Whoever wants to be first

We went for a short walk around downtown Blaine, Washington yesterday. By “we” I mean Susan and I, our son and his three children. Their mother works on Saturday and we often join their family during the mid day for lunch and an adventure. The children call Saturday “Daddy day” because their mother leaves for work early and returns late. The whole day from breakfast through bath and bedtime is time spent with their father. At any rate, walking with that crew is an interesting process. The four-year-old has a different pace than the ten-year-old. When we are with the family there is one adult per child, so we tend to spread out a bit. On a walk with the gang, there is usually an unexpected stop, often because one of the children needs a bathroom. Yesterday the stop was at the Blaine branch of the Whatcom County Library System. Our son, who is a librarian, seems to know librarians in all of the communities in the region. While some of us waited outside, our son and a granddaughter went into the library. They emerged with three or four books they had checked out and a yard sign advertising the library system.

As we were walking, I was listening to a conversation between our son and one of his children. He was telling the child some of the hopes and dreams he and his wife have for their children. “We hope,” he said, “that you will become adults who will always keep in touch with each other. Learning to talk to each other in positive ways is one way that you practice for when you become adults and will have to work harder to stay in touch.”

Later, as we were driving towards their home, an argument broke out in the back seat of the minivan. I’m not sure how it started, but it had the usual elements of children arguing. “Dad, she’s bugging me. Tell her to be quiet.” “I’m not doing anything!” After voices were quieted, their father, who was driving said, “That’s what I mean. Sometimes you don’t agree with the other person, and you have to work hard to be kind.”

I often think that our children are much more wise and capable as parents than we were at their age. It is one of the joys of being a grandfather: watching your children be good parents.

The brief incident in the car made me think of today’s reading form the 9th chapter of the gospel of Mark. Jesus and his disciples were walking through Galilee. When they got to Capernaum and went into a house, Jesus asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” They all were silent because on the way they were arguing with one another about who was the greatest.

When you read the gospel, you know it was a silly argument. Life is full of silly arguments.

Earlier in the week, I was walking through the parking lot at the grocery store when I heard two people loudly arguing. The argument seemed to be over where one of them had parked her car. The other person thought the car was in the way and was yelling at the owner of the car to move it, using some pretty strong language. The owner of the car could have parked the car in a regular parking place and walked to the store more quickly than it took to have the argument. The person protesting the parking of the car could have gone around it in less time than was taken up in the argument.

We often argue over things of no consequence.

I wonder if Jesus, as he was teaching his disciples felt a bit like our son. “How you handle these arguments makes a difference, because later, when I am not around, you will need to be able to work these things out by yourselves.”

The gospel reports that Jesus called all of his disciples together, sat them down, and said, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then he took a little child and put it in the middle of them, hugged the child and said, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

It is sage advice.

We need to practice the art of serving one another. We need to practice making others welcome.

I remember a few years ago when I was going through an especially stressful time in my life a member of the church I was serving got fairly angry at me because I didn’t do something she wanted me to do. I remember thinking, “Come on, cut me some slack. I’m having a tough time.” That memory has guided me many times in the years since. When someone is not behaving the way I want them to behave, I say to myself, “Come on, cut them some slack.” You never know what stresses and pressures another person is experiencing. I wonder if the people arguing in the parking lot gave any thought to what was going on in the other’s life. Perhaps the car was parked carelessly because the driver was late for an important meeting. Maybe the person who was yelling profanity was suffering from an injury and feeling a lot of pain from having to walk an additional distance. Maybe both of them just needed to be a little bit more considerate of the other.

Maybe their parents hadn’t taken the time to explain to them how important it is to learn to resolve disagreements.

I doubt that our children will remember yesterday’s conversation with their father, but it will become part of a larger memory of many conversations and many times he helped them resolve conflict. And, like their father, I sincerely hope that they gain the skills to be close to one another when they grow up to be adults.

