Challenges

Sometimes little things can turn into big things. Sometimes how a particular thing affects your life depends on your attitude. We’ve had two small glitches on our journey home, neither serious, but both were enough to disrupt our plans.

We’ve traveled tens of thousands of miles with our camper and we are pretty familiar with the things that we need to do to keep it running smoothly. This trip involved nearly 4,000 miles of towing and it has gone smoothly for the most part. Tuesday evening as we were pulling into Big Timber, I noticed a bit of vibration and some noise in the truck. I thought it was coming from the right front tire, so when we got stopped I inspected the tire, but could find no problems with the tire. It turned out, however, that the lug nuts on that wheel were loose. I suppose that a technician at the last tire rotation forgot to torque the nuts on that wheel. I don’t know how much farther we might have made it, but we were pretty close to losing a wheel. A front wheel going at highway speed could have resulted in wrecking everything, truck, trailer and boats. As it turned out, it was a simple task to get a repair shop to install new studs and lug nuts, check the wheel to make sure it was OK, and get us back on the road with only a minor delay. Problem number one could have been a really big problem. It wasn’t that big at all.

260 miles later, I saw what looked like smoke coming from the camper. I found a safe place to pull off of the road and discovered that we had a hot wheel bearing. I had just checked the hubs when we stopped 25 miles earlier, but I just touched the plastic hub caps and apparently the hub itself was hot but the heat didn’t project through that hubcap for some reason. Again, it could have been disastrous, but it where we stopped, although in a really remote corner of Montana and not near any town, had excellent cell phone service. A call to AAA resulted in a repair shop that could get new bearings and seals and bring them out to us. However, by the time all of the calls had gone through, it was after dark and so we decided to have the repair shop come in the morning. We spent the night in a motel in Broadus.

There have been times in my life when I would be asking myself, “Why do these things happen to me?” I would be complaining about my bad luck, worried about the expense of repairs, and frustrated with delays. But at the end of the sabbatical, I’m very grateful that the lug nut problem didn’t turn into a wreck, which it might have. I’m grateful that the wheel bearing was something I saw in the mirror before the problem got big. I’m grateful that we were able to obtain help by phone.

I am also amused at the reaction of AAA phone operators. I got to talk to five of them, none of whom understood basic geography or the rural nature of Montana. “What city are you near? and Which exit have you passed? are questions asked by each operator. However highway 212 in southeastern Montana doesn’t have exits. I was at the Boyle Community Hall, a local landmark, but unknown to the people at AAA. I didn’t know which mile marker I had just gone by, but guessed within 2 miles. When the repair operator called me on my phone, he had been given the wrong highway as our location, something that was easy to clear up because he is from Montana and understands. I knew how many miles I was from Broadus and how many miles remained to Alzada, but Alzada was an unknown to the map-challenged AAA operators. Looking back, it makes me laugh and will give me good stories to tell.

Life has challenges. Things go wrong. Machinery breaks. People become stressed. But it isn’t personal. It isn’t about me. I have been blessed with reliable vehicles and a brain that is capable of figuring out solutions. I have the means to purchase a motel room for the night. People are willing to help solve problems when you are willing to ask for help.

We have the rest of today to finish the repairs, get home, unpack, clean up the camper, check out the house, which includes turning on the water and hot water heater and refrigerator and such. We need to stock up on groceries and get the camper into storage. There are plenty of tasks to accomplish, but we have time with enough time for a good night’s sleep and a fresh start when we return to the office tomorrow. We are lucky people.

There is an old refrain that has been used as a call and respond in churches for a long time:
Leader: God is Good!
People: All the time!
Leader: All the time,
People: God is Good!

It really is true. God is good all the time. It is also something that we easily forget. Sometimes it just takes a few little things for us to forget, especially when we allow little things to turn into big things.

If you look at it from another point of view, if you think of all of the travelers on Highway 212 on a given day, which ones might be best suited for a breakdown in a remote location? It would be good to have someone with a cell phone, and someone who isn’t intimidated by lonely places, and someone who has some local knowledge. It would be good to have someone who has a partner to share the passage of time and some local connections in case things don’t work out as planned. It would be good to have someone who has the means to stay in a motel room and is comfortable with Montana’s wide-open spaces.

That would be me. There were lots of people traveling on the road who would be much more uncomfortable with the situation. I guess I’m lucky in the big scheme of things.

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!

Prosper the work of my hands

I think that anyone who spends much time in the Bible will end up with some Psalms that are favorites. It is the nature of poetry that it speaks to us in different ways at different times in our lives and the great poems of the Bible carry meaning that spans so many generations of faithful living that they can provide great strength and nourishment at critical moments in our lives. I often ask people about their favorite passages of scripture and their responses almost always include Psalms. I’m sure that Psalm 23 is the passage of scripture that is most often cited as a favorite. It could be the topic of its own journal entry and perhaps will be one day. It has been memorized by a lot of people. I have had the experience of visiting someone who is comatose, or nearly so and when I recite the Psalm, I see their lips moving along with me. The words are lodged somewhere very deep within that person and my saying them out lout inspires a connection that is very powerful. I also hear Psalm 121 as a favorite. “I lift my eyes to the hills - from where will my help come?” I think that the love of that Psalm may be even deeper for those of us who live in hills, for lifting our eyes to the hills does inspire us with a sense of the power of creation and the presence of God, even though that particular Psalm probably recalls a time when the hills were filled with enemies and help was from beyond the hills.

