Memorial Day

It is a holiday born of necessity. In contemporary America, we think of the last Monday of May, Memorial Day, as the official start of summer with picnics, trips to the lake, and the launch of political campaigns. Our cemeteries are decorated with flags and a few families take time to visit the graves of loved ones and decorate them with flowers. The passage of many years has dulled the intensity of the pain from which the day originated.

The Civil War left the nation battered and grieving. The single bloodiest military conflict in American history left 600,000 to 800,000 human bodies that needed to be buried. It affected millions of families who had the personal grief of the loss of a loved one. The numbers are huge and they are not precise. In addition to those who died in the heat and confusion of battle, their bodies torn by bullets, many more died after having survived the battle, succumbing to infection that doctors had not yet learned to cure effectively. Still others died of spreading disease and contagion and even exposure living in hastily erected camps for prisoners of war.

From the massiveness of the collective grief of so many people, there was a need for a holiday to remember, to grieve, and to honor those who had fallen. Despite the deep pain of loss, those who had survived knew the need to remember if only for the reason that such a terrible event might be prevented in the future. The simple urge to not forget, but to remember cried out for a national holiday.

The national holiday, however, took many, many years to emerge. Observed in many different communities with many different traditions, some national unity emerged. Shortly after the Civil War, General John A. Logan, head of a group of northern wear veterans, called for a national day of remembrance. He chose May 30 for the day because it was not the date of any specific battle. That year, General James Garfield made a speech at Arlington National Cemetery, itself established to provide a resting place for 20,000 Civil War soldiers. By 1890 Decoration Day was an official state holiday in all of the Northern States. Different dates for honoring the dead continued in the south until after World War 1.

That great war added a layer of grief to the national psyche. The holiday evolved. Subsequent wars, including World War II, The Korean War, The War in Vietnam, and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan added layer upon layer of grief.

More than a century after the Civil War, the national Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which established Memorial Day as the last Monday in May, creating a three-day weekend for many employees. That change went into effect in 1971 and established Memorial Day as a national holiday.

The passage of so many years and the layering of so much grief obscured the history of the original commemorations. In 1966 the federal government declared Waterloo, New York to be the official birthplace of Memorial Day. Historians now believe that Waterloo’s first observance on May 5, 1966, was not, however, the earliest observance of the holiday.

In the late stages of the Civil War, the Confederate army transformed a formerly posh country club, the Washington Race Course and Jockey Club, into a makeshift prison for Union captives. More than 260 Union soldiers died from disease and exposure while being held in the open air infield of the racecourse. Their bodies were hastily buried in a mass grave behind the grandstands.

When Charleston fell and the Confederate troops evacuated, freed slaves remained behind. One of the first things those freed slaves did was to exhume the mass grave and renter the bodies in a new cemetery. It had a tall whitewashed fence inscribed with the words: “Martyrs of the Race Course.” Then something remarkable happened. Reported both in The New York Tribune and the Charleston Courier, a crowd of 10,000 people, mostly freed slaves along with a few white missionaries, staged a parade around the race track. As many as 3,000 children carried bouquets of flowers. Ministers recited verses from the Bible. The date was may 1, 1865, a year before the Waterloo observance.

Layers of grief have left layers of stories and not every memory is the same. The passage of time has left us without any first generation witnesses, but it is clear that the national day emerged from the grief of many for the deaths of loved ones in war. It is also clear that from the beginning ministers sought to walk with others who grieved and to bring meaning from the deep loss and sadness. A national holiday is distinct from a religious holiday. Nonetheless, religion has been a part of the national observance from the beginning. Sharing grief is always a religious experience.

A short walk from our home is the community cemetery in Mount Vernon. Our newly adopted town was not organized when the Civil War occurred. The town was first platted in 1877 after Harrison Clotheir purchased 5 acres from Jasper Gates for $100 to establish a town site. Gates was among the earliest recorded settlers, who arrived in 1870. At that time enormous log jams blocked the Skagit River near here and blocked navigation further upstream. The low-lying area was not chosen as a dwelling place by the indigenous people, but the often-flooded lowlands offered rich soil for many crops and was desired by settlers.

Still, on this Memorial Day, our cemetery is decorated with avenues of flags. There is a small section of the cemetery with military markers, where those who died in World War I and subsequent wars are buried. A few miles farther north, at the Enterprise Cemetery near our son’s farm the avenue of US flags sports a single Canadian flag commemorating the presence of Canadian war veterans whose families’ farms spanned the border.

Today we will remember. And grieve a bit more. So much has been lost to the ravages of war. So high a price has been paid before our time. And we will pray. It is what ministers have always done in the face of grief. Long before the wars of our country we discovered that death is not the final word on the condition of the human spirit. For that we thank God.

Trinity

In the Christian Church, the calendar goes through a cycle of festivals and occasions that repeat each year. Advent is a season of preparation during which we read the words of the prophets and tell the stories of the family of Jesus. Christmas is a celebration of the human birth of the Christ child and of events in his early life. Epiphany celebrates the visit of the magi to the child and the spreading of the gospel beyond the Jewish community to the wider world. Lent recalls the life and ministry of Jesus and invites the faithful to think of Jesus’ humanity. It comes to four during Holy Week when the church prepares for seasons of grief and loss as believers face their own mortality and hear the stories of Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion. Easter is the festival of resurrection and the joy of knowing that death is not the end of our human story. Pentecost celebrates the birth of the church and the gift of the Holy Spirit. It is the longest season of the Christian year and parts of Pentecost are recognized as ordinary time. Then the process begins again with Advent.

In general, the festivals of our faith follow the events of the life of Jesus - his birth, his growth to maturity, his trials and temptations, his ministry and miracles, his crucifixion and his resurrection. Pentecost is anchored in the story of an event in the life of the early church when its message and mission were revealed.

In that cycle, on the day of Pentecost in the eastern tradition and on the Sunday following Pentecost in the western church, there is a festival that is distinct. Trinity Sunday doesn’t celebrate an event in the history of the church, but rather an idea, a concept, a doctrine.

The stories of our people are filled with occasions when we failed to fully understand God’s nature and relationships in the world. When Moses went up on the mountain to confer with God and learn how the great commandments provided a way to human freedom, the people tried to make their religion into a simple matter of having an object to worship. They embraced a series of lies about having an idol. Moses, speaking for God, had to call the people away from those idols to return to worshiping the God of freedom. God is more complex than just an image to draw the people together. God is invested in human freedom and does not demand that the people be enslaved to a narrow set of concepts.

In the time of Jesus, there were faithful people who wanted to reduce the practice of faith to a narrow set of rules and regulations as if the complexity of the relationship with God could be externally judged and regulated. Jesus, through parables and sermons, invited believers to embrace a more complex relationship with God.

We humans have a tendency to reduce God to our own projections. Since we are created in the image of God, God must be like us and want the same things we want. Other people should be like us. It is a dangerous idea that leads us away from true freedom.

On Trinity Sunday we are reminded again that God is not a singular concept, but an unfathomable mystery. God is in essence, at the very core, relationship. The historic words of the trinity proclamation express that relationship: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, One-in-Three and Three-in One. The use of family words helps us understand that the love embodied in God is similar to the love of family. The attachment of gender to God by the use of the word “father” can be a barrier to understanding the trinity. Many theologians prefer the use of Creator in place of Father to more fully express the complexity of God’s relational character. The traditional formula, however, remains a part of the worship life of the church and is used in baptism.

The celebration of Trinity Sunday is a reminder that every day is a day to celebrate God’s deep and abiding relationship with human life. God who works through creation to bring new life is also God who comes to us in human form and is also God who descends as Spirit to infuse our individual and communal lives. God is all of this and more. Whenever we declare that we fully understand God, know God’s will and purpose, or possess God in ways that others do not, we need to be reminded of Trinity Sunday. God isn’t ours to possess or understand or know in the sense that we embrace other ideas. God is holy mystery of relationship within relationship. God is not just one thing, but rather everything.

My human father used to repeat an aphorism that he probably heard as a child, perhaps from another family member: “If you think you’re a saint, you ain’t.” Part of a saintly life is the humility to admit that there is still much to be learned and ways to be better as a person. When we think that we fully understand God, the god we are understanding is only part of the complete nature of God. There is always more to be learned and more to be revealed. Trinity Sunday is an invitation to embrace the process of learning and growing in faith.

In the church we accept faith formation as a lifelong process, not a single task. We don’t so much graduate from Sunday School as mature into a life of learning and growing in faith. Each day is an opportunity to discover more of the power and presence of God in our lives and in our world. Church leaders are constantly discovering new ways to express faith in worship, new ways to engage faith in mission and ministry, and new ways to share Gods love in extravagant hospitality.

Happy Trinity Sunday. May it be for you the beginning of a new chapter of discovery. May the mystery of God surprise and amaze you today and every day of your life.

A horror of history

Our neighbors to the north of us are wrestling with a grim and shameful discovery. Just to the east of the Cascade range in British Canada, a little over 200 miles from where we live is the city of Kamloops. It is a beautiful place to visit. We have enjoyed that part of British Columbia whenever we have had the opportunity to travel there. In 2006, we camped not far from Kamloops and enjoyed the scenic beauty of the Canadian mountains.

Kamloops has a bit of troubled history. The Kamloops Indian Residential School was opened by the Roman Catholic Church, under the authority of the Canadian government in 1890. It was operated by the church until 1960, when the central government took over administration, operating it as a residence for local students until 1978, when the school was closed. To some that may seem like a bit of ancient history, but I am reminded that the school was closed the year we graduated from seminary. To put it into perspective, there were students at the school who were the same age as I was. At the peak of its operation in the 1950s there were as many as 500 students enrolled in the residential school.

On the surface, it seemed like a good idea to many people at the time. The decline of the space and resources for subsistence living had resulted in dramatic poverty among indigenous people. Children were hungry. Traditional methods of education had been destroyed by the advance of settlers, the taking of traditional lands and the ravages of illness and addiction. Well-meaning Christian church members donated to the schools after seeing pictures of neat rows of well-groomed children sitting at desks and studying. They received hand-made craft items as mementos of their donations. The boarding schools, however, had a much darker side. Children were forced to attend. They were literally stolen from their families in what was an official government policy of forced assimilation. Their languages were forbidden. Their traditional dress and hair was taken from them. It was, as stated in the the Truth and Reconciliation report, released in 2015, “cultural genocide.”

In 2008, the Canadian government formally apologized for the system and launched a commission to document its impacts.

It was not better south of the border, though the process of uncovering the stories of Indian Boarding Schools in the United States has lagged behind that in Canada.

In Canada, the Missing Children Project seeks to document the deaths and burial places of children who died while attending the schools. Many of the residential schools had formal cemeteries and documented the deaths of children. To date, more than 4,100 children who died while attending residential school have been identified.

In Kamloops, the deaths of children were hidden. The day before yesterday the chief of the Tk’emlups the Secwepemc First Nation announced that a mass grave containing the remains of 215 children has been found on the grounds of the Kamloops Indian Residential School. More research is being conducted, but it appears that none of the deaths were officially recorded. No documentation referring to the dead children has yet been found. The site was discovered by using ground penetrating radar.

215 children. Hundreds and hundreds of grieving relatives who lost their children and never received any information about what happened to them. The weight of the tragedy is unthinkable. Respect and love for the lost children and their families, however, demands that as much of the truth as possible be discovered. The tribe is reaching out to the home communities whose children attended the school and they expect to have preliminary findings within a month. British Columbia’s chief coroner Lisa Lapointe has announced that her office is “early in the process of gathering information.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tweeted: “The news that remains were found at the former Kamloops residential school breaks my heart - it is a painful reminder of that dark and shameful chapter of our country’s history. I am thinking about everyone affected by this distressing news. We are here for you.

As shocked and horrified as I am by the news from Kamloops, I know that I must resist the temptation to distance myself from that piece of history. I can say, “That was Canada, I live in the United States.” I can say, “It was the Roman Catholic Church. I served the United Church of Christ.” But the truth is that my country and my church participated in the process of indigenous boarding schools. In the northeast corner of Nebraska, the Santee Normal Training School was founded by Alfred L. Riggs, a minister of the American Board of Commissioners, part of the Congregational Church, in 1870. The school operated until 1930 with an average attendance of 69 students. The official roll totals 2,398 children. From 1893 until 1930, the school was operated by the American Missionary Association, part of the Department of Homeland Ministries of the Congregational Church, the predecessor denomination of the church I served. I have visited the site of the Santee School and have met a few adults who attended the school as children.

Indian boarding schools are part of my country’s history and part of the history of my church. What we know of the Santee School is that it was one of the more enlightened schools where indigenous languages were allowed. Riggs himself was responsible for preserving the language through his participation in the publication of a Dakota hymnal and a Dakota translation of the Bible. The Dakota Odowan is the preferred hymnal of Lakota, Dakota and Dakota peoples in the midwest to this day. Still there were families separated and the school attempted to assimilate indigenous children into mainstream culture. And it is the story of the church I have loved and served.

As painful as the history is, I respect the continuing efforts to discover and tell the truth of Indian boarding schools. We cannot continue to hide the truth. The deep pain and grief can only come to healing when we understand and accept the honest history of the places where we live. May the survivors and their families find some peace in the process of truth and reconciliation.

The moon and tides

According to several different web sites and news sources, a “Super blood Moon” has lit up the skies and dazzled observers around the world. It involves two rare celestial events coinciding. The moon appears to be bigger than usual because it is, in fact, closer to the earth than is often the case. The orbit of the moon is elliptical and so there are times when it is closer and other times when it is farther away. The orangey-red color is the result of an eclipse, which much of the world viewed as partial, yet the color appears as the shadow of the earth is cast upon the moon. This type of eclipse happens when the earth, moon, and sun are very closely aligned, with the earth in the middle, which leaves the moon in its shadow. The total eclipse was seen across the Pacific, from North and South America to Australia, with other locations on the globe seeing a partial lunar eclipse.

I did not see the super blood moon. It has been partially cloudy around here almost every night and so I missed the heavenly treat this time. I have been aware of the variations in the appearance of the moon for much of my life and have seen super moons and a few blood moons, though I don’t remember the use of those terms from years ago. We just called a moon that appeared closer and larger a harvest moon and the variations in color were just part of looking at the moon. Other factors such as dust or smoke in the air can affect the color of the moon and it generally appears to be more yellow-orange when it is near the horizon and more white when it is higher in the sky. I just take the word of reporters and scientists that some of these occurrences are rare. It doesn’t seem that the phenomena of super moons or blood moons is all that unusual if you pay attention.

Nonetheless, the moon is at its closest to the earth that it will be for the rest of this year at least and that is, I guess, worth noting. Out here, as opposed to where we used to live in the middle of the continent, there is another effect. The closeness of the moon means that the coast is experiencing the lowest tides of the year. The Salish Sea is showing off all kinds of sea life in tidal pools and mudflats during the extra low tides. We are far enough away from the coast that I haven’t been paying much attention to the tides, but close enough that there are tidal charts available in the hardware stores and other places frequented by those interested in fishing and seeking clams and crabs and other ocean food.

The local NPR station has announced times and places where experts from the Seattle Aquarium and students and professors from local universities are available to guide tours of tidal areas for those interested in learning more about sea life. It warned listeners to be careful and aware of the tides and to be sure to leave all marine life where they find it and not disrupt sea stars or other creatures.

So far, I’ve done little but observe the tides from a pretty good distance. I’m learning about other phenomena associated with living near the coast. Among the weather warnings available from the National Weather Service are small craft advisories. These are special statements, issued along with storm watches and warnings that warn sailors of high waves and other dangerous weather patterns on the water. There have been small craft advisories over the past few days, warning of high winds and high waves on the water.

Yesterday was pretty blustery. It was garbage and recycling day in our neighborhood and I made a couple of forays into our yard to pick up trash that had blown into the yard from overturned trash and recycling containers. Leaves were blowing off of trees and the high wind, combined with a few sprinkles of rain made it look like it was a bit worse than the actual experience of being outside. We took a long walk in one of the Whatcom County parks yesterday and were quite comfortable despite a bit of wind and a few raindrops.

Being a paddler and not being familiar with ocean conditions, I’ve been paying attention to the weather reports, but my paddling is mostly confined to small lakes with an occasional adventure near the shore on especially calm days. The waves are enough to discourage me from taking any risks, so I’m not tempted to go out onto the ocean on days when there are small craft warnings and I don’t need the weather report to keep me safe. I know that I’m not an experienced sailor and I’m pretty sure that those with experience would note me timidness when it comes to waves.

