June 2021

I am a Protestant

I am a protestant. I was born into a protestant family and have participated in a protestant church all of my life. I have celebrated Reformation Sunday as a regular part of the Christian Year. I have tried to avoid public criticism of any part of the Christian Church and I have many good friends who are Roman Catholic. While we have far many more points of agreement about theology and the expression of faith, we appear to be divided for now and for the rest of my life by the Roman Catholic Church’s unwillingness to accept the leadership of 50% of its faithful members. By denying ordination to women, the church has turned away so many capable, qualified, faithful, committed, and prepared leaders that the entire leadership of the church is skewed in its opinions and understanding of the members of their congregations.

But it is not my place to tell any member or leader of the Roman Catholic Church what to believe or what to do.

Yesterday, however, I once again understood the deep divisions within the Christian Church. I know that while we all pray for unity within the church and we all reach out with Christian love to one another, we cannot become a single church. My heart breaks, not only for the unity of the church, but also for the faithful members of the Roman Catholic Church by the yesterday’s decision of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops to draw hip a teaching document on politicians who support abortion. Specifically the move, which easily passed on a vote of 168 to 55 with six abstentions, will declare that those who support abortion are out of community with the church and therefore not eligible to receive Holy Communion.

The Most Rev Liam Cary, the bishop of Baker, Oregon, said the church was in an “unprecedented situation,” with “a Catholic president who is opposed to the teaching” of the church. I want to point out that he is factually incorrect. The situation is not unprecedented. In the first place the only precedent is John F. Kennedy. Joseph Biden is only the second president in the history of the nation who has been a member of the Roman Catholic Church. That aside, there have been hundreds of American politicians who are Roman Catholic who have supported the death penalty, in direct opposition to the teaching of the church. Moreover, and more importantly, Holy Communion is not reserved for persons without sin. The liturgy for Holy Communion includes a prayer of confession. We confess that we did not earn the right to come to the table by our own righteousness, but rather have received that invitation by the Grace of God to us who are all sinners. The “holier than thou” attitude of the Bishops, who believe not only that they are all worthy, but also that they have the right to determine who is and who is not worthy to receive communion, is itself in direct conflict with the teachings of the church. The notion that anyone, including the officiating clergy, would be free from sin was rejected by the church more than a thousand years ago.

The action of the bishops is in direct conflict with the opinion of the majority of the members of the Roman Catholic Church. In the debate, the Bishops argued over a single politician, Joseph Biden, although the name of Nancy Pelosi, also a member of the Roman Catholic Church, was also mentioned. According to recent polls, 67% of US Catholics favor the president being able to receive communion regularly. That is not a small majority. A cynic could say that not only do the bishops favor denying ordination to women, they also do not listen to the opinions of female members of the church.

The bishops do not even represent the majority of US ordained priests. Cardinal Blase Cupich, archbishop of Chicago, one of the few members of the Conference of Bishops whom I have personally met, stated that most priests will be “puzzled to hear that bishops now want to talk about excluding people at a time when the real challenge before them is welcoming people back to the regular practice of the faith and rebuilding their communities.” The Most Rev Robert McElroy, bishop of San Diego, warned that the document now being drafted will lead to the “weaponization” of the Eucharist.

The document that will be drafted will not be binding. Each individual bishop retains the right to decide who should be blocked from the Mass in his diocese. And it will be debated when the Bishops gather in November. The Vatican, the center of power in the hierarchical church expressed opposition to yesterday’s debate, urging the bishops to delay the vote. I guess they didn’t feel obligated to listen to the teaching of Cardinal Luis Ladaria, prefect for the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican’s theological watchdog. I guess they didn’t feel obligated to listen to the Pope himself, who warned against weaponization of the Eucharist. I confess, I don’t know what they were thinking.

In recent decades the Conference of Catholic Bishops has failed to deal with its own sin of paedophilia and the sheltering of predatory abusers of children. The decline in membership of the Roman Catholic church in the United States has been in part due to this decades long scandal. The choice to consider punishing the best-known American Catholic, a man who attends Mass weekly and regularly speaks of his faith, is nothing less than a partisan political move.

I think it was Jim Wallis of Sojourners, who coined the phrase “insufficiently pro life.” It is a phrase that could be applied to the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. Opposition to abortion is an official teaching of the church, but it is not the church’s only teaching. The church also has official teachings about the care of the poor. The church has official teachings about the welcoming of immigrants. The church has official teachings about the death penalty. If they decide to deny the eucharist to those who disagree with the official teachings of the church, they quickly will find themselves without anyone who has been deemed “worthy” of receiving communion. That hardly is building up the community of the church, the body of Christ.

I have no right to tell the US Conference of Catholic Bishops anything. I understand that. All the same, on this day I am grateful that I am a protestant and will continue to celebrate the brave church leaders of our heritage who sought to reform the church, even at the risk of themselves being denied the sacrament. And, I know another thing that the bishops do not. They cannot control the Holy Spirit. Thousands of people that the bishops seek to deny the sacraments of the church receive the sacraments through other communities of faith. It doesn’t take a bishop for the sacrament to exist. We protestants have known that for hundreds of years.

A stroll along the bay

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The other day I stopped by a fruit stand to pick up a few local strawberries and cherries. Our son and his family have a cherry tree that is producing rainier cherries enough for their family to eat and to freeze a few for later use and we have had a few tastes. Their strawberry plants are also producing a few berries, but competition from the children and from slugs and snails in the garden is intense and so it doesn’t seem right for us to be taking their harvest for our use right now. In a few weeks they’ll have more strawberries and we’ll be able to have some of them. For now, the bounty of other farms is readily available at fruit stands for a reasonable price.

At the fruit stand there were four bicyclists. Their bikes were loaded down with camping gear. They also said skis strapped to their bikes. I struck up a conversation with the bikers and asked if they were going to or from the snow. They said they had come from California and were nearing the end of their trip. Their destination was Bellingham.

I decided not to mention to them that it is a 55+ mile trek from Bellingham to the Mount Baker Ski area and that it is a good climb with steep hills for the bikes. They’ve learned that by themselves by now. Instead I told them that they were in for a beautiful ride from here to Bellingham. The 30 mile trip is a good distance for a day’s bike ride and the Chuckanut highway is a scenic drive along the shore with great views and ample shade from the giant trees alongside the highway. I’m sure that they were rewarded with a good day’s peddling.

I’m not up for the adventure of loading up ski gear in California and pedaling all the way to northwest Washington to go skiing. But I am amazed at the beauty and the recreational possibilities of this place. In one direction we have the snow-capped heights of the North Cascades. North Cascades National Park is just a short drive from our home. In the opposite direction we have a relatively sheltered coastline, dotted with islands and filled with all kinds of amazing sea life from the harbor seals to the orcas and migrating whales that swim along the coastline. It is possible to visit North Cascades National Park and San Juan Island National Historical Park in the same day.

To be fair, we have been allowed to live our lives in some places of amazing scenic beauty. The Black Hills of South Dakota offer endless variety and diverse scenery. You can visit Badlands National Park and Wind Cave National Park in the same day and see abundant wildlife including prairie dogs and buffalo along the way. In Boise, Idaho, where we lived, I used to tell people that I could mow my lawn and go skiing on the same day. There it was beautiful high plains desert in one direction and gorgeous mountains in the other. Our home in North Dakota was not far from the badlands and offered amazing open prairie views. Chicago is where the prairie meets the great lakes. And the people who ask about why Montana is called Big Sky Country simply haven’t been there. So our lives have enabled us to live in places of spectacular beauty.

In each place where we have lived, we have enjoyed taking walks through historic neighborhoods and admiring the old homes. For the most part, those homes in those neighborhoods are not something we’d want to own. I can look at a beautiful home and see the grace of its design, but I can also imagine the hard work of maintaining such a large structure and the high cost of heating an older building. Just keeping up with the electrical and plumbing systems in an old home can be costly and time consuming. And having to paint a multi-story building is no joke. So I like to admire beautiful old buildings without having to be the one responsible for their upkeep.

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Here, I’m discovering another kind of looking and admiring without owning. There are several places where we can enjoy walking along the shore of protected waters near marinas. The South Bay Trail in Bellingham goes from downtown to the historic Fairhaven district. We’ve walked the entire 2.5 mile trail, but we have a preference for the southern half of the walk. Going about half way and turning around to return gives us a reasonable walk and allows us to look at a lot of scenery. Part of the trail is a boardwalk over Bellingham Bay where we can look out at the boats moored there. Not far from Taylor Dock there is a beautiful old wooden commuter that I’ve noticed. It is truly something I like to admire from afar. If one actually owned a boat like that, just keeping up with the maintenance would be a full time job. There is a lot of wood to be scraped, sanded and repainted. The old systems are in need of constant repair. On the other hand, I’m glad that someone is investing the energy and financial resources required to preserve the beautiful old boat. Like some beautiful old houses, old boats are fun to admire from a distance.

The combination of wonderful summer weather and the release from pandemic restrictions brought about by increased levels of vaccination has brought out a lot of folks. As we walked along the bay yesterday the path, especially the first section between Fairhaven and a popular park with a coffee shop, was almost crowded. We passed a lot of folks as we kept up our usual brisk pace. We are used to seeking places to walk where we can be alone with nature. Still, the open air kept the path from feeling crowded. It was just a different kind of walk than our usual.

Looking west across the bay, Lummi Island’s forested hills hinted of the other islands that lie beyond. It is hard to imagine that we are north of Victoria, the capitol of British Columbia, at the southern end of Vancouver Island, further out.

There is so much more to explore as we learn about this new to us place.

Juneteenth is coming

In the midst of a very divided congress that struggles to pass any legislation, the overwhelming vote by both the Senate and the House to make Juneteenth a national holiday came as a bit of a surprise. The effort to establish the holiday has been underway for several years, but Senate rules made it nearly impossible to pass the legislation. A single member of the Senate could block the bill from getting a full vote. However, the long effort to commemorate the day was overwhelmingly passed and the holiday will be established. The act establishes a new holiday for federal workers. It maintains the traditional day of recognition, June 19, unlike some federal holidays that are always observed on a Monday. President Biden is set to sign the bill into law this afternoon.

