The 2018 Journal is Complete

2018 has been completed and this journal now contains all of my entries. If you are a regular reader and want to check out my 2019 journal, you can do so by going directly to that page. If you read daily and have bookmarked my 2018 journal, now is the time to bookmark my 2019 journal. You can find it by clicking on the menu at the upper right hand corner of any page in my web site and selecting Journal 2019 or by following this link.

The last day of 2018

The end of the year brings challenges for publishing my journal. My website needs to have big changes to accommodate the new year. Starting tomorrow, my journal will post to a new URL because of the starting of a new journal. You’ll still be able to navigate around my web site, but things will look a bit different. For those who have set a bookmark on Journal 2018, a new bookmark will need to be set for Journal 2019. To make matters worse, the number of files that need to be published to accomplish all of the changes is huge and requires a high speed internet connection. Since I am traveling, I suspect that there will be some disruption until I get home and get everything straightened out. I apologize for any inconvenience this is causing. Please be patient. I’ll get things running smoothly soon.

I suppose that some kind of a retrospective on the year that is ending would be in order. It is probably going to be the most consumed media today. Newspapers and web sites and television programs will be filled with a look back at 2018. Perhaps there will be some observations from which some conclusions can be drawn, but I suspect that most of this coverage will reveal little about what really has happened.

I don’t mean to be too cynical, but the problem with much news coverage lately is that there has been too little to cover. We have become a culture of the 24-7 news cycle. We are addicted to continuous coverage. We check our cell phones and computers for the latest multiple times per day. What makes for good news is action. When there are things that are happening, such as wildfires or hurricanes, there is plenty of action and we follow the changes in the story.

Much of what is called news in our society, however, is really politics and, in a country as deeply divided as ours, politics is not about quick action. The real art of politics involves slow negotiation and compromise. People have to find small places where change can be made and discover the trade offs that allow for small bits of agreement in a world of disagreement. The result is that there are lots of words, but little real action. Words don’t make news. We have become lazy in our use and consumption of words. We find ourselves looking for “tweets” and short posts that are common in social media. Most of those platforms don’t allow for the kind of complex thought that is required to move the common culture forward.

So we get bored with the repetition. And we disengage, which is disaster for those whose incomes depend on consumption of the news.

The current stalemate in Washington D.C. that has resulted in a partial shutdown of the federal government is a good example. There really is very little action to cover. There news channels have long since exhausted the rhetoric about the disagreements that have brought about the situation. The major players may be having conversations and talks that will lead to incremental changes that can bring forward an end to the shutdown, but that process is not producing action. There is little that can be reported in a series of soundbites that hasn’t already been aired. The news becomes so repetitive that people tune out and when people tune out the advertisers try to follow the attention of the people. Consumption of news is down despite our desire to always be in the know and fear of being left out. The news channels are all experiencing a decline in viewers and facing declines in revenue.

In the midst of all of this, I am hesitant to say much about the year that has passed. As a pastor, I have noticed an increase in anxiety among those I serve. I have noted that many of the people in my congregation have physical ailments that are difficult to diagnose, have shifting and nonspecific symptoms and seem to present as chronic conditions. My experience is only anecdotal, but it certainly seems like there is a lot of general disease among the folks in the church that I serve. And it seems like 2018 was worse than 2017 which was worse than 2016. I’m used to being the bearer of hope and speaking of positive change and progress. It is harder to know how to deal with gradual decline and general malaise.

If I were to say that politics have gone crazy and that our leaders seem to all have become irrational, it would be an understatement. It also would involve portraying mental illness and the reality of depression and other serious diseases in a less than flattering light. From the symptoms, you might judge that we’ve fallen into a kind of corporate mental illness where the ability to discern the difference between unreality and reality has become so widespread that it is difficult to find stable points to check the difference. When the whole world has gone crazy, the word “crazy” no longer carries meaning.

Despite all of this, I am not discouraged or depressed. It is clear that there is much work to be done in the church and leadership is needed more than ever in my career as a pastor. I have work that is meaningful and people whose lives continue to be interesting and complex. There are new babies being born and new leaders emerging in the life of the church. Attendance patterns are shifting. Budgets are as challenging as they have ever been. I suspect that the church in general is facing some hard times, but hard times are not always bad in the life of the church. Facing hard times together can build community, restore a sense of purpose and restructure priorities.

