September 2021

Whoever wants to be first

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We often argue over things of no consequence.

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

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

It is sage advice.

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

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

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

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

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

Praying

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m not a prosperity gospel theologian.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rains are coming

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Butterflies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keeping track of things

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The gift card

There is a gift card in a small paper envelope on the corner of my desk. I’ve been keeping it carefully since my birthday in June. I’m not usually one to hang onto gift cards. I receive them for what they are - a way to obtain a treat - and they are soon spent. I’ve used gift cards as gifts for others on several different occasions. They aren’t the perfect gift, but when I know that someone has needs or wants and I’m not quite sure what the right gift might be, a gift card can enable the recipient a measure of freedom of choice that doesn’t exist in some other gift possibilities.

This card, however, represents a delicious choice for me. It is a card for a local bookstore. I’m not sure that I can explain the dynamic, but books have very special meaning for me. When I went to college, I had three books that went with me: A new Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, a Thesaurus, and the Bible my parents gave me. When I unpacked my things, I arranged my three books on the bookshelves over the built-in desk in my dorm room. Just a few days later, I walked back from the college bookstore with a stack of textbooks for my classes. The shelves still were mostly empty. For the next eight years, my bookshelves continued to have new volumes added on a regular basis. Some of the books were temporary residents in my collection, borrowed from the library. When I married, we merged our libraries. I was pleased to have Susan’s German books join my French books. Before we owned any furniture, I made bookshelves for our first apartment. I loved arranging the books on the shelves.

In graduate school I discovered used book stores and the increased power of purchasing used books. When we moved into the parsonage of our first church, we still didn’t have much furniture, but we had books to fill the shelves in our study with a few extra to grace the living room.

For the next four decades and a bit more, I continued to collect books. In addition to the theology and philosophy books that had marked my educational career, I began to add fiction and poetry books. A few history and political titles began to appear in my library.

When we moved from Idaho to South Dakota the driver of the moving van said that we had set a record for the most weight he had ever hauled in his truck. A big part of that were all of the boxes of books. In South Dakota I began to build new bookshelves. After another quarter of a century of collecting books I had a library in the basement of our home with floor to ceiling shelves on three walls. In addition, Susan and I both had walls of bookshelves in our offices filled with our books. From time to time someone would ask, “Have you read all of those books?” I’d usually answer, “Yes” and then explain that some of the reference books such as commentaries and dictionaries were books I regularly consulted but that I had not read cover to cover.

Then the time came to retire and move from our South Dakota home, it was also the time to downsize. I had to shed a lot of books. We invited friends and colleagues to sort through our books for volumes they wanted. We donated boxes of books to the church library. We boxed up books that went to thrift stores. When we explained our dilemma to the realtor who helped us sell our house, she agreed to store boxes of books for the next AAUW book sale. I think she was surprised when we showed up at her garage with a pickup load of books.

We still moved a lot of books. We have shelves that are six feet high along 12 feet of a wall in our living room that are filled with books. But I have been very careful about not collecting more books. I have tried to avoid buying new books. We have become regular patrons of the library, borrowing books to read and returning them gladly.

Through this process, the gift card that I received for my birthday has turned into a treasure of sorts. It represents the option of going into a book store and coming out with a brand new book that I can take home and read and put on my shelves even though my shelves are a bit over filled and I don’t need any more books. I have savored the anticipation of that purchase for three months now. I don’t know if my family who gave me the card is aware of how much pleasure it has given me because I haven’t yet gone to the books store to get the book. I’ve got a little notebook with titles and authors of possible volumes. I want to be sure that the book I buy is the kind of book that one reads more than once. I am not going to abandon the library.

I’ve had so much fun with that gift card without even using it that last week I went into the book store and didn’t take my card with me. I allowed myself a little bit of browsing and then I purchased a gift card to give the gift to another person. I have money with which I could buy books, but I am trying to discipline myself and make careful choices about my purchases.

I think that the time has come to use my gift card. I have a likely candidate for its use. It will be a hard cover book that is in stock at the book store. In this age of technology, I can check the inventory at the store by going to their website, so I know they will have the book I want. In the next week or so I plan to go to the store and make my purchase. It will be a delicious moment, followed by taking the book home and sitting down in my recliner to read.

Now all I have to do is to identify what book in my existing collection I’m willing to give away in order to make room on the shelf. If I’m really smart, I’ll give away two to reduce inventory.

Multiple generations

The church in which we participate in Bellingham, Washington, has a large bell in its steeple. The bell is rung to invite people to worship and it has an amazing story. The bell is currently at its third address. As the church grew and changed locations, the bell came with the congregation. It began its journey, after being forged in Pennsylvania, by traveling on a sailing ship around the tip of South America and up the West Coast to Bellingham. It had traveled 18,000 miles and crossed the equator twice before it arrived in Bellingham on the day before the first building was to be dedicated. The church members knew that the bell was coming and had prepared a tower and the 600-pound bell was hand carried from the ship to the church and hung in time to ring for the dedication of the church. The bell served as the community’s first fire bell and it was rung on other important occasions to announce news to the community.

We found ourselves in the church archives, researching the history of the bell in preparation for a time with children in yesterday’s worship service. The bell was chosen as a symbol for the “In Gathering” service. We ended up making a booklet about the story of the church bell for children to illustrate that was delivered in bags to the children of the church.

Several people were surprised to learn the story of the church’s bell. They had heard the bell, but didn’t know its story.

Telling the story of the bell got me to thinking about how the stories of the church are preserved and passed from one generation to the next. In the days when the church was founded, and probably for the entire time that it occupied its first building, the story of the gift of a church bell from a congregation in New England was probably common knowledge held by all of the church members. Over the years, however, the church attracted more members who had not participated in the time before the bell was installed. They took that bell for granted and didn’t wonder about its origins. Somehow, however, the stories of the bell were preserved and on the centennial of its arrival, a member of the church wrote up part of its story. That story was kept, but soon was relegated to a file cabinet as part of the historical record. There was enough information retained that we could come along as newcomers many years later and, with a little research, learn the story of the bell.

The ancient stories of our faith that we call the Bible, started their lives as common knowledge and circulated as oral tradition for many years before they were eventually recorded in writing. After a very long time they became so treasured by our people that it has become the responsibility of each generation to make sure that they are passed on to future generations. The process, however, isn’t one of following a straight line. It isn’t just a matter of each set of parents teaching their own children the stories.

Grandparents have become very important in keeping and telling our stories. If you read the stories of the origins of the people of Israel, it is remarkable how often God is referred to as “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” At the core of the practice of telling the stories is the telling of three generations of faith. Abraham was Jacob’s grandfather. The sharing of faith has always been a multi-generational adventure for our people.

As we explore our role as ministers of faith formation in the congregation, we are deeply aware that grandparents are important keepers of wisdom and important teachers of children. This is not some brand new discovery that we have made, it is something that has long been a part of the church. Like researching the story of the bell, we just need to put forth a little effort to remember something that has been common knowledge in the church.

There have, however, been times when the church has not emphasized the role of grandparents. As families became more mobile and spread out, the emphasis was placed on parents and children. Often they lived long distances from the grandparents. Sunday School became an enterprise of the institution to pass on knowledge and information. In many cases parents were the primary source of volunteers for the schools.

What we are discovering, in this time of pandemic isolation and practicing our faith from a distance, is that grandparents have been working to bridge the distances that separate families all along. Because they have been nurturing relationships with their grandchildren over distance, they have some important skills for sharing the faith. As we sought ways to get packets of faith formation resources to children, we discovered that there were many instances in our congregation where it worked well to give the packets to the grandparents. We are learning that knowing grandparents is an important part of leading faith formation ministries. The traditional lists of children and parents need to be annotated with information about grandparents. Just as was the case in the time of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob - and also the time of Sarah, Rebecca, and Rachel - passing on our faith is a multi-generational effort.