Somehow Jesus disciples remembered that day long enough to tell the story and those who heard the story told it to others. His disciples are still telling that story thousands of years later. “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”

Praying

While I was a student preparing for the ministry I attended some church gathering that involved an ordained minister and a group of lay people. At one point in the gathering, someone asked the minister to offer a prayer. Wanting to make a point, the minister declined, suggesting that someone else lead. Something about the awkward silence that followed created a memory that shaped my career. I decided that while I would do what I could to encourage others to lead prayer, I would never refuse to pray when asked. I tried to honor that commitment throughout my career. One of the ways that I encouraged others to lead prayer was incorporated into the program of preparing youth for confirmation as a kind of a game. After the class had studied and talked about prayer, I would tell them that every Christian needs the ability to lead prayer in public at least on some occasions. I then went on to say that grace before meals was one of the most common occasions of public prayer. I taught class members several table graces and we talked about the structure of a prayer of thanksgiving. I encouraged them to write out a couple of prayers and to always be ready to offer a grace. I then warned them that they would be called on to lead a table grace at some point during the class and each time the group gathered for a meal, I made it a point to call on a different person to lead prayer. The students always did a very good job with their prayers and, I believe, became confident in leading prayers.

But if someone said to me, Pastor, will you offer a prayer? I never declined. I simply prayed.

There were occasions, however, when that commitment pushed the edges of my theology. People often ask you to pray for specific results. “Please pray that my mother will recover from her illness.” “Pray that I will get this job.” “Pray that I will pass my exam.” I don’t really believe that prayer is telling God what to do or how to act. I don’t think that we always get our desired outcome in life, nor that we should.

I have tried to choose my words carefully when praying in public. When a person is nearing the end of their life, I try not to ask God to miraculously reverse the process. I believe in miracles. I just don't think that we cause them by our prayers. Instead, I pray that God’s will be done. I pray for release from pain and freedom from suffering. I acknowledge the presence of fear and grief.

But my way of talking about prayer and my way of leading prayer isn’t the only way that faithful people approach the topic. I have a friend and colleague who frequently says, “I’ll pray for you” in situations where I have expressed a desire or voiced a problem. That person has told me on multiple occasions that she is praying for us to find a house to buy. I appreciate her support and her concern, but I’m a bit uncomfortable asking God to influence the housing market so that I will find just the right house while so many people can’t find a place to sleep at night. I’ve never experienced homelessness. I have a safe and secure rental home. Although making the move to an owned home is something I want and that we are working out, I guess I think God is more concerned about shelter for the homeless in our community during a night of rain than about whether or not we are getting the best deal.

Although it has some roots in the 19th century, the prosperity gospel movement didn’t influence many people until the second half of the 20th century. The rise of television and media preachers carried with it a rise in preachers who promised that belief in God and donations to their ministry would result in financial blessing and physical well being for believers. There are many examples of preachers who promise that wealth, health and success can be achieved through donations of money and faithful following of their particular programs.

I’m not a prosperity gospel theologian.

I believe that there are people who suffer because of the cruelty of others and not because of the will of God. I believe that God’s love is as great for those who have made mistakes, suffered addictions, experienced illness, and have been victims of racism and other forms of human discrimination, as for those who have wealth and success. In my theology, Jesus walks with the poor and oppressed.

So I am careful with the words I choose when I pray.

In my worldview, hope is very different from optimism. I’m far more likely to pray that I will make wise choices than that God will grant my wishes. I’m more likely to pray that we draw close to God in life, in death, and in life beyond death than that God avert the death of a loved one. I don’t know all of the causes of cancer, but I don’t believe that people get cancer because it is God’s will. I don’t believe that families experience the death of child because God wants a little one in heaven.

When I pray, I try to be faithful to what I believe.

I am often drawn to the 11th chapter of the book of Hebrews that beings, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” The chapter then goes on to chronicle some of the highlights of the history of Israel, pointing out ways that God intervened in history for the good of the people.

Perhaps the most important prayers are those that are offered when we cannot imagine the outcome. There are times when we lack the wisdom to know what is the right thing and we simply turn our problems over to God’ care.

I pray that we will recognize the call of God’s Spirit and that we will draw closer to God in the decisions of this phase of our lives. I also pray that God will not let me loose sight of those whose needs are far greater than my own.

Rains are coming

Rains are coming. The forecast cask for a 94% chance of precipitation today with nearly a half inch to fall by evening. Overnight tonight we could see another inch and a quarter. That forecast names a 100% chance of rain. I am learning how to live in a climate that is different from where I lived most of my life. It isn’t the rain. I’ve pretty much adjusted to that. It is how and when the rains come.

Here alongside the Salish Sea summers are dry. Despite living in a temperate rain forest, our summers have drought-like conditions from late May through much of September. That means beautiful weather for hiking, biking, camping and any other outdoor adventures. Temperatures were high this summer, but in general, much more moderate than other places that we have lived.