So I’ve been missing out on most of the effects of the super blood moon. I didn’t see it. I haven’t ventured down to look at the low tides, and my life is going on without any inconveniences of which I am aware despite what some reporters are labeling a very rare event. Since we finished the fourth of our 2020 trips moving our household in November, we have stayed inside of a two-county area here in the northwest corner of Washington. Since the territory is new to us, we’ve found plenty of places to explore and plenty of sights that are new to us. We’ve enjoyed some of the bounty of the sea in the form of seafood dinners and the availability of fresh seafood in the markets and grocery stores, but we had not yet learned much about fishing and harvesting food for ourselves from the ocean.

We are simply less directly connected and less aware of the effects of the cycles of the moon and the tides as were those who lived in previous generations. Our experiences of nature are mediated by the luxuries of being able to purchase food from stores and have all kinds of foods that are shipped in from great distances. Still, I enjoy paying attention to the cycles of nature and learning about this place where we are making our home.

Bob's Your Uncle

A week ago we were having lunch with our grandchildren and our ten-year-old grandson was explaining how to do something and ended his explanation with “Bob’s your uncle.” I asked him to repeat what he had said. I hadn’t heard the phrase before. Upon inquiry, he said it means “that’s that,” or “that’s all there is to it.” I had to look it up. It turns out that he was using the phrase correctly - at least that use of the phrase would be understood in Ireland, the United Kingdom, and Commonwealth countries. We live pretty close to Canada, which is a Commonwealth country, so it makes sense that a common phrase would have made the journey south.

The common explanation of the history of the phrase is that the expression refers to the appointment of Arthur Balfour as Chief Secretary for Ireland in 1887. The appointment by his uncle, Prime Minister Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, was seen as nepotism. Balfour lacked the usual qualifications for the post, so his Uncle Bob was seen as the prominent reason he rose to the position.

Wikipedia, however, sheds doubt on this particular origin reporting that the first documented usage of “Bob’s Your Uncle” is 1924. If the phrase was in common usage, it seems strange that it would take nearly forty years for it to appear in print. Whatever the origins of the phrase, it seems to have become a part of popular culture.

I expect that we will ourselves adopt a few Canadianisms as we continue to live here in a corner of America that can be described as “almost Canada.” Our son’s family farm is just over six miles south of the US-Canada border. We frequently visit Blaine, on the border. From a park where our grandchildren love to play, you can see the international boundary and the lanes for traffic to clear customs. The border is currently closed to non-essential traffic, but there is a steady stream of cars clearing customs in both directions. The tall buildings of downtown Vancouver, British Columbia, are in clear sight.

If we look due west, we can see another “Bob’s Your Uncle.” Point Roberts is an enclave - a bit of the United States on the tip of the Tsawwassen peninsula. The 1846 Oregon Treaty established the 49th parallel as the boundary between the U.S. and British territory from the Rocky Mountains to the Georgia Strait. Point Roberts is not quite to the Georgia Strait, but the peninsula extends south of the 49th parallel, so it ended up as part of the U.S. even though the only way to reach it overland is by going through Canada. Locals call the place “point Bob” and are used to going back and forth. There is a temporary ferry, set up due to the pandemic, available for folks who live at Point Roberts and work in communities on the mainland that avoids the need to cross the border twice to drive a few miles to and from work. We’ve met folks who work here in Mount Vernon, but live at Point Roberts. It is a pretty long commute, but when a couple has people with jobs in different towns, they make accommodations.

One of the neighbors of our son is a part-time farmer who also has a business delivering fuel from a nearby refinery. He has customers at Point Roberts and drives there with his fuel truck multiple times each week. He has paperwork to expedite his crossing of the border and during the pandemic is not allowed to stop in Canada on his way to and from Point Roberts.

Over the years there have been several conflicts over how to provide services to Point Roberts. During the Fraser gold rush, prospectors from Canada attempted to avoid taxes by settling in Point Roberts. A special arrangement had to be established in order to give Point Roberts residents U.S. phone numbers. The prefix 945 in area code 206 is established to give Point Roberts residents US phone numbers. They do, however, have to have international plans on cell phones because they connect to towers in Canada. There is mutual aid agreement allowing the Delta Fire Department to provide support to the Point Roberts fire department. A 1973 drought caused wells to dry in Point Roberts and it took until 1987 for the U.S. community to negotiate a permanent agreement to purchase water from the Greater Vancouver Water District.

It turns out there are plenty of Bobs when it comes to this corner of the United States and our neighbors to the north.

Since we moved to the area during the pandemic we haven’t been able to visit Canada. Prior to the pandemic, we would make occasional trips across the border when visiting our son and his family. We have made a couple of international flights out of the Vancouver airport and we once took a day trip to visit a Zoo in Vancouver with our grandchildren. We don’t know how quickly the border will open to normal traffic, but it appears that the COVID-19 pandemic will continue to keep the border mostly closed for a while longer.

Having an international boundary so close is a new bit of culture for us. Growing up in Montana, we did drive across the border into Canada on occasion and in those days, before the attacks of September 11, 2001, border security was lax. Passports were not required to cross the border in those days and crossing the border wasn’t much of an event. Increased securing following 9-11 changed all of that and I’m sure that those who live in border towns really noticed the increased security. Now that the border is officially closed to nonessential travel, tourism to Point Roberts has pretty much ceased leaving the area to be an isolated residential community only. I’m hoping that we will be able to visit once the border opens up again.

In the meantime, Point Bob is just a place we can see on the horizon across international bay. And, as they say, Bob’s Your Uncle.

Speaking of the devil

When we lived in Hettinger, North Dakota, the high school teams were called the black devils. The mascot was a cartoon of a small devil with a spiked tail. At one point some parents, accompanied by the pastor of a fundamentalist church, appealed to the school board to change the name of the team and discard the mascot. When asked about their concerns as another pastor in the town, I commented that I didn’t think that changing the mascot would eliminate evil from the school. It seemed to me that underage drinking and the use of illegal drugs posed a far greater danger than the cheers made up by the youth for basketball games. The conversation is now moot, as the school decided many years ago to change the name of the teams and has obtained a new mascot.

The devil doesn’t loom very large in my personal theology. I maintain that the same is true of Biblical theology. Most of the images of the devil that come to mind don’t come from the bible. People are more influenced in their thinking and imagining of the devil by Dante’s Inferno than by what they have actually read in the bible. The horned, red-skinned monster with a pitchfork ruling hell doesn’t really make an appearance in the bible.

The Hebrew word satan means “accuser” or “adversary.” It appears several times in different contexts, but not in the sense of a fallen angel commanding armies of demons. God has no nemesis, there are no spiritual forces that are not under God’s authority. When the word satan appears, such as in the book of Job or Zechariah, the name appears almost as a job description. The accuser is given the job of pointing out the unworthiness of humans. After the exile, Israel does have some images of satan playing a somewhat larger role than the accuser in the court of God. Ephesians 6:12 refers to the prince of darkness. Like many other examples in Biblical literature, the new image of the role of satan has roots not in ancient Israel, but in the experience of living in foreign lands among people with different religions. The cosmic dualism of Persian religion had its effect upon the thinking of the exiles and post-exilic Hebrew thinkers.

In New Testament literature, the language has shifted. Diabolos is the Greek word used for the concept of satan. Still, it is not used as a personal name for an individual as much as for the description of a role. In the Gospels, however, Satan’s “kingdom” is not presented as a burning underworld full of the tormented dead. It is, rather, the bondage to sin and the results of human unrighteousness. Picking up on the Hebrew theology of God valuing human freedom and being the God of freedom, Jesus addresses the struggle for human freedom from bondage to sin and presents forgiveness as the path of freedom.

Popular culture, however, has for centuries developed the image of evil personified in a devil. This image often got mixed up with cultural misunderstandings during the settlement of North America by Europeans. The settlers often did not understand the worldview of the indigenous people. Places that were considered by natives to be “thin spaces,” where the presence of the divine was felt keenly, were given the name “devil” by the settlers. Although plains tribes in general did not have a concept of a devil or personified evil, place names like Devil’s Lake and Devil’s Tower continue to be used to this day. A more accurate translation of the indigenous languages might have resulted in the Lake in North Dakota being called Spirit Lake. The tower in Wyoming is simply “home of the bear” in Lakota and has no association with evil or a devil.

I know almost nothing of Australian Aboriginal languages and culture, but the creature that is known as the Tasmanian devil is a truly remarkable animal. We saw many of them when we visited a place dedicated to the recovery and preservation of the endangered species during our visit to Tasmania in 2006. Their jaws are incredibly strong, capable of crushing the bones of their food. They are scavengers and eat other animals that have perished in a variety of different ways. The animals in the sanctuary were fed chicken and fought over their food. Most had multiple scars on their faces caused by bites from other animals of their own species. They move quickly and snarl in a most frightful manner. It isn’t hard to imagine how settlers arriving on the continent came up with the name devil for the animal. They make the Looney Tunes cartoon character seem like a mild and gentle animal. The animals, however, do not bring to mind any Biblical stories of which I am aware.

Once the animals roamed the Australian continent, but they were hunted to extinction on the Australian mainland and existed only on Tasmania where they suffered from in breeding and a type of cancer that was devastating the population at the time of our visit. Last year, however, healthy animals were re-introduced into a sanctuary on the Australian mainland. The introduction was successful with the animals transplanted all surviving and thriving. This year they have produced offspring - the first animals of the species to be born on the mainland in many years.

So, the devil is alive and well, at least in a sanctuary in Australia. But evil is not confined to that side of the equator. As in the bible, the evil we experience has a direct connection to the decisions humans make. We choose slavery instead of freedom. We deny God’s role in bringing justice. We forsake the widows and orphans and immigrants. We choose to follow false gods. It makes no sense to blame an imagined evil being as the cause of evil in the world. The devil didn’t make us do it. We made our own decisions and chose our own course of action. God remains the God of justice and there is none equal to God in power.

Meanwhile down on the farm

The classic scene, in old western movies, involved two people who had a disagreement stepping out into the middle of the street, pacing away from each other and then turning to shoot at one another. Depending on the movie, you could get the impression that in such a scenario, the good guy will survive and the bad guy will die. I doubt that the image depicted is accurate. If you think about it, it is simply too easy for the bad guy to cheat in such a contest.

At any rate, it was the story that got told about the west in which I grew up. In my home town it was harder to know who were the good guys and who were the bad guys. At least it was a matter of perspective. Big Timber, Montana, used to call itself the wool shipping capitol of America. At the end of Main Street there was a large stone building that served as a wool warehouse for the huge bags of shorn wool ready for shipping on the train. But sheep and wool weren’t the only agricultural products of our county. There were plenty of cattle ranches as well. I don’t know all of the history, but in the early days there had been fierce competition for permits to graze animals in the national forest, with the contracts for the high country at the top of the valley going to sheep ranchers. Flocks of sheep were trailed into the high country each spring and came back down in the early fall. The ranches were dependent upon the ability to graze federal land in order to support the herds they raised.

It was well known that the Grand Bar was the place for cattle ranchers and cattle buyers to mingle and that the sheep ranchers preferred the Court Bar as their hangout. There were, of course, other bars on Main Street. Presumably it was possible for sheep and cattle ranchers to mingle in the Timber Bar. My parents didn’t drink, so I didn’t know much about bar culture. The story that circulated among the kids in school was that it could be fatal for a sheep rancher to go into the Grand or a cattle rancher to go into the Court. There was, when we were kids, a fight of some kind that erupted into Main street and ended in the shooting of one of the combatants. I don’t know if the type of animals raised was a factor in the incident.

Farming was mostly alfalfa and other hay crops, but there was some winter wheat grown north of town and as you continued to travel north more and more wheat farms appeared on the horizon. My uncle and cousins, who lived about 200 miles north of our home, had a mixed operation of wheat and cattle, with my uncle tending towards the wheat production and my cousin tending towards cattle.

Growing up where I did, I did not realize the wide diversity of farming and ranching operations that exist in other areas. When some innovators, including the Martinsdale Hutterite Colony, put in caged layer operations and began supplying eggs for the stores in the cities, it was something new, but certainly not something that became common. The sweet clover and alfalfa required bees for pollination and there was one family whose living came from bee and honey production. But that was about it. I think of my growing up as being among sheep and cattle ranchers. My father’s business, Big Timber Farm Supply, sold essential machinery and supplies for sheep and cattle production. Haying equipment was our biggest source of income.

Here in our adopted county, Skagit, in western Washington, there are a lot of different agricultural products. There are three large poultry farms, with the Skagit River Ranch shipping chickens by the semi-load. A semi filled with chickens driving down College Avenue, near our home catches my attention every time. And it is a common sight in my coming and going.

More surprising to me are the flower farms. In addition to the two major producers of daffodil and tulip bulbs, there are a lot of smaller farms growing blossoms for the cut flower market. Skagit County is home to 27 fresh flower farms. While most of the cut flowers sold in the United States are imported, primarily from Columbia, Skagit county offers plenty of opportunities to purchase locally grown blossoms. In addition to the flower shops in local grocery stores, there are flower stands at the farmers markets and small scale roadside stands on the flower farms themselves. $5 will get you a lot of flowers to arrange into a bouquet.

I’ve never paid much attention to flowers before. We grew a few in our yard and tended towards the ones that were the most hardy. In South Dakota, the deer ate the tulips before we got to see the blossoms, so we grew Iris, which the deer would occasionally taste, but left alone for the most part. Here, however, it is much easier to produce flowers over an extended season. The deer aren’t a problem in town, but we have plenty of rabbits who nibble on things in our yard. The commercial flower farms have to learn to deal with snails and slugs. Local lore is that the best defense against them are strips of copper and ducks. I guess ducks like to eat the snails and slugs, but leave the flowers alone for the most part.

According to the local news the market for fresh flowers held strong during the pandemic. People were spending more time at home and were bringing more flowers into their homes to appreciate. It is too early to tell if the trend will continue as the pandemic eases and more people are returning to in-person employment, but remote working will continue for some time and many people expect it to become the new normal for certain types of jobs. The flower farmers are looking forward to another successful year.

In the meantime, I haven’t figured out who goes to which bars in town. I’m not much of a drinker, so I don’t even know the names of the places. I just wonder if chicken and duck farmers separate into different establishments like sheep and cattle ranchers. So far, I haven’t heard of any standoffs in the middle of the street.

A little extraverted

My father had an uncanny ability to talk with strangers. He lived before popular personality tests like the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator became common. As far as I know he was never tested on the scale of introversion or extraversion, but I’m pretty sure that all of his children remember him as being very extraverted. When we traveled, he talked to anyone who would give him a few minutes of their time. If we rode on an airliner, he would try to talk his way into a tour of the cockpit. If we took a ferry, he might be found on the bridge, chatting with the captain. If a hotel worker was cleaning the carpet, he would find out what machine and which chemicals were being used. He was naturally curious about all kinds of topics and he enjoyed learning new things. One of the big delights of his life was inviting someone he just met to our house for dinner. Our mother was used to setting an extra place at the table on a moment’s notice. We had a large family and we had signed places at the dinner table and whenever a guest came, I was the one who had to slide down the side of the table so the guest could sit in my place. Counting the number of plates on that side of the table was instinctual for me.

All of us kids have stories of one or more times when as teenagers, we were embarrassed by his delight in meeting and talking with strangers. One summer our family flew to Detroit, where we took factory delivery of a new station wagon, which we then drove to New York and Washington DC before driving across the country back to Montana. While in Washington DC, we were searching for a parking place, when my father noticed a mailbox with our last name on it. He pulled into the driveway, introduced himself and told the person in the house that if we had the same last name, we must be somehow related and he asked them if we could park in their driveway. We tried to talk him out of it, but he persisted and we did park our car at their home for whatever it was we were trying to do.

I think that I gained skill from his example. I think that my children would tell similar stories about me and strangers from their teenage years, though I never thought of myself has having the same natural ability as my father. I am genuinely interested in other people and I enjoy hearing their stories. I learned, through my work in the church, that there is little to fear in meeting new people. I know, after decades of reaching out to people at moments of great crisis in their lives that we have more in common than our differences. When I was a suicide first responder, I always had to be the one to reach out and start talking while the survivors were huddled in shock and grief and had no desire to meet another stranger. Still, it was important that I share with them support and information that they needed. I made many life-changing relationships through that work.

Now, after a big move, I am finding myself in the position of having to meet a lot of new people. Moving means finding a new doctor and a new dentist and a new person to check my glasses. I need to find new people to maintain my car and new people to help me check out of the grocery and hardware stores. I confess that I do very little shopping in other kinds of stores, but I need to meet new people there, too. I’m using my extravert skills a lot these days.

Still, I don’t really think of myself as being terribly extraverted. I am perfectly happy with being by myself. I like to figure out things on my own. Some days I really have to push myself to go to a new place or do a new thing. And, when I think about it, my mind remembers my father and I always think of myself as less extraverted than he was.