Most states already have an official observance of Juneteenth. Earlier this year, Governor Jay Inslee signed House Bill 1016 making Juneteenth a paid holiday for state workers in Washington. The bill does not go into effect until 2022, but it will make Washington the fourth state, after Texas, New York, and Virginia to recognize the Juneteenth by giving state employees a paid holiday. Only North Dakota and South Dakota have no official statewide recognition of Juneteenth according to the Congressional Research Service.

I am not aware of a Juneteenth observance in Mount Vernon, but in nearby Bellingham, the celebration will be held at Maritime Heritage Park between 3 and 7 pm on Saturday.

I don’t remember Juneteenth being a part of my formal education as a child. We learned that the salves were freed by the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation. The proclamation and executive order, issued by President Abraham Lincoln on January 1, 1863, declared “that all persons held as slaves are, and henceforward shall be free.” I thought that the proclamation ended chapel slavery in the United States. My simple, grade school understanding, however, didn’t reveal the full story.

There were several limits to the Emancipation Proclamation. It applied only to states that had seceded from the United States. There were states where slavery was legal that remained loyal to the Union. Furthermore the proclamation expressly exempted parts of the Confederacy that had already come under Northern control. Finally, the promised freedom was dependent upon a Union Victory, which after three bloody years was far from assured at that point in the war.

Nonetheless, the Emancipation Proclamation was a critical step in a long overdue struggle to end slavery in our country. The movement to end slavery, while supported by abolitionists and religious leaders, really began with actions taken by the slaves themselves. In the Civil War, slaves acted to secure their own liberty. This movement added moral force to the Union cause and strengthened the Union both militarily and politically.

It took several years for slavery to be officially ended in our country. Juneteenth marks the day when federal troops arrived in Galveston, Texas in 1865 - 2 1/2 years after the Emancipation Proclamation - to take control of the state and to inform the state’s slaves that they had been emancipated. The day was one of celebration and June 19th has been recognized as African American Emancipation Day ever since. Most contemporary celebrations across the nation emphasize education and achievement, with picnics, guest speakers and family gatherings.

The holiday is both a recognition of the past, which has many events worth celebrating, and the acknowledgement that the work of justice and equality is unfinished. On Juneteenth people not only celebrate the end of slavery, but also recognize that systems continue to marginalize and oppress people of color in our country. Dr. Martin Luther King used to frequently quote Theodore Parker: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Juneteenth recognizes that the journey towards freedom continues with opportunities to join together with others to make significant and lasting improvements in our society.

Winston Churchill adapted a quote from the Irish statesman Edmund Burke to write, “Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” Recognizing the importance of learning as much as we are able from the mistakes of the past is important. Juneteenth, however, is not just a time to learn about the horrors of slavery and the incredible inhumanity of those who came before us. It is, rather, a celebration of the American spirit to recognize wrong and to work together to make things right. The establishment of a national holiday is yet another opportunity to celebrate our country’s greatness and to work together for justice.

The holiday seems to fit well into the flow of the year. With the coming of summer in the northern hemisphere we celebrate longer days and the approaching solstice. Public schools go on vacation and people engage in a variety of outdoor activities and events. It is a good time to recognize and celebrate freedom. Coming a couple of weeks after Memorial Day and a couple of weeks ahead of the July 4th celebrations of American Independence, the national holiday fills out a season of remembering and honoring the struggles of so many of our forebears to give us the freedoms we enjoy.

This year we plan to spend part of the day with our grandchildren and it will provide an excellent opportunity for us to teach them a bit more about the history they are inheriting and the sacrifices of so many along the long, long road towards freedom and justice. After a career of teaching the stories of Israel's Exodus from slavery in Egypt, we have a few ideas about how we teach the concepts of freedom and justice to a new generation.

A new holiday is an opportunity for new learning for our country. The ability of Congress to come together to find common ground in a season of partisan struggle and conflict is a long overdue sign that shows a level of maturity and dignity that has not often been demonstrated by our leaders in recent years. It is long overdue. It is worthy of our recognition and celebration.

Exploring

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When we lived in South Dakota we would purchase a State Park pass. Most of the time that pass was used to visit Custer State Park, a real gem of a park that is filled with wildlife and gorgeous scenery. We loved seeing the buffalo calves. I know that they are American Bison, but I still call them buffalo. I also pronounce coyote the way fans of University of South Dakota Coyotes athletics do.

Being new transplants to Washington, it made sense to me for us to purchase a Washington State Parks Discovery pass so that we could explore the many different state parks within our immediate region. Birch Bay State Park is only 4 1/2 miles from our son’s farm and it offers a great place to explore the coast with our grandchildren. Peace Arch State Park, on the border with Canada is just a few miles farther up the road. There are more than a dozen state parks within 25 miles of where we live. We are avid walkers and state parks offer many trails for walking and exploring. We have only begun to explore the richness that is offered close to our home.

Washington State Parks began with Larabee State Park, the first area to be recognized as a state park. The park, just south of Bellingham, offers views of Samish Bay and the San Juan Islands as well as opportunities for paddling, viewing tide pools, and exploring the forests. In addition to the ocean shore the park has two lakes to explore. Although currently closed to shellfish harvesting, the park is known as a place to find clams. We also enjoyed the winding Chuckanut Drive south from Bellingham to Burlington. It isn’t as quick a drive as Interstate 5, but far more scenic and a good alternate route when driving between our home and our son’s farm.

We’ve also taken walks at Camano Island State Park and explored other areas as well, but there is much more we want to see.

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Yesterday, we took a hike along the shore at Deception Pass State Park. The park, located on both sides of the Canoe Pass and Deception Pass bridges connecting Fildago and Whidbey Islands, is a short 15 - 20-mile drive from our home. The bridge itself is picturesque and although currently covered with tarps for sandblasting and repainting, it is still a dramatic structure. Under the bridge the rushing tides create strong currents that are a danger to boaters unfamiliar with the area. Still, the waters around the park are filled with kayakers and small boaters. Kayak rentals are available within the park.

Deception Pass is Washington’s most-visited park, but it was not crowded when we visited yesterday. We parked at Rosario Beach, where there is a boat launch and took a hike on a trail that wandered along the shoreline and through old growth forest out to lighthouse point and circled around back to the parking area.

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When we walk through the forest out here, I find myself looking up at the tall trees. After so many years of living in the hills and thinking that a 60- or 75-foot tree is a tall tree, these forest giants that stand 150 or more feet high never fail to impress me. Looking so far up is slightly disorienting and I have to be careful not to become dizzy if I walk and look up at the same time. All the same, the trees are incredible and it helps us sense the size of creation as we walk along.

The coastline in this part of Washington is dotted with islands and looking out towards so many islands gives the coast a different feeling that is the case in places where the beach faces an expanse of open water. The islands are inviting and one can imagine taking a kayak and paddling to explore the shorelines of many different islands. I haven’t been doing much paddling recently, waiting to connect with experienced local paddlers and guides to teach me about paddling in these waters. There is much to learn about tides and currents and the techniques of saltwater paddling. What is more, I’ve been a bit busier than I expected as I adjust to retirement and have not paddled as much as I expected I would. That will change as we learn our way around. Yesterday, a lovely birthday hike was just the right thing as we wandered along the trail enjoying the views of the ocean and the areas where the path led through dense undergrowth that made us feel like we were wandering through a J. R. R. Tolkien story. We did not encounter any trolls or hobbits on our hike, but the paths were inviting nonetheless.

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We didn’t have a sense of being in a remote wilderness area, as the park is very near to Naval Air Station Whidbey Island where navy pilots engage in Field Carrier Landing Practice. The fighter jets flying overhead on approach are noisy, but for an airplane buff it is the kind of noise that doesn’t bother me. I do suspect, however, that there are much quieter places to camp. Having camped next to railroad tracks, however, we are the sort of people who might take our camper to the park one day.

One area in the park that I want to check out is Kukutail Preserve. It is located on Kiket Island and co-managed by the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community. I think that access is by kayak, but I have to learn more before visiting that particular area. I know that there is a neck of land on the island that is completely off limits to people to protect the fragile native plants growing there.

We have had the luxury of a lot of travel and exploration in our lives, but walking in the park to celebrate my 68th birthday reminds me of how much of this wide world we have not yet explored. There is a whole lot more to be discovered and much of it is very close to home and accessible to us. More adventures await.

Birthday

The story is that when I was born, my father flew his airplane over the home of a friend, cut the throttle so the plane was quiet and yelled “It’s a boy!” loud enough that the people on the ground heard him. I don’t know who the people on the ground were. I don’t even know if the story is about me. I also have heard the story told that it was when my sister was born that he did the trick, only yelling, “It’s a girl!” It seems a bit unlike our father to have done it twice. It is quite like him to have done it once. He was a pilot by profession. He flew light aircraft that were relatively quiet. He often flew low and slow, not too high above the ground. Our father is no longer alive for us to ask him the story. Whoever he yelled the news to is probably not around either. Still, it makes a good story and I’ve told it as if I was confident that it was bout my birth.

Another story about my birth that I think is accurate is that when I was born, my mother waited until the last minute to go to the hospital. Our house was right next to the hospital, so it was just a matter of going out our back yard, past our garage, and across the alley to the emergency entrance of the hospital. At any rate, the nurse had called the doctor, and was helping my mother settle in when I was born. I didn’t wait for the doctor to arrive. My mother told me that story several times and she often did so as she commented about the fact that I have always enjoyed getting up early in the morning.

Some people like to sleep in as a special birthday treat. I’ve never wanted to spend my birthday in bed. I like to get up and do things. As I age, I don’t seem to have gotten much better at sleeping. If I’ve averaged 8 hours a day of sleep, which seems like as good a guess as any, I’ve spent one third of my life sleeping, which comes to 22.67 years at this point in my life. That seems like enough to me so that if I occasionally miss a few minutes of sleep I have plenty of sleep in reserve.

Here is something I do know: when I was born my parents were glad to have a son born to them. The family, prior to my birth, consisted of my father, my mother, and three sisters. There were plenty of females in the family and I was the first little boy. The novelty probably wore off by the time our family was complete. There were three brothers born after I came into the world. I don’t know the significance of being the first boy, but it has always been a privileged position in the family for me. When I was a child, I got lots of time with my father. He would often take me to work with him at the airport. I loved going to the airport and being in his office and his shop. His office was filled with maps and the shop was filled with airplanes. I am the only one of my siblings who learned to fly with our father as my instructor. I got my pilot’s license after taking formal lessons with him, but that followed so many years of flying with him that it seemed to me like he had always been teaching me to fly.