In a time of rapidly advancing technology we often celebrate the innovation and intelligence of youth. Without diminishing that at all, it is important that we also appreciate the wisdom of our elders.

For most of my career I have resisted the popular notion that the best model of youth ministry is to have young ministers. Youth are attracted to youth. I have observed many congregations hiring young people to lead youth programs and cycling through them one after another. Their terms of ministry are short and they are replaced by a younger minister after a few years. What I have observed, however, is that the model of developing relationships between youth and elders forms a more effective youth ministry and a stronger long-term strategy for the church.

We have done our part of keep the story of the church bell alive for a few more years. Keeping it going for future generations depends not only on how well we teach it to our children, but how well we teach it to our grandchildren.

In the seasons of covid

There is a song by Donald Marsh and Richard Avery that we used to sing with youth groups and children in the church. The chorus is this:

I am the church!
You are the church!
We are the church together!
All who follow Jesus,
all around the world!
Yes, we’re the church together!

The first verse is:

The church is not a building,
the church is not a steeple,
the church is not a resting place,
the church is a people.

The song expressed an important theological concept. The thing that defines a church is not the building or the institutional structure, but rather the relationships between people. But it also recognizes the importance of coming together. One verse says:

And when the people gather,
there’s singing and there’s praying,
there’s laughing and there’s crying sometimes,
all of it saying:

The church is a gathering of people to express their faith and share that faith with others. Even that concept is being challenged, however, in the seasons of Covid. I’ve taken to using that phrase, “seasons of Covid” to describe this time of uncertainty. While many congregations across the country are gathering in-person, others have chosen to limit in person gatherings as they refine their skills of online worship.

It is important to remind ourselves that this isn’t the first time the church has encountered a pandemic. We were doing a bit of research in the archives about the history of the congregation we are currently serving and discovered that in-person worship was suspended during the 1918 - 1920 Spanish flu pandemic. It was a bit reassuring to be reminded that ours isn’t the first generation of the church to have faced such trials. Back in 1918 there was no social media. The church wasn’t able to use tools like Zoom and Facebook that we have today.

Still, there are some real challenges.

Today is the annual “In Gathering” Sunday at First Congregational Church in Bellingham. In previous years, last year excepted, In Gathering has been a celebration of the return to fall programming. The worship service has been filled with music, with the choir returning to lead worship after a summer break. The tradition has also included a bug pot luck meal following worship. There have been special programs for children and youth to mark the beginning of another year of Sunday School. This year, however, there is no choir, no pot luck, and there will be no gathering of families with children. The Covid advisory committee, with the support of the Church Council has advised the congregation that “we wait to offer activities where children from different households would interact with each other in person.”

A worship team of the pastors, liturgist, musicians, people leading Time with Children, and the tech team may work together in the sanctuary. All persons must be vaccinated.

All of that means that In Gathering Sunday is happening without the gathering part. We are having a special worship service, with a few extra musicians, but no choir. There are no wind instruments allowed, so strings and keyboard only and singers must be masked, so we’ll probably only have a soloist in front of a microphone. Susan and I will lead the Time with Children, but there will be no children in the room.

After worship there will be a special Zoom fellowship hour which is the official “meet and greet” for us as the Interim Ministers of Faith Formation. We’ll chat with church members over the computer and get to know the congregation a little bit better.

Then, at 2 pm, there is a Zoom time for Children and Families. The Faith Formation Team delivered over 40 bags to families with resources for learning activities. In the bag were story books, a Bible story, craft instructions, and supplies such as origami paper, play dough, cookie cutters, and a bell. There were even individually packaged snacks. The Faith Formation Team will lead the Zoom session with the reading and telling of stories, instruction in crafts, and other activities. The bags were designed so that families who cannot participate in the Zoom session can engage the activities themselves without the Zoom leaders.

That is it for In Gathering. As the program year advances, there will be regular packets of resource materials sent to be added to the bags that were delivered. The primary focus of that particular program will be to give resources for families to engage in Faith Formation and Christian Education in their homes. We also are beginning weekly Zoom meetings for children on Wednesday evenings as well as a variety of different opportunities for adults including a book group, a prayer group and a lectionary study group. Covenant groups will also be forming. All of these groups are meeting through computer assisted media. For now “any FCCB groups meeting in person (are) to gather outdoors instead of indoors, with masks and physical distancing. That means that even the Faith Formation Board and the Church Council are meeting over Zoom.

Roughly one third of our working time will be spent on the computer in Zoom meetings.

I am the church!
You are the church!
We are the church together!
All who follow Jesus,
all around the world!
Yes, we’re the church together!

It is a whole new way of being the church for the congregation and for us as leaders. The leadership team at First Congregational Church in Bellingham have been advised to expect another year or perhaps even two of “on again, off again” church gatherings. Even when we are able to gather, there will be restrictions. Programming that allows children to participate in in person community are unlikely to be suspended until there is a safe and effective vaccine for children.

Despite our grief at not being able to engage in church programs, we are working together to offer resources and continuing programs to engage people. One of the things that has been reported to us is the joy of those who were delivering packets at being able to see some of the children of the church. Masks were worn and appropriate distances were maintained, but we got to have some in person interaction. Sadly, those opportunities will be limited for now.

We will continue to be the church. We will continue to teach and learn about our faith. But we will long for the gatherings to resume whenever we are able. Another verse of the song goes like this:

Sometimes the church is marching,
sometimes it’s bravely burning,
sometimes it’s riding, sometimes hiding,
always it’s learning.

We aren’t exactly hiding, but we acknowledge that the seasons of Covid are a very unusual time. Still we are always learning.

(The words of the Avery and Marsh song are copyright (c) 1972 by Hope Publishing Company, 380 S. Main Pl, Carol Stream, IL 60188.)

9/11 20 years later

Note to self: When getting in the car wearing a face mask, remove the mask before you start to drive. I suspect that it looked a bit like a comedy routine. I got into the car wearing a face mask. We’re wearing them quite a bit with the Delta variant still active in our community. I’m not completely sure of the exact order, but I fastened my seatbelt, rolled down the window (ok there is no handle to “roll” - I pushed a button), backed the car out of a parking space and put the car in drive. As I started to pull out of the parking lot, I remembered my face mask and reached up and pulled it off with my left hand. The strap of the mask, which had been around my ear, somehow got wrapped around the bow of my glasses and I pulled my glasses off as I pulled the mask. For a minute, I though my glasses were going to fly out the window, but somehow they remained attached to the mask. I was able to stop the car, retrieve my glasses, and put them on without causing an accident. Next time, remove the mask before putting the car in motion.

Somehow, despite moments of distraction and a bit of old fashioned clumsiness, I have so far avoided a serious disaster when driving. I really don’t see very well without my glasses. My driver’s license specifies that I must wear corrective lenses when driving. We see car accidents, mostly fender-benders, nearly every day around here. Each place we have lived has had its own sense of quirkiness in the way drivers take to the roads. In South Dakota, it took a while for cars to react to a red light. The light would turn yellow and the cars would continue to enter the intersection. When it turned red, often two or three or more cars would continue to pull into the intersection before the flow of traffic yielded to those whose light was green. Once you get used to it, you learn how to drive defensively. Never perform a rabbit start at a green light. Always expect someone to be running the red. Here in Washington, people don’t stop for “right turn on red after a stop.” Often they don’t even look, they just pull into the intersection. You learn to watch out for them when driving around town. Another thing they do is merge into freeway traffic without looking. If you are driving on the freeway, keep your eyes on the traffic merging from the ramps. Instead of judging the speed of the flowing traffic, drivers just drive up the ramp and when the lanes merge act as if there is no traffic in the lane they are entering. I’ve learned to really watch those drivers, even if it means slowing 15 or 20 miles per hour to avoid them.