Despite the results of Myers-Briggs, which have ben criticized for creating false dichotomies, few of us are completely extraverted or completely introverted and most of us change in our feelings about reaching out depending on many different factors including age, other life events and situation. I’m a seasoned pro at meeting new people in a church social hall. I can go from table to table and work the crowd. I can’t carry that same ability to a cocktail party, where I feel isolated and eager to get out of the room. I avoid those kinds of gatherings as much as possible. Stand me at the doorway of a church sanctuary, however, and I’ll talk to everyone who passes by.

As our country begins to emerge from the pandemic, I have read several statements by friends and colleagues about how much they missed during the time of lock down and how eager they are to return to normal. Honestly, I didn’t suffer that much. I don’t remember feeling confined or cut off. I kept going on with my life. I’m eager to get back to in-person worship. I can’t get excited about church over social media, but most of the rest of the process didn’t bother me at all: shopping less often, staying home more, wearing a face mask in public. I wasn’t that big on going to movies or concerts in the first place, I guess.

I’ll take a few good friends over a ton of acquaintances any day. I’m not worried about popularity. I don’t have a political race to win. Still, I am interested in others. I see the advantages of learning to talk to strangers and met new folk. I’m not ready to limit my contacts to those who are familiar to me. I’m pretty sure I move around that scale of introverted to extraverted all the time. No one position fully describes me. In that, I think I’m like most others who are sometimes extraverted and sometimes introverted.

Occasionally, however, we meet one another and have interesting stories to share.

Pentecost, 2021

The stories of our people are filled with examples of events that push the limits of language. You can tell by reading the scriptures that what occurred was beyond the power of words to describe. The descriptions are fantastic, but it is obvious that the use of metaphor and simile simply are insufficient to express that which is beyond words. We don’t know exactly what happened on that first Pentecost. We know that the disciples had gathered. There was a sudden sound, but we can’t quite say what that sound was. What the Bible says is what it was like: “the rush of a violent wind.” In addition to the sound that filled the entire house where they were, there was a visual effect. Again a simile is used to describe: “as of fire.” It doesn’t say that it was fire, but that there were divided tongues as of fire.” We read that “devout Jews from every nation under heaven” were living in Jerusalem, that a crowd gathered and that the crowd was bewildered because thy heard the disciples speaking. Each heard the speaking in their native tongue.

The story of Pentecost, reported in Acts 2:1-21, is a challenge for readers, especially those who read it out loud, because it goes on to list the names of the different nationalities. All of those ancient place names present a challenge for proper pronunciation.

Peter, in interpreting what was going on to the gathered crowd sees a parallel in the words of the prophet Joel: “In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.”

Those words of the prophet have been coming to my mind as I have been thinking of Pentecost this year. I don’t know exactly how many Pentecost sermons I preached over the years, but it was a lot. Pentecost is the longest season of the church year, sometimes referred to as “ordinary time,” but the day of Pentecost, 50 days after Easter, is always an occasion for reflection upon the power and presence of the Holy Spirit in the life of the church.

The church is so much more than a social club. It is so much more than a mutual aid society. It is so much more than a group of people who want to do good for others. That “so much more” is hard to put into words. We, who live in the midst of the community, call it spirit.

One of our teachers, Ross Snyder, taught a course on practical ministry that was called “Spirit in the Aging Years.” When we were students of Ross, he was in his seventies and we always thought that his expertise in aging came from his own age, but he always taught from the perspective of a son of a mother in her nineties. How the “aging years” are defined depends on perspective.

I don’t know if I am one of the “old men” described by the prophet Joel. Maybe I haven’t lived long enough to qualify yet. Based on the average lifespan in the time of the prophet, however, I pretty much qualify. I’m not sure, however, that I have been dreaming the dreams that the prophet envisioned.

There was a time when I was good at daydreaming. I would imagine how things might change or what I might become. I would think of the future and how it would be different than the present. I imagined myself growing through the events of my adulthood and where I might be after years of living. Then the years passed much more quickly than I expected. I find myself a bit less imaginative these days. I often confess to myself that I can’t imagine how things will unfold for our grandchildren. I try to imagine their future, but I know that my imagination is limited when it comes to the possible changes they will experience.

The season of Covid has so radically changed the way we pursue community as a church that I am not sure how to be an elder of vision as imagined by Joel. Often I am swept up and confused like those witnesses to the Pentecost events. I don’t really know what is going on.

I have received the Post Card inviting participation in the annual meeting of the three conferences that make up the tri-conference of the United Church of Christ. It will be a virtual event, with speakers and workshops and business sessions all conducted over Zoom or some other computer media. Were I to participate, I would only watch. I wouldn’t have words to offer to other participants and the leaders aren’t imagining it to be an event where retired pastors take center stage. I look at such meetings as things I used to do. I once was the moderator of our conference. I served on committees planning annual meetings. I booked venues, I helped select banquet speakers, I planned worship, I struggled to shape agenda. I don’t think that is my role in the church these days. I am pleased to have fewer committee meetings to attend. I don’t need to be in charge.

It seems, however, that there has been a fundamental change in the way the church does business these days. The change wasn’t quite as dramatic as that first Pentecost, but a lot is different now than it was just one year ago.

I am trying very hard to listen to the call of the spirit. I’m not hearing a sound “like the rush of a violent wind.” I’m not experiencing “tongues as of fire.” Like Elijah sitting in his cave after fleeing, I haven’t found the voice of God in the earthquake, wind, and fire. I guess I need to be patient and wait for that still small voice. The vision will come, but it isn’t coming easily. And there are days when I feel very much like an old man.

Pentecost this year is a time of waiting for me. I know that I’ll discover the calling of the spirit. In the meantime, I’m looking forward to being able to gather in person with other faithful people.

Toward a new normal

One of the things I miss in this new world of somewhat post-Covid existence are all of the casual conversations I once had with a wide variety of people. Perhaps our retirement and move to a new community exacerbated this, but were it not for Covid, I believe I would have already had more conversations with the folks at our church, at least. I’ve found that you can have a significant relationship with folks over Zoom, but Zoom meetings tend to lack the casual conversation about the little things in life. On the one hand, this means that Zoom meetings start and stop on time and require a smaller commitment. On the other hand, a source of stories that was once a part of my life seems to have dried up. I “know” people whose stories I don’t know.

However, a Zoom group with which I have been meeting for some time has finally gotten to the point where we know a little bit about each other. We’ve told a few stories while we waited for others to join the group and we’ve become a bit more casual about the first 5 and last 5 minutes of our meeting time. As a result I heard part of a story from someone. I don’t know the whole story and I am probably not getting things quite right, but the general story has two main parts. The first part of the story is that the person is contemplating a move out of state. The time has come for her to move on from her home and after meeting with a realtor and making an estimate of what she might net from the sale, she has decided that she cannot afford a new home in the current market in this area even though she is downsizing and looking for a smaller place. Her attention has turned to a city in another state where she has friends and she has planned a trip to that city to size up the market. As I understand it, no decisions have been made beyond the decision to sell her current home.

The second part of the story is that before she heads out of state, she is planning a trip to another city in our state because her son and his family are moving to that city. During the Covid pandemic, her son and his wife both were able to work remotely and have decided that a they no longer need to live near their jobs. They have decided to move to the Pacific Northwest where they feel they can live comfortably while working remotely. The woman has an opportunity to be with her grandchildren and see her son and daughter in law face to face, something that hasn’t occurred since the Covid-19 outbreak.

It is all a bit confusing and I really don’t know much of the story, but there are a couple of things that make a little bit of sense to me. One is that after a year of being physically isolated from her church and participating only by watching worship on social media and participating in committees and faith formation groups through Zoom, she feels that she is now capable of maintaining her most important relationships over a greater distance. She is comfortable with the idea of moving out of state, even if it means continuing to live in a different state than her son and his family with his new move. She doesn’t think that their move to her state means that the would see each other face to face any more often than they have when living in different states.

Also, as I understand it, her son and daughter-in-law both are confident that they will continue to be able to work remotely. I don’t know what careers they have, but I have read several articles about how corporations are discovering that it doesn’t work well to allow employees to work remotely. While granting employees a couple of days of work flexibility each week, companies that don’t require employees to come physically to work are experiencing a decrease in productivity and a disruption of team-based work. It is really too early to determine what the long-term effects of this will be, but it is pretty clear that there will be fewer jobs where people can work remotely full time now that vaccination is allowing the return to in person work. Without knowing any details, I wonder if there will be many people who have made moves during the pandemic who discover that their moves have resulted in the need for excessive commuting over large distances. I suspect that some of these folks will discover a desire to move back closer to their places of employment over time.

I wonder how it will work long term for the woman to maintain her relationships in her old town after she completes her move to the new place. There certainly are friendships that we have maintained over distance since we moved from one state to another. But there are others with whom we haven’t kept up except by asking other common friends for information. There are a lot of people that I used to see every week and with whom I had regular conversations with whom I have not had any conversations since we moved. I don’t know how much of this would have happened due to the pandemic, because the pandemic and our move happened at the same time. However, I think that now that we are returning to a bit more normalcy with our vaccinations, I suspect that I might have resumed seeing some of those people if we had not moved. I know I am eager to discover places of face-to-face meeting in our new town. We have already formed some new relationships. The clerk at the hardware store recognizes me. I’m beginning to remember the names of some of the checkers at the grocery store, but they wear name tags, which helps. I can’t wait for the return of face-to-face meetings at church. I’ll be there as soon as possible.

Whatever happens, it is clear that there is no going back to the way things were, but rather a going forward to something new. In the process, I’ll be looking for opportunities to engage in more casual conversation and hear more stories about the lives of those around me.

Changing times

From time to time we have conversations about how our parents or grandparents would respond if they suddenly were able to witness the world in which we live today. Of course the imagination game is based on the idea that there would be a gap in their experience. The would have lived in their own time and then suddenly appear in our time, which isn’t the way time or life works. Still, there is some fun in imagining “what if?”

It has been 40 years since my father died, so he missed the development of personal computers and hand held electronic devices. If he were to suddenly appear in our lives today, he would be mystified by the lack of wired telephones in our home. He might not recognize our hand held cell phones as telephones at all. They don’t look like the classic receivers that cupped around your face with a microphone in one end and a speaker in the other. My father loved gadgets and technology, so if he had lived longer, he probably would have been an early adopter. He loved maps and navigation and I think he would have loved GPS. He would not, however, have trusted GPS as his only source of navigation information as some early adopters did. He would have had the device, but it wouldn’t have gotten him lost as easily as was the case with some early adopters.

I think that our parents and grandparents would not recognize some of our simple interactions, such as a trip to the doctor’s office. My mother lived long enough to be baffled by the use of date of birth as an identifying question. Recently I had an appointment with a family practice physician to establish care in our new location. Every person who worked in the facility, from the receptionist to the nurse to the doctor, asked me my date of birth. We’ve gotten used to the question is a way of asking, “Are you really who you say you are?” My mother, near the end of her life was hospitalized and several people asked her simple screening questions, such as here name, where she was, her birth date, and who was the president of the United States. After about the third person who had asked her the question in a short amount of time she responded, “I can write it down if you are having trouble remembering it.”

Speaking of writing it down, persons of other generations would be baffled by the amount of paperwork involved in a simple visit to the doctor. I filled out an online pre-visit medical history before going to the doctor’s office. When I arrived there was a two page questionnaire about release of information, a four-page medical history questionnaire, with all of the questions that had been on the pre-visit online form, and a two-page form requesting transfer of medical records from my doctor in South Dakota. More than half of the time of the visit was spent filling out forms. All of this paperwork is somehow related to the “paperless” medical records. The medical office doesn’t keep the paperwork. They scan the documents into a computer file and shred the paper. I don’t think they really look at the documents once they are scanned, unless they discover some discrepancy or anomaly. I know, however, that there will be more forms to fill out the next time I visit the office.

My mother, an old school nurse, trained int he 1940’s wouldn’t recognize the lack of touch in a post-covid medical visit. There was a touches thermometer, an automatic blood cuff that didn’t require the use of a stethoscope, and a digital scale. The doctor sat behind a computer terminal and interviewed me from across the room. At one point she did listen to my heart and lungs with a gloved hand and her stethoscope, but there was no looking into my ears or throat. No tongue depressors were in sight in the room. No cotton balls were in a jar on the desk. The examination table was adjusted so it looked like a recliner. I’m not sure whether or not my mother would have recognized the space as an exam room. There wasn’t much examining going on there.

My grandfather would be amazed at the array of battery powered tools in our shop. He shaped wood with hand planes and sandpaper. He never owned a belt sander or a random orbit sander. He knew how to use a brace and bit, and might not even recognize the drill/drivers that we used. He wouldn’t have felt the need for a power tool to turn a screw. He wouldn’t even know what the purpose of an oscillating multi tool could be. I doubt that he ever wore safety goggles or hearing protection. On the other hand he knew how to sharpen and set a hand saw and the difference between a rip saw and a crosscut saw. He could sharpen cutting tools so that they peeled off the slimmest wood shavings. He wouldn’t know how to use a laser level, but he could cut rafter angles with nothing more than a pencil, speed square and a hand saw. He trimmed off many interior rooms with homemade jigs and mitre box and never used a compound mitre saw. His joints were more precise and fit better than the ones we make with our fancy saws.

My grandmother, by the time she was 12 years old, could grab a chicken, kill, clean, pluck and butcher it without a thought. She would be mystified by the cereal aisle in a modern supermarket. The prices in the meat section would amaze her. She would see no reason for a deli with peppered food in a grocery store. She wouldn’t need the bakery, either. Why would anyone need an entire wall filled with so many varieties of bread? She didn't need a recipe to bake six loaves of bread in a single batch.

We live our lives in our own time. We would be as surprised to find ourselves in the time of our forebears as they would be to visit ours. There are plenty of skills we lack for living in their time. And the lives our grandchildren will live are beyond our imagination. Still, it is fun to think about our connections.

Blooming bushes

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When I was growing up, we had a honeysuckle plant that grew near the back door of our house. The front door of our house was used to admit guests on some rare occasions, but we, and all of the folks who knew us, used the back door. When I was a bit older, the honeysuckle was gone, perhaps the victim of some home remodeling, a lack of specialized care in our busy household, the wildness of four boys coming and going on bicycles, or some other reason. We were used to blaming my brother’s drum set for the death of plants, but i don’t think that was the cause.

I remember the brilliant blossoms of the forsythia from our years in Chicago. They were among the early blossoms after long Chicago winters and a sign of spring and renewal for us. I think I once heard that forsythia is somehow related to olive trees. At least I make that connection if for no other reason that Chicago was the first place we encountered Greek Americans and Greek food, which, of course, features olives. My mind wanders quite a bit when making associations.

There have been lilacs everywhere we have lived. Our home in Boise was the only place where we had lilacs in our own yard, but they grew in the yards of neighbors wherever we have lived.

We tended to visit the Pacific Northwest during the summer during all of the years of our adult lives. I’ve had siblings living in the region since the 1970’s, so we’ve made a lot of trips, but Eastertide isn’t the season for ministers to do much traveling. We did visit Oregon in all seasons of the year during our time in Idaho. Our Conference Office was in Portland and there was a year-round camp not far from Portland that the Conference used for meetings and youth gatherings. However, I don’t remember paying that much attention to the bushes and shrubs.

Living here, however, it seems like most of the bushes and shrubs used in landscaping have bright blossoms and lots of them. The yards around our neighborhood are already riots of color. Our rental has at least three rhododendron bushes. A couple of them are quit large. The power company trimmed a few branches from one of them and I hauled the trimmed branches away. They had thick stems like the branches of a tree. Now they are blooming. And they are covered with buds, so we know that the blooming will continue for quite a while.

It is different from other places where we have lived. It is true that we’ve previously lived in places where people water their lawns if they want green grass and where no one would imagine mowing their grass in the rain. This isn’t that kind of place. I haven’t gotten used to that part of it, but the neighbors who mow their lawns on Saturday mow rain or shine. The same pattern persists with those who mow on other days as well. If you do let the lawn go more than a week, the grass will be so long that there will be clumps of clippings all over the lawn. I use a bagger on the lawn mower here and I fill a 33-gallon garbage can with grass clippings every week.

I guess I’ve written about how much different it is enough that I risk boring those who read my journal regularly. Six months into this move and nearly a year into retirement, and I’m still adjusting.

