Reading in bed

I don’t know when I started reading in bed, but it was when I was very young. We used to load up on library books every week and I’d take several of them to bed with me. I liked to make a tent of my covers and read with a flashlight. The problem was that if I fell asleep while reading the batteries in the flashlight would be dead the next morning and often I didn’t have money to replace the batteries for a week or more, depending on the cost of batteries, the number of chores completed and my desire for other items that were sold at the dime store. Later, I got a flashlight with a push button that had to be held in to shine the light. That light would go out when I fell asleep. Problem solved.

In the meantime, with several nights when I had no flashlight, I would read to the light from the hallway since my brother didn’t want the room light left on after bedtime had been reached.

I became so practiced at reading myself to sleep that when I went to college, I discovered that I had a definite habit of falling asleep when I read, a talent that wasn’t exactly conducive to the reading loads of a college student. I had to teach myself not to read in bed and make myself read while sitting at a desk, sometimes with the typewriter at my side, outlining the text as I read.

It was also in my college years that I began drinking coffee. A cup with my breakfast kept me going strong through morning classes and drinking coffee with the father of my girlfriend made me think that I was appearing mature to him, something I definitely wanted to do. That addiction to caffeine lasted into my early sixties, but that is another story entirely,

I’ve returned to the practice of reading in bed. And I have discovered that, on occasion, I will nod off while reading at my desk as well.

For the most part there are no major problems with reading in bed as an adult. My wife occasionally will come into the bedroom, where I will be lying on the bed reading and ask me, “Are you sleeping?” Of course I deny the accusation, saying, “No, I’m reading!” to which she responds, “Maybe you should get your eyes checked. Most people don’t have their nose and forehead touching the book when they read.”

It is true that the new glasses with super flexible frames that don’t get bent from a little pressure are a real boon to me. Truth is, with my aging eyes, I can read without glasses almost as easily as I can read with them, and I often remove my glasses or slide them up on my forehead when reading anyway.

I have discovered a distinct advantage of reading books over magazines. Books tend to be printed on high quality paper with permanent inks. Magazines are often printed on thiner paper with inks that can smear. More than once I’ve gotten up from a nap and looked into the mirror to discover that a pretty good smudge of ink from the magazine has transferred itself to my forehead. That’s fine when I remember to look in the mirror upon rising. A few swipes with a clean wash cloth and the problem is eliminated. It is a bit of a problem, however, when I don’t notice and later catch an ugly smear on my forehead that makes me look like I’ve been down in the coal mines. Perhaps I’ll see my image in the rear view mirror of the car, or catch a glimpse in a store window as I pass. Either way, it makes me wonder how long the smear has been there and how many people I’ve talked to who were excellent at keeping a straight face while looking at my dirty face.

Mainly the problem with reading when I am too tired, however, has to do with comprehension. I find that when I’m fairly tired, I can read the same paragraph over and over without knowing what it says. I’ve even been known to turn the page in the book while I’m nodding off resulting in having to go back a page or so when I resume reading to find some text that is familiar. That works pretty well with much of contemporary fiction, which is less linear and can be read without having comprehended every paragraph. I can get the general gist of the story sometimes even though I don’t remember every word. But there is a fair amount of reading that I enjoy that involves making rational arguments that are dependent upon the reader processing all of the ideas in the book. There are certain books that I’ve learned to read at times and places where I am much less likely to nod off while reading.

As I’ve switched to using a tablet computer for reading more and more, I’ve wondered about the ill effects of using it in bed. I’ve read about the problems with blue light from screens disrupting sleep patterns, and my device has a blue light filter designed to address this problem, so I use it. Frankly, I don’t notice much difference between the screen and reading a regular book. It does work better than traditional magazines. No ink on my face. A couple of the magazines to which I subscribe offer online editions that are the same as the print versions. Other magazines, and among them some of my favorites, however, do not have online versions and reading the print is the best way to go.

Perhaps the best compromise I’ve found is my genuine lazy boy recliner. The sitting position, which when reclined is nearly lying down, means that the book has to be held above my face for reading so it gently lowers to my face as I fall asleep. That is probably preferable to lying on my stomach and my face falling into the book. I haven’t got the technique quite perfect yet. It is clear that I need a few more years of practice to get it just right.

In the meantime if you see me with ink smudges on my face, it’s ok to tell me. I’ll slip into the bathroom and clean them off.