For me, Psalm 90 has always been a source of inspiration. I think that my deep love for the words of that Psalm date back to the four years that we lived in Chicago. We went to Chicago to attend theological seminary. At the time, there were no seminaries accredited by the Association of Theological Schools in Montana. Our denomination’s closest seminaries were in Minneapolis and St. Louis. We had interest in schools that were located in places that had clusters of multiple theological seminaries, so applied to ones in Boston, Chicago and Berkeley. All of those places were distant from our home. Chicago offered us significant fellowships that made study financially possible for us, so we packed our belongings and headed out to live and study in Chicago. It was a big deal for both of us. I had been born and raised in Montana. My wife had lived in Montana for most of her life. A lot of our identity was caught up in the place where we lived. I remember purchasing a new pair of cowboy boots before we departed. I wanted people in Chicago to know that I was from somewhere else. It turned out that the boots weren’t much of a Montana identity. People from all over wear boots and Chicago has every type of footwear imaginable. And anyone who spent any time with us at all knew soon that we weren’t natives of Chicago.

One of my teachers commented that my sermons always contained a story about being in Montana, and it was true. It was important for me to claim my Montana roots and to think of myself as a Montanan during the years of my study. Two of the three summers of the time that we lived in Chicago, we spent in Montana managing the church camp that is just 43 miles up the river from the home where I grew up.

It was during those years that I learned to find great power in the words, “Lord, you have been our dwelling place, in all generations.” Much of the story of our people’s early years is caught up in the process of leaving home and being people who wandered without having a home of their own. Abraham and Sarah set out in response to God’s call without knowing where they were going. When they did enter the promised land, it wasn’t theirs to possess. They traveled through the land. Their children and grandchildren also were wanderers. Even after generations as slaves in Egypt, when Moses led the people out of slavery, they did not come into the promised land for another 40 years. The question of where is home has been a major theme of our people for thousands of years. To think of home as being defined not by a place, but by a history and a relationship with God is a powerful notion for one who wanders.

I didn’t know it at the time, but our move to Chicago started a process of following God’s call that for us meant that we never returned to Montana to live. After Chicago, we lived in North Dakota, Idaho, and South Dakota. All of those states share a border with Montana, but we have never returned “home” to live. “Lord you have been our dwelling place.” This is true of our Children as well. Born in North Dakota, they followed us to Idaho and South Dakota and then spread their wings. As adults they have lived in Oregon, Wyoming, California, New Jersey, South Carolina, Washington, England, Missouri and Japan. Our daughter even lived in Montana for a while pursuing her education. Home has not been a single place for our family in these generations.

Psalm 90 is primarily about human frailty and God’s eternity. The contrast between the temporary nature of our lives and God’s abiding presence is made clear. It also carries words of aspiration and ends with dramatic longing for meaning: “Let the favor of our God be upon us and prosper the work of our hands - O prosper the work of our hands.”

My work has often not been the work of hands. I have crafted my profession and career out of words and speech and being present with people, not by making physical objects. I have made a few things with my hands, but my hands have been more for holding the hands of others at times of need in their lives. The prayer at the end of the psalm, nonetheless, is deeply powerful for me. I want the work of my life to carry meaning and to prosper.

As I prepare to return to work in the place where I have been planted, I am aware that this location is temporary. My true home is with God and in the places where God will call me. But while I am where I am, I pray that my work will be meaningful. “O prosper the work of my hands!”

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!

Embracing the future

I remember reading The Gutenberg Galaxy by Marshall McLuhan as an undergraduate student. I think the book was at least a decade old by the time I got to it, but some of the ideas were new to me and the discussion of the book was still very popular in American colleges. The basic concept of the book is that moveable type which made high speed printing possible, affected the way humans organize their brains and in turn the way we organize ourselves socially. His famous quote, “The medium is the message,” was bandied about easily by students and professors as we struggled to understand his meaning. In subsequent works, McLuhan went on to explore the impact of television on culture, pointing out the transition from culture which had been, for thousands of years, oral and aural into a visual culture. He celebrated this as ushering in a global village where communication was instantaneous and there were fewer barriers of language separating individuals.

Looking back, many of McLuhan’s concepts ring true. He was an astute observer of some of the changes that were going on in our post-industrialized society. He did not fully anticipate the impact of computers and the Internet on our society, but I don’t think he would be surprised by the dramatic changes in the way we think.