That means that much of the grass in my lawn has grown dormant. What grass is growing is doing so very slowly. I’ve been mowing my lawn every other week, and sometimes every third week for months now.

But things will change this week. I know that because we started moving our household items during October last year. After this weekend’s rains, the grass is set to really take off. It will become green all over as soon as we get a day of sunshine and I’ll be mowing it at least once a week for a while - probably well into November, when growth will slow due to declining temperatures.

That is the opposite of what we knew in South Dakota, where the heavy months for lawn mowing were May and June. By this time of the year, I would be getting ready to put the lawn mower in storage until next spring.

The main differences is when the rain comes. Sure, it rains more here than in South Dakota, but we don’t have the summer thundershowers that are a regular part of life in the Black Hills. We had no hail damage to our cars this summer and our insurance premiums are lower here than they were when we lived in South Dakota. And our summer is the dry season. Winter is our rainy season. This is just the first of the storms that will roll in off of the Pacific, bringing rain to the region.

Of course temperature makes a big difference, too. In South Dakota, we’d be getting the snow blower ready for its winter workout. Here I shoveled snow once last winter. And when I did, most of my neighbors did not. They simply waited for the snow to melt off of their driveways and sidewalks. Some of them do not even own snow shovels. That seems strange to me. We have carried a snow shovel in our car year round for decades. That short-handled snow shovel is parked in the garage right now, making space to carry different items in the car. After all, everyone has muck boots around here.

I don’t think muck boots is the local name for the ubiquitous rain boots that everyone seems to own, but they are a lot like the boots that ranchers wear to keep their feet clean when working in feedlots and other animal areas. I call them muck boots. Mine are black. Susans are a nice blue color. Our grandchildren all have them in different bright colors. Everyone has a pair around here. Dry feet are a necessity if you are going to enjoy being outdoors. I’ve even switched to waterproof walking shoes. It is just part of the place where I live.

I haven’t adjusted to mowing the lawn in the late fall and through the winter, yet, however. The good news is that our lawn is very small compared with the half acre that I mowed with a walk-behind mower for the previous 25 years. I can mow and trim the lawn here at our rental house in a half hour compared with a little over 2 hours at our South Dakota Home. It is just that I have to do it more often.

In a world of climate change, people don’t have to move to notice differences in the weather. Severe storms occur more often and are more violent than before the globe warmed. The heat means more energy and some of that energy is expressed in higher winds and more violent storms. The extremes of temperature are more extreme. Summers are hotter. Winters are colder.

Last summer we camped near Coeur d’Alene, Idaho at the very end of June. It was over 100 degrees when we arrived at the camp ground. The normal summer daytime high in that region is around 70 degrees. The people who worked at the campground were struggling to keep up their spirits in the hot temperatures. Some people just parked their campers, turned on their air conditioners and stayed inside all evening. That isn’t what camping is all about for me. Camping is about being outdoors. We went for a walk and returned with sweat pouring off of our faces. We did run the air conditioner in our camper to cool it enough to sleep at night. It was very strange to experience that kind of weather in the high country. Things are changing.

Another thing that is different here is that with Covid and with the change in community, I don’t have a gang of people with whom to talk about the weather. When we moved to North Dakota back in the late 1970’s, I would go down to the cafe for coffee nearly every day of the week. I knew I could count on a gang of farmers sharing coffee and talking and it was a good place to connect with the community. There would be plenty of church members at the cafe. And they would all be talking about the weather. I learned to talk about the weather with them. All kinds of weather were game for complaints, except rain. You never complain about the rain in North Dakota.

I’ve come from that to a place where there are people who don’t seem to notice that it is raining. I have observed neighbors mowing their lawn in the rain. I’m adapting, but I still can’t bring myself to mow the lawn when it is raining. I guess I still have some adjustments to make.

Butterflies

Last week I stopped to chat with our four-year-old granddaughter as she was sitting in the garden. I asked her what she was doing. “Watching butterflies” was the answer. As I squatted next to her she pointed out a half dozen or so butterflies that were flitting around the garden. I decided that watching butterflies with your granddaughter is an especially wonderful way to spend a bit of time on an early autumn afternoon.