When I started to seriously date my wife, I came into a privileged position in her family. She grew up the oldest of three girls. Her father was the only male in the family. Even the cat and the dog were female. When she became serious about me, I was warmly welcomed into the family. Her mother and father always treated me very well. I often say that it was because I was the first son in their family, too.

Whenever my birthday lands on a Sunday it falls on Father’s Day. Before I became a father, I thought it was a special treat to occasionally share the day with my father. After I became a father the day is even more meaningful to me. I like being occasionally able to “double dip” with two holidays on the same day.

As far as I can remember, I’ve always looked forward to my birthday and enjoyed the day. Last year my birthday landed on a Monday. It was my first day of retirement. Technically, I was employed to the end of the month, but I had saved two weeks of vacation so my last official day of work was June 14, 2020. I’ve still not fully adjusted to being retired, but it seems like a kind of a milestone to have come to this day one year later.

I have friends around the world. Right now it is late afternoon in Melbourne, Australia. That means that I got birthday greetings from a friend who lives there before I went to bed last night. I had already received cards and posts on social media from other friends as well. Part of the fun of the day is that birthday greetings stir good memories of good friends. I have a good friend whose birthday is the day before mine and another whose birthday is the day after mine, so I always think of them at this time of the year. Both of those friends have devoted their lives to the ministry, so we have lots in common to share when we are together. When we are together, I joke about the dividing line between youth and enthusiasm, and old age and experience, falling between us. Since I have a friend who is a day younger and another who is a day older than I, I can be the young one or the old one depending on which friend I am with.

So today will be a good day for me. A day to note that I am now 68 years old, which seems like a good age to be.

Working remotely

Yesterday we participated in the semi-annual meeting of our congregation. The meeting was held remotely over Zoom. I’m not sure how many people participated, but participants had to scroll through several screens to see all of the participants and early in the meeting, the clerks declared that a quorum of 44 people were present. Several of the screens, like ours, showed two participants in the same frame. I learned long ago that it is too distracting for me to stay in the gallery view when there are more than eight or ten participants, so we participated with the view that shows the speaker in a large frame with a single row of frames of participants.

We’re pretty comfortable with the Zoom format. We were early adopters of Skype when our daughter moved to England a decade ago. We really appreciated the ability to see her as we talked with her. It was a good way for us to tell how she was doing. Over the years, she has lived quite a distance from us, not only in England, but also in Japan and now she lives in South Carolina. We also used Skype to keep in touch with our grandchildren and still find it to be a good way to keep regular contact with our grandson who lives in South Carolina. We went through a phase of purchasing two copies of children’s books so that we could read to our grandchildren over Skype. They would look at one copy and we would have the other. We’d read, giving them clues of when to turn the pages. Yesterday, as we visited with our grandson, we got out our puppets of Grover and Cookie Monster and did an impromptu puppet presentation for our grandson. It wasn’t exactly up to the standards of the television shows that he is allowed to watch occasionally, but it was enough to hold his attention and we got to see his face and his reactions over the distance.

Video conferencing, however, never was a very big part of our work life. We relied on face to face meetings and direct conversations to do our pastoral work. Although the telephone was a major tool in our work, there were plenty of times when just going to a person and seeing them face to face was a much preferable option for sharing prayer and counsel.

The pandemic hit a few months before our retirement and we upped our technological game quite a bit. Our church invested in a second video camera and we learned to livestream worship. I made daily prayer livestream videos for the congregation. We used remote meeting software to continue the work of the church when face to face meetings were not advised.

The change was much more dramatic for some workers, however. In offices all around the world, people began to work remotely, usually from home. They used computers and video conferencing to keep in touch and coordinate work with others. Microsoft had previously purchased Skype and transformed the Skype for Business application into Microsoft Teams and bundled it with their popular office tools.

Suddenly people weren’t spending 40 and more hours in a physical office. They were working remotely and often asynchronously. Responsibilities for childcare and family life forced adjustments of schedule. Videos of children and pets appearing in the midst of serious business meetings went viral. There was a degree of humanizing that came from the physical distance.

To be clear, only some jobs can be performed remotely. During the pandemic there were plenty of workers who had to be physically present to do their work. They got some attention as frontline workers, but many of the jobs that require physical presence are also jobs that paid lower wages. The ability to work remotely was reserved for a certain elite group of workers.

Initially some workers discovered that they didn’t need to pull the long hours - 50 or 60 per week - in order to be productive. In fact, many discovered a truth that researchers have been long known: putting in more hours does not result in increased productivity. In fact people learned to be more productive by working fewer hours. We’ve known for years that it is productivity that matters, but business rewards presenteeism. Just being in the office is frequently rewarded. Those who arrive early and stay late are more likely to be noticed by management and promoted to higher paying jobs.

Fairly early in the pandemic the urge to work longer hours began to take place even in the lives of those who were working remotely. They felt pressure to be constantly connected. They worried that missing an email might indicate that they were not being productive. They responded to communications quickly and allowed their work to infringe on family time. For many the distinction between work and family life blurred. Family meals were also times to check the phone for messages. Time with children was interrupted to make an appearance online. Workers felt the need to be accessible early in the morning and late at night because coworkers worked adjusted hours to fit together family life and work.

During the pandemic many of those who were able made major adjustments to their work and home life. Some moved to new homes that were more distant from their offices, hoping that they would be able to continue working remotely indefinitely. It is estimated that the workplace of the future will often not involve an office or a particular physical location. There will be more and more jobs that are not dependent upon a specific place. This may work for some jobs, but there will be plenty of others that still require physical presence. And there will be plenty of workers who feel pressured to work extended hours just to be present, even if that presence is online instead of sitting at a desk.

Studies have shown that many businesses lose productivity by enforcing rigid work hours and worker presence. Allowing flexibility for family and other obligations increases productivity. But they also show that too much flexibility decreases productivity. It appears that the balance may be somewhere around 15 to 20 hours per week of actual presence in an office with additional hours worked remotely. All of that depends on the type of work and the amount of collaboration required.

The pandemic forced us to take a look at how we work, but it remains to be seen whether or not we have learned much from this experiment.

Of birds and trees

With a smile we tell people that when we lived in South Dakota we enjoyed watching the deer and wild turkeys in our yard. Now that we have moved to Washington, we watch the rabbits and humming birds in our yard. Our setting here is a bit more urban than our South Dakota home. For most of the time we lived in South Dakota our home was in a rural, unincorporated area. Then our neighborhood was annexed. We received some city services, such as water and garbage disposal, but our subdivision was not connected to the city sewer. We also did not have curbs and gutter and street lights as is true with some parts of the city. We enjoyed our rural lifestyle. We didn’t want street lights and preferred being able to see the night sky more clearly with less light. Our deer and turkeys, however, paid no attention to city boundaries. Rapid City has plenty of urban wildlife and we weren’t the only ones who got to know the deer that nibbled the grass in our lawn.

There are plenty of deer in the hills around here, but we haven’t noticed any urban deer in town. The rabbits, however, seem to be having a good year with plenty of cover and lots of forage to eat. There are eagles and other predators in the area, but the rabbit population seems to be holding strong.

Watching birds has brought us a lot of joy in our time of living here. The humming birds haven’t been in our yard year round. We just began to notice them as the yard began to flower with various plants. They are shy and we don’t see them every day, but they visit frequently enough to bring us a great deal of pleasure watching their unique flight from blossom to blossom. Occasionally, we will catch the profile of one sitting on one of the higher branches of the neighbor’s tree.

Even more dramatic than occasional visits of the humming birds was the six months or so that huge flocks of arctic snow geese occupied the fields around town. They were joined by thousands and thousands of swans. Trumpeter, mute and tundra swans in huge numbers live about half of the year in Skagit County and the other half of the year in places farther north in Canada and Alaska.

And then there are the seagulls. We used to see an occasional California gull that somehow ended up temporarily in South Dakota, but when the river is running clear it is a magnet for hundreds and hundreds of gulls who come up from the nearby sea coast following the food. The Skagit River has a huge delta and the surrounding wetlands provide a lot of cover for all kinds of birds.

Other than domestic chickens and turkeys, however, we haven’t seen their wild neighbors in our immediate neighborhood. I don’t miss the mess the turkeys left on our deck and back yard, but I do miss watching their antics as they made their daily journey across our lawn in South Dakota.

The prophet Ezekiel described his vision of trees and birds in the 17th chapter. He tells of God’s promise to take a sprig from a tall cedar and plant it “on the mountain height of Israel.” “Under it every kind of bird will live; in the shade of its branches will next winged creatures of every kind.” It seems that Ezekiel’s vision of the return of the exiles and the restoration of Israel and the coming of God’s reign of peace includes time for bird watching.

Part of my retirement routine has been listening to a program that airs on our local NPR station called Bird Note. I haven’t been a very attentive birder in the past, paying attention to only the most obvious birds in the neighborhood. The radio program has been educating me about differences in how nestlings leave the nest, about sapsuckers, about how robins choose their nest sites and about predatory birds such as the Northern Goshawk. I don’t consider myself to be an expert in the lives of the birds, but I am learning more than I used to know.

At our son’s farm, we enjoy watching the swallows chase insects in flight during the early evening hours. They were treated to the magnificent sight of a bald eagle perched on their bar roof last week. I’ve seen eagles soaring in the area before, but having one land on the barn roof was a special treat.

Since I have been paying a bit more attention to the birds, I have noticed that there are references to birds in the Bible. In addition to the vision of Ezekiel that is part of the lectionary readings for today, Jesus parable of the mustard seed in today’s Gospel reading mentions also speaks of birds: “yet when it is sown and it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.” Jesus is teaching his disciples about God’s realm. Jesus’ parables use our human propensity to watch birds and observe their nesting as a way of helping us understand the expansiveness of Gods’ love for all of creation. God’s love grows as dramatically as a tiny seed. And when it grows there is much more than the original seed. There is shelter and shade and protection and a place of rest.