It isn’t just that modern electronic technologies have changed the nature of work. They have changed how we think and organize our thoughts. Publishing is no longer a matter of getting something down on paper and printed in a book. In fact the impact of books on our lives is shifting, changing all kinds of social institutions.

I was thinking about McLuhan specifically recently as my thoughts returned to the work that I do. This sabbatical break has given me some time to think about the basics of being a pastor and challenged me to think about the future of the pastoral ministry.

On Sunday we walked past a storefront church. It wasn’t the place where we worshiped and we didn’t go in. This particular church wasn’t at all like our church back home or even the way we think about church. There were a number of large television monitors showing a worship service in the “mother church,” located in another town. Some people were singing along with the people in the live service. Others were simply sitting and watching. Since I didn’t go in, I don’t know all of the details. I think that there were live leaders of the church who did some of the functions of church, such as greet visitors, help newcomers learn the basics of attendance. They probably also had a way for participants to make financial gifts to the ministry and probably gave information about ways to become more involved, perhaps by traveling to the mother church, participating in mission projects, or other points of connection.

I know that we have at least one congregation in our town that is experimenting with a similar satellite video church.

It is very different than the ministry that has marked my life in the church.

At the core of my call to become a minister is the call to preach and teach the gospel. This has played out, over the past four decades, in a discipline of reading scripture, praying and studying and preparing sermons which have been delivered live in front of a congregation of people who come together to worship and to serve. My effectiveness as a minister has been evaluated in part on the quality of my preaching. The Sunday morning worship service has been the heart of the congregation. The congregations I have served have engaged in significant ministries and outreach and served people in many different ways, but each has had the quality of an educated and careful sermon delivered live.

That process of passing down faith with the tools of direct speech has been at the core of our religious tradition for thousands of years. The Bible reports the words Jesus said and the context in which he said them. It is not a series of cleverly illustrated video clips, covering the highlights and offering a shortcut to a mature faith. There is more to a religious life than just a highlights reel or a collection of cute videos.

Of course religious life has been transformed by the technologies we employ. McLuhan was right that the invention of the printing press transformed the way we think. The change in the church was dramatic. We went from a people of the oral word to the written word. Having a printed bible that was available in a common language meant that individuals could read and interpret scripture without being dependent upon the hierarchy of a church. Access to the scriptures was at the heart of the Protestant Reformation and the impact of that access changed a great deal.

There are many social observers who believe that we are in the midst of a social revolution that is as deep as the advent of the printing press. If they are right, and I suspect that they are, the church is going to change dramatically in the next century. I can’t predict what will emerge. I belong to the old world of sermons and face-to-face worship. I will finish my career as a pastor in the context of personal relationships with church leaders. Pastoral calls and conversations, listening and live meetings and sermons will be the media of my time as a church leader. It isn’t that I am ignorant of the new ways. I have experimented with social media and i will continue to be active in those arenas going forward. I maintain a personal website and am the primary facilitator of the church’s web site at present. I know how to use some of the technologies of video conferencing and remote meeting. But the leadership for the transformation of the church will come from a new generation and not from those of us who are steeped in the world of books and traditional study and spoken sermons.

We all will be shaped by the media of the future. The process is going on in spite of our nostalgia for the old ways. But in the midst of all the change, honest face-to-face communication is still valuable and the art of speaking will continue to be worthy of my time.

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!

Heading home

The plan is pretty simple. We’ve done it quite a few times before. Three days of driving of about 400 miles per day and we’re back at home. We don’t drive at Interstate speed, preferring to pull the camper at about 65 miles per hour, so we don’t need to follow the Interstate highways. The Interstate, however, is the most direct route across much of our journey, so we’ll be following a combination of roads. It will be Interstate across all of Montana, which is the biggest state we’ll cross.

Today we will get a reasonable start, but don’t plan to hit the road at the crack of dawn. Goodbyes will be difficult. The children don’t have the same notions of time as we and we really have had a wonderful summer of being very close to them. I know some back roads that will get us where we are going without necessitating dealing with the heavy traffic of Seattle, so we’ll start out with some slow going. There are five mountain passes between here and home and we plan to top three of them today. In the past we’ve pulled a slightly longer day for our second day and a bit easier third day. We’ll see how things go.

We technically have one more day before we need to be in the office, but we know from experience that there are a lot of things that can change our plans and take more time than we figured. If all goes according to plan we’ll be back in Rapid City with one day to unload, tackle laundry, sort mail and do the rest before we need to be in the office.

Returning to the office will include its own challenges. There will be work that has piled up in our absence. There are plenty of tasks that are routine when we are working full time that will take a bit longer now that we are out of practice. It might not seem like it at first, but one of the gifts of sabbatical is that the processes of stopping and restarting work give us the opportunity to re-evaluate priorities and make some changes in the way we approach the task. In a way it will be like starting a new job. We know the general parameters of the work, but the specifics of how it gets done will depend on decisions that we make on the spot.