There is an ancient story about butterflies that is associated with the religion of Daoism. Written around 300 BC, the story appears in Chinese and Japanese art as well as written collections of stories. I don’t read either Chinese or Japanese, but I have read the story in translation in English. It goes something like this: One day Zhuang Zhou dreamed he was a butterfly. He enjoyed flying and fluttering about. He was happy and doing as he pleased. He didn’t know that he was Zhuang Zhou. Suddenly he woke up. When he was awake he didn’t know if he was Zhuang Zhou who had dreamt he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming that he was Zhuang Zhou.

The story present a gentle push against human ego and the way we perceive reality. It stands in stark contrast to the famous quote by René Descartes. When I was an undergraduate student, I read Descartes’ Discourse on the Method in French, so I thought the original quote was “je pense, done je suis.” Although the Discourse was published in French, it was common for scholars to write in Latin, so the quote often appears in Latin as “cogito, ergo sum.” In English we say, “I think, therefore I am.” Of course no matter what language, there is a logical error in the phrase as a philosophical argument. Thought is not in and of itself proof of existence. Thoughts are fleeting and changeable - like the butterfly.

Butterflies have long been used by teachers of faith as symbols of resurrection. They begin their lives as caterpillars that eat and quickly grow, shedding their skin during a series of molts. Then they form a chrysalis around themselves. At this stage of life they appear to be dead, but they are undergoing a transformation and when the chrysalis is opened, a butterfly emerges. A similar process occurs in the life cycle of moths, whose protective casing for transformation is called a cocoon. This appearance of death followed by transformation gives a way to talk about the process of resurrection in which a new and beautiful existence lies on the other side of death. For many years in our church in Rapid City, we had activity bags specifically designed for children attending funerals, that had a stuffed creature that could appear as a caterpillar and then by opening a slit in the creation, wings would emerge and the creature became a butterfly as it was turned inside out.

Ours is not the first generation to use butterflies as a way to think about resurrection. At about the same time as the story of Zhuang Zhou emerged in China, in Greece Aristotle wrote a treatise called “The History of Animals.” In that work he expressed his belief that a chrysalis is a tomb of the caterpillar and the butterfly emerging is the soul of the caterpillar in visible form. In Greek mythology, Psyche, the goddess of the soul, is often depicted with a butterfly.

Butterflies are not only wonderful creatures and observing them with a grandchild is a worthy investment of time, but they are also symbols. Throughout history artists have included butterflies in paintings as a reminder of the transience of life and the ephemerality of things that we consider to be important.

Increasingly, I have noticed the use of butterflies in the work of artists and writers who are addressing climate change. Butterflies are especially vulnerable to changes in climate. Populations of monarch butterflies are in decline all across North America because of higher than normal spring temperatures. Around the world, many butterfly species are migrating northward to find cooler climates. The long-tailed blue did not used to be native to England, but they now make regular appearances there and are less frequently seen in more southern European locations. Scientists tell us that butterflies have already adjusted migration patterns that are tens of thousands of years old. These changes have become one of the warning signs of the climate crisis that is upon the world.

It seems to me that butterflies are an excellent symbol for those working for change in human behavior to help stave off further human-caused climate change. As we work for positive change in our own behavior a butterfly can remind us of our own fleeting nature. We do not live forever. Our lives are soon over and we die. As much as we sense ourselves as the center of the universe, the universe has existed without us and will continue to exist beyond our time of life on earth. The butterfly is a symbol of the briefness of our time. In addition, butterflies serve as a warning. Our choices affect others and have so modified the climate of our planet that human existence is no longer assured. We may have done so much environmental damage that the planet cannot recover sufficiently to sustain human existence. With that frightening thought, however, butterflies are also reminders of hope. That which we currently see is not the entire story. The crisis we face does not fully define us. In the language of faith, resurrection is real. We hope not because of what we can see with our eyes, but because of the power of our imaginations.

Of course I didn’t get into an extended philosophical conversation with my granddaughter. I didn’t speak to her of Zhuang Zhou or Aristotle. I didn’t even discuss climate change and environmental crisis with her. I simply paused and sat beside her in the garden for a few minutes and counted butterflies as they flew from flower to flower.

It was a day rich with hope. And these days, we are deeply in need of hope.

Keeping track of things

For the 25 years that we lived in Rapid City, our garbage pick up day was Monday. Although many of our neighbors put out their garbage on Sunday evening, we knew that the garbage and recycling trucks didn’t make it to our neighborhood before noon. Monday was our usual day off from work, so I got into the habit of getting up on Monday morning and taking out the garbage and recycling for pickup.