Last night at a zoom meeting of a faith formation group at our church, I listened as another class member spoke of how hard it is for her to be downsizing and preparing for a move at the same time. The process exhausts her. She had nearly as many books to sort as we. Her bookcases, normally filled as a background for her zoom conversations, were empty last night. I could easily sympathize with her. I could also testify that there are some good parts to the process of downsizing and moving. Six months on and it feels like some of the work that we did is work that we won’t have to do again. But six months on and we are still sorting and trying to downsize even more. Six months on and we aren’t settled and I doubt that we will be a year from now. It takes time and there are quite a few things in life that take more time as we grow older.

During our student years, we never stayed in the same apartment for a complete year. Our general pattern was to load up our car and put everything that didn’t fit into storage during the summer. Then in the fall, we’d retrieve the things we had put in storage and move into a new apartment. We avoided collecting too many possessions for several years that way. But that was before our elders decided it was time for them to downsize and that the way to do so would be to give us furniture. We have a lot of furniture for just two people, but our furniture came to us with stories that make it hard to say good bye to special pieces at the Habitat for Humanity restore donation door. When we are able to delay decisions, we often do.

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In the meantime, we keep walking around the neighborhood and marveling at the sights we see. I’m sure that the locals have gotten used to all of the blossoms and blooms, but they are new to us and keep us wondering what will be next. I can tell from the profusion of buds that the roses will be impressive in our yard before long. And roses bloom all summer long, so we’ll have flowers around us for months to come. In fact, one of the rose bushes in our yard was still producing a few blossoms in late October when we first saw the place.

While there is grief in moving and hard work in sorting there is also hope in having so much to which to look forward. And it is kind of neat to live in a place where the bushes bloom.

For the birds

I went to the farm to work on a couple of projects yesterday. It was a beautiful day and when I stopped for lunch, I took my lunch to an outdoor picnic table. The three grandchildren who live a the farm brought their lunches out from the house and joined me. I brought an apple with my lunch and I took out my pocket knife, as is my habit, and quartered the apple, removing bit of the core with the seeds from each piece. After I finished my lunch, I took the bits of uneaten core over to the chicken coop and threw it to the chickens, who scrambled and fought over the bits of apple. Our two granddaughters went into the chicken enclosure and played with the chickens for a few minutes after lunch. It was interesting to watch the differences in their approach. Our oldest granddaughter has played with the chickens since they were tiny chicks. She loves to hold them. She goes into the enclosure and calls out “chick, chick, chick!” and they come running to her. She knows how to pick up a chicken and hold it. The younger one hasn’t got quite the same touch. She is gentle with the birds, but finds it more difficult to catch one to hold. She will run at the chickens which causes them to scatter.

We had chickens at our place when I was growing up. We didn’t raise layers and got our eggs from a commercial farm near our town. Our birds were raised for the freezer. Among my chores were feeding and changing the water in the chicken coop and, on occasion, cleaning the coop, a chore that I did not like. I also was no fan of butchering day, which I remember more in terms of smell than any other sense.

If you were to ask my eldest granddaughter, she would tell you that she loves chickens. She calls them by name, a practice that is manageable with the 19 hens of mixed breeds that they are raising as egg producers. Before long there will be a larger number of meat birds that all look the same. Still, she has an eye for the birds and subtle distinctions. She will probably be much better than I at identifying individual birds. Still, if you had asked me as a child, I would not have said that I loved chickens. I probably would have made a comment similar to the one that I have made several times in reference to the chickens at the farm: “When you look at a chicken you realize that there is a whole lot of bird and not very much brain.”

There were a couple of pet parakeets in our home when I was growing up as well as at least one canary. I wasn’t much of a fan of the birds. They were noisy and messy. My favorite pets were the family dogs.

I do, however, enjoy watching birds. We have fed birds off and on for years and at times we have had quite a few bird feeders in our yard. I even have a small bird feeder, decorated by grandchildren, that I hang from our camper when it is parked in the same place for several days just to attract a few local birds for viewing. And I was excited the other day to see my first hummingbird of the season. They fascinate me.

On the other hand, I have no desire to hold one.

I think that one of the things that fascinates me about all birds is the way they move. Despite the fact that the grocery store packages chicken legs four to a package, the birds only have two each and they do a pretty good job of balancing on them. Chickens walk differently from ducks and the finches drawn to the feeders have feet that enable them to hang upside down. The hummingbirds are so fast that all I notice are the wings and beak and I don’t pay attention to their feet. Still there is something distinctive about the movement of a bird: relative speed with a capacity to change direction quickly.

Here in the Skagit valley, the Swans - trumpeter, mute, and tundra - have left for the summer. They along with tens of thousands of snow geese spend about half of the year here and move north for the other half of the year. The birds who go south when the swans are around have returned, but they are, for the most part smaller. Among my favorite summer birds are the swallows. There are eight species of swallows that spend winters in the tropics and migrate north to nest. I think that the ones I see most often are probably common barn swallows, but they but on an airshow each time I see them. They are capable of some pretty impressive arial maneuvers as they feast on flying insects too small for me to see as i watch them.

Public Radio plays a program called “Bird Note” that airs at the time I’m driving to the farm in the morning. On days when I go up there, I enjoy hearing about flickers and buffleheads and the difference between Swainson’s Thrush and the Hermit Thrush, even though I doubt that I could make the identification from their songs as a true birder would.

I’m grateful for the chickens for the gift of their eggs, but I’ve no great desire to hold and cuddle them like our granddaughters. I haven’t learned their names. Still, I’ve helped fix up their enclosure and I’ll be making notes later this week as I take a look at the neighbor’s chicken tractor. I know our daughter in law is hoping I’ll help make a similar one for their birds. I’m inclined to do so. I’m glad our grandchildren are growing up with an appreciation for birds and their contributions to our lives. All the same, it is a very small amount of brain for such a big bird. For now I’ll reserve the word “love” for other creatures.

Escape from freedom

As the world became aware of the horrors of the Holocaust as World War II ended in Europe, scientists and scholars began to wrestle with the question of how such a horror could occur in a modern and advanced society. Several psychosocial studies examined the rise of Nazism in Germany and its relationship to Protestant theology. The Frankfurt-born psychologist Erik Fromm published the book, Escape from Freedom in 1952. In that book he develops his definition of freedom, including an analysis of “freedom from” and “freedom to.” He also writes about how many people, in search of some form of security, will release their freedom to authoritarian leaders. He writes that Hitler’s Mein Kampf clearly demonstrates an authoritarian personalty structure and describes how the German middle class, in search of a sense of pride and certainty submitted to the authoritarian structure of Nazism.

Allied troops who participated in the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps were horrified at the conditions and the systematic genocide being practiced there. In several cases, they asked local German citizens how they allowed such horrors to be perpetuated in their community. Frequently they were met with denial that such places existed. Even when they forced local citizens to view the camps filled with starving and barely alive inmates and factory-style crematorium ovens, people refused to believe that this had been going on for years in their community. They had seen the trainloads of men, women and children arriving. They had seen, and smelled, the smoke from the ovens. Still, they couldn’t believe what was going on in their own back yards.

More recent psychological studies have continued the exploration of the dynamics of people who adhere strongly to false conclusions. Several famous studies show how common it is for people to believe false logic. Nobel Prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman offers a series of quick problems to illustrate the phenomena. Here is one of his examples. He gives the instruction to those who are reading his book not to try to solve the problem, but rather to listen to their intuition:

A bat and ball cost $1.10.
The bat costs one dollar more than the ball.
How much does the ball cost?

Most people, upon being presented with this problem will first think of the number 10: 10 cents. The problem presents a very appealing answer that is wrong. If the ball costs 10 cents, then the bat costs one dollar more, which is $1.10 and the total cost is $1.20. The correct answer is 5 cents. However, when this simple test was presented to students at Harvard, Princeton and MIT, more than half of the highly educated students gave the wrong answer.

Kahneman observes that it isn’t alarming that such a percentage of highly educated college students would reach an incorrect answer. What is surprising is that such a percentage failed to do the relatively easy work of checking their answer.

Once we have reached a conclusion, we often fail to see the error of our logic. When people believe a conclusion is true, they will also believe that the arguments that appear to support is are true, even when those arguments are unsound. Consider another of Kahneman’s examples:

All roses are flowers.
Some flower fade quickly.
Therefore some roses fade quickly.

A large majority of college students endorse this syllogism as valid. Like the bat and ball problem an answer comes to mind quickly. “It’s true, it’s true, some roses fade quickly.” Having embraced the conclusion, many people fail to see the fairly obvious logical flaw in the argument. It is possible that there are no roses among the flowers that fade quickly. However, having embraced the conclusions, most people fail to question the logic.

Shane Frederick, who worked with Daniel Kahneman on a theory of judgement came up with another question:

How many murders occur in the state of Michigan in one year?

Most people will choose a number that is lower than the correct answer. However, the same people, when asked how many murders occur in Detroit in one year will frequently choose a number that is higher than the correct answer. Many respondents answered that more murders occurred in Detroit than their estimate of how many murders occur in Michigan. When asked to consider how many murders occur, people seem to fail to see the obvious fact that Detroit is in Michigan.

Once people embrace a conclusion, they fail to question the logic.

When the issue is a simple problem about the cost of sports equipment or the tendency of flowers to fade errors in logic can easily be understood. However, as in the case of the rise of Nazism in Hitler’s Germany, the consequences of the failure to think logically blinded people to the presence of murderous evil in their midst. They embraced flawed logic:

Criminals are in prison.
The Jews are in prison.
Therefore Jews must be criminals.

The result was the perpetration of one of the largest crimes against humanity. It is a horror no matter how much it is studied and even understood. The horrors are not restricted to the past. It is easy to find politicians and news pundits in the United States today who espouse similarly flawed logic:

Some people sneak across the border between Mexico and the US without proper documentation.
People seeking asylum attempt to cross the border between Mexico and the US.
Therefore all of those seeking asylum are illegal.

or

Donald Trump was elected president in 2016.
More people voted for Donald Trump in 2020 than in 2016.
Therefore the election was stolen from Donald Trump.

Pointing out the logical errors in the argument does little to convince those making the argument of their error. They have already embraced the conclusion and have little energy for examining their logic.

As was the case in Germany during the rise of Nazism flawed logic can lead to tragic results. Innocents die when authoritarianism rises. Families are separated and children are locked in cages when people fail to question their conclusions. The government of the United States has not yet fallen into the grips of an authoritarian dictator. The majority of voters did not embrace an escape from freedom in the last election.

It was, however, close enough to invite serious reflection on the flawed logic of some of our political leaders.

If you want to do somethng for someone

Franklin Elliot was a pastor, teacher, mentor and friend to me. He was the pastor of the church in which Susan grew up. It was the church I joined, for obvious reasons, when I went to college. Frank was the counselor in the cabin in which I spent my first week of church camp as a youth independent from my family. We had attended family camp for years and I had looked forward for some time to being old enough to go to camp by myself and Frank’s gentle ways were key to the success of that experience for me. Both Susan and I name Frank as one of the reasons we ended up in theological seminary and became pastors.

Frank was a thoughtful and careful preacher and his sermons appealed to the educated congregation he served. He knew how to prepare a sermon that would engage college professors and theology geeks. He had a tendency to be a bit long-winded and sometimes boring, but he was careful and accurate in his choice of words. As a pastor, however, he excelled and there was no better model for the ministry that we pursued during our careers.

Frank didn’t provide a model of retirement for me. He retired just 60 miles from the church he had served for decades in a nearby resort town where he often saw the members of that church. He and his wife had their retirement home built out of logs. Frank, however, was no builder. He wasn’t a plumber or electrician or cabinet maker. As a result he hired all of the work on the cabin. The cost of the modest building soared above the estimates. The location of their retirement was a town with a lot of snow and he didn’t have the right vehicle for the conditions. There were lots of stresses in retirement for Frank and they may have contributed to the heart attack that he survived and to the one that he did not. From our point of view, Frank died too soon. There was still a lot that he had to offer to the world. Even though it is now decades later, there are days when I miss Frank and his calm and accurate observations about the world and the life of a religious person.

One of the quotes from Frank that both Susan and I remember went something like this: “If you’re going to do something for someone, you have to first figure out a way for them to forgive you.” Frank understood that a hand out isn’t always the best way to build a relationship. You can rob a person of a great deal of autonomy and freedom by making their choices for them under the guise of charity.

Over the years, I’ve seen Frank’s wisdom illustrated in a wide variety of settings. Teachers and other adults noticed that children were arriving at school hungry and they devised a number of programs to feed children. It was a kind and sensible thing to do. When children are well fed thy are better able to learn. In the process, they not only removed some responsibility from parents and other family members, they also began to make the choice about what the children ate. Over the years, in some settings, the essential task of every parent, to feed and nurture your offspring was assumed by institutions. Traditions of cooking and preparing food were not passed from one generation to the next. Children grew up without knowing the foods that had sustained generations of their people. Their culture was lost in the well-intentioned attempt to address hunger. We simply didn’t realize that when we fed children we were taking their culture and heritage away from them.

Another, perhaps more obvious example: I knew a family that was often struggling to make ends meet. As a way of supporting them, other family members purchased a set of living room furniture for their home. In doing so, the donors made the selection of what furniture, including the colors and fabrics, would be a part of their home. Resentment built over the gift. While the recipients wanted to be grateful for the gift, they felt like they lost something essential in not being able to choose the furniture in their own home. “I’ve never liked that couch!” was something that I heard when visiting the home.

Or there is the situation of a retired couple for whom a loving relative hired a service to take care of some of their home maintenance chores. It infuriated the couple. The person making the gift reported that the recipient was the angriest she had ever encountered. She yelled about having her freedom and independence taken away. She ranted about how they were proud of being able to take care of their own needs. She cried about how it made her feel old and incapacitated.

Frank was right. “If you’re going to do something for someone, you have to first figure out a way for them to forgive you.”

Over the years, I have frequently encountered gracious and well-meaning people who struggle to figure out how to help others. They genuinely want to do the right thing, but don’t know how to do it. Sometimes I’ve baffled them by asking them to wait instead of acting. They are doers, who are used to pitching in and getting a job done. They know how to solve problems. They enjoy challenges. But generally those same people enjoy being in charge and don’t want to have the work proceed at someone else’s pace or in someone else’s way. Sometimes it just isn’t our role to decide what someone else needs. We have to wait for them to tell us what we can do to be helpful. And while we are waiting, we have to earn their trust so that they will be able to tell us.

It helps to remember that an act of giving can also be an act of taking. Give too much or in the wrong way and you take away independence and choice. We often are imperfect in our giving. Sometimes we simply need to be able to ask for forgiveness. Sometimes we have to figure out a way for another to forgive us. Relationships are complex and even after decades of experience, we are still trying to figure them out.

Language

In one sense, Mount Vernon is a microcosm of what much of the United States will be like in the next fifty years or so. We are what is called a majority-minority community. That is, the majority of the people of this community are members of groups that are minorities in the overall population of the United States. It is a bit confusing and it has very little impact on day to day life. What it means in practical terms is that there are a lot of different folks who mix easily in day to day life. Walking down the street, it is common to hear folks having conversation in Spanish and not at all rare to hear Ukrainian. About 8% of the population of this city are first- or second-generation immigrants from the Ukraine. While there are plenty of folks who are bilingual and it is common for stores and service agencies to have bilingual employees to serve customers, the common language is English.

Not long ago, I was outside our home and I overheard our neighbor having a conversation with someone in the street, so their voices were raised slightly. Their conversation was in English and I could understand what they were saying. However, the rhythm of their speaking was Spanish. I’m pretty sure that both of the folks who were speaking are bilingual, but for whatever reason, the conversation was taking place in English. Around here when folks are speaking Spanish, they speak quickly and take short pauses amidst long phrases. It isn’t the formal, Castilian Spanish taught when we were in school, but the musical Spanish of Central America. Before you begin to recognize the words, you recognize the rhythm of the language.

Ukrainian also has its own rhythm. I no virtually no words in Ukrainian. I can’t even write the Cyrillic alphabet. But if I walk past someone who is speaking Ukrainian on the phone, I can identify the likely language. It would be possible to confuse me with a similar language. I might have identified the language as Russian did I not know about the Ukrainian population in our area. But the language has a distinct rhythm as do all languages.

At the same time as our community is working out how to do business and provide services to our people in multiple languages, the English language is changing. Our vocabularies are expanding. New technologies are producing new words. Terms like gig economy, bitcoin, and cloud computing did not exist when I was born, but I have had to learn to use them. Technology influences our language in other ways, as well. Now that most of us carry cell phones with us, we are constantly overhearing one side of a conversation that doesn’t involve us. Without trying to eavesdrop, we are immersed in the constant conversation with others.