We are eager to return to work, but we don’t want to go back to life as usual. We’ve been changed by the experiences of the sabbatical and we want those changes to show. There is plenty of research that points to the advantages to a congregation of experiencing a pastoral sabbatical. We want to make sure that those advantages are recognized by the people of the church.

Of course I know that there will be some who will see our time away as simply an extended vacation and we will get our share of comments about how lucky we are to have had such a break. It is true. We are lucky. There are plenty of people who work all of their lives without such a significant break. But it is also true that the sabbatical has direct and significant benefits to the congregation. We want those benefits to become known over the course of the next year.

We aren’t the only ones who have been changing. There have been all kinds of changes in the congregation. There have been deaths and births and health challenges and new relationships. There are children going off to college and others entering school for the first time. There have been some new jobs and, I hope some new faces in the congregation. Being gone and then coming back will make some of those changes immediately evident. Others will take a time for us to discover. More importantly, leaders have stepped up in new ways during our absence. Important decisions have been made. We have had to trust the health of the church to deal with the important details of day to day living, but also with long term decisions.

High on our agenda in the early days of our return will be meeting a new choir director and going over plans for worship for the fall. The Church School Rally is just over a week away and while many plans are already in place, there will be plenty of details in need of attention.

I think that having a long drive is an important part of this particular sabbatical. It takes time to switch gears from a season of travel and reflection to a time of more direct action. I need to ramp up for the task of regular preaching after having not delivered a single sermon in three months. (OK my family would say I’ve delivered a few, but they haven’t been from the pulpit.) The task of making the emotional and spiritual change back into the leadership role takes time. A good road trip is an opportunity to do some thinking and mental preparation for the work that lies ahead.

Driving cross country takes some planning and preparation, but it also takes the ability to adapt to changing circumstances and rising to challenges when they occur. Road conditions can force a change in plans. Some parts of the journey might take longer than we expect. There is always the possibility of unforeseen mechanical breakdowns or a flat tire. The emotional energy required to adapt is very much a skill that will be needed once we return to work. We can’t anticipate every eventuality. We need to be flexible and able to respond to the realities that we discover in the congregation.

One journey’s end is the beginning of another. The journey of the next couple of years will be one of a changing relationship between pastor and congregation. We have much to celebrate as we look towards having spent 25 years in this relationship and celebration is appropriate, but to get to that goal we need to open ourselves to the new things that are coming and the new directions that God is calling.

The journey continues.

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!

Leaving the rainforest

Today is our last full day in the Pacific Northwest. Tomorrow morning we will hook up our camper, say our good byes and start the journey back to South Dakota and home. We’ll be shifting our energies to the process of returning to work after a long and successful sabbatical. The Gospel of Luke reports that Jesus said to his disciples, “I have eagerly desired to eat this meal with you.” I think I know a little bit of how he felt. I am eagerly anticipating communion next Sunday when we are together face to face and begin the process of reporting to one another all of the things that have happened while we were apart. I feel like there have been some significant changes. But I know also that much has remained the same. We are still God’s people, seeking to live our faith in the midst of this troubling and troubled world. We are still called to be a people of extravagant welcome as well as a people of peace and justice. We are still seeking to walk together in “the ways made known and to be made known to us.”

washingtonfalls
Part of the change that I didn’t anticipate when planning this sabbatical is that we will be changing climactic zones. It isn’t so much that the temperatures, or even the rainfall will be different as we journey over the mountains and out on to the prairies. The place we are visiting has experienced a dry spell and temperatures that are uncommonly high for the area, often matching the weather at home. The high temperatures in Rapid City are forecast to be just a few degrees different from those in Northwest Washington over the next week. It only takes a short walk in the woods, however, to realize how dramatically different the two places are.

Yesterday it rained lightly for most of the day. Often it wasn’t raining enough to really feel like rain, just a few drops here and there that didn’t disrupt our plans for the day. Still, we wore our rain jackets and put our hoods up from time to time. We took a walk through Whatcom Falls Park. The gigantic cedar, hemlock and Douglas fir trees towered over our heads and sheltered us from the rain. Below the forest floor was covered in ferns and other green plants. The air was refreshing and made our breathing easy.

waterfall, temperate rainforest
In terms of the amount of landmass covered, temperate rainforests are a very small biome, mainly along the northwestern coast of North America from northern California though southern Alaska.  There are also small areas in southern Chile, New Zealand, Australia and a few other places around the world, most of which are small slices of land.  There is a tiny slice of temperate rainforest in the most northern part of Japan and we visited it when we toured Oirase Gorge. In general, such forests form where relatively warm offshore waters affect inland climates.

Walking in the rainforest is very different from walking in the woods at home, even after an extended period of drought, which that Northwest has experienced this summer. We were visiting at the driest part of the year, but the rain and mist yesterday raised the humidity and the plants were obviously responding to the wet conditions. Drops of moisture would fall from the trees above onto the plants below. The raindrops in the creeks and ponds seemed so natural as we walked along.