We learn from the things that frighten us - at least we ought to. Fear can be an effective teacher if it isn’t overwhelming.

From face masks to freeway driving, a lot has changed in my life in the past 20 years. Our children have become adults with children of their own. I have moved from the leadership of a dynamic congregation to a role with a lot less stress and shorter hours. Our parents have died and we have become the oldest generation of our family.

On this 20th anniversary of the attacks of September 11, 2001, it makes sense to look back and think of the changes that have occurred. The United States spent almost all of those 20 years at war with other countries. Despite the fact that the attacks weren’t launched by another government, and were planned in a country that has been considered to be an ally of the United States, wars were waged that toppled governments in two nations. It is hard to say whether or not those wars increased safety and security for US citizens. I don’t think we feel more safe.

20 years later, technology has moved even deeper into our everyday lives. I remember watching the collapse of the world trade center towers on televisions that were rolled into rooms on carts - first at Stevens High School and later in our church office. We don’t roll televisions around on cars any more. We have video screens on our phones. My watch vibrates when there is a major news story breaking and I can see the headlines by looking at it.

20 years later social media has come to dominate much of our lives. People quote Facebook and Twitter as if they were sources of truth.

20 years later the interpretation truth seems to have slipped from our common discourse. Bold face lies are told as if they were simply political opinions. Not only have we witnessed a US President who constantly lied about everything from his weight to his golf scores to his health to his political promises, we have seen a nominee for the Supreme Court of the United States boldly tell direct lies under oath in hearings before the United States Senate. I’m sure there have always been people who lie, but the official sanctioning of lies - or at least the acceptance of lies in public discourse seems to have changed dramatically in the past 20 years.

20 years later the brief sense of unity that seemed to be a part of our national discourse following the attacks seems to have evaporated. Our nation is definitely not more united than it was following those attacks. For a brief time partisan politics were set aside and representatives and senators of both parties joined together to pass important legislation. It is hard to imagine that sense of unity moving into Washington DC in this era. Armed insurrectionists stormed the US capitol, overwhelmed capitol police and places the lives of those serving in the building at risk. In the aftermath of those attacks, partisanship has only increased, not decreased. A direct attack on the government of the United States is interpreted by some as acceptable behavior if it promotes their political viewpoint.

I hope I have learned from some of my mistakes. It is less clear that our nation is learning from its mistakes. 20 years later I feel a bit older and a bit wiser. Our country, however, seems to have only grown older. In fact it seems as if it is a bit less wise and a bit more foolish. We have a lot to learn in the next 20 years.

Lift Every Voice and Sing

I’m trying to remember when I first was asked to rise and sing “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” I’m sure it was during the time that we were attending graduate school in Chicago. It may have been during a visit to Jesse Jackson’s Operation Push. It might have been while attending a worship service at Trinity United Church of Christ. I know that we also sang it in worship at the Chicago Theological Seminary Chapel. The hymn appears in the New Century Hymnal of the United Church of Christ, published in 1995. I wasn’t party to all of the discussions that led to the creation of that hymnal, but my friend Art Clyde was the editor and Jeffrey Radford, then director of music at Trinity UCC, was on the committee.

Radford was a 19-year-old pianist who directed a community choir when he inquired about his group using Trinity Church as a place to rehearse. Over the next thirty years, he and the 70-voice Trinity Choral Exchange became instrumental in the worship at Trinity. We first met back when I was a seminary student and he was brand new on the staff of Trinity. Over the years our paths crossed many times. It is easy for me to imagine Radford proposing Lift Every Voice and Sing as a congregational hymn, then sitting at a piano and leading the hymnal committee in singing the song until there wasn’t a dry eye in the room. He knew how to exercise the power of music in ways that are nearly impossible to describe. But if you were there when he was playing and singing, you never forgot the experience.

Whenever I first heard it and however the hymn made it into the hymnal of our church, it has become, over the years, a powerful expression of faith for Christians of many different races and ethnic backgrounds. The song is challenging with changes in meter, key and style. In Rapid City we had musicians who were up to the task and we sang the hymn in worship on several occasions.

Last night when the Dallas Cowboys met the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in this year’s National Football League opening game football fans around the world heard the Florida A&M University choir sing Lift Every Voice and Sing. It is going to be a part of opening ceremonies at NFL games throughout the season. The hymn, revered in African-American churches is being exposed to a much wider, much broader audience.

Lift every voice and sing
Till earth and heaven ring
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty
Let our rejoicing rise
High as the listening skies
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea

The bridge, accompanying the first two verses, includes a marching pace with a string of low notes and contains a half step modulation. It takes a person trained in music, or someone who grew up singing the song over and over again to get it right.

Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun
Let us march on till victory is won

The hymn began as a poem written by James Weldon Johnson. It was set to music by Johnson’s brother, J. Rosamond Johnson. The lyrics were written for an event honoring President Abraham Lincoln. The middle two verses and bridge reflect the history of African American salves brought to this continent and the struggles for freedom, liberty and equality. They make firm reference to the sacrifices made and the pain of our history.

Stony the road we trod
Bitter the chastening rod
Felt in the days when hope unborn had died
Yet with a steady beat
Have not our weary feet
Come to the place for which our fathers sighed?

We have come over a way that with tears has been watered
We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered
Out from the gloomy past
Till now we stand at last
Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast

God of our weary years
God of our silent tears
Thou who has brought us thus far on the way
Thou who has by Thy might Led us into the light
Keep us forever in the path, we pray
Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee

The hymn ends with a deeply religious and a deeply patriotic verse pledging complete dedication to God and country.

Lest, our hearts drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee
Shadowed beneath Thy hand
May we forever stand
True to our God
True to our native land
Our native land

Our national anthem, The Star Spangled Banner, is often considered to be not only an anthem, but also a hymn. It appears in many contemporary hymnals and is sung on special occasions, including patriotic holidays, in churches. The battle-themed anthem, a product of the War of 1812, features words written by Francis Scott Key and set to music by John Stafford Smith. The original title of the poem, “Defence of Fort M’Henry,” was written on September 14, 1814 after Key had witnessed the bombardment of British Naval Forces upon Baltimore Harbor.

At Fort Meade, in the Black Hills of South Dakota, there is a plaque that claims that the movement to make The Star Spangled Banner our national anthem began on the parade grounds of that Fort back in 1892. Whatever the actual history, it wasn’t until 1931 that President Hoover signed the bill making the song our national anthem. The tradition of singing the anthem at sports events didn’t start until World War II, when it was adopted as part of the opening ceremonies of baseball games. As that tradition nears 80 years, it is now being joined, for this year’s NFL games at least by the hymn that has been dubbed by some as the African American National Anthem.

This season the hymn will reach the ears of many who have never heard it. May it inspire us all to continue the journey towards a more perfect union as we lift our voices together and sing.



Offerings

It is a little after 2 am Pacific Daylight Time as I write this morning. I often write my journal in the middle of the night. Over the years, I have developed the habit of sleeping for several hours, waking and getting up to write and perhaps also read, then going back to bed for a few more hours. I wake rested and I very rarely have times when I am lying in bed but not sleeping. I suspect that I’m a bit unusual in my pattern, but it works for me.

Right now it is 58 degrees Fahrenheit outside and it is foggy here in Mount Vernon. The forecast is for it to get down to 55 degrees, with less than 2% chance of rain. By mid-morning it will be in the high sixties and it could be as warm as the high seventies by the afternoon. The weather around here is generally very mild, with temperatures ranging from the high forties to the mid-seventies year around.