I am no prophet and not good at predictions, but from my vantage point it seems like 2019 will be a monumental year in the pastoral ministry. There are big changes that need to occur and judgment and leadership will be needed in critical areas of church life. We have resources sufficient for the challenge, but the challenge is real.

The end of the year is a good time to take stock, look back and get a fresh perspective. I’m not sure that I’ve accomplished that task yet. Like many other things in life it takes special effort and energy. Time will tell if we’ve invested sufficiently for the road that lies ahead.

I don’t think I could have imagined how I would feel to reach the end of 2018 when the year began. I know I couldn’t have imagined it a couple of years ago. So I’m going to forego predictions about 2019 except to say that the times in which we live seem to us to be momentous and there is much work for us to do together.

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!

Staying healthy

We have a medical system in the United States that is very good at treating acute conditions. If you have a broken bone or a cut or have received injuries in an accident, the medial system is efficient and treatments are effective. I’ve been following the online story of a young man who was severely injured in an airplane accident. Both of his legs were crushed below the knees with multiple fractures. His feet were badly damaged as well. He has had to endure multiple surgeries and is still wearing medical devices on both legs, but his prospects for recovery to the point where he will be able to walk again are very good. The healing that has already been accomplished, with new bone growth and precise alignment is nothing short of a miracle. It is the kind of thing at which the medical system in our country excels.

Some major illnesses that cause premature death also receive effective treatment in our health care system. The survival rates from breast cancer and prostrate cancer have gone up dramatically in my lifetime. The side effects of chemotherapies are being managed and radiation treatments are becoming more precise and effective. After investing incredible amounts of funds into research, treatment for these diseases continues to show promise and people are experiencing remission and high quality life after receiving these diagnoses.

Our medical system, however, is less adept at treating chronic conditions. I know of a lot of stories of people suffering from life-long conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, various types of arthritis who have struggled for years with inaccurate diagnoses and ineffective treatment. They find themselves labeled by the diagnosis when it comes to their interactions with the medical community. They feel that health care professionals discount their reports of symptoms. They receive generic treatments and are chastised for complaining about their suffering. Instead of receiving specific care for the particular symptoms they are experiencing, they are given broad reaching medications that might not have any impact on their specific sufferings and often aren’t that effective at treating their long term conditions, either.

For example, doctors know that increased levels of cholesterol are associated with increased risk of heart attack and stroke. Since cholesterol can be measured with a simple blood test, most adults seeking medical care are tested. When high levels of cholesterol are detected, drugs called statins are frequently prescribed. There is strong medical evidence that statins are effective in lowering cholesterol. The side effects of the medications are well known and they are widely prescribed. Physicians use a bit of statistical deception, often deceiving themselves as well as the patients. Since high cholesterol is associated with heart disease they convince themselves and their patients that lowering cholesterol is effective treatment for heart disease. However, while statins lower cholesterol, there is far less evidence that they have much impact on the long term risk for heart disease. Statins have a much lower statistical effectiveness when the criteria is long term heart outcomes. Using statins to lower your cholesterol does not substantially reduce your overall risk of heart disease. Furthermore, long term use of statins is associated with a rise in diabetes, which is another chronic disease that can have an effect on heart health.

The entire process is complex and no one should change their medical treatment based on this journal entry. The point I am making is that our health care system is less adept at treating chronic conditions than it is at treating acute medical situations.

A little over a year ago, the results of a major British study of the overall health of people who are treated in their health care system were released. Among the findings of the study was that loneliness is a major factor in the overall health of British citizens. While the study was specific to Britain, I suspect that its results could be replicated in our country as well. The study’s authors reported that “loneliness is as harmful to health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day and affects nine million UK people.”

If you let that sink in for just a minute. It is entirely possible that doctors could prevent more premature death and provide more help by treating a symptom that doesn’t require a blood test to detect. Instead of going after hidden conditions like high cholesterol, treating visible conditions like loneliness might be far more effective in reducing suffering from heart disease.

That, of course, would require physicians to begin to trust what their patients say. There are many who do not. They believe that lab tests and clinical analyses are more trustworthy than the people who live in the bodies they treat.

Patients end up being caught in the system. They experience symptoms and seek relief. Their interactions with the health care system discover new conditions that are treated. In many cases patients are experiencing no distress and no systems, but present for preventive care and find themselves taking multiple medications because of some hidden condition that was discovered only by routine tests.