Although I have been gone all summer, I imagined the dry pine needles and duff of the forest floor at home. I suspect that there is a buildup of dry grasses and other plants. The forest floor crackles when you walk on it during the driest parts of the year. But the pine trees have their own unique and wonderful smell which I can imagine even though I am far away. The sound of the wind in the Ponderosa Pines at home is different than what we have heard in this place. I haven’t been conscious of it for most of the past three months, but I have missed the sights and smells and sounds of home and I am eager to experience them once again. I have lived most of my life in places where the plains meet the mountains and the Black Hills have been home for more years than any other place for me. Our home sits up enough to provide an unobstructed view of the sunrise and the hills give texture and depth to the sunsets.

rainforest floor
Beyond my hunger for the place, however, I am ready to reconnect with the community. A pilgrimage is the process of leaving a community for a while, with a definite plan to return. The separation is not a disconnection. We have been joined by prayer and our sense of shared ministry has not departed from us. I remember 23 years ago, when I first received the call to come as minister to 1st Congregational United Church of Christ in Rapid City. We returned to our then home in Idaho and began to prepare to move. It took us about three months, nearly the same amount of time as this year’s sabbatical, to make the transition from one ministry and one home to another. It was a time of anticipation, because I didn’t know exactly what would emerge in this new ministry in a new place. I am a bit less anxious as I prepare to return from this trip because I know that much of what I will find will be familiar. But there will be surprises. New times will demand new decisions. The leaders whose positions have been strengthened in our absence will be empowered to share their leadership with the congregation in new ways. Returning will require careful listening and careful communication of the thoughts that have been a part of our time apart.

Reconnection will be a sweet time, but it will also be a time that demands intense work. I am rested. I am ready. Even when I am back at home the journey will continue.

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!

Sorting

This summer, when we headed off for Japan, we each had a small suitcase and a backpack. Our backpacks were small enough to fit under the seats in the airliner and our bags would have fit in the overhead bins, but we chose to check them during the flight. For three weeks we were able to carry what we had taken with us wherever we went. There were a couple of times when we carried our luggage quite a distance, including up and down some pretty long staircases. We had everything we needed for the trip. We didn’t lack for any essential items. We had access to our daughter’s clothes washer and dryer, and did laundry a couple of times during the trip. We even managed to acquire a few things along the way and get them back safely.

The efficiency of our travel worked well for us, but that was just three weeks. As we pack up for the trip home from the rest of our sabbatical, we have quite a bit more stuff. We have a pickup truck, filled with items and a camper that we’ll tow behind the pickup. There is a canoe and two kayaks and a bicycle and several cases of tools. We have more tools than we might carry on a typical vacation, because we undertook some major projects at our son’s house over the summer. There is a portable grill that we used for cookouts and a large box of paddles, life jacket and other items that we used when boating with our grandchildren. We both have laptop computers and cameras and other equipment.

Even our truck and camper are small amounts of possessions compared to the house full of items that we have back home. In our house is furniture and a kitchen stocked with all kinds of gadgets and appliances and a library stocked with thousands of books. We have closets full of clothes that we did not bring with us on this trip and boxes of items that we have stored in case we might need them. The garage is stocked with a lot of additional tools and there are more than a few unfinished projects around our home.

I’m not sure exactly when our lives turned from the mode of acquiring possessions to distributing them, but things are quite different for us than they were a few decades ago.

I can remember arriving in North Dakota after our years as students in Chicago. The only piece of furniture we owned was a desk. We acquired a couple of beds and a chest of drawers and a washing machine and dryer, but the big three-bedroom parsonage with a full basement seemed very empty at first. After seven years, a few purchases, and quite a few gifts from family members, it took the largest U-Haul truck plus a trailer to haul all of our household goods from North Dakota to Idaho. A decade in Idaho meant that we filled most of a moving van when we headed to South Dakota. These days we long to reduce our inventory to something closer to what we had in our North Dakota days.

We saw how the task of sorting possessions overwhelmed our parents towards the ends of their lives. As they downsized from house to apartment to even smaller living quarters, we did most of the moving and helped with the sorting of possessions. Some of the excess possessions we have ourselves were acquired during this process. Most of what we have inherited from previous generations holds no appeal for our children and grandchildren and will not be passed to another generation of our family. We will need to devise strategies to help useful items get into the hands of those who need and want them. I’m sure that there is a fair amount of garbage as well. Keep, sell, give away, trash. Our lives will demand a discipline of sorting for the next several years.

It isn’t just possessions that we are sorting. Erik Erikson called the eighth and last of his psychosocial developmental tasks “Ego Integrity vs Despair.” The integration of the meanings that one has acquired over a lifetime into a coherent and meaningful whole is one of the essential tasks of every human being. The core virtue of this stage of life is wisdom. Wisdom comes, in part, from deciding what is real and authentic and necessary. Part of that task is discarding ideas and notions that are not essential. It also involves deciding what are the few great thoughts and the few great beliefs that are worthy of passing on to future generations.