That means, among other things, that it isn’t too difficult to survive outside in this weather. A warm blanket would help and it would be even more helpful to have a waterproof tent or tarp, but shelter isn’t the biggest problem for those who are forced to live outside. It is a big difference between where we now live and where we have lived most of our lives. Back in the Black Hills, the weather is beautiful this time of year, but winters nights get so cold that those forced to live outdoors face life-threatening conditions if they do not possess a very warm sleeping bag.

Like other cities, there are plenty of places where a person can go to find shelter from rain. There are places under bridges, shelters in parks, shop doorways, protected areas under trees in parking lots and other places around town. People who have no homes find places to go at night that aren’t too far from places where they can get food. There are several places in town where we see homeless persons every day. The library is a major provider of services to homeless persons, providing access to computers for job searches and other research, clean public restrooms, and a comfortable reading room with lots of different books. The library, however, is still operating on a limited schedule due to the pandemic.

The parking lot of a cluster of stores that includes a grocery store, several fast food outlets, a gas station and a variety of other shops is a place where I see homeless people every day. There is also a stretch of the path along the river where we often see people who we assume are homeless. There is little of what one might call panhandling, or simply asking for money, along the river, but the folks in the parking lot will often have a sign, made of cardboard with words in black marker, soliciting donations.

I have never experienced homelessness, so I don’t know all of the supplies and skills it takes to survive out on the streets, but I might not have thought that having a working marker was an important part of the process. I’m sure there is plenty of cardboard that can be obtained from around the stores. The most common thing I read on the signs is “Anything helps. God bless.” Of course, I know that not anything is actually helpful. Offering a puppy or an oil filter for a lawn tractor, or a couple of pool noodles isn’t likely to help. A gift card for amazon.com, a cable for charging a cell phone, or a toothbrush might have some value, but it isn’t what the person holding the sign has in mind. I know that the meaning of the sign is that any amount of money, no matter how small, can contribute to providing needed support.

The bible has several stories about people who have gathered in public spaces to ask for financial support. The temple at Jerusalem, with its public court that admitted all people who came, was a place where there was nearly always a few people who would sit and beg for whatever coins might be available. The temple often provided food for those who had no other sources of food and they would congregate and ask others who had come to the temple for money or other needed items. In several places the bible speaks of giving tithes and alms. Tithes are gifts of gratitude offered to the places of institutional religion. The custom was a gift of 10% of all income, returned to God in gratitude for the blessing fo the income. In the bible this gift is not identified as the offering. The offering is a gift given for the support of the poor. Technically it is given over and above the 10% gift. This is sometimes called alms. Gifts to the poor are considered to be the repayment of the the generosity of God. All that we have is a gift from God and therefore not a permanent possession but a loan. It is our responsibility to repay God by giving to those who are less fortunate than we are.

That strange feeling that I have when walking by someone who is asking for a donation when I know I have some extra money is a feeling that faithful people have wrestled with for millennia. Trying to decide how to respond is one of the responsibilities of being human.

Of course not every gift is truly helpful. For a person struggling with addictions, a gift of money can sometimes enable continuing addiction. Some people need food or clothing more than they need cash money. Some people need information about safe places to go, sources of food, and access to social services. I often assume that the people I meet who are homeless are street smart and know more about living on the street than I, so I forget that some of them are recently homeless and afraid and uncertain about how to survive.

Whatever my response, I go home to a comfortable and safe place every night. I have a bed with warm blankets and a roof that doesn’t leak. There is a furnace in my home to keep it comfortable. It isn’t difficult to see how blessed I am and how much privilege I enjoy.

The luxury of being able to choose how much to give and when to give is not afforded to all of the people in our community. I hope I continue to exercise that luxury faithfully. I hope I continue to give gratefully.

Shariing faith with children

John H. Westerhoff III is now retired, but in the years when we were gaining our education and launching our careers, he was a very prolific writer and teacher of Christian Education. His books, “Bringing Up Children in the Christina Faith” and “Will Our Children Have Faith?” have had a huge impact on the Christian Church and upon our life’ work of education and faith formation. As we return to the work of Faith Formation in a church, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about Westerhoff and his ideas. There were many other influential teachers in my life, but Westerhoff was among the authors who got me to thinking about faith formation in models that are different from the public school model.

As an aside, it is a strange quirk of the history of the Christian Church that in the early days of the Sunday school movement, the education offered by churches had little to do with institutional survival - or of teaching the children of the members of the church at all. The history of faith formation suggests that the family is the primary conveyer of faith from one generation to the next. Sunday schools were started to provide literacy education to children who were forced to work in factories. Sunday being the only day off from work for those children, it was a day when they could practice reading and writing. Over the years, Sunday schools changed and became places where churches wrestled with the task of conveying faith from one generation to the next.

During the Covid-19 pandemic many churches have essentially closed down their Sunday Schools. Being careful not to become places of spread of the contagion, weekly face-to-face gatherings of children, for whom there is not yet an approved vaccine, was deemed to be too dangerous. The church we serve has not had Sunday morning education classes for children for more than 18 months. The pandemic has forced a re-thinking of how faith formation takes place and how congregations can resource families in conveying faith to our youngest generation.

One of the lessons I have learned since the days when I first read “Will Our Children Have Faith?” is that the Christian Faith is more resilient than it first appears. Asking the question in those words makes it seem as if the existence of faith from one generation to the next is something that can be controlled in a single generation. The implied fear is that if we do not teach the faith to our children future generations will not have faith. I doubt that John Westerhoff believes that our faith is that fragile. The transmission of faith from generation to generation has always been a multi-generational enterprise and many people have come to faith despite a lack of formal Christian Education.

I firmly believe that Faith Formation - the art of teaching the Gospel - is the central task of the church. Faith is shared through experiences more than through formal lessons. The phrase, sometimes attributed to Henrietta Mears, “Faith is caught rather than taught” is one way of thinking about the transmission of faith. Children learn about faith by participating in worship and by being surrounded by the experiences of Christian community. It is partly an understanding of how learning takes place. Lectures and formal lessons are only one small part of a wider vision of education. Because faith encompasses all of life, experiences that engage multiple senses and multiple learning styles are better at conveying faith.

In the seasons of pandemic, we are discovering new ways to assist families in the task of faith formation. Today we will be assembling bags of resources to be delivered to the families of our congregation. There will be stories, crafts, and even a snack in each bag. There will be small bells that can be rung. There will be origami paper and instructions. There will be play dough. Then the bags will be delivered by members of the Faith Formation Board to the families of the church by the end of the week.

On Sunday we will have a large Zoom meeting of families during which different leaders will be telling stories, leading crafts and inviting children and adults to ring their bells as they share in prayer and fun experiences. The resource bags are designed to be used during the Zoom call, but they are also designed to be used by those who cannot participate in the call. There are stories and instructions for crafts included int he bag that can be used by families to talk about faith.

Our vision is to have regular distribution of additional items for faith formation to be delivered to families throughout the year. Part of our inspiration comes from STEM subscription boxes that have become popular. Families can subscribe for monthly boxes delivered to their home. Each box has one or more projects that can be used to teach principles of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Our bags and subsequent additional distributions are designed around the same theory - that families participating in educational experiences in their homes are great teachers.

Unlike the stem kits, however, we are not interested in gaining paid subscriptions. We are not motivated by the money paid for these kits. We are delivering them without cost to families. Furthermore, we acknowledge that there are many different sizes and shapes of families. In addition to parents and children, we are distributing bags to grandparents who have opportunities to share faith with children. Grandparents have long been important in the process of conveying faith from one generation to another.

The logistics of learning who the families are, and even where the children live have been complex. Making lists of names and addresses for deliveries has required a significant investment of time. Taking faith formation to families rather than waiting for them to appear in church is a task at which many congregations are not practiced. Like every teaching task, we are learning as we go.