I was thinking about language and how it is being transformed earlier this week as I participated in a Zoom discussion with other members of our church. The pandemic has taught many of us a new skill of participating in video conversations with multiple participants. I think there were about nine frames of pictures on my computer during this recent conversation. As I have learned, I kept my audio muted except when I was speaking. This caused a slight delay when I wanted to speak or when I responded to a direct question. It also meant that I was much less likely to interrupt another’s speaking than would be the case if we were together. In face to face conversation there is a tendency to start speaking at nearly any silence, even when that silence is just a pause in another’s idea.

In my time as a pastor, I learned to appreciate interruptions. Our conversations would take twists and turns and often we had to wonder through several different subjects before we got to the real important reason for our conversation. There have been times when I was annoyed by “small talk” and eager to get to the “meat” of the meeting, but over the years I realized that small talk has a social function. It is part of getting to know one another and learning how to engage the other in meaningful conversation. It is a way of exploring shared concerns and common passions. Sometimes the interruption becomes the most revealing aspect of an exchange.

Zoom, however, is moderating our use of interruption. Because of the way that the audio works in computer group chat, only one person can speak at a time. When there are multiple people speaking, the group hears only the one who has temporary control of the audio. A loud background noise such as a barking dog or a crying child can cause control of the audio to shift. I use the mute feature to keep my background noise from disrupting the conversation. A dropped book won’t interrupt the meeting. The practice changes the natural rhythm of conversation.

It seems possible that I am just a bit more deliberative when we have Zoom meetings. I think that I am practicing and learning new listening skills through the media. I feel like I am less quick to speak and more careful in listening. The system works in many ways and we are fairly good at having substantial conversations in limited time frames. Meetings tend to start and stop on time, something that is rare in face to face church meetings.

While I accept that some elements of our pandemic separation will continue, I am eager for face to face meetings. Our church here is slow to return to such meetings, but they have begun. I don’t know exactly when face to face worship will return, but with many of us fully vaccinated, I suspect that it won’t be long. I confess I’ve gotten a bit used to wandering around the room during worship. Facebook worship doesn’t command my full attention in the same way as worshiping in a group does. I miss singing hymns together. It isn’t the same, trying to sing along with the speakers on my computer. I know my computer speakers don’t do justice to the organ or piano.

Our language is evolving and we are changing as we acquire new skills at listening and speaking. Even so, we miss the sounds of our childhood and the way things used to be. As the pandemic begins to wane, we realize that we won’t be going back, but rather ahead to a new way of conversing. I may even become less likely to interrupt in face to face conversation after the experiences of this year.

Weeping over Jerusalem

One of my beloved professors used to say frequently that our faith is rooted in history, not in place. “Our God is the God of history, not the god of a place.” While his teaching is true, there is a place that figures prominently in the story of our people. We know a place with a history. The most ancient stories of the origins of our people speaks of Abraham and Sarah as “wandering Arameans.” Deuteronomy 26:5 starts, “A wandering Aramean was my father . . .” As long as we can remember, we have told the story of our coming from a people who had no country - no land of our own. The earliest story of land ownership is when Abraham purchases a field as a burial place for Sarah when she died. They had believed the promise of God that they would come into a land of their own. They probably did not understand that it was a promise not just to them, but to their children and grandchildren. The first five books of the Bible tell the stories of their descendants and the quest for a place to call home. When, after enduring great hardship and suffering as slaves in Egypt, wandering in the wilderness for a generation, and experiencing the death of the great leader Moses, our people finally entered the promised land, it was a place where other people lived. Israel found a home only through a process of displacement and assimilation. In the time of the United Monarchy under David and Solomon, Jerusalem was established as the capitol of Israel and the temple built there arose from a vision of a city of heavenly peace, where all would be welcomed and would live in peace and faithfulness to God.

The pivotal event of Hebrew History occurred in 597 BCE, when Jerusalem fell to invaders from Babylon and many of the citizens were carried off into exile. The loss of the city and the story of the survival of the people living amidst their captors shaped the identify of the people of Israel and continues to be a story that is told with intensity and passion. It wasn’t the only time the city fell. Centuries after the return, Jerusalem was once again besieged and its temple destroyed.

Before that happened, however, the Christian faith was born in that place. Jesus was crucified and resurrected in Jerusalem. His followers formed the faith and the church in that place. Among the stories we have we tell is about the time when Jesus wept over Jerusalem. It is reported in Matthew 23 and Luke 19. Matthew reports the story this way:

“As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, ‘If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.’”

People have been weeping over Jerusalem ever since. Today, as I write, the weeping continues.

The story of modern Israel is shaped by the events of the 20th century. The Ottoman Empire, which ruled in the region known as Palestine, was defeated in World War I. As part of the settlement of that war, Britain was given control of the government of the area, inhabited by an Arab majority and a Jewish minority. the international community gave Britain the mandate to establish a “national homeland” in the region for the Jewish people. Both Jews and Palestinian Arabs claimed the land as their ancestral home.

In the wake of World War I, anti-semitism forced many Jews to flee from Europe and Palestine became a place where they sought refuge. The Holocaust and the near genocide of European Jews by the Nazi empire increased the flow of refugees. The trauma of the Holocaust was not limited to the victims and first generation survivors. It continues to deeply shape the identity of their children and grandchildren. After World War II, in 1947, the United Nations voted for Palestine to be split into separate Jewish and Arab states, with Jerusalem becoming an international city. The plan was accepted by Jewish leaders, but rejected by Arab states and non-Jewish citizens of Palestine. A year later Britain, unable to solve the problem, left the region. Jewish leaders declared the creation of the state of Israel. A war followed. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled or were forced out of their homes. When the fighting subsided, Israel controlled most of the land. Jordan controlled the land which became known as the West Bank. Egypt occupied Gaza. Jerusalem was divided with Israeli forces controlling the West and Jordanian forces controlling the East. But there never was a formal peace agreement. A nearly constant state of war has followed, with another major military conflict in 1967 when Israel occupied East Jerusalem, the West Bank, most of the Golan Heights in Syria, and the Sinai peninsula in Egypt.

Many people have lived as refugees as the displaced people and their descendants have not been allowed by Israel to return to their homes. Israel believes that it is fighting for its very existence and that the militant leaders of the Palestinians would seek to destroy the country completely. The events of 20th century Europe give weight to their argument that their very survival is at stake. In the past 50 years Israel has built settlements in the occupied areas. More than 600,000 Jews now live in settlements on land obtained through war. Palestinians displaced by those settlements claim that the land was illegally seized and that the settlements threaten peace.

With the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in mid-April of this year, tensions once again erupted into violence. Nightly clashes between police and the Palestinians have resulted in the death of hundreds. Rockets fired from the Palestinian side are largely ineffective as Israel has effective missile defense systems. Israeli shelling of the West Bank has been far more deadly with combatants and innocents perishing.

We can describe what is happening. We can understand the complexity of the issues. We can understand that the situation isn’t going to be sorted out any time soon. Meanwhile the tragedy continues and number of victims mounts.

And so we weep.

Speaking of boats

I have a tendency to go overboard with my hobbies. When we lived in Idaho, I went to our church camp every summer. The camp, located on a beautiful mountain lake in central Idaho, was a great place for boating. When I first attended the camp, there was a broken-down sailboat, a somewhat leaky paddleboat and two or three fiberglass canoes. The canoes were a bit heavy and had some amateurish patches, but that didn’t stop us from having fun with them. Over the years, I did a bit of work on the boats, raised a few dollars, explained to a few people the tax advantages of donating used boats and together with other church leaders, built the camp fleet to four small sailboats, a half dozen plastic canoes, a fleet of sailboards, and a couple of rowboats. We had a water sports camp that sold out each year, giving participants an opportunity to learn skills such as CPR, sailing, water safety, paddling, and even giving them a taste of whitewater rafting. At one point, I chartered buses to transport youth to and from the camp. Along the way, I had the joy of using the various watercraft, learning to sail and adding to my paddling skills. I used to rise very early in the morning, while the campers slept and paddle out onto the lake for a few moments of peace and quiet, prayer and enjoyment of the beauty of creation.

I decided that I wanted to have a canoe of my own, but our growing family had other financial priorities. I knew how much it cost to buy a used canoe. I’d bought a couple for the camp. I decided that I could build a canoe. I purchased a set of plans for $5 and began to look through the cedar boards at local lumberyards for a few exceptionally straight and clear boards. When I found a suitable board, I purchased it, cut it into strips approximately 3/4 x 3/8 inches with our table saw. I didn’t have a planer, so I hand sanded and planed the strips so that they fit together. I glued them around building forms made from scrap plywood. By the time I had a wooden boat, I probably had about $35 invested in the project. Then I had to buy fiberglass cloth and epoxy resin to coat the boat inside and out. That was a big purchase, just over $100 at the time. Since I had purchased a few hand tools, mainly clamps, bought a couple of paddles, and needed a couple of new life vests, I estimated that i had just over $200 in the canoe when it was finished.

I still have that canoe, but as I said to begin this journal post, I have a tendency to go overboard. One thing led to another. I decided that I wanted a smaller boat, so I built a smaller canoe. This one was built out of fence grade cedar and the basic boat was less expensive than the first, but the price of epoxy had gone up, so it probably cost me about the same as the first boat. I was charmed by Canadian Prospector canoes, so I built one for myself from the measurements of a Chestnut prospector. Three canoes was more than I could take on the roof of our car in one trip. I went paddling with my brother on the Puget Sound and got pretty wet in an open canoe in the waves of the big water, so I decided to build a kayak. A kayak is a solo boat, however, and I enjoy paddling with others. We would take out the kayak and the smallest canoe on adventures, but they tended to paddle at different speeds. When we took a trip to the northeast and visited the Old Town Canoe Company in Orono, Maine, I ended up purchasing another small kayak.

I didn’t stop there. I now have five kayaks and four canoes and a row boat. I have a trailer with a rack upon which I can carry all of the boats at the same time. The general formula for all boats is that it costs about 10% of the purchase price per year to operate the boat. That would include new coats of varnish for my wooden boats, repairs as needed, occasional new paddles and life jackets, covers to protect the boats, storage, and other miscellaneous costs. It is pretty obvious that I need to get rid of a few of my boats. I can’t paddle them all at one time, and there are a couple of whitewater boats that are probably better suited to younger paddlers. No one needs ten boats.I admit it. I’ve gone overboard.

That doesn’t keep me from thinking about another boat. It would be fun to have a small sailing dinghy to take out on fair weather days, maybe even use to go camping on a nearby island. I could make such a boat inexpensively and I have access to a shop to work on boats now. Maybe if I sold some of the canoes . . .

I have not, however, gone overboard quite has much as Jeff Bezos with his boats. The world of yachting is fairly secretive. The Netherlands yacht yard Oceano, builder of the boat isn’t releasing any details to the public, but there have been some leaks. It has been reported that the primary boat will come in at around $500 million. That isn’t a big expense to the world’s richest man, whose wealth has increased as much as $13 billion in a single day. With something like $200 billion in assets, he has a smaller percentage of his money in boats than I. But he will discover that there are other costs. A full-time crew of 60 for the main boat a support yacht with a crew to transport vehicles, water toys, including a submarine, and a helipad (an essential item for a guy who is dating a helicopter pilot) all add to the cost. A $500 million yacht will cost about $50 million a year to operate.

I hope he has a little fun on his boat. I hope he gets to see beautiful sunrises and sunsets from the surface of the water. I doubt, however, that he will find as much joy as I do setting forth in a boat I built with my own hands. I do expect, however, that he, like me, will find it a bit hard to sell the boat when the time comes. Other than that, we don’t have a lot in common.

Supply and demand

Yesterday, while looking at home improvement items in a big box store, I overhead a conversation between a store employee and a customer. The customer was reacting to the high price of flooring. The employee said, “Yes, ever since the Covid craziness prices have gone through the roof.” The statement, a way of engaging the customer and perhaps encouraging a sale, was a simplification of a complex problem. There certainly have been and continue to be supply chain issues during the pandemic. Shifts in consumer demand have created shortages, at least in retail sales outlets. Some of the shortages have been relatively short-term. I haven’t noticed any shortages of toilet tissue for many months, although I have noticed that the stores where we shop seem to stock fewer of the large packages and have filled the shelves with more small packages. We never experienced the shortage as a problem. We purchased tissue when we needed it and never felt a desire to stock up and fill our cupboards.

Purchasing building supplies, however, is conundrum. The price of lumber is high and doesn’t seem to be giving any signs of heading down anytime soon. It isn’t quite the issue of supply and demand that was affecting toilet tissue, or at least it is a bit more complex. It is true that more people staying home triggered an increase in home improvement projects, creating an increase in demand for lumber. Prices started to go up. But the high prices started a slow down in new construction and the actual demand for lumber wasn’t excessive because builders adopted a “wait and see” attitude, delaying projects in hope that prices would decline. Thus at the current moment, prices are high, but there are few real shortages. Earlier this week, I purchased a single 2 x 10 x 10’ pressure treated board for a front step project at our son’s home. I paid nearly $60 - about 3 times the price I paid for pressure treated lumber a year ago when making repairs to our deck in Rapid City. Then I went out into the lumber yard to get my board and watched as the yard attendant moved stacks of unsold boards to get at the board I needed. There was no shortage of supply. The lumber yard was over stocked with lumber. High prices have definitely affected demand and there are plenty of discretionary projects that can wait in hopes of decreasing prices.

I don’t understand all of the dynamics of the pandemic economy, but I do know that it is more complex than simple supply and demand.

In the store where we purchase groceries, there is plenty of chicken available for sale, but the price is going up dramatically - much faster than other meat. They say there is a shortage, and some of us are decreasing the amount we purchase, but I can find chicken for sale if I am willing to pay a higher price.

At the same time, there is a widespread shortage of workers. Businesses have “now hiring” signs out all around time. However the shortage has not affected the price at all. The United States continues to experience dramatic wage stagnation. If there is a shortage of supply and an increased demand, you would expect the price to go up, but it appears that the majority of employers are unwilling to pay increased wages and benefits despite the shortages.

I read somewhere that there is a shortage of ketchup packets and that some restaurants are limiting the amount of ketchup a customer can take. We don’t buy much fast food at our house and we don’t have much need for ketchup in packets, so I haven’t noticed, but I guess that the increase in carry out food sales during the pandemic has led to a shortage of supply.

The price of chlorine is high because of shortages. I’m not sure what created the shortages, but I suspect that it has something to do with more intense cleaning and disinfecting in order to combat the spread of disease. At least I haven’t noticed a dramatic increase in the number of swimming pools, so I doubt that the cause is something like that.

Shortages and increases in price are related to supply and demand, but there are many factors that can affect demand. In the case of toilet paper, the threat of shortages really spiked demand. People were definitely hoarding the product. The recent cyber attack on the Colonial Pipeline caused a decrease in supply of gasoline across the southeastern United States, but people also dramatically increased demand during the shortage. They were making sure that their vehicles were topped off at all times, thus effectively increasing the amount of fuel in storage. It was just that the fuel was being stored in vehicles rather than dealers’ tanks. It is unclear whether or not the increased prices currently being charged will go back down now that fuel has begun to flow in the pipeline.

There are always those who attempt to profit from market fluctuations, but in general it is a challenging way to earn a living. There is plenty to be lost when the market is misinterpreted. I have no plans to invest my retirement savings in lumber speculation and I have no hoard of ketchup packets. My mother-in-law was always careful to save all of the extra ketchup packets from a visit to a restaurant. Perhaps if we had saved all of those packets we could be selling them on E-Bay for supplemental income. I have a couple of packages of chicken thighs in the freezer, but I think we’ll probably just cook them on the barbecue some evening rather than offer them for sale at a profit.

And, for the record, I haven’t been quick to dive back into the labor market. Maybe I’m waiting for the price of labor to go up, though my career field is not one noted for high wages. More likely, I’m just learning to enjoy having a bit more time for projects. On the other hand, I can’t afford to build many more steps out of pressure treated lumber. Some of that will have to remain at the lumber yard.

A bit of sacramental theology

To some it may seem like an obscure theological argument, but it is an item that came up a few times in my career. Each time I was exploring a call with a congregation, I sought to make it clear to the congregation that was considering calling me that I would not be making judgment calls about who could or could not be baptized or who could or could not receive communion. In the United Church of Christ ordination confers the authority to preach and teach the Gospel and to administer the sacraments. The United Church of Christ recognizes two sacraments: baptism and holy communion. I administered those sacraments in a congregation for a year under authority of a license before I was ordained and then for 42 years as an ordained minister. To my knowledge, I never refused anyone who asked to receive either sacrament.

It might seem like a small thing to some, but it is very important to me and it goes to the core of sacramental theology. I believe that God, through the Holy Spirit, acts directly in the sacraments. That means that God is not dependent upon human officiants in order to be present. Denying the sacrament to anyone for any reason is assuming that the human officiant is the one in charge of the sacrament. It is, in my opinion, a sign that the officiant does not trust God. We humans are quick to judge as if we don’t think that God’s judgment is sufficient.