Today marks one year since we led our final worship service as pastors of 1st Congregational United Church of Christ in Rapid City, South Dakota. In some ways the year has gone by very quickly. I think we expected that we would be settled and adjusted to a retirement lifestyle by now. It hasn’t worked out exactly as we had planned. The pandemic changed everything, but beyond that, we were unable to fully envision what retirement would bring. Like the mustard seed, it is producing more possibilities than we were able to envision. We are still wondering exactly where we will find our more permanent nest and what our role in this new phase of our life may be. Along the way, the words of the teachers and prophets inspire us to pay attention to the other creatures in God’s creation. The trees are growing and the world is changing and there is room for all in God’s realm.

Easing trauma

When I was a suicide first responder one of my tasks was to help educate those who had just lost a loved one to suicide about how the coroner system worked in the county where the death occurred. There are certain procedures and processes that must be followed in investigating an unattended death in order to gather as much information as possible about what happened. This process can be very invasive and frustrating for grieving family members. They have just experienced a major shock to their entire world and now officers, often uniformed, are swarming their space and preventing them from attending to the body of their loved one. Often there is a period of time when families need to be out of their home and wait for the investigation to take place.

In the United States, there are two main different systems of investigating deaths that occur outside of a medical setting with a physician attending. The medical examiner system emphasizes the medical training and qualifications of the examiner. Medical examiners are board certified physicians with special training in examining bodies for evidence of how death occurred. They are generally appointed and follow a specific investigative routine to determine the manner in which a death occurred.

Coroners are elected officials, and have been trained in criminal investigation and special techniques for preserving evidence. They are not physicians. When there are questions that require medical expertise they employ the assistance of forensic pathologists who perform autopsies and other medical examinations.

In the United States whether a death is investigated by a medical examiner or a coroner depends on the jurisdiction. South Dakota, where I worked serving families who had experienced suicide loss, has the corner system. The belief is that in matters of answering questions about how death occurred having those who are investigating subject to election holds them accountable to the people they serve.

Elections, however, are far from the minds of the people who are experiencing the trauma. Often when working with grieving families, I needed to gently explain that the process was one of learning as much as possible about the circumstances of the death so that as many questions as possible could be answered. The big questions on the minds of the grieving families, however, are ones that cannot be answered. They are wondering why the death occurred. “Why did this person do what was done?” While some information about the circumstances of the death, such as a recent change in financial status or the threat of an arrest or some other things can be known, the real answer to the question is not evidence that can be collected. The evidence died with the victim.

To make matters more difficult for families, in many jurisdictions across the country suicide has been historically seen as a crime with a full criminal investigation taking place. While coroners try to be sensitive to the needs of family members, they feel the need to document as much evidence as possible and preservation of evidence means excluding others from entering the place where the death occurred. This can be especially traumatic for those whose lives have already become defined by the trauma of the death of their loved one.

My role in all of this often was to assist the investigators by providing support and information to grieving family members. This meant trying to explain procedures to people who were not in a position to retain the information I was giving them. The shock and horror of losing a loved one means that grieving individuals are not in a position to listen to a lecture or observe what is being told to them. Often they don’t remember any of the content of what we have said to them during those first traumatic hours. Gentle repetition can be helpful. Often, I would allow family members to have control of what I said. Instead of just giving them the information I had, I waited until they asked a question and tried to respond as directly and succinctly to their question as possible. Sometimes, I simply sat in silence with them as they processed the early stages of their grief.

My experiences taught me a great deal about how resilient humans are. I met remarkable people with incredible courage and grace in the face of deep trauma. People didn’t fall apart. They might have a period of uncontrolled sobbing, but the continued to breathe and within a short amount of time began to regain composure. My experience is that people don’t fall apart even under the great stress of the loss of a loved one. They deal with the unthinkable in their own unique way, and call upon resources deep within themselves to find ways of moving on from the trauma.

It isn’t easy. Those who have experienced the suicide of a loved one are themselves more vulnerable to suicide. The unthinkable has become something about which they think constantly. Without proper support and often professional help, they can become immersed in depression and despair following their loss. The follow-up after a suicide loss is critical to the long process of recovery.

Grief is not something that people “get over.” It remains with them. I used the words, “get through” when talking with grieving families. Your life has been forever changed. You will not forget. You will not get over this event. But you can get through it. And you don’t have to do it all by yourself. There are others, some of whom have experienced a loss similar to yours, who are there to be with you in this process.

When I hear of calls for police reform, I think of how functions, such as learning as much as possible from a death, might be performed by people with different skills and roles than that of uniformed officers. Differences in training and in the way we identify those entrusted with such examinations might go a long way towards easing trauma. Sometimes in suicide situations my response team would be the only strangers in a situation who weren’t carrying weapons - sometimes we were the only ones who weren’t wearing body armor. All of those weapons can add unnecessary trauma to a trying situation. Many changes are possible if we work together and always keep the victims in our minds as we work with our neighbors.

Figurative language

During the pandemic, our grandchildren have been home schooled. They will return to their regular schools in the fall, but for now, their home schooling lessons are continuing. As grandparents we get to work with them and help with their schooling from time to time. Yesterday, I was helping our granddaughter, who was writing a thank you letter following her recent birthday and also making a father’s day card for upcoming celebrations. Across the table I could overhear a conversation between my wife and our grandson about a lesson in his workbook that was introducing the concept of simile and metaphor. The exercise involved using similes comparing aquatic animals and land-based animals: “A tiger is fierce like a shark.”

Thinking about it now, on the next day, I am aware of how important it is to teach the use of complex language. Being able to use figurative language is essential to human communication. If we limited ourselves to using only literal language, our conversation would be limited to a much small realm of human experience. Being able to make comparisons and to use words in ways that point beyond the obvious is a tool that I use every day. I couldn’t write the blog without such language. Figurative language is an everyday tool of a preacher.

We use much more than similes and metaphors. We make allusion. We create imagery. We employ personification. Oral language is even more filled with figurative language than written. Onomatopoeia is simply more fun when spoken out loud.

Of course, a workbook exercise designed for a ten year old didn’t discuss seven or twelve or how many forms of figurative language exist. The exercise was designed to be an introduction, making the use of figurative language simple. We teach our children to go beyond literalism in their reading and writing. It is part of the core curriculum of a good school.

Since we are used to using language in ways that reach beyond simple literalism, it often surprises us when the basic tools of figurative speech seem to escape others. Over the course of my career, I was often asked by people about things they read, and things that they thought might be in the Bible. I suppose every minister has been asked, “Where in the bible does it say . . . “ as if we had memorized the entire book. Often those questions are about things that aren’t actually in the bible. People often think that aphorisms from popular culture have biblical origins. And when you get to the actual words of the bible, you encounter a lot of figurative language. It makes sense. Talking about God stretches the capacity of language. We can think of many ways to describe a bit of what God is like or give evidence of God’s action in the world, but coming up with words that fully describe God eludes us. Our language is limited. It shouldn’t surprise us that the Bible is filled with figurative speech. Still, there are many fundamentalists who try to interpret figurative language as if it were literal.

Jesus often spoke in parables. In Mark’s Gospel, when Jesus gives the parable of the mustard seed, he prefaces his simile with an acknowledgement of the limits of language. He asks, rhetorically, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it?” He knows he is describing something for the people that goes beyond the use of literal language. He does not say, “It is a mustard seed,” but rather, “it is like a mustard seed.” It is classic simile. The kingdom of God is not tiny, but it is a concept that does have the capacity to grow.

A ten-year-old knows when you use a simile, you aren’t speaking literal truth. Our grandson knows that a tiger is not the same thing as a shark. He understands that the comparison is limited to some of the qualities of the two animals. Comparing them does not equate them.

The extensive use of figurative language throughout the entire bible means that the value of the words lies deeper than simply the surface. It also is job security for preachers. There will always be room for interpretation of the words of the bible. You can discover that by a quick scan of several different mainline church services this Sunday. The Revised Common lectionary reading for this week is just two verses from the Gospel of Mark. Mark 4:30-32 is the parable of the mustard seed. All around the world the same words, or translations of those words into many different languages, will be read. From those two verses preachers will deliver sermons from a short reflection to a half hour or more. And they will take many different meanings from Jesus’ parable. Jesus uttered one long run-on sentence that has inspired over two millennia of sermons. Anyone claiming to have the final word on this parable is clearly making a false claim. Christians will be talking about it generations from now.

Language is powerful, but it is limited. We cannot express all of human experience and the fullness of religion with words alone. To fully educate our children, we need to teach both the power and the limits of words.

The church, of course, is not just words. It is not just what is said. The practice of religion involves the use of symbols, music, sacrament and direct action. We sing, “They’ll know we are Christians by our love.” And, as David James Duncan wrote, “People often don’t know what thy are talking about. When they talk about love, they really don’t know what they’re talking about.”

I do not call myself a biblical literalist. I am firmly committed to the the truth of the bible, but I know that the truth doesn’t just lie on the surface of the words. A lifetime is all too short to explore all of the meaning in a single book of the bible. Fortunately for us, our faith has been growing for millennia before we were born and will continue to develop long after our time on this earth has ended. We’re a part of something much bigger than ourselves.

The tulip tree

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On January 12, 1785, George Washington wrote in his diary that “Rode to my Mill Swamp, where my Dogue run hands were at work & to other places in search of the sort of Trees I shall want for my walks, groves, & Wildernesses.” He was deep into the process of designing his estate along the Potomac River. He selected several different varieties of trees. Among those are tulip poplars located in the Bowling Green just outside the Upper and Lower gates, which were transplanted from the area that is now the Pioneer Farmer site. The shade trees, also known as White poplar and Whitewood, are indigenous to the eastern United States.

It is unknown whether the connection with George Washington’s estate is the reason for the large tulip poplar that grows at the corner of Cleveland and Snoqualmie streets in Mount Vernon Washington. The mature tree has been there a long time and it seems a bit unlikely that in the early days of the community, there would have been much attention paid to landscaping. Certainly there weren’t the extensive nurseries and plant sales that you can find at Lowe’s and Home Depot these days.

The actual history of the tree is a matter of speculation, with no one in Mount Vernon that we have encountered knowing the full story of the tree. Whatever the story, the magnificent tree dominates the corner across from the site of the current library building and the city parking lot. At one time, when the current city hall was under construction the house on that corner was leased by the city and housed the city planning division. That meant that care of the tree, including cleaning up all of those leaves each fall, fell to the City of Mount Vernon. The local story is that the city public works director wanted to have the tree removed when its roots broke up the surrounding sidewalk. It was decided, fortunately, that cutting down that tree would be political suicide and the sidewalk was relocated creating a wrap around the tree the extends into the right of way a bit.