I am confident that our children and their children will have faith. But we have unique opportunities in this point in time to provide resources and support for families as they undertake the important work of conveying faith, hope and love to the children of our community.

One year later

One year ago we were finalizing arrangements for our rental housing. We had moved some of our possessions to Washington and placed them in storage. Our camper was parked at our son’s home and had to be moved to storage because that home was in the process of being sold. Our son and his family were looking for a new home for them to purchase. The children were being homeschooled. There was a lot that was up in the air.

It seems natural, then, for us to look back at the year that has passed. A lot has happened. We sold our home. We moved into a rental 1,300 miles away from that home. Our son and his wife sold their home and moved to a farm 44 miles from that home. We settled into a new church home and ended up going back to work serving that church.

This fall, the kids are back in school. Today the two oldest begin their second week of school - four days this week instead of three. The youngest starts preschool on Friday. We have a very busy week at work with the official kick off of fall programs on Sunday.

We expected that the pandemic would have eased by now. We expected we would not need our face masks as much. We expected to be engaging in face-to-face church programs. Our expectations weren’t quite the way things worked out. According the Washington Post, there are twice as many people in the hospital in the United States as was the case a year ago. Doctors, nurses and other hospital workers are facing fatigue after crisis upon crisis. Some hospitals have erected tents for triage of people seeking health care. In some states governors are threatening school districts that impose mask mandates. Although there is a fully approved, safe and effective vaccine that is readily available, there are a lot of people who have chosen not to become vaccinated. Obtaining a vaccination and wearing face masks have become political issues with a sharp partisan divide.

The in gathering festival that we had planned for the church parking lot with appropriate distancing and face masks has been transformed into a Zoom event, with packets being delivered to families with children and storytellers, craft leaders, song leaders and others getting ready to provide a program for people who will be participating from home. Our church is worshiping online only with a maximum of ten leaders allowed in the sanctuary at a time.

It all feels very strange. Unlike a year ago, we are fully vaccinated. We have so far weathered the pandemic without being infected by the virus. Our health remains excellent and we are enjoying walking every day. Yesterday we walked for a couple of miles along the Skagit River which was lined with people fishing for pink salmon, while other family members played in the sand and gravel at water’s edge, wading into the water to cool themselves on a bright and sunny day. This part of Washington has a reputation for being a rainy place, but this has been an unusually dry summer and September is not a rainy time in this place. The weather is mostly bright and sunny.

We find ourselves saying over and over again, “We’re not in South Dakota anymore.” I guess we could also say, “We’re not in the early years of the 21st century any more.” 2020 and 2021 are turning out to be years that are very different from anything else we have experienced.

In theology the concept of transcendence. I don’t know if it is the case today, but when we were students in seminary, you could get into a multiple-hours-long debate about transcendence and immanence. God is by nature outside of the material universe - not bound by the laws of physics. And yet, God is also deeply engaged human affairs. For Christians, Jesus is both transcendent, in that Jesus was with God at the beginning of creation, yet became flesh and lived in a specific time and place. In this Christianity contrasts with Buddhism, where individuals are able to achieve existence in a formless realm that is beyond what is now apparent.

When we teach these concepts, however, we rarely use the technical vocabulary of seminary debates. Knowing that God is love, we simply talk about how love is not bound by time or place. The love of our ancestors remains with us even after they have died. God’s love can be simultaneously working in all places. The experience of God in one place does not diminish the experience of God in another. In Paul’s words, “Love never dies.”

There are many things about life that continue to surprise us. It isn’t just the continuing severity and dangerous nature of the Covid-19 pandemic with the Delta variant causing so much suffering and death. It isn’t just the extraordinary fear that is surrounding the back to school season. It isn’t just the dramatic changes that come with retirement and a move to a distant state. I’m continually surprised by the range of choices in the grocery store. I’m continually surprised by the news headlines each day. I’m continually surprised by my own emotions and reactions to the events of this life.

In seminary we might say, “The transcendent God is making all things new.” Despite millennia of history and generations of experience there are new discoveries every day. We are still learning what it means to be human in this universe. We are still questioning our place and the meaning of our lives. We are still learning and discovering new things every day.

So we face this fall with great hopefulness. It is nearly certain we we will have moved yet another time, this time a shorter distance, to a home closer to our son’s farm and closer to our church by Thanksgiving. Hopefully this move will be to a more permeant location so that moving doesn’t become a constant way of life for us. Hopefully more people will take advantage of vaccination and show more consideration to others so that we can turn the corner on this pandemic before another begins to sweep the world. Hopefully we will find ways to build community despite the limitations of life during a pandemic.

Hope springs eternal and Hope remains. May we continue to discover and dwell in the faith, hope and love that are ours.

Labor Day 2021

I have never been in an IKEA store. I don’t know much about the company or its products, except that they sell a lot of kit furniture that you assemble at home. Our oldest grandson has a platform bed that came from IKEA. I helped assemble it a couple of different times when their family moved from one home to another. It is a little bit complex, but not all that difficult. Plus it is well-built enough to be taken apart and put back together again. This has not been true of other kit furniture in my experience. Over the years there have been computer desks, printer stands and other bits of kit furniture that I have assembled. Most of it has been made from particle board and doesn’t last too long. In my experience, items from the IKEA store are of a bit better quality, with hardwoods and quality fasteners.

There are quite a few jokes about IKEA stores and products. Most of them fall a bit short with me because I just have never gotten into shopping in their stores. Then again, I’ve never been into furniture shopping in the first place. We bought a rocking chair when we were expecting our first child. It came from an unfinished furniture store. I stained and finished the chair. It has been a fixture in our home since, though it needs a bit of touchup after 40 years of service. We did purchase a new sofa, a couple of end tables and an easy chair a few years ago. There is a trundle bed that we bought after our children moved away from home. For the most part, however, our home is furnished with items that we got from family members. When relatives were downsizing or moving they offered us pieces of furniture and we accepted the gifts. It has worked out well for us.

So here is the IKEA joke that I can remember well enough to re-tell: Have you heard that the president of IKEA has become the head of Sweden? He is still assembling his cabinet.

Here in the Pacific Northwest IKEA and other kit furniture stores are popular enough that “furniture assembler” is a category in search engines and there are people who make their living assembling kit furniture for others. I’ve joked about making that my second career. As I said, I haven’t assembled much kit furniture, but I do have a bit for my power driver that fits the hex key screw heads in IKEA furniture. At two screws per slat in a platform bed, it makes sense to use the power driver. I’m good at reading and following instructions. I’m not intimidated by tasks such as installing drawer slides. After all, the kit furniture has the holes drilled by a CNC machine, so they are all properly aligned. It is way easier than installing drawer slides in other new furniture or cabinets. Speaking of cabinets, I know IKEA makes kitchen cabinets an other permanently installed items.

I suppose I might visit an IKEA store one day, though I don’t think we have an immediate need for furniture and I think that a lot of people buy IKEA over the computer and have the products delivered. There are, however, large IKEA stores in Renton, Washington and Vancouver, British Columbia. Both are about 75 miles from where we are. The Canada store is only about 35 miles from our son’s farm, but the pandemic makes border crossing tricky, though the border is open to US citizens at the present. Then there are the issues of making purchases in a foreign country and customs declarations upon re-entry, and I don’t know much about any of that.

I was thinking about IKEA this Labor Day because there was an article on the BBC website that was about supply chain issues at IKEA stores in Great Britain. The problems have their roots both in the Covid-19 pandemic and in the changes in rules brought about by Brexit. All across Great Britain there is a shortage of trucks and truck drivers. With rule changes and pandemic restrictions many European drivers are plying their trade on the continent. There is also a global problem of shipping container distribution that has its roots in the pandemic. The end result is that IKEA is having trouble keeping inventory in its British stores. This is occurring at a time when demand is up. When people spend more time at home, they spend more money on home improvements. Demand is up, supply is down, and you can’t get a mattress at an IKEA store. The wait might be weeks or even months.