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!

Funerals

Sometimes things we do have an impact on others that we don’t anticipate. Over the years, I have officiated at a lot of funerals. I put a lot of energy into carefully listening to grieving family members and providing a service that is personal, meaningful and that encourages looking at a bigger picture. I try to assist people as they move through grief. I am careful not to make false promises or to speak of grief in generalities. I know that the funeral is not about me, so I try not to make my own grief and feelings the focus of attention. Many of the things that I do i regards to funereal services are the result of years of experience and practice. I try to never take a funeral service for granted.

But there are parts of the service that have become nearly routine. This is especially true of the committal service, which is generally held at the cemetery. Traditions regarding committal services vary. Some families prefer to have a private committal before the funeral service. Other families want the act of committal to be the final event in the day. Most of the time the wishes of the family can be respected. We’ve had a couple of instances when we are doing multiple funerals in the same day when things have to be adjusted to get the schedules to work out. And we often work with Black Hills National Cemetery, which is a busy place that allows only 30 minutes for each ceremony, including military honors, which means that our services have to be short and quick.

Because a committal service is generally 5 to 7 minutes long, there isn’t much room for a great deal of customization or variation. There is a greeting, some assurances of scripture, a prayer of committal, and a couple of minutes for the officiant to set the context of the event before saying a benediction. On at least two occasions, I have forgotten my book of worship or notes and have led committal services without any written notes. I have the prayers memorized. I know, in general, what I am going to say.

Yesterday, however, I was reminded once again how a few brief words can have a big impact. As is my usual, after the prayer of committal, I said something about burial being a difficult task for those who grieve because even though they know the casket does not contain all of the person they loved, they have loved that body dearly. It is also a natural thing to do. God doesn’t waste and the elements of our earthly bodies are used by God to bring forth new life. And it is the right thing to do. We do not choose random places for the burial of our dead, but are careful in our choices. The ground in which we bury them is consecrated - made sacred by our practices and by the others who have been buried there.

Yesterday, however, for some reason the words I said were particularly meaningful for the funeral director who was serving the family. He made comments at several points during the day about how touched he was by those words. I do not know his own personal circumstances. Perhaps there is grief in his life that is weighing on him. Perhaps the realities of small town life in which the people we serve are often our friends was weighing heavily on him. Perhaps he was remembering other times of committal he has witnessed. At any rate, I was able to minister to him in that moment.

Of course my attention had been focused on the family. I knew that the moment of walking away and leaving the casket in that place would be very difficult for the widow. I tried to have words that would help her with that task as she moved on to the next challenges of her day. I was watching the faces of the daughters of the deceased to gauge their reactions as well.

Funerals always have fascinating and complex dynamics. While we are serving a family that is at a particular point in their journey of grief, we are also serving a wider community of friends who are at various points in their grief as well. Friends may be just starting to come face-to-face with their grief. Others may have had several days to process their reactions. Not everyone is going to be touched by the same moments in the service. In a full funeral service we have many elements to assist us with reaching out to the community. Some will be moved by a song, others touched by a prayer, others reached by the eulogy. I select scriptures with care, knowing that they have the power to make connections with other generations and other experiences our people have had with grief. I always work from a full manuscript when leading a funeral service. It reduces the risk of misspeaking. A funeral is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for the grieving family and I want to reduce the possibility of leaving a painful word or mistaken pronunciation. Of course, we are human and never perfect and mistakes can be made. I am not always accurate in reading from notes in the midst of the flow of the ceremony. Sometimes a glance at a grieving family member can cause an intense emotional reaction on my part. The congregation is supportive and forgiving and together we trust the Holy Spirit to work through our service to bring meaning to those in need.

I need to always remind myself that there is nothing routine about serving those who are grieving. Each family is different and deserves unique and special words. Each service is worthy of all of the preparation we can give. It doesn’t matter how many other funerals one has attended or how many at which I have officiated. This is a unique experience for the family and they deserve the best I can bring to it.

And sometimes just the right words are said at just the right moment and together we experience God’s grace.

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!

Signs of resurrection

One of the things that defines us a Cristians is our passion about the resurrection. It isn’t just that we have an ideological belief about which we care and that we want to share with others with evangelical zeal. It is that we believe so deeply in resurrection that we are always n the lookout for signs of resurrection and new life. We see resurrection all around us. It is an inherent part of nature, so we tell stories of butterflies and winter wheat and forest recovery after a fire. We recognize new life in the green shoots of grass as the snowbanks melt and the blossoms on the trees that emerge even when the weather continues to be wintry. We sense resurrection in every sunrise and the dawning of each new day.