The tree is the largest of its species in the State of Washington. It is significantly larger than the tree that one of the trees George Washington himself planted, dubbed “The Independence Tree.” It is likely that the conditions here in Mount Vernon, Washington, are even more conducive to the growth of the tree than the namesake of our town, the estate of George Washington.

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A couple of known historic facts might give insight into the age of the tree. The first settlers along the banks of the Skagit River here arrived in 1870. The town gained its name seven years later. The area where the city is located was heavily forested when the settlers arrived and they had to cut hundreds and hundreds of trees to make room for the city’s first buildings. It likely took a couple of decades before there was any ornamental planting. The house next to which the tree is growing was built in 1901, so 120 years or so seems like a likely age of the tree.

In a City Council Meeting on April 10, 2002, Mayor Richendrfer signed an Arbor Day proclamation. In that proclamation the mayor reported that “The City has named the Tulip Tree as the Official City Tree because of its name, the tulip shape of its leaf, its stately qualities, and its historical significance as being one of the oldest planted trees in Mount Vernon and largest in the state.” The mayor’s proclamation further “urged all citizens to plant tulip trees, as well as other trees, to gladden the heart and promote well being of this and future generations.” The city has officially planted other tulip trees in town, including one at Hillcrest Park and another next to the reader board at First and Kincaid streets.

We frequently find ourselves at the library, picking up or returning books and meeting our son, who is its director. Our summertime activities include parking our car in the shade of the tree while we walk to the Post Office or take a stroll down the riverfront walk in downtown Mount Vernon. The glorious tree garners our attention every time we are in the area. I wondered what color the blossoms would be, and was perhaps a bit disappointed that they are mostly the same color as the leaves, with a bit of yellow in the center. They pale in comparison with the trees autumnal display of bright yellow before the leaves are dropped for the winter. And this tree has a lot of leaves to drop.

Large trees are part of the legacy of this region of the country. After living most of our lives in places where a 60’ tree is considered tall, we find ourselves looking up a lot around here as we wander through forests of Cedar, Douglas Fir and Hemlock. The rich soil along the Skagit River combines with abundant rainfall and mild weather to make this a great place for growing trees. Mount Vernon’s iconic tulip tree is one of the sights we will always remember from our time of living here.

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Speaking of trees, the dogwood at our son’s farm is blooming. Unlike some trees, the dogwood blossoms put on their display for a long time. The bright blossoms give shade to a flower garden below that the children have dubbed the “fairy garden” and have ornamented with tiny figurines. They have placed a couple of child-sized chairs in the garden and we often find them there, taking a break from chores or playing in the sand box not far away. After living for a quarter of a century in a beautiful pine forest, the diversity of trees here captures our attention.

We have received so much beauty from trees. In the words of the former mayor of the city, “to gladden the heart” is one reason for a tree. Our hears are indeed gladdened. When we find a home to call our own, one of the things we are sure to do is to plant a few trees.

Building a tractor

The word tractor comes from Latin. It is a word that evolved from a verb, “trahere” which means “to pull, or draw.” In the 18th century, the word tractor was used for a quack medical device consisting of two metal rods which were supposed to relive rheumatism. The rods were said to pull the pain from the victim. Back then animals were used to pull wagons and plows and to haul heavy loads. Tractors for agricultural use first emerged in the 19th century. The first farm tractors were steam engines used to drive mechanical farm machinery such as harvesters. These barn engines soon became portable and evolved into self-propelled devices.

I know a bit of the history of tractors because my father was a John Deere dealer for 25 years of his life. Along the way, I started collecting miniature, 1/72 scale die cast models of John Deere tractors, going back all the way to the company’s first tractor, the Waterloo Boy. John Deere found his first success in the agricultural business by developing a steel plow. The first tractors the company sold were the product of them purchasing another company. Soon, however, the company developed its own two cylinder engines with a distinctive “popita popita” sound. These engines were made to be powered by gasoline, LP gas, and diesel and dominated the company’s offerings through the 1950s. In the 1960s a “new generation of power” saw the company develop more powerful engines and larger tractors. Although it was not the first company to develop articulated four wheel drive tractors, the larger articulated tractors became popular. The John Deere Company weathered the farm crisis of the 1980s better than many other companies which experienced bankruptcies and reconfigurations during that downturn in the farm economy.

When you say tractor, I think John Deere.

So it might come as a surprise that one of the projects I’ve been working on is building a chicken tractor. A chicken tractor isn’t a tractor at all. At least it doesn’t pull anything. I is not self propelled. What it is a portable enclosure for chickens. Some are essentially mobile playpens for chickens to use during the day. Others have shelter for the chickens to roost and stay in the tractor. The tractor is moved to give the chickens access to fresh grass and soil. The birds will dig for worms, grubs, snails and slugs and will aureate and fertilized the soil as the tractor is moved around the yard.

The chicken tractor I’m working on needs to have room for quite a few birds. Although we may end up building two units, the plan is to start with 33 meat chickens in the shelter. The birds will be moved from their brooder when they reach the pullet stage and will be moved about the yard as they put on weight. Meat birds are bred to gain weight quickly and they will become more and more sedentary as they grow. At our son’s farm, the chicken tractor has to be substantial enough to provide protection from the occasional coyote that might wander onto the place.

The farm already has one chicken tractor. In addition to the coop with its enclosed yard, they have a small tractor that can hold about five laying hens. It has its own inside area for the hens to roost and lay eggs and the hens are shut up inside the shelter at night. The tractor is a bit difficult to move, so our new tractor is being designed to be easier to move. It may need to be pulled into the barn every night in order to protect the meat birds from coyote predation. Therefore, I’ve come up with a design that will allow the tractor to be pulled by the riding lawn mower that is used on the place, which, of course, is a John Deere. So we already have a tractor to pull the tractor.

I’ve done my research online and we’ve even visited neighboring farms to view, measure and photograph their chicken tractors. I think I’ve improved on the designs that we’ve viewed, but I’m sure we’ll find a downside to our device after it is completed. With the high price of lumber, I’ve been using up old boards that have collected around the place, ripping larger boards into 2 x 2s for the framework and using plywood gussets for the corners and cross bracing. Construction this way is time consuming, but farmers trade time for money every day, and I’m retired, so my hourly rate is well within the farm’s budget. I’m considering making the second tractor out of PVC pipe if we run out of on hand lumber building the first one. The pipe will make a lighter tractor, and I may learn enough from building the first one to make the second one a better device. At least that is the hope.

We raised chickens at our place when I was a kid growing up and I wasn’t a fan of the process. It seemed like there were plenty of sicknesses that would take some of the birds before they were grown. I didn’t like the job of cleaning the coop. I found the birds to be less than intelligent. A chicken will bloody itself trying to attack its own reflection in a shiny object. And I especially didn’t like the process of butchering. In fact the fall I went away to college, I stayed away from home until I was sure that the last of the butchering was done and the chickens were in the freezer. I haven’t butchered a chicken yet and have no intention of taking up the craft now. Our son and daughter-in-law have joined a group of neighbors who share the butchering process with plenty of experienced hands, so I’m getting off the hook on that task. As a result, since I do plan to share in the eating of the chickens, my task is to help with the chicken tractor, which isn’t a tractor at all.

Who would have thought a retired minister would find such interesting work?

A busy summer

Over the past week we have been putting the finishing touches on our summer plans. It probably isn’t fair to even call what we are doing “finishing” touches, because there are still a lot of variables in our lives that will play out. A year ago, when we were envisioning how our first year of retirement would come to its end, we thought we would focus on housing this summer. It would be a good time to stay in the area and search for a home to buy. The plan of renting for a year as we scoped out the market seemed to make sense and a year seemed long enough for us to decide what the next steps might be.

There were several things that we had failed to take into consideration.

Our siblings have decided to make the summer of 21 a summer of family gatherings. Both sides of our family have set dates for family reunions this summer. We weighed in on the dates selected for both gatherings and expressed our reluctance to gather so soon, but there were other voices. People are eager to get together. The dates were set. We will work around those dates so that we can participate.

A year ago our daughter and her husband did not know where they would be living after they came back to the United States from several years of living in Japan. Now they are settling into their new home in South Carolina. For the record, that is 3,042 miles from where we are living her in Mount Vernon. The distance is a factor because we have several boxes of items, some a bit heavy to ship, others a bit too fragile to ship, that we need to get to them. That is no problem. One of the things we wanted to do in our retirement is to take a few trips with our camper and explore the country.

Planning a 6,000 mile trip with our camper, however, isn’t quite the way we imagined retirement. As recently as 2006, when we took a month to travel with our camper during a sabbatical, we were able to travel without a set schedule. We headed out with a destination in mind, but we were able to camp wherever the end of the day found us. Except for a few holiday weekends, reservations were not needed. Campgrounds were easy to find and there was room for us. A few years later, we learned to estimate where our day might bring us and call ahead to reserve a spot in a campground. We could adjust our travel schedule day by day as circumstances, energy and other factors demanded.

Those days are gone. In order to have a place to stay in a campground, reservations need to be made, often weeks in advance. As we planned our trip to South Carolina, we discovered several campgrounds, including those in South Dakota, were filled. We had to check campground availability and make reservations for each night on the road. This means that an unexpected event might throw off our entire schedule. If we are delayed by even a day, we will lose deposits on campgrounds and be left scrambling to find places to stay. No wonder the parking lots of Wal-Marts and Cabellas have campers parked in them every night.

When I was envisioning retirement, I thought that there might be less schedule and more free time. Now I find myself working out my schedule three months in advance. Yesterday, I struggled to schedule a routine visit to a dermatologist because my August schedule is so packed.

I don’t mean to be complaining. We have a very good life. We have a supportive and loving family. We have the means to take a wonderful trip this summer. We can delay our house hunting until the fall. We have more flexibility in our schedules than many people.