I also read on the BBC website about a backlog of 85,000 pigs in Great Britain. The processing plants have a shortage of labor and are refusing to take pigs until they catch up. At present the backlog is increasing by 15,000 pigs per week. It won’t be long before farmers stuck with pigs that they cannot sell will be forced to destroy animals due to the costs of feed and care. It seems to me that this might lead to a bacon shortage, which seems to me to be a bit more serious than a shortage of mattresses. The most striking thing to me in the article about the shortage of workers in pig processing plants in the United Kingdom is that I learned a new word. Abattoir is another word for slaughterhouse. I didn’t know that word. An abattoir worker sounds like a much more impressive job title than hog butcher, I guess. With the shortage of labor, perhaps abattoir workers will see an increase in wages.

That is a strange thing about this Labor Day. Although there have been slight gains in wages in the past year, they nowhere near match the shortages of labor. If supply and demand is the reason that prices are going up in furniture stores, lumber yards and elsewhere, you might think that the shortage of labor would drive up wages. In many places around the US, however, wages have not kept pace with other costs.

From IKEA to abattoir, there is much to think of on this Labor Day. I guess the most important thing is for me to be grateful to the workers who provide the services that we need. We have been well served and supplied by working people. They deserve a day off. Happy Labor Day to all workers.

Stories of trauma

The Washington Post reports that nearly 1 in 3 Americans experienced a weather disaster this summer. Their count has to do with federal disaster declarations. If you take all of the counties that have received disaster declarations and add up the number of people who live there it comes to about a third of the population of the country. The count of fatalities nationwide due to hurricanes, floods, heat waves and wildfires since June is at least 388 and continues to rise as the full effects of Hurricane Ida and the resulting torrential rains and flash flooding that recently occurred. And hurricane season isn’t over yet.

Among the disaster declarations caused by hurricanes, flash flooding and wildfires, the record-shattering temperatures that hit the Pacific Northwest in June and July are being listed. People died in their own homes because of the heat extremes. I don’t want to downplay the dangers of extreme weather, but like other disasters, there are survivors of that heatwave. We traveled across the country during July, but we were around to see some of the hot weather. It was 108 degrees when we stopped for lunch in Coulee City, Washington. That’s hot enough to make one grateful for air conditioning, which we had. Lots of other folks were not so fortunate. Air conditioning in homes is not very common in our area. Then again, temperatures in the 90’s and above is not very common here, either. Climate scientists say our heat wave, which killed more than 200 people in June was “virtually impossible” in a world without climate change.

Studies show that the changes of a given tropical storm becoming a hurricane that is Category 3 or greater has grown by 8 percent every decade since 1979. For every degree Celsius of warming, the atmosphere is able to hold 7 percent more moisture, leading to exponential increases in rainfall. People from Tennessee to New York have experienced the effects of disastrous rains that result in flooding.

The predictions about the future are dire. As extreme weather events become more frequent and intense, they are more likely to coincide. This creates “compound catastrophes” that are still more dangerous than a single disaster would be on its own.

All of these disasters result in a lot of trauma stories told by survivors. It seems that everyone has a story of an experience with extreme weather. Stories of narrow escapes and survival strategies make interesting news, but they also shape the lives of those who experience them.

A friend who is a counselor once told me that everyone has a trauma story. It may be an experience with an extreme event, or a personal tragedy, but everyone can tell of something that disrupted their life in ways that made permanent change. Decades ago when I was studying and practicing counseling, the most frequent trauma stories I encountered had to do with War. I was seeing veterans of World War II, who had not spoken of their trauma with others, but kept it to themselves. As they experienced illness, often related to their age, they began to seek out someone with whom they could share their story. Their way of dealing with trauma contrasted with the way it was being handled by soldiers returning from Vietnam, whose lives were being disrupted by their experience of trauma. In those days the use of the term Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) became common. We thought it had to do with the experiences of war. We learned that people experience post traumatic stress from a whole universe of other experiences.

There are traumas that are visible to the public. In general, we know who has survived a flash flood and who has endured a hurricane. We see pictures of the homes burned by wildfire and hear interviews with the victims.

Alongside public trauma, however, there are all kinds of traumatic experiences that are less visible, and often less shared. In any group of people there are lots of stories of accidents witnessed, suicides discovered, miscarriages, health crises, and thousands of other traumas. Many personal tragedies result in a unique kind of grief. My work with the survivors of suicide taught me that there is a unique grief that comes from sudden and traumatic death. Suicide often takes the survivors by surprise. They had no indication that this loss was coming. The suddenness of the event gave them no opportunity to prepare. They were plunged into life-changing grief in a sudden and shocking manner. Then they experience social stigma. Suicide is a taboo subject in many circles. Mental health doesn’t receive the attention it deserves and people often thing that the mental health struggles of their loved ones are rare. They have no idea that there are so many others whose experiences are similar to those.

The unexpected ending of a pregnancy to miscarriage and the loss of a child is another type of grief that is unique and often hidden. When such an event is experienced before the pregnancy had become visible or announced, it does not result in social support of the grieving family. Many of our traditions of dealing with loss and grief are based on public ceremonies and events. Experiencing the loss of a miscarriage is often devoid of any type of public ceremony. Often it isn’t even discussed within families. The grief is made worse because of the loneliness of the grieving process.

We all have our trauma stories to tell. Post traumatic stress is not just something experienced by a small slice of the population.

In general, there is more support for the telling of weather stories than other trauma experiences. Every winter I experienced living in North Dakota was accompanied by plenty of other stories. Each time the temperature dipped below zero and stayed their for a while, there were plenty of stories of past winters. Big blizzards provoked even bigger blizzard stories. “You think this is bad? You should have seen the blizzard of ’48!”

So be gentle with each other, folks. You never know the full stories of the lives of the people you meet. They may be experiencing stress of which you are unaware. In a world of extreme climate events, trauma stories will become more and more common.

Not a plumber

Let me be perfectly clear. I am not a plumber. I can think of three times when I attempted a home plumbing repair job, got in over my head and called a plumber, which I should have done in the first place before attempting the repair. In each case the plumber was kind and understanding and didn’t make fun of my bumbling efforts. I think they are used to that scenario. Plumbers are bold people. In two of the repairs made during the time we lived in Rapid City, plumbers cut holes in sheetrock to get access to the area where the repair was needed, leaving a hole that I had to fix. In both cases, I was trying to find a way to avoid a sheetrock repair. In both cases, I did avoid the repair by installing access panels just in case a repair might be needed in the future. They make really neat spring-loaded access panels designed to go in a square holes in sheetrock. They make different sizes for different sized holes.

I have respect for the skills and education of tradespeople. My father-in-law was a master electrician and he devoted a part of his career to teaching in the electrician apprenticeship program. He knew what he was doing whether the situation called for a repair or for new construction. He was good at teaching others how to do the work, too. For the first years of our married life, we had access to his skills. He made lots of repairs around our homes. He added outlets where needed. He did an electrical inspection on our first home and saved us a significant amount of money by getting a new electrical panel into the purchase deal.

He taught me that it is a good buy to purchase the skills of a competent tradesperson.

However, the pandemic has produced a shortage of tradespersons. Electrical and plumbing contractors are having trouble hiring enough staff. The price of building materials rose dramatically during the pandemic due to supply chain issues (fewer ships from China and fewer people to work at the ports to unload them). Prices also rose because demand rose. People did a lot of home improvement projects when they were isolated at home. A lock down doesn’t decrease the number of trips to Lowes, Menards or Home Depot. The high prices of building materials supported increases in costs for the building trades as well. There may or may not have been a bit of profiteering going on. Whatever the case, getting a plumber to make a repair probably means waiting for one to make an estimate and then waiting a couple of weeks before the job is actually done.

