual will soon be replaced by one of the larvae that has been growing inside of a cell and will emerge as an adult bee.

One of the things about working the bees is that I have learned to be around them and have them buzzing around me without any fear. I can gently move an individual with my fingers without having it go into its defensive mode. It is only when a bee gets squeezed, most often by my setting a frame or cover when it is crawling on a top surface, that there is any sign that the bees are interested in me at all.

I remember when I was a child being afraid to be anywhere near a bee. When I heard the buzzing, I would swat at the air and try to get the bees to fly away. For the most part the gestures worked. I wasn’t around hives or colonies very often, so mostly I encountered individual bees. The most common circumstances of my getting stung was when I was waling barefoot in a field of dandelions. I would fail to see a bee on a flower and step on it. I haven’t been stung very often. My mother’s treatment plan, carefully inspecting and removing the stinger then applying a paste of water and baking soda, works very well. Soon the tiny amount of venom from one sting is gone and with it the pain.

I have some velcro bands that seal my pants legs. They are designed for bike riders to keep their pants out of the chain. I’ll probably use them when working my bees for the next few days, but I suspect that soon I’ll go back to my old ways. The pain of a single sting isn’t much and I’m not afraid of getting stung from time to time. I am not allergic to bee stings, so don’t have to worry about a systemic reaction.

One of the things I like about the bees is that there is so much to learn. I discover new things every day. Yesterday’s lesson was just one more way of learning. Pain can be an effective teacher. I’m pleased that I’m still able to learn.

Standing out from the Crowd

There are many different ways to tell a story. This is a delight for those of us who like to tell stories, but it can be a challenge when writing because many stories have multiple starting points. Which part of the story should I tell first? I don’t always tell stories in strict chronological order. Sometimes it is fun to have a flash back or a look forward. However, perhaps I will go back in time several decades to begin this story.

When I was in the last year of high school or one of the first years of college, I attended the annual meeting of what was then called the Montana Conference of the United Church of Christ. The meeting was held in Missoula, Montana, which is 260 miles from my home town. If I was in college, which I think was the case, it is 340 miles from our college town. At the time, it would have been a significant road trip for me. I don’t remember how I got there, but it is likely I drove one of my parents’ cars. At any rate, one of the things I remember about the meeting is that I had a brightly colored caftan that I thought made me look quite counter-cultural. It wasn’t the kind of thing that one usually wore to a church meeting, where the pastors and many of the lay participants were dressed up in their Sunday best, mostly suits and ties and dresses. It was a time of war protests and would have been right around the time that I had registered for the draft and was uncertain about whether or not I would be drafted. What I remember is that I dressed intentionally to stand out, looking like a hippie even though I wasn’t sure what a hippie was. It was years ago and I don’t remember all of the details, but I do remember dressing so that I would stand out from the crowd.

Years later, when I was a minister with years of experience behind me, some of the youth in our conference were planning a dance for a youth event. They said they wanted to have a semi-formal dance. I didn’t know what semi-formal meant. They informed me that the women wore dresses and the men wore dress shirts and ties, sometimes the guys would wear sports coats. “Oh,” I said, “like I dress to go to work every day?” The answer was, “Yes!” I wore ties to work for many, many years and even though casual dress became more and more common toward the end of my career I continued to always wear dress shirts and ties for Sunday worship.

Still more years later, when I was very near to the end of my career and my retirement was a topic of conversation in the church I was serving, a good friend of mine died from pancreatic cancer. He had undergone all kinds of treatments and had beat the odds by surviving longer than the doctors predicted, but all of the surgeries and chemotherapy and radiation treatments finally brought him to a point from which he could no longer recover. After his funeral, his widow invited me to come over to their home and she made a gift to me of several of his suits, sport coats, and dress shirts. We were similar in size before he became ill, so the suits fit without need of alteration. It was a significant addition to my wardrobe. He was quite a clothes horse, loving to shop for clothing. He was an attorney who practiced in the federal courts and had reason to wear good looking suits often. He, like me, was a wearer of bow ties and one of the things we had done at his funeral was that many of his colleagues and friends had worn bow ties in his honor. I was one of the few at the gathering who knew how to tie bow ties, and before the service I tied several for prominent lawyers and judges in our town.

Suddenly my closet was filled with a lot of very nice suits. However, shortly afterward I retired and then the pandemic hit. I didn’t wear a suit for nearly three years. In the meantime, we moved twice and I considered getting rid of some of those suits. After all, my new lifestyle wouldn’t require dressing up very often. And, in addition, the move to the west coast meant we would be living in a place where formal dress was much less common. People don’t dress up to attend church around here.

Now, to tell my story accurately, I need to depart from strict chronological order. Throughout my adult life, I have struggled with being overweight. I have always been very active, but I also have always enjoyed eating good and sometimes rich food. I like cookies and pies and ice cream and all kinds of high calorie treats. One of my goals for retirement was to form some new habits around eating and lose some weight to help maintain my health and vigor. After Susan had a health scare in 2019 we started walking every day. We’ve formed new habits and have only missed a handful of days in nearly 3 1/2 years since. The exercise has been good for our health, both physically and psychologically. However, I continued to persist in my eating habits and gained a few pounds after retirement. Then, late last winter, I developed a heart rhythm problem. It was diagnosed quickly and I had a procedure which corrected the problem. But it was enough to get my attention. I decided that Lent this year was a perfect time to make some new habits and began a program of being very intentional about my eating. I also added a routine of a yoga workout before bedtime. The result has been successful. I now weigh less than I did at my retirement and I am feeling good. What is more, I fit into those suits even better than before.

So, in celebration of feeling good, and with a nod to the way I dressed for worship for decades of my life, I wore a suit and dress shirt with a snappy red tie to worship yesterday. I decided that here in the Pacific Northwest in the progressive United Church of Christ, such formal dress was every bit as counter-cultural as my hippie clothes had been when I was a teenager. I was definitely the only person at that service who was dressed in a suit and tie. Maybe my life has come full circle.

Regardless, it felt good to wear that suit and to feel comfortable with my weight. Even though I know it will make me stand out, I'm likely to dress up for church again.

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