It is just the nature of the times in which we live that we complicate our lives by trying to do too many things in too short a time span. I’ve been doing that all of my life. I guess I shouldn’t expect retirement to be all that much different.

the journey of Moses and the people of Israel from slavery towards the promised land was much shorter in distance than our planned summer trip. It took them forty years and there were a lot of changes in plans over the decades. During that time the people kept forgetting, over and over again, the basic rules they had received regarding the defense of their freedom. They kept making decisions that led them away from their relationship with God and placed restrictions on their newfound freedom. At one point in the trip, they were prepared to sacrifice their newfound freedom to the security of idol worship. They had to learn over and over again how to live as free people.

We tell their story, over and over again, precisely because we also keep making decisions that limit our freedom. We have to learn, over and over again how to live as free people.

The process of becoming retired takes a bit of practice. As much as I thought about retiring before I did, and as much as I planned, I know that there are many adjustments that need to be made. That is true of any plan. Even when we have a schedule and think we know where we will be each day, we need to develop the kind of flexibility that allows us to make changes and to adapt to new ways and new realities.

2021 will be a year of changes for us. We’ll drive a lot of miles. We’ll make the adjustments needed. We’ll make and change plans. We’ll enjoy seeing family and friends. And there will be days when we are tired and feel like we pushed just a little bit too hard. That’s OK with me. I’m not ready to spend my days in a rocking chair on the porch.

Besides, we haven’t found a home with a porch yet.

Life is good

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There have been a lot of conversations among our friends and others about the year 2020. It was, for so many, a difficult year. In March, the pandemic caused so many activities and events to be shut down for a year and more. We have not yet fully returned to our ways of living and doing business that we practiced pre-pandemic. We may never return to all of our pre-pandemic ways. As we near the midway of 2021, conversations are turning to the process of returning to normal. Yesterday, during a virtual fellowship time following worship, we got to talking about what people are looking forward to the most about being fully vaccinated. A common answer was “hugs.” People missed personal contact with those who mean the most to them. Another answer had to do with being able to go out for coffee or a meal.

2020 and 2021 have been challenging years for us in some ways and we certainly don’t want to minimize the loss and sorrow that have accompanied this pandemic. However, the fact that we retired nearly a year ago and we moved during the months following our retirement has meant that we have had stresses and grief that we might have had were there no pandemic. I don’t know how we will remember this past year, but I don’t think our memories will be all bad. There have been some moments of joy and reunion as well as those of sorrow and separation.

Our years are like that. I often cite 2011 as a year of grief for us. Susan and I both lost the last of our parents. I had not fully recovered from the grief of the death of a brother ion 2010. But 2011 was also a year of great joy in our family. Our first grandchild was born. Our daughter was married. We were granted a sabbatical that involved, among other things, some extra time to go for long walks and process our grief and joy. Not everything worked out the way we had planned, but it was a good year for us in some ways even though it was difficult.

Here is one measure of 2021 for us so far. We have four grandchildren. In 2012, we took vacation and were able to be present for the birthday celebration of our oldest grandson. We have made a few other birthdays over the years, including the special joy of being with our son and his family at the time of the birth of their youngest. We planned to be present for the birth of our daughter’s son, but he arrived early so we arrived late. Nonetheless we were able to visit when he was a tiny infant. 2021, however, will be our first year of being able to be present at the birthdays of all of our grandchildren. Yesterday we celebrated the third birthday with our son and his family and plans are in place for us to celebrate our fourth grandchild’s birthday with his family in July. That is a treat that means a lot in a world where people travel so much and we live so far away from parts of our family. We only have two children. One lives in Washington State. The other lives in South Carolina. That’s almost as far apart as you can get in North America. However, we consider ourselves to be lucky. At least they are now both on the same continent, which hasn’t been the case for several years when our daughter lived first in England and later in Japan.

Birthdays are only one way of marking time, but they are times of special memory for us and a good time for thanksgiving. We are so fortunate to have four grandchildren and to have the joy of watching them grow up.

A birthday celebration was only part of our day yesterday. We also had the formal membership welcoming ceremony at our church and became members of our congregation here. Even though the worship was virtual, over FaceBook, we felt warmly welcomed and enjoyed the Zoom fellowship time that followed.

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And, in the evening, after the birthday celebration, we were able to take a walk on the South Bay Trail in Bellingham. It had rained earlier in the day, but we enjoyed a dry walk along the historic walk around Bellingham bay with views of the bay to the west and parts of the city to the east. It was a new trail for us and we only covered about half of it, so we still have another walk of discovery ahead of us, but I am sure that it is a walk to which we will return again and again. It is a convenient stop on the way to or from our son’s farm. The long days are giving us more options in terms of what time of day we take our walk. Since we have made taking a daily walk a discipline of our lives, we have learned to appreciate the time together. Sometimes we have a lot to say and talk with each other for the entire walk. Other days we walk part or much of our walk in silence, appreciating our surroundings and the joy of just being together.

Returning to the question of what we are most anticipating now that we are fully vaccinated, returning to in person worship has to top my list. Our church will have its first limited gathering later this month. I’m eagerly anticipating that, but I know it will take some time before we will fully return to worship at the church building and I also know that for some people worship over the Internet will become the new normal of their lives. Hybrid worship is here to stay and just because the pandemic eases its grip on gatherings does not mean that the church will return to a pre-pandemic way of being. Part of the newness brings excitement. Part of it brings sadness. Life is like that in good years and in bad. Tears of joy mingle with tears of sadness on our cheeks.

Still, life is good. And a worship service, a birthday party, and a walk all remind us of how good we have it.

Membership

When we are baptized, we are baptized into the church universal. That means that by our baptism we become members not only of a specific local congregation, but of the wider church of Jesus Christ. Our baptism is shared across the differences in individual churches. That bit of theology is shared by the majority of Christian churches, but there are a few that do not recognize the baptisms of other church families. It is a long-standing division in the church. Many people think of that division in terms of the method of baptism. Because some congregations practice baptism by total immersion of the body, while most practice baptism by using water symbolically to pour over or touch the person baptized, it has become common to think of that distinction as the difference between churches. Others have come to distinguish believer’s baptism from infant baptism, saying that baptism should be a matter of individual choice and the one baptized must be old enough to make their own choice. The baptism of infants, and indeed of entire families, however, has been a part of the church from its very beginning. These distinctions of method and of age, however, are not at the heart of the ancient controversy. Anabaptists do hold strongly to their convictions about believer’s baptism, but the name given to this part of protestant Christianity comes not from the age of the one baptized, but rather from the practice of repeating baptism for one already baptized. Mainstream Christianity has accepted baptism as a once in a lifetime event. If it is truly a sacrament, then it is beyond the limits of human frailty. Whether or not we performed the act according to a particular ritual or custom is not the point. If it is indeed the Holy Spirit who baptizes, which is what we believe, then our human part in the ceremony is not the important element.

Christians have been arguing about distinctions of baptism for over 500 years, and it is likely that we will continue to have disagreements about it long into the future. Interesting to me, as a member of the United Church of Christ is that our denomination, formed by the union of multiple predecessor denominations, has elements of both mainstream and anabaptist roots. We practice and recognize multiple forms of baptism. Some of our members have been baptized as infants. Some were baptized as youth. Some were baptized as adults. We recognize baptism by sprinkling and pouring and immersion. As a pastor, I have officiated at baptisms in churches with and without immersion tanks. I have officiated at baptisms in streams and lakes and swimming pools. Our denomination recognizes all of these baptisms as valid and meaningful.

I myself was baptized as an infant. I have my original baptismal certificate, signed by Rev. Brentwood Barker, pastor of the church my family attended. As a young teenager, I was confirmed in that same congregation with Rev. Joe LaDu officiating at the ceremony. In our tradition, confirmation of baptism is the act of free association when an individual joins in an equal covenant with a particular congregation. It was the first of several congregations to which I have belonged. When I was in college, I transferred my membership to a congregation in the town where we went to college. It was in that congregation that we were married and we kept our membership in that congregation when we went away to seminary.

Ministers of the United Church of Christ belong to the local congregations that they are called to serve, so my membership has been transferred to each of the congregations into which I was installed as pastor: Reeder and Hettinger Congregational United Churches in North Dakota, Wright Community Congregational United Church of Christ in Boise, Idaho, and First Congregational United Church of Christ in Rapid City, South Dakota. In the normal course of our lives, we would have already changed our membership to the congregation we participate in here, but the pandemic has meant that the process has taken a bit longer than usual. So today is the day of our formal covenant with First Congregational United Church of Christ in Bellingham, Washington. We will be formally received into membership in this morning’s service. Because this congregation is still meeting virtually due to the ongoing pandemic, the process has been a bit unusual. We actually spoke our part of the covenant in a zoom conference a couple of weeks ago. That recording will be played and the congregation will speak their part of the covenant in this morning’s worship service. Because the service is virtual, some members will be participating live while others will view the service at another time during the week. It certainly isn’t the same as being there in person, but we feel that we are being warmly received and are looking forward to both the worship service and the virtual fellowship hour that will follow.

There is a bit of sadness in having transferred our membership from our Rapid City Congregation. There has been a bit of sadness in each of the other times that I have transferred my membership. I become attached to congregations. I have belonged to 1st Congregational United Church of Christ in Rapid City, South Dakota longer than I have belonged to any other congregation. Transferring my membership, however, does not disconnect me from that congregation. We believe that we are all part of the larger church universal. My baptism has been fully recognized in each congregation that I have joined in this life’s journey.

Through the asynchronicity of virtual worship, our membership certificates arrived by mail earlier this week so we would have them this morning. We are newcomers to a congregation with a long and courageous history. We have much to learn about this specific congregation and we are longing for the return to in person worship, which will begin in this congregation in three weeks on June 27.

The prophet Isaiah spoke of God’s continual creation with words that are often quoted in reference to Jesus: “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” (Isaiah 43:19).

Today is a day of a new thing for us.

5 senses prayer

There is a prayer that I like to include in my meditations called the five senses prayer. One simple form it goes like this:
Bring to your mind five things that you can see. Give thanks for each individually.
Focus your attention on four things that you can hear. Offer a thanksgiving for each.
Pay attention to three things that you can smell. Express your gratitude for each.
Name two things that you can touch. Say thank you for each.
Savor one thing that you can taste. Thank God for it.

It seems like it might be a very ancient prayer. I don’t know. Awareness of one’s body and what goes on with it has been a part of prayer for millennia. Counting five senses is a common understanding of human perception. Aristotle, who lived in the fourth century BC, enumerated five senses in his work “De Anima.”