But we also see resurrection in some of life’s difficult places. In the moments of grief and loss and pain and sorrow we sense that these are not forever conditions, but rather steps on a journey. We like to quote John 16:22: “So you have sorrow now, but I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.”

Last night we gathered for an informal time of sharing in memory of a man whose funeral we will celebrate today. He was one of those people who had hundreds of friends and was very adept at cultivating friendships. He also was a man who was passionate about his family. His granddaughter said, “I think my grandpa was a little bit sentimental.” I thought, “When he talked about her, he was definitely sentimental.” He would light up when he told me about his grandchildren and what thy were doing in life. From the oldest to the youngest, he was interested in their lives, proud of their accomplishments, and eager to tell their stories.

The evening’s gathering was a string of stories. There were stories about playing golf, buying cars, singing in chorus and quartets, raising families and living in community. There were stories of church and the coffee shop and the stage of the performing arts center before it had the fancy name.

What I saw in all of this was resurrection.

Today with respect and all due honor we will lay the body of this man into the ground, knowing full well that the body, so beloved and treasured, is not the whole story. As God’s creation goes through its patient process of reclaiming the elements of a human body to make new growth, there is life that emerges in all kinds of new and exciting places. Resurrection is already occurring in the stories we tell. We know we are not going to forget this man. We know we’ll be telling stories of him for the rest of our lives. We know that he doesn’t just live in the stories we tell, but we will remember his presence with every story.

His was a full and rich life. More than nine decades of living, more than six of marriage. We didn’t get short-changed in our exchange with him. But you can’t measure the worth of a person in length. I have as many stories of a man who died in his twenties that I tell whenever the occasion offers itself. There is something about coming face to face with death that reminds us that our way of measuring time is incomplete at best. Had the man whose life we are celebrating today lived another twenty years, it would have seemed to us that it ended too quickly.

It is easy for me to see resurrection in the gathered community. I walk into the room and I know the faces and the names of so many people who have gathered. We have been together before. We have faced funerals together before. We know that this is not the end. Still, we have gathered in a unique way for a unique set of circumstances. It is what we do. We come together in our grief and loss and support one another. We understand the uniqueness of this circumstance for the widow and the daughters and the grandchildren. We know that for them this is a once-in-a-lifetime event. They will remember these days in ways that we will not. Even as the details fade in our minds and blend with other funerals and other families, for them the same details will remain fresh and clear and forever etched into their memories.

In all of this I am aware of resurrection. I don’t have to search for signs. I watch as a gentle hand offers a tissue to dry the tears on a cheek. I notice the genuine hugs exchanged. I catch the shape of a smile in the corner of a mouth. I witness kind words being shared in whispers.

Last night I looked at what is to me a familiar picture of the couple at their wedding that took place the year that I was born. The black-and-white photo shows a young couple with a great deal of promise and joy in their smiles and faces. His diamond-shaped bow tie is slightly crooked - enough to show that it was hand-tied. Her veil frames her face in a way that you hardly see win contemporary weddings. I think if you didn’t know the picture and hadn’t been at any of their wedding anniversary celebrations you might not recognize them. The years have brought about a lot of changes. His har was no longer dark, his face showed a few more wrinkles. But I know that when she looks at the picture it seems like it was only a little while ago. I know she can remember exactly why she married him in the first place. Back then they could not have imagined today or how it would feel for her. But even if you could have, they would have proceeded to get married. Even knowing the grief that lay before, they’d have taken the step.

One of the things about my work is that I don’t have to search for signs of resurrection. They are right there as big as that wedding picture staring me right in the face.

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!

What if the audience were as good as the performance?

Once every two years our church has the honor of hosting the J. Laiten Weed Honors Orchestra. J. Laiten Weed was the director of the Yankton College Conservatory of Music and a charter member of the South Dakota String Teachers’ Association. When his wife, Lucy, died in 1986, Late established a string scholarship fund in her memory. The fund soon evolved into the Lucy Palermo Weed String Competition. Upon his death, additional funds allowed the establishment of the Honors Orchestra. Each year, twenty-two high school string students achieving the highest scores in auditions for each year’s South Dakota All-State Orchestra are selected for the Honors Orchestra. They receive their music for individual rehearsal in December and come together the the Thursday before the Saturday concert for two intense days of rehearsal with a clinician/conductor and a polished concert. In even numbered years, the concert is held at our church and in odd numbered years in the eastern part of the state.