To add to the problem routine tests are no where near as accurate as physicians believe. A good example is a blood pressure reading. Research has demonstrated that a blood pressure reading taken from a patient who is seated and who has been seated for less than 30 minutes is virtually always inaccurate. Yet taking blood pressure as soon as the patient is seated in the exam room is routine in most physicians’ offices. That means that there are millions of people who are being treated for hypertension (high blood pressure) based on a test that has been proven to be inaccurate.

Physicians could address both loneliness and inaccurate blood pressure readings by taking time to listen to patients before ordering any diagnostic tests. But that would mean seeing fewer patients per day and would change the financial reimbursement levels for physicians. Doctors don’t get paid for treating well patients. They don’t get paid for keeping you well. They only get paid when you get sick and they order treatment.

I’ve little doubt that spending time with my grandchildren is far more effective in terms of long term health outcomes than a visit to a doctor. I’m not eschewing modern medical treatment. I’m just saying that for long term health it takes more than visiting a doctor’s office.

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!

At the library

I took a tour of the Mount Vernon, Washington Public Library yesterday. I’ve toured the library before and I’m pretty familiar with the facility. Our son is the director of the library. But I got a new perspective as my guide for this particular tour was our eighteen month old granddaughter. She is getting pretty confident with her walking and likes to stretch her legs with a good walk. We wandered in and out of the stacks in the children’s section and made our way through the lobby into the adult books. We went around some of the stacks in the Spanish language books and headed for the reference desk, where she led me past the quiet study area and back towards the main checkout desk. As we walked I could see lots of changes in the library that have been made in the time our son has been working there. There are new signs, less clutter, new artwork, new furniture, new computer centers, and a few new staff members. There are display cases filled with collections and other temporary displays put there by library patrons.

Most impressive in my tour, however, were the people who were using the library. It was a busy place. There were children playing and learning at the centers set up in the children’s area, adults browsing through the stacks and working at the computers. Youth also clustered in a different computer area and our grandson was trying out new learning tablets that they had added to the library’s collection. There were quite a few people my age and older who were sitting at desks in a traditional reading room. In another area of the library an adult and a child were having a supervised visit, the social worker observing and making notes on a laptop computer. There was a constant flow of people in and out of the library, many carrying book bags.

I was carrying my computer. I have been having some challenges with my journal that have caused it to appear late. They have high speed Internet in their home, but the change in location has required me to upload a large number of files and the website has only been partially published for a few days. The library has blazing-fast internet, much faster than anyplace I have access to in Rapid City and I soon had all of the files uploaded and my issues solved.

I was thinking of all of the differences between the library we were touring yesterday and the community library in the town where I grew up. I remember loving the library when I was a child. It was a rather imposing building with a lot of steps out front before you entered through heavy wooden doors. You could go either downstairs or upstairs, but the books I liked best were upstairs. That was the main reading room and it was dominated by the large librarian’s desk, where the librarian sat and checked out books with a rubber stamp that indicated the due date. She checked cards to make sure that you had returned the books that you had borrowed and other cards to find the books you wanted. I learned to use a card catalogue in that library. There’s no card catalogue in the Mount Vernon Library these days. Public access computers allow quick lookup of books, their check out status and the location of the books in the building. It’s easy to find what you are looking for if you know the author or the title. You can also browse the collection by subject matter and genre.

Clearly the library in Mount Vernon is a public gathering place. Friends were greeting one another warmly in the entryway, staff and patrons knew each other on a first name basis. There was a chatter of conversation throughout the building except in the quiet area off of the reference desk. Unlike the library of my youth, I didn’t see any library staff wearing half reading glasses and no one was going around shushing the patrons. People were asking questions and getting answers.

The library is making use of every possible bit of space. Plans are well underway for the construction of a whole new library/community center building for Mount Vernon. Funds for architecture have been obtained and additional funding for actual construction is being secured. The plan is for a new type of facility, with more flexible spaces, more meeting rooms, and more services for library patrons. There will be more access to computers, more video resources and space for different kinds of community eduction. The role and function of libraries is changing and successful libraries are making all kinds of changes to be prepared to serve future needs of their communities.

There are still plenty of books. And people continue to read printed resources as well as access an ever-growing catalogue of digital resources. There are more and more ways to gain information and resources from the library without a physical trip to the building. One of the functions of librarians in the digital age is maintaining web sites and other sources of information. Still the heart of the library remain shelves with books and it is still a joy for me to walk through the stacks and browse through the titles. The library pays close attention to which books are most popular and is careful to display the most frequently-used resources in places where they can easily be found. I tend to be drawn to more obscure subjects, and those resources also are quite easy to access.