So, with a leak meaning that our son’s family had to turn off the hot water whenever it wasn’t being used in their 100 year old farm house, I mustered my courage and tackled the problem. I thought I had a small project that would be completed in an hour. I headed for the farm thinking I’d be back by noon. I finally rolled home around 9 pm last night. And the job isn’t done. I’m making progress and I should be able to finish in less than an hour after one more trip to the hardware store. There were three yesterday. I think the clerks in the plumbing section of the hardware store are so friendly in part because they know they will be seeing you again soon. It isn’t a casual purchase. It is a relationship.

As I said, I am not a plumber. Sometimes, however, you do what has to be done. And, in the process, you learn. I made several mistakes yesterday that I won’t make again. I have more sympathy for a plumber who makes a trip to estimate the job, goes back to the shop to get the parts and then comes out to do the job. At least they usually don’t have to make four trips to get parts.

In other news, since plumbing really doesn’t fill up an entire journal entry, just north of where we live, across the border, in Vancouver, British Columbia, conservation officers are trying to come up with a solution to a series of coyote attacks. Two children and one man were attacked in Stanley Park last week, bringing the number of recorded attacks in the park to 45. The park is now closed overnight. Fortunately the attacks have resulted in only minor injuries. Still the situation is concerning.

We had plenty of coyotes in the area where I grew up and I never heard of one attacking a person. There were lots of stories of coyotes making a meal of a lamb, but attacking a person wasn’t in the cards. They are wary beasts and tend to shy away from people.

However, folks have been making it a regular practice to feed the coyotes in order to get pictures of them. They use food handouts as a lure to get the picture they want. The coyotes become accustomed to being around people and when the people don’t feed them, they get testy.

The British Columbia ministry of forests reported that it will be taking steps for “direct coyote management,” including “lethal removal” in order to insure human safety. I know how to read those words. There was a bounty on coyotes in our county when I was growing up. People used to go out coyote hunting to make a few extra bucks. And one thing everyone learned from that experience is that when coyote populations come under pressure, say from increased bounty hunting, population spikes. The more coyotes are hunted, the more pups are born. People used to take pictures of dozens of coyotes killed and the overall population didn’t shrink at all. The survivors just had more offspring.

The solution is to get people to stop feeding the creatures. Of course that is much more difficult than deploying a team of sharpshooters to hunt coyotes. Conservation officers in British Columbia have their work cut out for them.

If it gets too difficult, I suppose they could switch careers. I know a place nearby where there is a shortage of skilled plumbers and amateurs are bumbling through plumbing repair jobs.

Back to school

There are some details that I can’t remember from my childhood. And, according to experts, some of the details that I think I remember may not be accurate. It seems that the stories we tell the most often are the ones that are most likely to be inaccurate. We embellish as we tell stories over and over the course of time they become less accurate. What we think we remember with certainty has changed from the actual events. I think I remember going back to school in the fall. It was a ritual of my life from the age of 5 through 24. In that span of time, I managed to get through Kindergarten, public elementary and high school, college and graduate school, with roughly the same routine: start the school year in the fall, continue through the winter and spring, and take the summer off from formal schooling. We called it summer vacation, but somewhere along the line, I started working at summer jobs for income. In the first years, I had part-time jobs such as mowing lawns, sweeping out a feed warehouse, and other chores. By the time I was in my teens, I was working long days contributing to a farm or business.

In my mind there were certain rituals to returning to school. We often, if not always, got a new outfit to wear to school in the late summer or early fall. The actual days of the change of seasons didn’t always correspond to the school schedule. As our father said many times, “Summer weather in Montana is July, August, and September - not June, July and August.” He thought that the school should continue until at least mid June and not resume until mid September. It never happened that way. The time between Memorial Day and Labor Day was considered to be summer vacation in all of the schools I attended. The exact days didn’t quite line up. We might have to go to school a few days beyond Memorial Day and, I think we may have occasionally started school before Labor Day as well. The return to school lined up with the time around my middle sister’s birthday. Today is that day: September 3. I always thought that it was unfortunate to have a birthday that lined up with back to school. My birthday, June 15, was squarely in summer vacation and I associated it with the freedom from routine that came with the break.

Try as hard as I can, I don’t remember the first day of kindergarten. I attended a private kindergarten. There was no public kindergarten in our town in those days. Our classes were held in the basement of a private home across the street from the park, just a few blocks from our home. I can remember the name of my teacher and a few other details, but that is about all.

I have a distinct memory of the first day of first grade, when I was six years old. I was finally able to go to the real school where my sisters went. It was just a block from our house. What I remember about the first day is that in the morning the teacher asked me to tell her my middle name. I don’t have a middle name, just an initial. I suppose what she said was something like, “When you go home for lunch, ask you mother what your middle name is.” What I got into my mind was that when I went home for lunch I would not be able to come back to school because I didn’t have a middle name. I remember fighting to hold the tears back as I walked the block home from school and bursting into the back door of the house and I couldn’t hold them back any longer. I refused to go back to school until my mother agreed to come with me and explain my name to my teacher.

I think school got better after that.

Back to school is a much bigger event in a lot of school districts this year because the pandemic has resulted in more than a year of “on again, off again” schooling for so many children. Our grandchildren were homeschooled during much of the pandemic. The public schools in their district offered some online schooling and at first they tried to participate, but it was insufficient, so their parents stepped in, purchased curriculum, and set up a homeschool routine. We helped with the lessons one day a week after we moved here late last fall.

The decision to return to public school this fall was based on a lot of different factors, one of which is that the parents are exhausted. Working full time, juggling schedules so that someone is home for the children every day, trying to teach a balanced curriculum, and keeping the house up turned into a lot of work and stress for parents. There is a sense of relief as the children begin their school.

The school has planned a measured start to the school year. Classes for the children began on September 1. Today is the third day of school. Monday is Labor Day, so next week will be four days of school and the following week will be five days of school and the routine will be established. I think, however, that life in the public schools will be anything but routine this year. Schools here have a mask mandate and the first activity of each day is hand washing. As long as there is no vaccine for children, Covid fears remain for parents and teachers. Then there is the simple fact that may children, like our grandchildren, are returning after having been away for more than just the summer. Different children have had different educational experiences during the pandemic. Some have received almost no instruction. Others had private tutors and teachers and lots of learning experiences. They all are returning together and teachers have to find instructional models that somehow bridges the differences in what the children have learned.

In this complex set of circumstances, we begin a ritual that we have observed for many years - 40 days of prayer for children. We pray for children and their parents and their teachers at the beginning of the school year. May God guide and protect them in these troubled times.

Shinrin-yoku

Sometimes we receive gifts from unexpected sources. Two years ago our autumn was suddenly interrupted by a frightening health scare. One day my wife was feeling a bit ill and decided to have her doctor check it out. She was admitted to the hospital in atrial fibrillation and a racing heartbeat. A week later she was in the intensive care unit on a ventilator. Her recovery from that point has been steady and we are delighted that she no longer needs to take medication for her heart and her full health has returned.

At the time she was in the hospital, I was not able to see the benefits of the situation, though they were obvious, had I focused my attention. Our family and friends rushed to our support. On the same day that she was admitted to the ICU our son arrived from Washington. In the wee hours of that night my sister and Susan’s sister arrived. Friends came to visit and offer support. Prayer chains were activated. Colleagues did my work o I could be with my wife.

As she recovered, we asked the doctors what we could do to help maintain her health. “Exercise” was the answer. “30 minutes, 5 times a week will make a world of difference. It doesn’t have to be overly strenuous. Just walking for a half hour a day is a great way to promote your health.” So we started walking every day. Now it is a routine that we have built into our life. We walk from our home when we are home. We walk on paths and sidewalks when we are traveling. We find places to walk every day.