It is an argument that has been going on for centuries in the church. Before the great schism, as early as the 3rd century, Donatists argued that Christian clergy must be faultless for their ministry to be effective and their prayers and sacraments to be valid. They never represented the majority of the church and eventually official actions of the church created policies that understood that human clergy and not imperfect. They make mistakes. They are not God. And God has the power to work through imperfect humans in the life of the church. If a believer receives the sacrament in good faith, they receive the benefit of the sacrament whether or not the clergy person is worthy.

The argument is likely even more ancient than the 3rd century. In the Acts of the Apostles, one of the earliest sources of the stories of the Christian Church, there is the story of Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch. After what appears to be a chance meeting and a time of discussing the scriptures, the eunuch ask Philip, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” The assumption is that some early church leaders might have seen the fact that the eunuch was a gentile, from a foreign country, as a barrier to his baptism. Others might have seen the fact that he was the member of a sexual minority as preventing the baptism. The Bible, however, reports that “Philip and the eunuch went down into the water and Philip baptized him.” Philip did not refuse the sacrament.

The history of the church, however, does not stop Christians from arguing about who can and who cannot receive sacraments. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has scheduled a meeting for June 16. They plan to vote on a document about whether or not Catholic politicians who support abortion rights are able to receive communion. The reason for the meeting in just over a month is that President Biden is a member of the Roman Catholic Church and, in contrast to some others who have occupied the office, he is very visible in his faith. He goes to church regularly. When he is in Washington, D.C., he usually attends church at Holy Trinity Church in Georgetown. And when he does, he participates in the Eucharist - Holy Communion.

The meeting of the Bishops has gotten the attention of the Vatican, which as already weighed in with a warning top the head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The Vatican is saying that they should not rush into making sanctions, but rather they should seek dialogue. In keeping with previous statements by Pope Francis, they are being reminded that Holy Communion is not some prize that is awarded to only a few. It is not the role of the bishop to make draconian laws, but rather to inform the conscience, to teach people, and to allow their teaching to inform the hearts and minds of the people they serve.

It is worth noting that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has not taken up the question of whether politicians who support the death penalty, in contrast to the official teachings of the church, should be allowed to receive communion.

Observers expect the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to heed the advice of the Vatican. In doing so, they would also be paying attention to the issues that are more important to the members of their congregations. Like other Christians, Roman Catholics are concerned with the loss of community caused by pandemic restrictions. They are worried about people who are suffering and dying from Covid-19. While it is likely that most Roman Catholics have strong opinions about abortion, it isn’t the only issue for them. It shouldn’t be the only issue for the Bishops when they gather.

Furthermore, according to Roman Catholic law, the decision of the Bishops will not affect whether or not President Biden receives communion. It is the local bishop who regulates the administration of the sacraments in the churches of his area. The cardinal archbishop of Washington, D.C., Cardinal Wilton Gregory, has already made it clear that President Biden is welcome to receive communion at church in the diocese. His decision will remain in place despite the vote of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

I am not a member of the Roman Catholic Church. It is not my place to offer advice to the Bishops when they gather. But I do pray with and for all Christians. I do care about what occurs in other congregations than the one in which I participate. I do care about the voices of those who are often unheard, and that includes women in the Roman Catholic Church whose leadership and wisdom are denied because of their gender.

The eunuch’s question remains, “What is to prevent?” I choose not to be one to prevent people of faith from receiving the sacraments.

Columbine

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When we bought our home in South Dakota, we planed columbine in a bed in front of our house. We were happy to be in the hills after decades of living in prairies and cities. We figured the altitude of our house and its setting in a pine forest would support the delicate mountain flowers and we were right.

Then, in the spring of 1999, the Columbine High School massacre occurred. It struck especially close to home for us. We two high school students in our home, one a senior. And the year previously, we had a third student in our home, an exchange student from Japan. The physical layout of our children’s school was similar to Columbine High School, which we got to know fairly well through hours of news footage covering the tragic events of that day. For the rest of that school year, our children experienced repeated school evacuations caused by phoned in threats and tips warning of a copycat event. Although no such event occurred, students, teachers and parents were on edge. Our daughter found the evacuations to be especially frightening and confusing.

Somewhere along the line, we simply stopped growing the columbine in our beds. Columbine is a perennial, so I guess the delicate flowers got crowded out by the ever expanding iris bulbs in the ground or perhaps were pulled out along with weeds at some point. Whatever was the case, we kind of forgot about the columbine. The association of the flower with the shooting at the high school dampened our enthusiasm for the delicate blossoms.

With so many mass shootings, including fairly frequent school shootings over the years since Columbine, we have become a bit numb to the death and pain and grief and loss. There is just a tiny bit less shock when such an even occurs. There is a decrease in the attention we pay to the news reports. We still share the sadness and grief, but in smaller ways. Our children have grown up and somehow we feel just a little bit less vulnerable. We aren’t ignoring the violence of our communities, but it doesn’t occupy the same place in our consciousness as once was the case and our emotional reaction to shootings, even school shootings is a but less intense.

This spring marked the 22nd anniversary of the Columbine High School massacre. The victims would be entering their forties this year as are the survivors.

We’ve moved on. Our home in Rapid City has a new owner who, I’m sure, is planning new plants for the beds and garden. We find ourselves in a rental house in Mount Vernon, Washington, a place with entirely different weather and a whole new set of plants. Because the landscaping and flower beds were planted by others, this spring has been a time of discovery. We were told that the tradition around here is to prune rose bushes on President’s Day. February seemed a bit early, but we had some fine weather and out came the pruning shears. I’ve never had so many rose bushes and the process took a couple of different attempts. Not long afterward, blossoms began to appear. The Skagit Valley is famous for daffodils and tulips and there were a few of those in the beds around our house. There are a lot more grape hyacinths that add color. Yellow and white blossoms appeared on plants whose names we don’t know. The apple and cherry trees put forth both fragrance and beautiful blossoms.

We have plants in our yard that are new to us: Japanese maple and rhododendron. Some of the rhododendrons have bloomed, but we can tell that there are a lot more blossoms yet to come. One rhododendron is just starting to open red flowers and we can tell it will turn into a riot of color in coming days. We have canna lilies growing by our front door. We’ve never lived in a place where lilies thrive.

In the midst of all of this we noticed, in a small bed at the corner of the sidewalk and the driveway, the gentle tiny flowers of purple. There is a columbine plant in our front yard. It is not what we expected. Columbine is a mountain flower. Although we have a dramatic view of Mount Baker and delight in the beauty of the Cascade Mountains rising to the east of our home, Mount Vernon is only 180 feet above sea level. With the exception of Chicago, where we attended graduate school and lived for four years, Mount Vernon is the lowest elevation we’ve ever lived. We didn’t expect to see an alpine flower in the beds of our house here.

In the scheme of things, the little plant is a tiny piece of the landscaping here. The beds are fairly lightly planted, the product of the house being a rental with residents who come and go and have varying skills and interests in caring for the outdoor plants. Perennials are the things that do best in this environment.

When we become more settled in this place, after we have found a home to purchase and have gotten ourselves moved yet another time, we’ll get serious about what kind of plants we want to have around our home. We’ve already discovered that being retired gives us more time and energy for caring for our yard. Having a smaller yard with less to mow also gives more time and energy for the care of outside plants. We don’t have a vegetable garden this year, so we’ll be dependent on the stores and the abundant gardens at our son’s farm, but we’ll want to grow some of our own vegetables plus herbs and a bit of peppermint for tea once we get settled.

Perhaps as part of the landscape plan when we get our new place, I’ll find a spot for columbine. We wouldn’t need many plants, just a few to show up in April each year as a memorial to the lives lost and a reminder of the grief of families and the trauma experienced by classmates and students of that generation. We don’t want to forget.

Ancient stories

Among the many instructions, commandments and laws that are presented in the first five books of the bible, is the commandment that was quoted to Jesus as the most important: “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” (Deuteronomy 6:5). The text goes on to instruct believers to “Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on you hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” (Deuteronomy 6:7-8). The next paragraphs of the text are reminders that these commandments are to be observed without disobedience because they have come as a result of the grace of God who brought the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt.

The story of the slavery of our people and of their miraculous escape from slavery is one of the key stories of Hebrew theology. The telling of that story is ritualized in the observance of the Seder, the sacred meal of Passover. The commandments to tell that story are deeply imbedded in the teachings of our people. The Gospels report that Jesus shared the passover with his disciples with all of its rituals and stories. The Christian sacrament of Holy Communion contains the story of Jesus celebrating the passover with his followers.

In the story of the Passover, as reported in Exodus, part of the process of the people obtaining their liberation is a series of ten plagues that are visited upon the Egyptians: water turning to blood, frogs, lice, flies, livestock pestilence, boils, hail, locusts, darkness and the killing of firstborn children.

The ancient stories of the plagues is one of many Biblical stories that have stirred the imaginations of researchers and scholars who are examining the oldest traditions and stories of humanity in search of what actually happened. David Montgomery, professor at the University of Washington and author of “The Rocks Don’t Lie: A Geologist Investigates Noah’s Flood,” has tried to bring the tools of modern science to the examination of the stories that ancient people told.

Several contemporary scientists are beginning to look once again at something that religious people have long held - the stories of our ancestors tell the truth. Our most ancient forebears were keen observers who brought their best skills as rational thinkers to their time and place as they tried to explain what they had witnessed. Over the centuries, their stories were repeated with remarkable accuracy and careful study of those stories can reveal deep truths about the world in which we live.

Scientists who examine ancient stories in search of explanations of phenomena they observe in geology, archeology and other sciences have been dubbed geomythologists by their colleagues. The study has inspired several books and theses in recent times. Scholars are fascinated with the question of whether or not and how Bible stories connect with archeological and geological discoveries. Many Biblical stories, including the report of the ten plagues visited upon Egypt, show up in other ancient texts, including some ancient Egyptian medical texts.

One theory of modern scientists is that an ancient volcanic eruption is reported the ancient stories, but that the people did not fully understand what was happening. Volcanic ash, carried by the winds to Egypt contained toxic acids including the mineral cinnabar, which turned the river into a blood-like red color. The ash also raised the acidity of the water causing frogs to abandon the river and seek clean water. The ash also caused the death of animals and humans. Insects swarmed to the decaying bodies, leaving behind larvae and then adult insect. Acid rain fell on the people and caused burns and boils. Plants were contaminated and poisoned the animals that ate them. Increased humidity caused dramatic storms, including hail, leaving behind optimal conditions for locusts to thrive. The volcanic eruptions caused days of darkness as ash clouded the skies.

That doesn’t explain the death of the firstborn - the tenth plague. Some scientists believe that in the midst of all of the destruction of the other plagues, firstborn children were sacrificed out of desperation. Ancient people often sacrificed that which they loved hoping that sacrifice would please the gods and their punishment would be ended.

I’ve also read a theory that blames a red algae bloom for the color of the water, killing fish and forcing the frogs out of the water. Without frogs to eat the insects, the insects proliferated out of control. Like the theory of the volcano, each of the plagues is explained with a connection to a possible event.

I’m no expert in ancient Egyptian medical texts. I’m not a geologist or an archeologist. I only know that there was a reason that our people told the stories and taught each successive generation the importance of teaching it to the next. I don’t think I need a complete scientific explanation of the events. Without meaning to demean the genuine work of scientists, it doesn’t really matter to me whether or not scientists find a historical basis for the scriptures. The truth in the text is not dependent upon geological or archeological evidence of the events of 3,500 years ago. The truth is that our people discovered the presence and deeds of God in the events of their lives. We have inherited the faith and confidence of people who are convinced that God is on the side of human freedom and that we are called to continue that legacy of freedom for all people in all generations. Our stories teach us that God is a liberator of humans.

From time to time, I pay attention when people approach our stories from another perspective. I am genuinely interested in learning more about the reasons our people have been so careful to preserve those stories, but my faith is not dependent upon some scientific discovery or another theory that might explain those stories. My respect for the ancients who told those stories and preserved them for our time is not dependent upon scientific corroboration.

I intend to take seriously the commandment to teach these stories to our children and grandchildren and to examine them for the truth they carry.

Mother's Day 2021

Mother’s Day is a holiday I understand, or at least I think I do. I grew up with an amazing mother. She raised seven children, four adopted and three born to her. She showed each of us her love, support and devotion. She made each of us feel special. Along with her work as a homemaker, she was a full partner in our family’s business, rising early in the morning to do bookwork for the business, sharing in important decisions, working to make the company grow. She not only married a pilot, she became one herself in a time when there weren’t many women who were licensed pilots. I had the special good fortune of having our mother live in our home at the end of her life. I watched her face serious illness and disability with humor and grace. Mother’s Day for me is filled with wonderful memories of an amazing woman.

She isn’t the only amazing mother in my life. I know men who joke about their mother-in-law, but I married into a family who accepted me fully as a son. My mother-in-law was always wonderful to me. I joke with my wife and her sisters that I think I was their mother’s favorite child. That isn’t true, because she was very careful not to choose favorites and to be fair to all of her children. What is true is that she treated me as one of her children and for that I’m grateful. She could pick out a shirt that I loved to wear. She cared for me with deep love and devotion when I was injured on summer. Mother’s Day makes me feel deep gratitude for her presence in my life.

I am married to an amazing mother. Like my mother, she is mother to a child who came to our family by birth and a child who came to our family by adoption. She has shown deep love and care for both children. She has been an amazing partner in parenting at every stage of our children’s lives. I love to listen in when she speaks with our daughter or our son. She is an amazing listener and an inspiring partner in life. She balanced home life with a successful professional career and was always there to support my adventures and endeavors. Mother’s Day is a day to celebrate the good fortune of sharing life with her.

I have a daughter-in-law who is a wonderful mother to three of our grandchildren. She juggles a professional career with her love of the farm’s plants and animals and her dedication to her children. When the pandemic closed the schools, she opened up a home school and dove in with an extra layer of hard work. She is continually seeking and researching new ways to help her children grow and learn and develop. She shares home and farm with our son and supports his career as well. Mother’s Day is a time for our family to focus our attention on her children’s gifts and greetings, but I share their enthusiasm and love for her.

I knew long before she became a mother that our daughter would be a wonderful mother and I was right. Her absolute and complete delight in raising her son is so contagious that I look forward to every conversation and every picture that she sends in text and email messages. She achieves a delightful balance of love and support with clear and consistent limits and boundaries for our grandson. If they had lined up all of the children seeking adoption in the world and allowed us to choose, we couldn’t have made a better choice for a daughter. And in the mix we got an amazing mother who fills Mother’s Day with joy for me.

I know, however, that not everyone has had the experiences I have known. There are mothers who have strained and broken relationships with their children. There are children who have experienced abuse at the hands of mothers. There are people for whom this day is a day of deep pain.

On Mother’s Day, I can’t avoid thinking of a young woman I know whose young son died suddenly of an undetected heart malfunction. Every day is a day of grief for her, even a couple of years after her loss. She will never again be the same. Mother’s Day is a day of deep grief for her. She is not alone. Many mothers have gone through the deep gut-wrenching loss of a child.

And I think of women who want to become mothers but are unable. They live with a sense of loss of their vision of what their lives might have been.

There are mothers who became mothers at a time when they weren’t ready and those who became pregnant through relationships that were forced or painful or broken.

There are single mothers who feel alone in the world struggling to survive in a world where the odds seem to be stacked against them.

There are many people for whom Mother’s Day is not a day of celebration, but a reminder of pain and sorrow and sadness. Just as our mothers received our every emotion, this day brings every emotion imaginable to people. And in just month it will be Father’s Day - a day filled with emotions as complex as today.

So when I wish you a happy Mother’s Day, I embrace the many different emotions that you might bring to this day. I know that tears of joy and tears of sadness often mingle on the same cheek. I know that grief and joy often inhabit the same moment in the same person. I know that we are far more complex than one might imagine from reading a display of Mother’s Day cards in the store. May this day be a time of recognizing the power of the relationships we have with mothers and of celebrating the mothers of our lives in ways that nurture and sustain our spirits.

Happy Mother’s Day!

On time

I have long defined myself as a morning person. The story I tell is that when I was a young boy, my father used to occasionally take me with him to work at the airport. In the summer, he left for work between 4 and 4:30 am. He would come up the stairs and ask me if I wanted to go along. In my memory, I always did. The thing was, that when he came up to invite me, he was already dressed. I had the amount of time it took him to put on his boots and head out the door to get up, get to the bathroom and get dressed. Most of the time I could make it.