Not every person is capable of experiencing the prayer the way that I do. Those who are blind might choose not to include vision. Those who are deaf might not include hearing. There has been much information about how the disease caused by the COVID-19 virus causes a lessening or even a loss of the senses of smell and taste. And there is no magic or ancient tradition about the order of the senses in the prayer. I suppose I have a preference for saving taste to the last simply because I have a tendency to over eat and so a prayer that keeps the number of things I taste to a minimum is a good idea. One certainly could prayer the senses in a different order on different days. Then there is the fact that neurologists tell us that we have as many as 21 senses. We can sense heat. It is called thermoception. Some scientists believe that the sense of cold is a separate sense. The perception of pain is called nociception. Equilibrioception is the perception of balance. There are other senses, such as body awareness. Can you close your eyes and touch your nose on the first try?

We use the word “sense” in other ways as well. We speak of a sense of direction. We say we can feel a sense of the presence of the Holy.

There is, however, a power in the simple prayer. I am writing in the early hours when it is dark outside. I have a lamp on my desk, but the other lights in our home are not turned on. It is cloudy and there is little light outside of the window. My eyes are adjusted to looking at the bright screen of the computer monitor. But I can easily bring to mind my senses.

I can see the pictures of my grandchildren that I keep rotating on my computer desktop.
I can see the papers on my desk. They remind me of work that is undone.
I can see the pantry shelves filled with food staples and spices.
I can see the dining table that welcomes family and friends to share a meal.
I can see a light on in the home of a neighbor across the street.

I can hear the ticking of a clock.
I can hear the murmur of a quiet conversation of neighbors who are up late.
I can hear a dog barking in the distance.
I can hear the clicks of my keyboard as I type.

I can smell the wet grass in the yard outside my window.
I can smell the roses growing next to the house.
I can smell the vinegar in a spray bottle of home-mixed cleanser.

I can touch the firmest of the old oak library table that is my desk.
I can touch my own cheek and feel my beard.

I can taste cool water from my glass.

One of the things about the prayer is that the world in which we pray is constantly changing. Just now the refrigerator came on behind me. I can no longer distinguish the sound of voices from the neighbors. The dog has ceased its barking. The wind has shifted and I can’t distinguish the subtle scent of the roses. My eyes are drawn to sights I did not list above. Each time I pray the prayer it is different from previous prayers.

It has been twenty years since I suffered burns on my hands, chest and face in an accident. As burns go, it wasn’t very bad. My burns were mostly first and second degree.Other than having a long ambulance ride to the hospital, a lengthy process of debridement of my hands and arms, and a brush with dehydration, I did not suffer much. Still, I used prayers to help me manage the pain and the dermatologist who provided my follow-up care commented about my “zen state of mind” when he changed bandages and probed. I am no expert in buddhism and I didn’t experience it as zen, but I know that focusing on my breathing and saying a breath prayer helped me get through the experience. It was during that time that I prayed the five senses prayer daily. It makes me giggle now to remember because for about ten days the strongest smell I experienced was the unpleasant smell of my singed beard and mustache. It lingered in my nose much longer than I expected. Somehow, however, I could smell other things as well. The silver sulfadiazine cream had a soothing aroma and was cool to touch.

Paying attention to my senses through that experience reminded me of the same thing I notice when I pray the 5 senses prayer today. It is good to be alive. It is good to be able to sense the world around me. There is much for which I am deeply grateful. Even in the times of pain and grief and anxiety, life continues with things to see, hear, smell, touch and taste. Sometimes just being able to focus my mind on another sense provides a way to journey through the pain.

For the senses I have, however many, I am indeed grateful.

Looking up

Not long ago we were walking and my gaze went upward to the canopy of trees overhead. At the same time as I was enjoying the overhead view, I was aware that looking up while walking was affecting my balance. I had to redirect my vision back to my own level to keep myself from staggering. It was an experience that I have had thousands of times before. I think I’ve been looking up towards the sky all of my life. Among my earliest memories is looking up to see an airplane as I heard the sound of its passing. The prevailing winds in my hometown meant that most of the town was two to three miles off of the approach end of the prevailing runway. The result was that the lowest flying airplanes we heard and saw were often heading to land at our airport and my father was the manager of the airport. He also was the pilot who flew the most in and out of that airport. I learned, at a very early age, to identify the airplanes he flew and knew that seeing his airplane come towards the airport meant that he would soon be home.

One of the things I notice about our new home is that I don’t look up at the night sky quite as often as was the case in our South Dakota Home. In South Dakota, we lived at the edge of town. In fact our home was outside of the city limits until it was annexed during the last few years we lived there. Our neighborhood didn’t have street lights. The view of the night sky from our yard was glorious. I loved looking up and identifying stars and planets. Here, in our new home, our backyard is smaller. There are more lights from neighbors’ homes and street lights. And there are clouds in the sky more often. The combination has resulted in a slight change in my behavior when it comes to looking at the sky.

Still, I look up quite a bit. Planes landing at Skagit Regional Airport often fly over town on their way. Fighter jets from Naval Air Station Whidbey Island make turns over town. And the summer weather has meant fewer clouds in the sky.

When we look up at the night sky from a relatively dark place, we can literally see trillions of miles. We can see light that has traveled across the galaxy and even farther across the universe. Some of that light has been traveling for thousands of years. Scientists tell us that the unaided human eye can see a supergiant star in the constellation Cassiopeia that is a little over 4000 light years away. That is a lot of distance.

When we look down at our feet, however, we can’t see very far at all. The roots of the grass in the lawn are just a few inches beneath our feet, but we cannot see them unless we take time to dig and even then we rarely go more than a short distance. I dug a few holes for fence posts this spring. The deepest was probably only about 3 feet deep. Unless I visit a cave that has been opened to tourists, I rarely get a glimpse at what is beneath the surface of the ground. I can see a bit deeper into the water, but I’ve never been in a vehicle that could travel deep underwater. My eyes have only seen things near the surface.

It probably should not surprise us that people think of heaven as being up in the sky and hell as being down under the earth. Those images have been a part of human thought for millennia. No doubt it has something to do with burial customs. Many cultures have cared for the bodies of deceased loved ones by placing them in the ground. Burial keeps above ground scavengers such as rats and birds from eating the body. Burial keeps the smell of decomposition from reaching the surface. Once buried, the body of the loved one can no longer be seen, but people continue to imagine what has happened to that person. Because the presence of breathing is one of the ways we know that a person is alive, it is easy to imagine that the breath - the spirit - of the loved one has left the body. The spirit goes into the air like the wind that we feel. The body goes into the ground where we know it decomposes. Imagery of heaven and hell come to mind.

I am no expert on what happens to us when we die. Although I’ve had my share of experiences with those who are dying, I can only say that death is a mystery. I don’t know exactly what it will feel like to die. I don’t know what will happen to me after I die. My faith, however. convinces me that death is not the end. That same faith, however, does not lead me to the images of Dante’s Inferno. It does not make me imagine streets paved in gold or angels playing harps while floating among the clouds. When I think of life beyond death I don’t think in terms of place or of the physical surroundings. I think of love that never dies. I think of relationships that are more precious than anything that can be owned.

As such, I guess I’m not a very good preacher of heaven and hell. I find no reason to come up with frightening images to scare non believers. I am content with sharing the stories of our people about the love of God.

There are a couple of old small cars that drive around Mount Vernon that are painted with expressions of the faith of the owner. I know they have the same driver because it is someone our son has met. One of those cars has a large sign attached to the roof that says, “Hell is real.” I’m pretty sure the driver of the car could give a description of how that person imagines hell to be. I suspect that the description would involve fire and probably devils with pointed tails and pitchforks. I don’t find seeing the cars to inspire me. Looking at the night stars is much more inviting. For now, I think I’ll keep looking up.

Memory

Memory is a fascinating phenomenon to me. Perhaps I notice my memory more these days as I move deeper into the process of aging and am aware that my memory is not as good as it once was. It is something that I have known for a very long time. When I was a youngster, my memory produced more reliable results than it did when I grew older. I can play my entire 4th grade piano recital piece from memory. I have been able to remember that piece of music since I memorized it as a child who was a year younger than our oldest grandchild. I have excellent recall of the 23rd Psalm, which I memorized around the same time. I can recite the Lord’s Prayer, the beginning of the Gettysburg Address, the opening of the Preamble of the Constitution, the opening lines of the Declaration of Independence and several other things I memorized as a child.

Things that I memorized at an older age are harder for me to recall. I’ve memorized countless passages of scripture to use in a single sermon. I could recite them when I delivered the sermon, but cannot do so a week later. I did, as an adult, memorize the birth narrative of Jesus from the Gospel of Luke and the prologue to the Gospel of John. I can recite both, but if you were to read along, you would discover that it isn’t the same kind of word for word accuracy with which I have memorized the Lord’s prayer or the verses of “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee.” I know the first verses to dozens and dozens of hymns, but can’t recall the second verses of a large percentage of them. I know the first lines of lots of show tunes, but cannot sing the whole song.

A couple of years ago I discovered that my memory of childhood items isn’t quite as accurate as I thought it was. Cleaning out my mother’s piano bench, I ran across the sheet music to that 4th grade piano recital song. I opened the music and discovered that I had forgotten a whole section of the song. Now I wonder if I remembered that part of the piece when I played it at my 4th grade recital, or if I played it the way I play it from memory now.

I know that my childhood memory is not flawless. It is either that or my brother didn’t grow up in the same house as I, or perhaps he is the biggest liar I ever met. We have divergent memories of the same events from our childhood. Perspective makes a bit difference when it comes to what is remembered.

Much of what I remember comes to me in words. I am a storyteller and I recall stories in words. I also have a fair memory for tune and verse. I can recall a lot of songs. Sometimes, however, memories come to me as bursts of emotion. I remember how something felt. It happened to me twice yesterday.