Then we moved. Here in Mount Vernon our home’s pickup day is Thursday and the garbage truck usually makes it before 8 am. It seems like the simplest of changes of routine. Instead of putting out garbage and recycling on Monday morning, all I need to do is to put it out Wednesday evening before I go to bed. Simple, right? Not so for me, somehow. Twice, I have heard the garbage truck in the neighborhood and rushed out in time to get the garbage to the cub just as it was driving up our street. A couple of other times I have been in bed and remembered the chore. I got up, got dressed again and took out the garbage. Try as I might, I can’t seem to make a new habit.

It is a pretty small thing, really, but it is one of many changes that have been a part of our lives in the past couple of years.There are plenty of people who will look back on 2020 and 2021 as years of dramatic changes. The pandemic continues to leave its mark on our communities. For us, the fact that we retired, moved and went back to work has gotten caught up with our reactions to the pandemic.

There are a lot of things that require attention when one moves. You have to find new doctors and health care providers. Then you have to get records transferred. I thought that my immunization records were all in order at my primary care physician’s office in Rapid City, but it turns out that some of the records were at the pharmacy. I’m still sorting that one out. I know that I’ve had certain vaccinations, but I can’t remember exactly when they wee administered. And health care for us seniors means a variety of different providers - new primary care doctor, new dermatologist, new dentist, and more.

However, it seems that a simple mail forwarding order, filed with the United States Post Office or completed online at the official Postal web site, will get your name changed on a whole lot of mailing lists. I didn’t tell South Dakota Public Broadcasting I moved out of the state, but their magazine and appeals for donations have migrated seamlessly to our new address. The same is true for a Rapid City car dealership, and the Audubon Society, and the Arbor Day Foundation, and a couple of dozen charities to which we contributed. I even get mail forwarded from causes that our children and my mother supported. We are receiving mail addressed to them here at our new address, where none of them have ever lived. It has been more than a decade since my mother passed away and she hadn’t been on a cruise ship for a decade before that. However, she still gets advertisements for cruises all around the world. Assuming that those ads are for her and not for me, I quickly place them in the recycling bin when I come in from getting the mail. That means that the recycling bin fills up more quickly and I have to remember to put it out before I go to bed tonight.

To make matters more complex, we opened a new checking account yesterday. It is the beginning of a process of moving our banking to the new bank. I’m pretty sure this one is going to take us months - maybe even longer. We have to change all of he automatic transactions, including auto deposits and withdrawals that we have set up with the other bank. One more bank account is one more thing that needs our attention. It is also one more user name and password to add to all of the other new user names and passwords.

Whew! Growing old and retiring takes a lot of concentration and mental activity just to keep track of things.

So I have no idea how we could have misplaced a pair of shoes. We haven’t lost shoes since our children were little, but we went looking for a pair of shoes yesterday and neither of us has a clue where they might be. We’ve lookin in all of the usual places. We’ve checked in our car and pickup. We’ve both looked in the laundry hamper, though it seems unlikely that they would be there. I guess because it is one place that missing socks hide on occasion we couldn’t resist taking a peek. We’ve checked all of the rooms in the house. We’ve talked through when they were last worn and what we did that day. I’m hoping we solve this mystery soon, but we simply had to go to bed with the shoes missing last night. Neither of us could think of any other place to look. I’m hoping that when we find them we will be able to have a good laugh about it. There have been times in the place when I have replaced a lost item and then found it after I got the new item, leaving me with an extra. We really don’t need extra shoes.

And, of course, we have a new-to-us office at the church, which is one more place for us to forget items. We haven’t been leaving many of our possessions at our office, but we know from experience that things from home will migrate to the new place.

I used to think I was a reasonably well-organized person, but these days I’m not so sure. I watch our son manage his job and commuting and his family and farm chores and taking care of his parents and all of the other responsibilities on his shoulders and I am amazed at how gracefully he keeps up with everything. I can’t seem to manage half of the things he keeps organized. I can’t remember to take out the garbage, let alone feed and water chickens twice a day.

On the other hand, they lose things, too. I know a pair of shoes went missing for quite a while at their farm. It seems that a 10 year old can walk across a 5 acre field in his stocking feet and forget that he took his boots off on the other side of the farm. A 10-year-old boy grows fast enough that by the time they located the boots he needed a larger size anyway.

I guess I should make sure to check out the farm before giving up on those shoes. At least when we find them they should still fit.