Our forebears chose a few of the most important writings of our people and called them scriptures. Our Bible is the distillation of a large body of religious ideas and notions and stories and poems and history and laws into a single book, or collection of books that we have passed from one generation to the next over a long history of faithfulness. We have many other religious ideas, and some of them have been passed from generation to generation. Concepts that are key to our understanding of the scriptures have been around for a long time - some of them as long as our scriptures themselves. We have lived together in the church long enough for us to hold a few great ideas and a few great concepts that are much larger than any single generation and we trust each generation to wrestle with those ideas and concepts and make them their own.

Developing integrity involves the owning of the ideas that are central to our life as a people of God. These are the ideas to which I cling, despite all else. Upon these beliefs and this faith I will stand amidst the storms and trials of life. Wisdom is the capacity to know which ideas are worthy of the faith of generations and which are temporary and can be abandoned.

Sorting is the business of every generation and it is the task of our stage of life.

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 song of faith

Years ago, I attended a church workshop where an African American church leader expounded on several of the spiritual songs that are included in our hymnal. One has the opening lyrics: “Woke up this morning with my mind/Stayed on Jesus.” The speaker said that the long pause after the word mind, was intentional. Just waking up with one’s mind was a blessing amidst the cruelties of slavery. When families were forcibly broken up and children were taken away from parents, the pressures were so intense that they could literally drive one mad. Just being able to think at all in the midst of such horrors was considered a blessing.

I hadn’t previously thought much about how hymns address issues of mental health and illness. It makes sense that there would be some mention of such topics. Mental illness often is accompanied by religious ideation. Those experiencing delusions often describe them with religious symbols and ideas. It isn’t uncommon for the voices heard by those suffering to be perceived as the voice of God.

I am not aware of studies that have focused on the role of religion in mental illness and mental health, but I am sure that they exist. Religion can be part of the road to recovery. All of the 12-step programs for addiction recovery have some form of accepting that there is a higher power and most use expressly religious language to describe that power.

Because we care about the whole person, religious people have been at the forefront of medical care delivery not just for the physical bodies of people, but also facilities to deliver mental health care. Thoughts and feelings are as much a part of our lives as our physical bodies and appropriate care for them just makes sense.

John Greenleaf Whittier, who lived from 1807 to 1892, was a Quaker abolitionist who is known for his poetry. Influenced by the Scottish poet Robert Burns, he is remembered for his anti-slavery writings and for the long narrative poem, Snowbound, which chronicles a family during a three-day blizzard and a week of being stuck in their home by the weather. They tell each other stories as they sit around a roaring fire.

There are several hymns that are musical settings of Whittier poems. Perhaps the most familiar is “Dear Lord and Father of Mankind.” The song begins with an appeal for forgiveness: “Dear Lord and Father of Mankind, forgive our foolish ways.” It is the next line that has come to my mind recently. “Reclothe us in our rightful mind. In purer lives thy service find, in deeper reverence, praise.”

I’ve sung that hymn many times without thinking of it in terms of mental health, but it is a great hymn for times when we are feeling troubled. It invites us into quiet contemplation and is a prayer for rest and calm. I’ve long loved the ending of the 5th verse with its reference to the prophet Elijah’s fleeing into the wilderness of Horeb and God’s way of speaking to him after Elijah’s traumatic experiences: “Speak through the earthquake, wind and fire, O still small voice of calm.”

The entire hymn can be thought of as an appeal for the peace of recovery for one who is experiencing mental turmoil:

1. Dear Lord and Father of mankind,
forgive our foolish ways;
reclothe us in our rightful mind,
in purer lives thy service find,
in deeper reverence, praise.

2. In simple trust like theirs who heard,
beside the Syrian sea,
the gracious calling of the Lord,
let us, like them, without a word,
rise up and follow thee.

3. O sabbath rest by Galilee,
O calm of hills above,
where Jesus knelt to share with thee
the silence of eternity,
interpreted by love!

4. Drop thy still dews of quietness,
till all our strivings cease;
take from our souls the strain and stress,
and let our ordered lives confess
the beauty of thy peace.

5. Breathe through the heats of our desire
thy coolness and thy balm;
let sense be dumb, let flesh retire;
speak through the earthquake, wind, and fire,
O still, small voice of calm.

There are some really wonderful lines in that hymn: “Take from our souls the strain and stress, and let our ordered lives confess the beauty of thy peace.” That could be a prayer for a harried and sleep-deprived parent dealing with the pressures of work and home life and childcare.

I don’t know anything about the mental state that Whittier was experiencing when he wrote that poem, which is also a prayer. I’m sure that the stresses of speaking out against the norms of society were intense for him at times. I’m sure that there were times when it seemed like the whole world had gone crazy with its inability to see that slavery was wrong. His position was, for the early years of his life, a minority one and abolitionists suffered many setbacks as they pursued justice for the oppressed. A prayer for calm, focus and peace is most appropriate for such times.