The first memory was triggered by a bike ride with our nearly seven-year-old granddaughter. We have sought opportunities to have our three oldest grandchildren visit us one at a time, so that we can give special attention to them individually and so that we can get to know them better. Yesterday, our granddaughter was brought to our home by her father on his way to work and stayed until he picked her up on his way home. She baked muffins with her grandmother, did crafts, played games and fixed lunch. She and I went on a six-mile bike ride. She was dressed in pink and as I rode my bike behind her I noticed the bits of blond hair sticking out of the back of her bicycle helmet. That glimpse triggered a strong memory of riding bikes with our daughter when she was young. Our daughter was an early riser as am I, so we would get up while her brother and mother were still sleeping. Sometimes we would go ride our bikes. We liked to go out for breakfast on our bikes. I would have her go in front, so I could keep my eyes on her and remain aware of exactly where she was at all times. I guess I stared at her blond hair poking out of her bike helmet. Yesterday as I watched our granddaughter I was flooded with very pleasant memories with all of the emotions included.

Later, in the evening, after she had gone home, I participated in a Zoom class with members of our church. Another member of the group reported spending much of the previous night in the emergency room. His heart had been racing and they rushed him into the ER and attached a heart monitor while doctors and others scrambled to figure out the best way to provide treatment. Eventually he was allowed to go home, but instructed to rest until his appointment with a heart specialist which will occur this morning. He didn’t tell us many details of his experience, but asked for our prayers. As he described his experience, however, it triggered my memory of when my wife was admitted to the hospital with a heart rate of 185 in Atrial Fibrillation. I remembered how frightened I was. I remembered the next couple of weeks and the panic we had during her treatment. Eventually the treatment was successful, but I was as frightened as I have ever been along the way. Hearing my friend describe his condition, which is not the same, triggered that memory and emotion flooded over me as surely as it did when I was watching our granddaughter earlier in the day.

Memory is a gift. The collective memories of our people is a gift. We are fortunate to know a bit of our history and of the things that hold us together as a people. Recall of emotions is a precious experience. the older I become, the more memories I have to recall. There is great comfort in knowing that I have much to remember twinged with a bit of fear because I know how much have already forgotten. Sometimes, however, just the right event or experience will trigger a memory. For that I am deeply grateful.

House hunting - sort of

There is a headline in the online version of the Washington Post this morning that says, “$1 million over asking: D.C. bidding wars escalate as U.S. housing crunch intensifies.” I didn’t read the article. There is no need. I’m convinced that the houses in the article aren’t the right home for us. First of all, there is the obvious. We re looking for a place to live in Washington State, not Washington, DC. Secondly, we aren’t planning on spending a million, much less a million over the asking price, not that we could if we wanted to.

We have been very fortunate when it comes to housing. The rent for our first apartment, after our wedding, was not measured in dollars and cents. We traded janitorial services for the building for our rent. We could afford it because we were young and energetic. Even though we were both full-time students and I had a part-time job, we didn’t have trouble finding time and energy to do the work. We got pretty good at running a vacuum cleaner and scrubbing bathrooms. We could wash windows and replace light bulbs quickly. I learned to bleed the air out of a steam boiler system in a three-story building pretty quickly. A little care avoids burned fingers. Burned fingers teach you how to avoid future burns.

Our graduate school required us to live at the school. Because we were married that meant that we would live in a one-bedroom efficiency apartment in a building owned by the school. The next year, we went together with other students and rented a house next door, also owned by the school. Summers we lived in a cabin provided by our summer job - managing Camp Mimanagish in Montana. Life doesn’t get much better than living in a cabin in a beautiful mountain valley provided as part of your job. After graduation, we lived in a parsonage for seven years. You don’t earn any equity that way, but the rent is just right. The fact that the church owned the parsonage meant that they could afford to pay our salary and benefits, which was a good thing. These days health insurance premiums exceed our total salary package in that job. A lot of churches have sold their parsonages.

Moving into a community as a pastor, it was easy to find a realtor who belonged to the congregation. From there, we had an agent who was invested in helping us find a place that would work and that we could afford. In two different callings, that worked well for us.

And now, we have found a house that belongs to a couple who have moved to be closer to their grandchildren. They have a son who is in the rental management business, so with his advice and help, they bypassed rental management and are dealing with us directly. It works well for them and it works well for us.

We’re shopping for a place to live, and we realize that the inventory of homes for sale is rather low at the moment and that it may take us some time. We also know that we will continue to revise our vision of what we can afford and how much space we need, but that is a good process, too. After all, we don’t need to find a lot of homes. One will be enough.

Yesterday we had a zoom conference with a few of the leaders of our new church and one of them told us, “I heard you were looking for a place to live in Ferndale. We live in Ferndale, and I keep seeing ‘for sale’ signs and thinking, ‘that might be a good place for them to live.’” We also have met another church member who is a realtor. We’re pretty sure that our church connections will once again be a help as we seek a place to live.

Most importantly, we don’t have to panic. Our rental situation is very comfortable. Our landlords are willing to rent to us month by month once the lease ends.

Still, I’m a bit nervous when I see headlines or stories that talk of bidding wars and people paying over asking price for a home. I have no experience working in that market. The two homes that we have bought in our lives were purchased after a short negotiation following an initial offer that was slightly lower than the asking price. When we sold those homes, they both sold for our asking price. We are used to figuring out a fair price and using the concept of fairness when it comes to making a deal. Once, a few years ago, a car salesman refused my initial offer of a price and refused to negotiate any discount from his asking price. I thanked him and said, “It’s your car. You don’t have to sell it to me.” I found another dealer and another vehicle and I don’t think anyone got upset. The other dealer accepted my first offer, which was lower than the asking price. It is how the game is played in my experience. My father, who was a machinery dealer once told me, “Customers have the book. They can tell how much we are making on a deal. A reputation for excessive profit can do a lot of damage to a business. It’s OK to make money, just be reasonable about it.”

So we may find a house that we like but that isn’t for sale to us on our terms. We like to take time to make our decisions and we like fair negotiation. We just aren’t candidates for a bidding war. I’m not worried. At lest, I’m not very worried.

So rather than spend a lot of time in the next couple of months looking at houses, I think we’ll invest our time and energy in building relationships in the church. They are likely to be the best way for us to find the right place to live on the right terms. People make all the difference in the world and we have the opportunity to meet and work with some very good people. Maybe the woman who keeps thinking “that might be a good place fo them to live,” will find just the right place.

The bell

I’m not practiced at remembering my dreams. I know that for those who pay attention, the skill of remembering dreams can increase. Throughout the history of modern psychology, researchers have learned to interpret many meanings from dreams and there is much that can be learned from them. Long before such notions were a part of the practice of medicine, long before modern scientific medicine existed, dreams were important in the lives of people. The Bible tells of Joseph’s capacity to interpret dreams and how it saved his life and later the lives of his brothers when they went to Egypt to escape starvation during a drought and famine. For millennia, we have believed that the voice of God can be heard in dreams.

Somehow, however, I haven’t been very interested in dreams. The dreams that I do remember are occasionally mildly entertaining, with silly bits of story. My dreams are nearly always incomplete, due, I suspect to my lack of practice at remembering them. Somehow, the notion of developing a discipline of remembering dreams, such as keeping a dream journal, seems to me to risk interrupting the free flow of dream ideas that allows my brain to relax and process memories. I don’t need to remember my dreams in order for my brain to do its work of processing memory.

Occasionally, however, a dream comes to my mind with a kind of freshness that makes me notice.

I’ve been dreaming of the church bell for a couple of nights in a row. I awoke a little while ago practically convinced that I had been hearing the bell from the tower of 1st Congregational United Church of Christ in Rapid City, South Dakota. I know that is impossible. And I don’t think that any of the churches in our neighborhood have a bell. If they do, they certainly don’t ring them regularly as was the case back in our church in South Dakota. In my dream, however, the bell was ringing as clearly as it does from that steeple. The sound in my dream, however, wasn’t the clear ringing that echoes off of the black hills and is heard by the neighbors. It included the thumping of the clapper mechanism that you could hear from inside the building. For a quarter of a century, I mostly heard the bell from inside the building.

The bell was a treasure that was obtained through a lot of hard work and effort. I can’t remember the whole history of the bell, but obtaining it was part of the process of building the current church building in 1959. The bell was imported and it was heavy. Getting it into the tower was quite a process in a time before modern truck-mounted cranes were readily available. Installed along with the bell was a mechanism that provided two ways of ringing the bell. A ringing clapper hangs inside of the bell and strikes the side of the bell when the bell is rocked back and forth by an electric motor. A tolling clapper strikes the bell in a static position and is also driven by a separate electric motor. The clappers are controlled by a clock that is installed in the sacristy of the church. The clock, also dating back to 1959 is an electric-mechanical device that has multiple settings for automatic ringing of the bell. It is a seven day, 24 hour clock that can be set only by moving the hands forward. That means that in the spring, when Daylight Savings Time comes, you move the hand exactly one hour forward. When setting the clock was my responsibility, I used an external clock to make sure that I set it accurately. In the fall, however, it would take a long time to rotate those hands around the clock for 24 hours for six days and 23 hours for the seventh to get it set “back.” The hands cannot be moved backwards. Instead, the practice is to turn off the breaker for the clock at the main distribution panel in the church basement, wait a little more than an hour, turn back on the power and set the clock. If you forget, the bell is going to ring at the wrong time.

During my time at the church, the clock was set to ring the bell at 6 pm on Saturday and at 9:00 am and 9:30 am on Sunday. We also rang it at midnight on Christmas Eve to greet the Christmas morn. It was occasionally tolled at funerals as well. It usually worked, but sometimes there would be a glitch. Sometimes the bell would fail to ring. Other times it would ring for a longer than usual time. Several times, when the representative of the bell company would be in town, I asked them to evaluate the problem. Because the problem was inconsistent, I believed that it probably had to do with a lack of lubrication and regular maintenance of the mechanism in the steeple that actually rang the bell. The company representatives, however, usually thought the clock was to blame. They offered a new digital clock that was easy to set, had a battery back-up for power failures, and gave more precise control of the bell. Unconvinced that this would solve the problem, and seeing no issues with the existing clock, I never felt it was a good investment of the church’s funds to replace the clock. I know, from conversations with church members that some problems with the bell clock remain.

As problematic as it was, I miss the bell. After so many years of working in an office beneath that steeple, there is no bell in my life these days. But I don’t know why it is ringing in my dreams. Maybe it is part of my brain processing the grief of the end of a career that I loved and enjoyed. Maybe it is connected to my missing the people of that church, whose lives inspired and challenged my faith. Maybe it is just missing a routine.

I don’t think I need to figure it out. I like the bell. Having it appear in my dreams is pleasant. I’m just going to sleep on this one.