Whether or not that is the reason, I find it early to rouse myself from slumber and get out of bed. When I was working, I almost always the first to arrive at the church. I liked having the building to myself for a while before people started to arrive. I would run through my sermon to an empty sanctuary, catch up on correspondence, have time for prayers and get in a bit of reading in the quiet building. My style of ministry involved frequent calls in the middle of the night with an accompanying need to get up and respond to some crisis or another. For many years I was on call for suicide response in our community at night, because it was difficult for me to take call during the day when I had responsibilities for work.

I feel like I am most productive in the morning. When I have a big job to tackle, it works best for me to get an early start. I usually get more work done in the morning than in the afternoon.

I am, what Daniel Kahneman calls “pathologically punctual.” I don’t like being late. I dislike the feeling so much that I arrive at most appointments way too early. My somewhat more sensible wife has gotten used to arriving in the parking lot and having time to sit and talk as we wait for the next event because I planned to arrive 15 minutes early. Just a couple of weeks ago, I got hung up in traffic and called the dentist to report that I might be a few minutes late for an appointment. The receptionist reminded me of the phone call when I actually arrived 5 minutes early.

Despite my penchant for mornings, I’m in a profession that isn’t exactly known for being the domain of early risers. Most of my professional colleagues consider a 9 am meeting to be early in the morning. Many of them are still at the church at 9 pm, cleaning up after an evening meeting. I remember my days in seminary, when I had some ability to stretch my day both directions. I would rise early to catch up on my reading or to work on writing papers and I would stay up late to discuss theology and enjoy the company of my colleagues. Theological education was different in those days. It was considered to be important that students be full-time and that they reside on campus. This put us into social relationships with other students and colleagues. One of our professors once commented, “No one should read Karl Barth alone.” The understanding was that we needed to discuss our classwork and assigned reading with other students to develop common understandings.

What I remember about those frequent late night conversations is that we were allowed to change our minds. We might begin the evening debating and end the evening agreeing. I might argue one point of view not because I was passionately committed to it, but rather to explore what direction that kind of thinking would lead me. When I found the logic to be falling apart, I could admit the errors in my thinking and start over with a new position. We expected each other to be growing and changing and we allowed ourselves and our colleagues to change our minds.

Life is quite different now. Much of graduate theological education is completed online. Students earn degrees without changing their residence. People prepare for the pastoral ministry by studying alone, in their homes. Discussion of reading materials is limited to Zoom meetings that start and end on time. I think this results in students who are much less practiced in debate and argument and less likely to listen carefully to what others are saying. There is a lot of research these days that is simply reinforcing existing ideas and notions rather than seeking something new.

While it does no good to bemoan the change that comes with the passing of time, I do miss many of the elements of the ways we engaged in teaching and learning as graduate students. I miss the late night conversations. I miss the interplay of mind upon mind that was designed into residential graduate theological education.

I admit, however, that I have grown much older. I no longer have the stamina for late night conversations. I fear I might nod off if I tried to pursue a rational argument after 9 pm or so. I also have lived long enough to know that human beings aren’t consistently rational. We develop our quirks and ways of thinking that defy logic. Despite our perception that we are behaving in response to a well thought out system of beliefs, most of the time we are actually acting out of habit and can’t explain our behavior. I know that arriving early for every appointment wastes time and is not necessary. I know that professional offices such as dentists plan for tardy patients. They have waiting rooms designed into their practices for a reason. They know that the office flows more smoothly when patients are required to wait for dentists rather than the other way around.

Retirement is an invitation to re-think my sense of time. I am no longer on call in the middle of the night. I don’t wake to an alarm clock these days. I rise in the middle of the night and read or write for a while and then go back to bed. And, on those days when I do rise at 4 am, there isn’t much going on.

I still tell people that I am a morning person and if you make a plan to meet me at 7 am, I’m likely to arrive early. But at least I am now able to confess that my behavior isn’t exactly rational and others, who are different, may be as logical and sensible as I.

Discerning my call

In a conversation earlier this week one of the pastors at the church we attend asked me a very pastoral question - the kind of question I wish I had been more likely to ask in my years as a pastor: “Where do you think the Spirit is leading you next?” I’m usually pretty quick to answer questions in conversation, but this one gave me pause. I came up with an answer for the purposes of the conversation, but the question remains and I have been mulling it since it was asked.

Even though I am a pastor, even though I pray every day, even though I have had a long career as a Christian minister, I have to admit that I’m not very good at discerning the call of the Spirit.

I think that I went to seminary thinking that if I became a pastor, it would be just one step in a career that led elsewhere. I could imagine myself as a professor. I could imagine myself in an innovative health care ministry. I could imagine myself as a member of a Conference or the national staff of the church. I couldn’t imagine that I would invest my entire working career being a local church pastor. When I went to seminary, I was sure that it was a short departure from Montana. I was a Montanan, and I was positive that I would return to my home state and live my life there.

I wasn’t capable of seeing the Spirit calling me to local church ministry all by myself. It took other people to help me see where I was being called. That pesky Montana notion kept getting in my way. I’ve lost track of how many times I tried to receive a call to serve a congregation in Montana. It never happened. There were at least two times when I reached interview stage with church positions in Montana when I was convinced that it was were the Spirit was calling me. Neither of those times did the people on the search committees feel that it was where the Spirit was calling them. Both times it was a blessing that led me into a deeper relationship with the congregation I was serving and more productive ministries shared.

An important lesson that I had to learn over and over again is that the calling of the Holy Spirit is much different that what I want.

While I invested considerable energy and consulted with many colleagues and listened to the lay people of the church when we made our moves to serve congregations, the process of retirement was quite a bit more personal. Of course, we have each other and Susan and I have grown even closer through the process, but I have been focused on the practical issues of the process. I’ve asked questions about where we will live, about what we will take and what we will leave behind, about how we will manage our finances, and about a lot of other things, but I haven’t been attentive to the basic, and most important question, “What is it that God is asking of this phase of my life?”

I know from scripture and from personal experience that God doesn’t give up on us when we take a wrong turn or when we aren’t paying attention. Jonah didn’t get out of going to Nineveh by getting on a boat to Tarshish. Jeremiah didn’t avoid his role as a prophet by claiming to be too young for the job. Elijah didn’t escape his calling by hiding in a cave. The Spirit will not allow me to ignore my call and the Spirit will find a way to convey the message in a language that I cannot refuse.

Once I have started pondering the question, however, I can be quite impatient. I want an answer right away. I know, however, that these things take time. I know that there is much about my future that is yet to be revealed. I know that I have to take it on step at a time.

Moreover, I know that I need a supporting community to discern the call of the Holy Spirit. I won’t figure out my calling all by myself. I need to listen to what others have to say. I need to seek out what others see in me. I need to pay attention to the places where need exists. I need to make sure that I have, in my circle of conversation and community, people who are different ages and at different stages of their life than I. When I was a young pastor, I sought out elders and mentors who could help guide me. Now that I have become one of the old folks, I am well aware that I need to listen to children, youth and young adults. I need to cultivate friendships with them. When I was actively serving a congregation, this was much simpler. Those friendships came to me through the church. I had a ready-made community of faith that surrounded me. It is a bit different, but as we become more connected to this congregation, even in the season of Covid, we are developing more diverse relationships. I’m in a faith formation group that includes young adults and actively working people. I can see opportunities to volunteer in the church and may soon be able to dive in a bit more deeply now that we are vaccinated and things are beginning to open up to other ways of connecting.

And, fortunately, God has placed a pastor in my path who is willing to ask the question that I need to be pondering: “Where do you think the Spirit is leading you next?”

I’m going to have to work on that one.

Life is a journey, not a destination. I know I will never arrive at a place where I have everything figured out and have worked through all of the challenges. I’d be pretty bored in such a place anyway. The journey continues. God has yet more light to break forth. Prayer and study and patience seem in order.

The class of '71

It is that season. I’ve been receiving the letters about the events planned this summer for the 50th reunion of the Class of ’71 of Sweet Grass County High School. I remember that my mother didn’t attend any of her high school class reunions until her 50th. After attending her 50th, she got together with other class members until there were so few left and they had become so aged that it was no longer possible. I don’t think I’ll be following in her footsteps. I’ve read the letters and I joined the Facebook page, but I’m not finding any attraction in paying $50 for an afternoon gathering with former classmates followed by riding on a trailer in the annual rodeo parade wearing a $20 t-shirt. I know that the gathering is meaningful to some people, but I don’t share their enthusiasm.

I’ve never been much for reunions. There are a lot of reasons. The first is that I never developed much of a sense of belonging in high school. I didn’t graduate. I was admitted to college under an early admissions program and went from my junior year in high school to my freshman year in college. When the 10-year reunion rolled around, I wasn’t invited. I didn’t appear on the roster of the graduates of the class of ’71. With all of the social media and with the simple fact that my sister lives in our old home town, it was easy for classmates to find me. I don’t mind that they know my address.

I think that another reason I have never gotten into reunions is that I’ve been blessed with a life that is meaningful and engaging in the present. I’ve always had meaningful work and a community of people around me that offer support. Whenever I hear someone refer to high school as “the best years of your life,” I can’t fathom what they mean. I don’t look back on those years in that way at all.

I formed closer ties and more lasting friendships with classmates in college and graduate school, but I’ve not been attracted to those reunions, either. I know it won’t be long before I start hearing of plans for a 2024 reunion of my college class. I did graduate from college. And there may be more attraction for that gathering because while we didn’t attend the same high school, Susan and I went to college together and graduated in the same class.

After receiving the latest offering from the reunion committee, I was thinking about why attending isn’t a priority for me. I know that some classmates will travel farther and will make the trip a priority for their time this summer. There are some who are excited about the gathering. I decided that part of it is that I much prefer being a newcomer to being an old timer. Despite my age, I still enjoy beginnings and tackling new adventures. I’m happy being a newcomer to the Pacific Northwest. I don’t quite fit in and I don’t mind that at all.

I’ve been participating in a small faith formation group of members of our church and have gotten to know the others in the group from seasons of weekly meetings. There is one other member of the group who is not native to this part of the country. The rest of the members are locals - they grew up in the area and they feel anchored in the culture of the place. Their personal identity is caught up with the place where they have lived. I don’t have quite the same connection with any place. I left the town where I grew up 51 years ago. I left the state of my birth four years later. I guess there are some ways in which I consider myself to be a Montanan, but I lived in South Dakota for more years than I lived anywhere else and if you add in the years we lived in North Dakota, but within the service area of Rapid City, you might think that I’m pretty much a Dakotan. Somehow, however, I’ve chosen to disconnect myself from that place.

I’ve noticed that the members of the reunion committee all live within 60 miles of our old home town. I don’t know whether or not some have lived farther away and moved back. I think most of them stayed in the region for all of their lives.

I loved growing up in Montana. I loved living in South Dakota, but I also loved living in Idaho, North Dakota and even Chicago. I think I’m going to love living in Washington.

One of my teachers pointed out that much of the theology of the Hebrew Scriptures is disconnected from place. In the time of Abraham and Sarah, it was common for religion to be a local phenomenon. When one moved from one place to another, one adopted the religion of the new place. Abraham and Sarah, however, developed and passed on a faith in God who is in every place. My teacher said, ours is a theology of history, not of place. We are not defined by where we live, but by the stories we carry. Maybe that theology has caught on with me. My stories are stronger than the places where I have lived.

One of the things about traveling around and living in different places is that you develop a sense of humor about yourself and where you live. When I tell a North Dakota joke, I’m quick to point out that I’ve earned the right to tell those jokes by enduring 7 winters in North Dakota. I make jokes about all of the places I have lived. I make jokes about living in Washington. I find some of the attitudes of people around here to be very funny. Just a few days ago I wrote about marijuana culture with tongue in cheek. There is a kind of self-righteous smugness to some of the folk in this part of the country that can benefit from a few good-natured jokes.

I’m paying attention to the reunion events and even though I may not attend, I do enjoy reading the stories of the people with whom I shared high school. Despite whatever jokes I make, they are good people. I don’t mind counting myself as a member of the class of ’71.

Spring

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From time to time, we travel on Highway 20, also known as the North Cascades highway. It is the road that connects Anacortes to the west on Fidalgo Island with the high country to the east. The highway is he northernmost route across the Cascade Mountain Range in Washington. It is closed in the winter because of the danger of avalanches. The day we arrived in Mount Vernon last November after experiencing a foot of snow in Leavenworth on the other side of Stevens Pass, the pass to the south of the North Cascade Highway, was the day that the North Cascade Highway was closed for the winter. That means that we haven’t lived here when Highway 20 has had the pressure of the traffic traveling the Cascade Loop. A couple of days ago, however, as we waited to get onto Highway 20 on our way to a walk on the campus of the former Northern State Hospital, we noticed an increase in motorhomes and vehicles with campers. It made me wonder if the pass was open, so I took a look at the Washington Department of Transportation website. The pass is not currently open, but it is set to open today at 1 pm. Crews plowing snow from the east and west sides met last Thursday. After the snow plowing crews meet, the work begins to repair the damage caused by snow and debris traveling the avalanche pathways. Signs, guardrails and pavement are all damaged every winter.

It isn’t just the high snowfall that causes the highway to be closed. The technology exists to keep the road plowed. Both Stevens and Snoqualmie Passes are kept open year round. However, the North Cascades Highway has 27 avalanche chutes. In order to keep the highway safely open during the winter, structures would have to be built allowing the avalanches to pass over the top of the highway in 27 different locations. Those structures, furthermore, would have to be engineered for conditions that don’t exist on the other passes. Some of the avalanche chutes stretch over 2,000 feet, more than double the longest avalanche chutes on the other highway passes over the North Cascades. The May 5 opening is considered to be early. Some springs it takes a couple more weeks before the highway is ready for travel.

So we are about to experience a new boost in traffic when the pass opens today. It won’t affect us much here in town, but it may affect our journeys to nearby areas where we like to hike. I’m not sure where the motorhomes we saw were headed, but perhaps they were planning to camp in North Cascades National Park.

The North Cascades Highway is incredibly beautiful, with high alpine peaks that are snow-covered year round. North Cascades National Park, accessible from our side of the mountains even in the winter, is a true gem of the National Park system and worthy of a visit by those who enjoy the outdoors and scenic beauty. It is the only National Park of which we are aware where you can still occasionally find a campsite without a prior reservation. A few years ago we camped there on our way west and had a delightful time just an hour away from our destination at our son’s home. North Cascades National Park will definitely be a destination for camping with our grandchildren.

The opening of the pass means the start of a new season in our new life. The first year in a new place is always filled with discovery as we learn the rhythms of the place. Of course there are still plenty of pandemic restrictions in place, so what we are experiencing isn’t quite the same as a “normal” year, but each year is different even when there isn’t a pandemic. So we watch and we notice things that the locals take for granted. Of course the pass opens up every spring, usually in May. Of course the number of tourists increases. The motorhome and RV traffic may be a bit higher this year. At least that has been reported in other locations. People feel that traveling by RV is safer than staying in motels and so RV travel has increased during the pandemic. After an initial phase of closed campgrounds and people staying home, travel has gradually increased over the time of the pandemic.

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Because the weather here is quite different from what we experienced in South Dakota, we don’t know exactly how to read the seasons. In many ways it still feels like spring to us. There are plenty of tulips in bloom even though the tulip festival officially ended last week. The weather is highly variable, with highs in the 70’s some days and in the 50’s on other days. We still are experiencing a few rainy days, but fewer than was the case a month ago. I have to remember my floppy hat and sunscreen when I work at the farm. We expect that not only are the winters milder here than in South Dakota, so too the summers will be a bit more moderate, with fewer really hot days. Although we have visited in the summer a lot in recent years, we still have much to learn about this new place where we plan to make our home. We’ve been here full time for almost six months, though it doesn’t seem like it. We’ve experienced the passage of half of a year. It also means that we have six more months before we will have experienced the full cycle, so there is plenty for us to learn and discover. Just as we have taken a few trips to the coast to see how it looks, we’ll soon take a drive to the high country just to check out the snow and see the vistas from the other side of our new territory.

It is a good time for us to have a new place to explore. We have time and energy to look around and leisure to not feel guilty about taking a day for a drive. We are learning how to be retired and so far it is a joyful discovery.

In the news

A few headlines from news sites captured my attention. These days, I read a few more headlines, because I’m not big on paying more money to get past paywalls. I’m already paying for the Internet service to my home. In addition, I endure all of the pop-up ads that are prevalent on web sites. And I also get news from international sites that aren’t quite as aggressive in getting you to subscribe in order to read a few stories. As a result, there are headlines that capture my attention, but don’t deliver the article when I click on them.