That prayer is appropriate for our time as well. Sure, the language is a bit dated. Yes, we prefer words other than “mankind” to express the whole of humanity, which includes women as well as men. Of course, we think of God in other ways than just the titles of English aristocracy such as “Lord.” Still the depth of the poem rings through each time we sing the hymn. That is one of the things about hymns - they transcend the limits of human language. Poetry has a power to reach beyond the mundane and inspire a deeper connection with the world. Sometimes I can see things much more clearly after a poem in ways with a clarity that a long argument fails to provide.

The gift of mental health is a blessing for which we often forget to express our gratitude. When our thinking and emotions are clear, we are often unaware of the pain and anguish that accompany mental illness. Praying Whittier’s poem is one way of singing our faith and nurturing our spirits at the same time.

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!

Goosebumps

Goosebumps are a vestigial reflex. That means that it is a phenomena, whose original purpose no longer exists, but the phenomena remains. In the case of humans and goose bumps, when certain stresses occur, primarily exposure to cold air or the emotional stress of fear, bumps appear on the surface of the skin at the base of the body hairs. These are sometimes accompanied by a shiver that runs down the spine. Imagine, for a moment, that humans were covered with long fur, like a great ape. The reaction would make the hairs stand on end. Raising the hair makes the animal look larger to respond to the danger of a predator. It also helps to raise the body temperature by fluffing up the fir. You can see the phenomena in many different animals. We are used to seeing cats arch their backs and the fir standing up along their spines when they are startled.

In humans, however, goosebumps aren’t often noticed by others, only by the one experiencing them. Our body hair is very short and, for the most part, often nearly invisible, so a few hairs standing up doesn’t make a dramatical visual impact. The phenomenon, however, continues to exist.

Goosebumps is also a very successful franchise of children’s literature that includes he original series of 62 books, produced in a 5 year-period between 1992 and 1997, by the author R.L. Stein and published by Scholastic Press. Those books gave rise to a television series, merchandise, and a movie, starring Jack Black as Stein. Various spin-off series were written by Stine: Goosebumps Series 2000, Give Yourself Goosebumps, Tales to Give You Goosebumps, Goosebumps Triple Header, Goosebumps HorrorLand, Goosebumps Most Wanted, and Goosebumps SlappyWorld. Another series, Goosebumps Gold, was never released.

Over the years, I’ve read a lot of those books to children as well as watching children read the books to themselves. The timing of the original series was just a little bit late for our children, providing some fun and entertainment, but they outgrew the series before the books reached the height of their popularity.

Our grandson chose one of the books as his reward for participating in the summer reading program at the library. He has been reading books about Egypt all summer, going through most of the titles about ancient Egypt that were in the children’s section and bringing home a number of books on the topic from the adult section of the library as well. We’ve been reading the books to him in addition to the books he is reading for himself. I think that he probably chose the particular book from the Goosebumps series because of its title: “HorrorLand: Who’s Your Mummy?” and the illustration of a figure wrapped in bands of cloth like a mummy on the front cover of the book. Whatever the reason for his choice, he has really enjoyed the story and can barely put it down for other activities like eating a meal or bedtime.

We, of course, are delighted to have our grandson enjoy books and the library so much. It is only natural for the son of a librarian to enjoy books and reading, and his parents are very supportive of his participation in library programs and give him regular trips to the library. It helps, as well, that his father is a bit of a private research assistant, recommending titles and bringing home books when requested.

Reading the book inspired looking up the phenomena of goose bumps in people. I knew that they got their name from the appearance of the flesh of a goose when its feathers were plucked. I had forgotten, if I had ever known, that the phenomena is called Goose Pimples in England. A short Internet search provided the information we needed.

I did not research, but gave some thought to the reasons that a frightening story is so much fun with children at certain ages. I remember telling scary stories around the campfire and in our cabins when I was a child at camp. We knew that most of the stories were pure fiction and that they were describing events that would never happen to us, but we would get caught up in the stories nonetheless and enjoyed the sensation of being a little bit scared. We didn’t want to become so frightened that we didn’t enjoy the stories, but a little bit of fear was entertaining to us. I think it is similar to the reasons why some people like to ride on roller coasters. The sensation of being a little scared yet still knowing that one is basically safe can be entertaining. The intense burst of emotion is fun, especially when it has passed.

I told our grandson of how, when we were young, we would go to a particular hot springs not far from our home. We’d warm up in the geothermal water and then hop out, run through the snow in our bare feet and jump back in. When we got just a bit older, we’d roll in the snow before getting back in the warm body. The process would raise goose bumps all over our bodies and when we got back into the warm water, our skin would tingle for a few seconds. We thought it was great fun.

Children experience some of their emotions in ways that lead to their feeling out of control. Sometimes they don’t have words for their emotions and struggle to express what they are experiencing. A scary story can be just the right tool to help them experience the emotion without losing the sense of control. You can always close the covers of a book and resume the story later. There is a sense of gaining control over one’s emotions by reading the story.