Now that we are somewhat settled here in the Pacific Northwest, we have identified several favorite places to walk. We still love to explore new places and walk in places we haven’t been, but there are some favorites to which we return time after time. One of those places is a 2 1/2 mile walk around a lake. There is a good gravel path all the way. There are a few ups and downs, but the terrain isn’t too steep. There are lots of good views of the lake. But what keeps us coming back over and over again are the trees. The path takes us into a forest of Cedar, and Douglas Fir. The trees tower 150 feet and more above our heads. Their massive trunks are much too wide to reach our arms around. The forest floor is covered in ferns and other vegetation. The trees muffle the sounds of the highway so the birdsong is easy to hear. They provide cool shade on hot summer days. They provide a dry place to walk when mists and light rain fall. They smell wonderful. If you enjoy the aroma of opening a cedar chest or a closet lined with cedar, you would love walking in these woods.

The Japanese term for a special walk in the words is shinrin-yoku. Shinrin means “forest,” and you means “bath.” The term is most frequently translated “forest bathing.” It is an ancient practice. Like many other parts of Japanese life, there are specific rituals that practitioners of shinrin-yoku repeat as they take in the forest with all of their senses. The practice is a kind of intentional bridging of the gap between humans and the natural world. Just as one immerses oneself in a bath, immersing oneself in the forest cleanses and renews.

Although we have an appreciation for Japanese culture, have long-term relationships with friends in Japan and have ourselves traveled to Japan twice, we do not know all of the specific rituals of shinrin-yoku. We simply enjoy taking a walk in the woods. Our walks carry us away from the constant pressure of technology. Sometimes I pause to take a picture, but photography isn’t the focus of our walks. Most days I simply enjoy the walk without feeling the need to make photographs. We tend to keep up a healthy pace in our walks, but I find that walking in the forest sometimes gets us to slow down and not worry about the pace. Savoring the smells, sounds and sights of the woods supports a slow pace. We follow the path and don’t have to worry about which way we are going. It reminds me of walking a labyrinth. No effort needs to be invested in figuring which direction to go. You just follow the path to where it leads you.

There are a lot of medical studies that demonstrate the positive value of spending time in nature. Susan’s health is a testament to the skills of her doctors and the strength of her spirit. It is also a demonstration of the benefits of regular exercise. I have had the gift of being able to walk with her along the way. I get all of the same benefits from the walks as she does.

The ancients understood the power of connecting with nature. The Psalms are filled with references to the beauty and grandeur of creation. Psalm 8 speaks of the wonder of creation from the words of children to the distant stars, from the animals of the land to the creatures of the sea. The majesty of creation and the glory of God are evident to all who are willing to open their senses and behold them.

In Japan most rituals include a sense of remembering and honoring those who have gone before. The people of previous generations are somehow present in our time and live through the experiences of our lives. When we show honor and respect for them, we connect ourselves with our history and find our place in time which does not begin or end with the span of our lives. When we walk in the forest, we are aware that the trees are much older than we. The forest giants were here long before settlers came to this part of the continent. They have witnessed the passage of time. They have endured. We sometimes think of them as grandmother and grandfather trees.

Shinrin-yoku - forest bathing - is an unexpected gift that I treasure over and over again.

Fleeing the flames

We lived in Idaho for a decade. During those years I was able to do a lot of skiing. Bogus Basin, the ski resort near Boise, had night skiing. Compared with many other downhill ski resorts, the annual pass was expensive, but affordable for families. I would buy a season pass. That way I didn’t feel bad if I could only ski for a couple of hours. When you buy a day pass, you feel like you have to ski all day long to justify the expense. With a season pass, you look at how many times you get to go skiing in a season, instead of hours in a day. I found I was able to ski quite a bit even though we had a growing family and I was working long hours. Being immersed in the culture and activity of skiing, I also took opportunities to ski at other resorts when they presented themselves.

I skied at Sun Valley several times over those years. Sun Valley had much higher prices, and for the most part, I felt I couldn’t afford such a luxury, but on “all Idaho” day, my pass from Bogus Basin worked at Sun Valley and from time to time, I would ski Bald Mountain with friends.

It was during those years that I became aware of the phenomenon of resort towns. Sun Valley is the playground of the rich and famous. There are lots of signs of that wealth all around the town. Restaurants have high prices and long waits to be served. Lodging is expensive. I used to stop by the thrift shop that supported the local library because it was easy to pick up a brand-new, never before worn silk tie for a dollar. But if you talked to the wait staff at the restaurants or the lift operators at the resort, which I am known to do, you found out that the “locals” couldn’t afford to live in Sun Valley. They lived in Hailey, or further down the road at Bellevue or Picabo. Most of the jobs in Sun Valley were low-paying service jobs. They didn’t pay enough for the workers to be able to live in Sun Valley. Most of the people who owned homes in Sun Valley didn’t live there year round. They owned multiple homes and kept a home in Sun Valley to use when they came there to ski.

The phenomenon is common across the west. Up north in Coeur d’Alene, the same thing was happening. Wealthy people from out of state bought all of the real estate and locals ended up having to commute from more distant places to work in the service sector.

It is with that knowledge in the back of my mind that I am reading about the evacuation of Lake Tahoe this week. We’ve drive through the area a couple of times, so I don’t really know it, but have a sense of how Tahoe City, Incline Village and Stateline all are situated. It is very much a ski resort area. People from California drive up into the mountains to get away from the cities and to enjoy outdoor recreation. The lake is a beautiful place for boating in the summer. It is swimmable, but the water is pretty cold year round. And the mountains are filled with resorts. People like me drive through the area because we aren’t going to shell out $700 for a night in a 5-star hotel. I’m too cheap to pay $250 for a three-star. I’ve never skied in those resorts. I choose other forms of recreation. But I know that there are servers in all of those restaurants, and cleaners in all of those hotels, and lift operators, cooks, childcare workers, and cleaners at all of the resorts. Those people can’t compete with the ultra-rich who own houses and condos in the area. They have to live farther away from the lake and commute in to work.

Frankly, I’m not concerned with the jet set. They probably haven’t been spending much time at their fancy places with all of the smoke from the fires that have been raging all summer long. Even just a few states away it is difficult to imagine what California is like right now with all of the national forests closed due to fire risk and some of the largest fires in the history of the stat burning out of control. The Caldor Fire that threatens the Lake Tahoe area, has already burned more than 1911,000 acres and is only 16% contained. It has been burning for more than two weeks. And winter snows are still a long ways off. And the Caldor fire isn’t the biggest one. The Dixie fire has burned more than 800,000 acres.

If you look at the pictures of the evacuation crowds fleeing the Tahoe area, you’ll see lots of 10- and 15-year-old SUVs lined up. Those are cars that were bought by wealthy people when they were new and later traded for other sports luxury vehicles. They ended up on a somewhat glutted used car market in the area at reasonable prices because they were no longer wanted by the wealthy folks. Those cars are what the service workers could afford. Those cars are what they use to drive into the area to work and back home to where they can afford to live. Those cars are the vehicles that are now transporting them away from their homes, wondering if they will have a home to return to. As the fires bear down on the area, embers fly long distances ahead of the main fire. When they land on a fireproof roof they go out. When they land on a pile of pine needles, they start a new fire. When the fires spread to a house the blaze quickly travels from house to house as more embers fly through the air. More than 700 homes have been destroyed or severely damaged. More will go.

For now, I’m not very worried about the people who have other homes to which to flee. I’m more concerned about those who are fleeing the only home they have. There are tens of thousands of those folks who have received mandatory evacuation orders. For many the fire will result in them having to permanently leave the beautiful places where they have worked so hard to live.