I am biased, of course. I think Mount Vernon has an exceptional librarian and my tour guide yesterday was the best possible guide a grandfather could have for such an adventure. I am also very proud of the work our son is doing to serve his community and to enable others to discover the joys of reading, research, learning, and discovery. I highly recommend regular trips to the library and, if possible, finding a young child to guide you makes the visit even better.

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!

A little child

I was thinking that I should be writing some deep theological reflections for the 12 days of Christmas. Some years I have tried to do that with my journal. Theology is the study of God and it is something that I enjoy. Thinking about God is one way of worshiping. You can praise God by using the best of the human brain to organize thoughts about God. Christmas is an excellent time to think about God and to put some of those thoughts into words.

Christmas, however, is often a time for rest and restoration for pastors. We invest all kinds of energy into the season of Advent, with preparation for special services, pastoral duties and the like. In the church, however, activities really slow down after Christmas. The week between Christmas and New Years is a time for families to gather and people often have their attention focused away from the church. The phones are quiet at the church and activities are few. So we have learned that the season of Christmas is a convenient time to take a bit of vacation and spend time with our families. When we had children at home we almost always tried to take a break from our work while they had their break from school.

For most of my career, then, I have focused not on the kind of theology that is done with words and thoughts during Christmas. I have focused on lived experiences. Living is another way celebrate Christmas. The prologue to the Gospel of John says, “What came into being in him was life and the life is the light of the world. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.”

Life is filled with all kinds of wonderful experiences of the holy.

Little things, like playing checkers with a seven-year-old, or helping a four-year-old struggle through the emotional ups and downs of “Chutes and Ladders.” Little things like following an 18-month-old through the Children’s Museum where each exhibit is a new surprise and delight. A small area with sand and sand toys is as exciting as an entire beach. The water play area is scaled just right for tiny hands.

Little things like family meals. In our regular life these days we are two at the table. Our menus repeat and our conversation is joyful, but often drifts to work and problems that need to be solved. In the busy household of our son’s family there are seven of us around the table and the process of going around the table so each can say what we’re thankful for can take an entire meal. Persuading children to eat healthy foods is a good lesson in nutrition for a grandpa and I tend to be more careful about what I eat when I am with the grandchildren.

Little things like reading to the children. I am a big fan of books, but I’ve don most of the reading of my life quietly. It takes practice to read children’s books smoothly. Try reading this phrase from a favorite book out loud three times in a row. Say it with feeling: “He was a spunky hanky panky cranky stinky dinky lanky honky tonky winky wonky donkey.”

There may not be much deep theology in those little things, but there is something miraculous about spending time with children. It revives the soul in special ways. When I ask my self the question that I ask others, “How is your spirit?” I know that children lift my spirit.

The prophet Isaiah described his vision of peace for the people of Israel as he warned them of the dangers of corruption and idolatry. He wrote:

The wolf shall dwell with the lamb,
    and the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
and the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
    and a little child shall lead them.

The path to peace is one on which we allow ourselves to be led by the children. Being led by children opens us to think about the long term future. There is more to life than short term profits and losses. There is more than gain for a single generation. Children teach us to think beyond the span of our own short lifetimes. Those who will continue beyond our lives are great leaders when it comes to thinking about how best to invest the time that we do have.

I honestly believe that policy makers would make more informed long term decisions if they would spend more time with children. Protecting the environment becomes a higher priority when you think about the future. Short term political gains become less important. And you don’t have to play games with a child for very long before you once again learn the lesson that in life winning isn’t everything.

A little child leading me, whether it be on a short exploration of the back yard, complete with dramatic puddle splashing, or a visit to a shop or a museum, or a game, or a trip through a bedtime story, is always a meaningful adventure.

Maybe that is why we invest 12 days each year contemplating the simple fact that God chose to come to humans in the form of a baby, tiny and vulnerable and in need of much care. The child in the manger was not the expected shape for the messiah in the apocalyptic visions of the prophets and late before Christian era thinkers. They envisioned military leaders or great monarchs. They thought in terms of power to overthrow the Assyrians and Romans and other oppressors. What we got was a baby. Tiny and fragile and not even able to speak.

If you want Christmas theology you don’t have to go any farther than that. Follow a child for a day or a week. Listen to the sounds of a baby. Hold one in your arms and think about what that child really needs to grow in a healthy way.

Some say that Christmas is mostly for children. It is even better for adults who pay attention to children.

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!