As adults, we continue to enjoy things that change our emotional state. A commercial with an emotional trigger is better at selling us goods than one that merely presents factual information. We like it when our emotions are stirred. A wise politician told me that winning elections is not about winning arguments. “It’s easy to win an argument. To win an election, you have to capture the emotions of the voters.” There is certainly plenty of fear in the current state of politics to keep one engaged if fear is what you enjoy.

As for me, reading the stories to my grandson is just enough fear to keep me entertained. I don’t need my real world to be quite as frightening as it sometimes is.

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!

Smoky days

Yesterday as we drove from Portland, Oregon, past Seattle and into the Mount Vernon area, we watched the smoke and haze grow thicker and thicker. It is smoky in the Pacific Northwest. While firefighters continue to tackle huge blazes across British Columbia and the American West, heavy smoke blankets the region. In Seattle, authorities have advised all people, even healthy adults, to stay indoors. Schools and sports teams have postponed outdoor activities. Flights have been delayed due to reduced visibility from all of the smoke. In parts of Seattle, the Air Quality Index rose as high as 220. If you are not familiar with the Air Quality Index, an AQI of 150 is roughly equal to smoking seven cigarettes per day. Officials are warning people to avoid all forms of outdoor exertion. Sunsets are blood red. The haze is thicker, and the air quality lower than even Beijing, one of the world’s most polluted cities.

Although the air quality is slightly better here in Mount Vernon at 128, that is still high enough to be considered unhealthy for sensitive people. All of us are experiencing symptoms of breathing the polluted air. We are sneezing, coughing and experiencing congestion. The air conditioners are filtering the air, making things comfortable in our cars and inside of homes, but this is country where people are used to being outdoors a lot, especially in the summer.

And each time we are tempted to complain about all of the smoke and haze, we are reminded that the smoke is just part of the story. While we struggle with taking precautions to protect our health, we need to remind ourselves that others have been devastated by the fires. Homes have been destroyed. Lives have been lost. Over 2 million acres hav burned in the United States this year in 109 major fires in 12 states. If anything, the fire season in Canada, especially in British Columbia and Alberta has been even worse. The forests that were turned red and brown from the invasion of pine bark beetles over the past decade are now turning black from the fires.

This isn’t the first year when wildfires have sent smoke towards the cities of the Pacific Northwest, but the weather around here usually provides rain which causes the particulate from the smoke to precipitate out of the air and clears the smoke up. But this year, rains have been much fewer and far between than in the past.

There is some hope in the weather forecast, which calls for showers over the weekend. People are serious when they are praying for rain.

The trend is pretty clear that for some years summer fires are going to be a major factor throughout the American West. Those who study the trends warn that climate conditions will continue to be right for larger and more destructive wildfires throughout the region in years to come.

The paper dust masks that we noticed in common use during our recent visit to Japan are not sufficient for protection from the wildfire smoke. The issue when it comes to filtering air, is the size of the particles. While simple paper masks may filter out the visible ash that is is the air, smaller particles that are more dangerous can get through the simple masks. Wildfires throw off particles of all shapes and sizes. The biggest health dangers, however come from the smallest ones, 2.5 microns or less in diameter. These particles are called PM2.5, and they can penetrate deep into the airways, causing inflammation, asthma attacks and cancer.

This makes a public space, such as a community library, into a literal refuge for those who are forced to be outdoors all of the time. Homeless people can come into the library and breath the conditioned and filtered air during the day. It is a function that was far from the imaginations of the founders of libraries years ago, who thought them as community repositories of books and other documents. The change in the function of libraries is evident in other ways and has many other causes. The advent of more access to the Internet and the capacity to store information in other ways than just in books has meant that the curatorial function of libraries has shifted to the Internet in many ways. Public libraries, however, are the key to access to the Internet for many people. Offering free computers for public use and high speed Internet is just one of the services that modern libraries provide. These days, libraries are providing physical shelter by giving members of the public access to space with filtered air to breathe.

And, while we sit in the library, breathing the clean air, we can look up statistics about air pollution and the increasing smoke and haze on the computers available there.

One of the things that I have been doing on this sabbatical is to think about the changing roles of community institutions. It is clear that the nature of our communities are changing. It isn’t just that participation in churches is declining to the point where the future of many congregations is brought into question. It is that all of the institutions of our communities are needing to change in order to remain relevant in this rapidly-changing world. New purposes and programs are essential to the very survival of the institutions that we once took for granted.

At the beginning of the 20th century the generosity of rich industrialists, most notably Andrew Carnegie, provided for the expansion of libraries throughout the United States. The creation of community institutions for access to books and learning was and important element in the culture of that century. Here in the first quarter of the 21st Century, some of the functions of libraries have been assumed by the internet and libraries are needing to discover new functions and ways of serving their communities. What does a center for public education look like in this new set of circumstances? How do we form community in these new times?

It is enough to keep one thinking as one sits indoors on these smoky days.

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!