I learned a long time ago that one has to be careful with headlines. Headlines are designed to get you to read the article and they don’t always convey the understanding that reading the article yields. I used to joke that our local newspaper could improve itself by simply requiring the headline writers to read the article about which they were writing the headlines. That was several years ago. These days, I wonder if newspaper sites have any headline writers - or any editors for that matter. They seem to have only graphic designers who arrange the articles and pictures on a web site to attract attention and get people to click on the links. It is a different business than when newspapers had newsboys shouting the headlines on street corners to get people to purchase the paper.

So, without any real knowledge of the substance of the articles, here are some of my reactions to today’s headlines.

Bill and Melinda Gates have announced their divorce after 27 years of marriage. I think that Bill Gates is listed as the fourth wealthiest person in the world. Dividing their assets should keep teams of accountants and lawyers busy for the rest of their lives. If I remember correctly theirs was a workplace romance. Melinda was an employee of Microsoft when she met Bill. The couple has often asked for privacy. There was a rumor that circulated that in order to prevent news photographers from spying on their wedding, they hired every helicopter in the area. While I think they deserve to work out their relationship, the process of continuing to be parents to their three children, and the details of their business without undue advice from others, they pretty much are stuck in the public light.

I’ve never had to hire helicopters or make public statements to maintain my privacy. The news reporters aren’t interested in a story about a person in my wealth bracket. On the other hand, I wouldn’t trade my life’s partner for all of the wealth in the world. We are coming up on our 48th wedding anniversary and so far neither of us has any plans for divorce. We were able to work as professional colleagues for 42 years and it worked out well for us. We haven’t formed a foundation and we haven’t given away billions of dollars, but our ability to give, mostly through the church, has given us joy.

I’m sad for the Gates family because the divorce means that they will have a different experience with grandchildren that we have had. The oldest of their children is 24 and they do not yet have any grandchildren, but one of the deep joys of our lives is being grandparents together. I don’t think couples who divorce get to have the same closeness in sharing the grandparent role. It seems a bit sad that their grandchildren will primarily experience grandparents as separate instead of together.

After years, perhaps even decades, of people speculating about who will run Berkshire Hathaway after Warren Buffett retires, it has been announced that the company’s vice chairman, Greg Abel, will be his successor. Who knows when Buffett will retire. At 90, he seems to not have much interest in retirement. Abel, on the other hand, at age 59 with a base salary in the $16 million per year range, might have had the thought of retirement cross his mind from time to time. I wish them both the best, but it wouldn’t surprise me if Buffett hangs around Berkshire Hathaway long enough for him to need to select another successor after Abel retires.

On the technology front, several computer manufacturers are continuing to experiment with smart fabrics and the possibility of developing even more sophisticated forms of wearable technology. The Washington Post headline suggested that one day people will be able to consult a smart shirt to find out whether or not they have completed their 10,000 steps each day. I don’t think I’ll need one of those smart shirts. I’ve written in my journal several times about my smart watch that understands a workout, but doesn’t understand work. One day it record only three minutes of exercise after I had dug seven post holes. Now, I have discovered that I can get three minutes of exercise from raising my left arm from my waist to shoulder height 100 times. I don’t even have to move my right arm. I discovered the exercise because the device records how many minutes I stand up in each hour. Except that it doesn’t. When I’m in a meeting, I used to stand up to try to gain stand minutes each hour. But just standing doesn’t convince the device that I am standing. I need to walk around, which isn’t always practical in the middle of a meeting. However, I discovered that I can shake my hand or do a few hand lifts, which is pretty easy to do during a Zoom meeting by waving my hand outside of the camera frame. The result is that the watch thinks I’m standing and exercising. Trust me, it takes more calories to dig post holes than wave my hand in the air, but the watch doesn’t know it.

Maybe if I had a smart shirt I could get my exercise by shrugging my shoulders, or by puffing out my chest. For the moment, I don’t seem to need the technology.

And I don’t need to be rich. I had a meaningful career and I got to retire in time to enjoy my grandchildren with my wife. I’ll leave the divorces and worries about successors to others.

The sounds we hear

Some of the best places to take a walk are near dog parks. We know of a couple of places where people can allow their dogs to run off leash that are great places to walk. In addition, we often meet people walking their dogs on leash as we walk on public trails around the area. In general, dogs have never bought into social distancing. The come up to us with their tails wagging, often straining at their leashes as their owners try to keep a respectful distance. The dogs we encounter on our walks are well behaved. I find it very easy to tell when a dog is angry or frightened and so have little fear of the friendly dogs we encounter on our walks. And, so far, we have found the owners to be close at hand when a dog comes up to offer a greeting.

It is interesting how the dogs have different personalities. We see a lot more small dogs around here than other places we have lived. There are a lot of people who are out for a walk with a dog that isn’t as big as some of the cats we’ve known. I think that the little dogs don’t really know that they are little. They tend to approach other dogs, even those who are much larger than themselves, with confidence. They approach us expecting a pat or pet, even though we’d have to bend way down to do so.

The dogs in back yards are a bit different. Often they will bark at us as we walk by. There is a young lab a couple of blocks from our home who greets us with a deep bark if he is out when we walk by his home. Despite the sound of his bark, he isn’ very scary. We can see his tail wagging and can tell he just wants to play. Another dog in our neighborhood lives at a house on the corner and knows that if he sees us go around the corner, he can run around the house and give us a second greeting from the back yard. Sometimes we are surprised at the sound of a dog's bark. The biggest dogs don’t always have the loudest bark. We’ve found ourselves giggling on a couple of occasions when a tiny dog has a big bark or a big dog has a tiny bark.

We humans have evolved to connect sounds and emotions. In earlier hunter-gatherer communities, some sounds were cause for alarm. An attack by a wild animal required a quick defense. The roar of a flash flood warned of impending disaster. There are sounds that startle us and others to which we become accustomed. When we first moved into the house we are renting, I would awake with a start in the night when the ice maker in the refrigerator dumped a load of cubes into the bin. It is really quite loud and in a quiet house sounds like someone has dropped something. Now, after living here for several months, I don’t notice the sound. It reminds me of our home in Boise, Idaho, where we had train tracks right behind our backyard fence. The tracks were only used by Amtrak passenger trains and there was only one train each direction per day. The east-bound train came in the late evening. The west-bound train arrived in the early morning. We never seemed to notice the trains at all unless they were late. Then a late train would wake me from a deep sleep, even though I could easily sleep through an on-time train.

As I write, I can hear the whistle of a train that is passing through town a little more than a mile from our house. I’m sure that I wouldn’t even notice it if I weren’t thinking about the sounds we hear. We adjust to the sounds in our environment and learn which ones are cause for alarm and which can be ignored.

I know that my hearing isn’t as good as it was when I was younger. I still am able to have good conversations, but there are occasions when I ask others to repeat when I don’t fully understand. This is common for me in a crowded place, such as a retail store. Face masks have made it more difficult for me to hear and understand what is being said. I don’t think I’m much of a lip reader, but I do find myself asking for a repeat on occasion.

I wonder if we become less likely to be alarmed or frightened as we age. The combination of a decrease in the acuity of our hearing combines with the experience of safety and security to make us less likely to respond to various sounds in our environment. It seems possible, though I’m not aware of any specific examples.

When we worked in a church that had a preschool, I used to take a look at the names of the children on the artwork posted in the halls. Sometimes, when I was alone in the building, I would say all of the names out loud. It was common for there to be names that I had never before encountered. It was even more common for a familiar name to have an unusual spelling. Saying the name out loud would often give me a clue to the intended pronunciation. Being a reader, I often mis-pronounce words. I come up with my own pronunciation in my mind without consulting a guide to pronunciation. I base sounds on the appearance of the letters. Psycholinguists tell us that we make judgments about others based on the sound of their names. Personal names like Bob or Molly are perceived as soft and gentle. Names like Kirk or Kate are seen as more prickly and harsh. Those perceptions are not based on experience. There are plenty of Kirks and Kates who are soft and gentle and plenty of Bobs and Mollys who are more easily excited.

I guess names are like the sounds of dogs barking. You have to look for other clues and get to know individuals to know what they really mean.

Legal weed

I became an adult in the 1970’s, but unlike some politicians my age, I never smoked it and I didn’t inhale. I’ve never had a reason to try marijuana. As a result I don’t have any expertise about the substance. I’ve read articles comparing it to alcohol. I have had a bit of alcohol in my life and I enjoy a glass of wine from time to time, but I quickly learned that I’m not one for drinking too much. I don’t enjoy the feeling of foggy thinking and losing control. I’m speculating, but I’m fairly sure I don’t want the feeling of being high. On one occasion I received morpheme to treat the pain of burns. I became paranoid. I was aware that I was thinking irrationally, but I couldn’t stop myself. I didn’t like the feeling at all. Since that experience, I’ve told doctors that I am allergic to morpheme. I’m staying away from that medication as much as I can. One of my doctors commented to me, “You’re just not a good candidate for opioid addiction.” That’s fine with me.

So, as one who has no expertise, I’ve been fairly quiet in the debate over marijuana and its use. I’ve read articles about those who found relief from pain and other symptoms of illness through the use of marijuana, but it seems to me that the only evidence we have about it is anecdotal. With the federal ban on solid research into marijuana and its component chemicals, it is impossible to study the best use of the substance in the way that other drugs are studied. Still, compassion for others has motivated states to pass medical marijuana bills and allow the dispensing of the drug. In some of those states, the medical marijuana laws allowed for significant recreational use of the drug.

However, I’ve now moved to a state where both recreational and medical use of the drug is legal. I know the slightly sweet smell of burning marijuana wafting over the fence from the neighbors. I haven’t found the neighbors to be any kind of a problem. I wouldn’t be upset if they had a few beers in their own backyard, and smoking a few joints poses no threat to me that I can discern.

Being someone with no expertise, however, I do find some of the culture of marijuana use to be amusing. I’ve made up a story or two about some aspects of that culture. Every time we drive up to our son’s farm, we go by a dispensary. Or is it just a shop in a state where recreational use is legal? Anyway this place has a large lighted sign that proclaims that it is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Apparently those who use the substance need a place where they can get an “emergency” supply. Or perhaps continued use of it makes it impossible for one to plan ahead. I keep trying to imagine a scenario in which someone needs to drive out of town to a shop on frontage road alongside the highway to make a purchase. Even more difficult for me is imagining the type of entrepreneur who is willing to work the long hours and hire the kind of trusted employees required to keep a business open and operating 24/7 year round. Perhaps like the bartender who doesn’t drink, the marijuana shop hires employees who don’t use their product. I suspect, however, that such people would make poor salespersons. Like me, they might not know what they are talking about when a customer asks about different varieties.

So far, however, the most amusing piece of the marijuana culture for me is that there are drive through marijuana shops. Alongside the highway within 10 miles or so of the Canadian border, there is a nice plaza with shops, restaurants and a U.S. Customs and Border Patrol office. We’ve stopped there for a sandwich on occasion when driving in the area. Across the street from the plaza is a drive through marijuana dispensary, located in a building that at first appears to be a drive-through coffee shop. It isn’t a very big building, but it has drive through lanes on both sides. Unlike the coffee shops, which appear to be all around the state, however, I’ve never seen a car in the drive through. In fact, I don’t think it has ever been open when I’ve driven by. It makes me think of a stereotypical marijuana user, who has lost initiative: “Man, I suppose we should go to work some day. I’ll think about it after I finish this smoke. What was it we were talking about?”

Pandemic isolation has, I suspect, meant that more users of marijuana are isolated from others. I suspect that like alcohol use, those who use socially had found themselves using alone because there are simply fewer parties and opportunities to gather with friends. If the aroma from the neighbors is any indication, however, it may be possible to share marijuana with those who are more than six feet apart.

Other than a bit of silliness on my part, I haven’t experienced a big difference in moving from a State where marijuana is banned despite the passage of an initiative and a constitutional amendment allowing medical and recreational use of the drug. The new laws are supposed to take effect on July 1, but the governor has been attempting to block their implementation. It is still a bit unclear what the result will be. At any rate, it was illegal in South Dakota and legal in Washington when we made the move. I suspect that the change in South Dakota will be less dramatic than people who fear the new law suspect. If our experience is any indicator, it probably isn’t going to have much impact on the lives of most of the folk in the state. It is unlikely that the streets and parks will fill up with people acting like a Cheech and Chong routine. After all, it is still too cold for that all winter long in South Dakota.

Happy May Day!

May Day wasn’t one of the big holidays when I was a kid, at least not in my home town. Some years we made “baskets,” which were more like cones constructed by rolling a bit of construction paper and fastening a handle with a couple of staples. Finding flowers to fill them was a bit of a challenge. Some years our mother had daffodils and allowed us each to cut a couple of them. Once or twice there were lilacs, but that was pretty iffy that early in our town. There might be a few crocus and even a few tulips, but those were forbidden for us to pick. I remember at least one year when we made artificial flowers out of construction paper and glue for our May Day baskets.

The routine was to place the basket on someone’s porch, ring the bell and run. The story was that if you got caught placing the flowers you would get kissed. At that stage of my life, I was not in a mood to get kissed if I could avoid it. Mom’s kiss on our foreheads was unavoidable, and I don’t remember anything bad about it, but we pretty much avoided any other kissing. There was a lady who lived a block or so down the street from our house that we knew to avoid. If you ended up on her porch she was going to kiss you, like some of our aunts to whose kisses we had to submit. That lady down the street was still kissing kids when I was old enough to deliver her papers. I used to dread collecting for her paper because of the obligatory kiss at her front door. It never occurred to me to place a May Day basket at her house.

Actually, I wasn’t all that into arts and crafts at the time and flowers weren’t a primary interest, either, so I never got much farther than a May Day basket for our mother. That was easy, because we didn’t use the front door very often. If we rang the front doorbell, she had to go through the living room, through another door onto the porch, across the porch, and open the door. That gave plenty of time to be out of sight.

For the first time in my life, I live in a place where there is an abundance of blooms that could fill a May Day basket. I don’t know if May Day baskets are still a thing or not. We didn’t do them with our kids when they were little. I’ll be paying attention to our grandchildren when we see them later today.

I guess May Day isn’t going to go down as one of the big holidays in our family. Still, it is nice to have some blossoms in our yard even if there is an awful lot of weeding that needs to be done in this place. Someone advised me that renewing the mulch with fresh shredded wood would keep the weeds down in the beds. I followed their instructions and am of the impression that it did nothing to slow the growth of weeds. Now I have to mess with the mulch with each weed I pull, but that seems to be the only difference. Also the fresh mulch provides a bit more contrast in color for the new weeds, so I see them as soon as they emerge. It is a good thing I’m retired and have a few minutes to pull weeds every day.

I don’t know, but I’m not sure that dandelions are the preferred flowers for May Day baskets.

Traditions, of course, are always in transition. Each generation adds its own layer of meaning to the things inherited from the past. I didn’t know my maternal grandmother. She died before I was born. My paternal grandmother was always called “grandma.” Our aunts and uncles were addressed with the title: “Aunt Phoebe,” “Aunt Teddy,” “Aunt Myrna,” and so on. We used first names with our aunts and uncles, but last names with our grandparents. Even though we didn’t have multiple grandparents, we knew them as “Grandma Huffman.” We knew that “Grandma Lewis” had died.

Our children used the titles, but called their grandmothers by their first names, “Grandma Meg,” and “Grandma Charlotte.” I don’t remember ever having any discussion about what our kids would call their grandmothers, it just emerged.

Our grandchildren mostly address us by our first names. They know that we are their grandparents and they occasionally use the title, but for the most part we are called Ted and Susan. It seems perfectly natural to me. I read, recently, however, about how it is the custom, at least in some parts of the country, for grandparents to choose the title by which their grandchildren address them. Some don’t want to be called “grandpa,” but prefer “papa” or “gramps” or “big daddy” or “Baba” or “Opa” or “Geepa.” It never occurred to me that one of the obligations of being a grandfather was to specify how I would be addressed by my grandchildren. I don’t think I specified how I was to be addressed by our children. As adults, our son often calls me “daddy-o” and our daughter calls me “papa.” Both are music to my ears. I wouldn’t trade having our three-year-old granddaughter running up and hugging my legs while yelling, “Ted!” for anything. She can call me what she likes.

Based on my thoughts about how our grandchildren address us, I’m pretty sure that a May Day basket filled with dandelions would be a special treat. The flowers would probably end up in a vase for a day or so. I will not, however, run down any children and force them to kiss me, and I can’t imagine my wife doing that, either. There are parts of the tradition that I’m perfectly happy having go by the wayside.

Actually, if someone really wanted to impress me, they could pick all of the weeds out of the bed by the front door and then ring the bell. That would be a May Day treat to remember.