The concert is always stunning and last night was no exception. It was a delightful and professionally rendered performance. Dr. Jungho Kim of Kent State University served as the clinician and conductor. It was a privilege to sit in the audience and witness the performance.

The performance of the families was less impressive.

Of course, even an event as noble as the honors orchestra has its problems. The orchestra does not really reflect the diversity of the state. In theory every student who attends a school that is a member of the South Dakota High School Activities Association is eligible to participate. In reality the level of performance is so high that only students who go to schools that have highly developed string programs ever succeed in rising to the top in the competition. That means that year after year the orchestra is comprised of students from the two largest school districts in the state: Sioux Falls and Rapid City. Once again this year all of the orchestra’s participants were from those two cities.

The students come with a sense of entitlement, having had the best in private lessons, the best in musical instruments and a high degree of support from family. After two days of intense rehearsal and almost no free time they arrive at the church wound up. 20 years ago the students arriving for the concert would have had experience with churches and know how to behave in a church. These days, the church is simply another performance venue to the students and they spread out and explore the building, including trying locked doors, using classrooms other than the ones designated for them, and generally leaving a trail of their possessions all over the building. They are used to living in a privileged environment and treat church staff the way they are used to treating janitors in their school. It is annoying, but they are young and gifted and we have learned to do our best to be gracious hosts for their visit.

The students, however, bring with them parents and grandparents and other family members who are aware of the brilliance of their students and know that the achievement of those students has come in part from intense parental support and at times parental pressure. They have mad a religion out of the success of their children and have made their children’s performances central to their lives. A couple of examples from last night stand out.

Because of copyright laws and performance licensing of the music performed, recording of the concert is prohibited. The concert programs ask the audience not to make audio or video recordings. That didn’t stop more than a half dozen audience members from making video recordings. They didn’t try to mask what they were doing. Sitting in the back of the room it was easy to see which ones were recording. One woman stood to hand-hold her camera during the entire performance without any regard for those who were sitting behind her. She pushed her way to the other side of the room during the intermission to use a wall plug to recharge her camera batteries and then returned to her post. I am no expert in recording video and I know that modern cameras have image stabilization and other advanced features, but I’m confident that the recording was far less than professional grade. There was no external microphone and the position of the camera was one one side of the orchestra so the sound wasn’t balanced. And the camera was hand held so there would be some unnecessary movement of the camera during the performance. The goal wasn’t to have a professional recording of the performance. The woman doing the recording simply felt entitled to take away from the concert whatever she wanted regardless of what might be considered typical behavior for a classical music concert. I suspect that much of her filming was zoomed in on a single student and didn’t show the incredible collaboration and coordination of 22 students working together to achieve a total experience.

Members of the concert audience were asked to sit on the main floor and told that the balcony was closed and not available for seating. The lights in the stairwells were turned off, but over and over again I saw people turning them back on. I asked audience members directly not to sit in the balcony, but they refused to my face and went upstairs anyway. Once in the balcony they rearranged the chairs so that they could sit next to the balcony rail. Because the concert is on a Saturday evening, our church doesn’t have janitorial service between the concert and worship on Sunday morning. Members of our church volunteer to clean the bathrooms and pick up after the concert. Last night’s tasks included having to put the furniture in the balcony back into its place. Despite our best efforts, it is likely that some choir member will notice that things aren’t as they left it following their most recent rehearsal.

None of those things, however, affected the brilliance of the performance. We will be honored to host the orchestra the next time they come. And we will welcome the parents and other family members with open arms, if with a bit less enthusiasm than we extend to the youth.

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!

History we don't want to repeat

I think that one of the reasons that many of us in the United Church of Christ have a heightened sensitivity towards the dangers of Christian fundamentalism is that the history of our church includes a fair amount of fundamentalism. In fact, sometimes I look at some of the newer fundamentalist Christian groups in our area and think to myself, “Yup, been there. Done that.” Among the predecessor denominations of the United Church of Christ is the Congregational Church, which traces its roots back to the Pilgrims and Puritans that arrived on the shores of New England. Prominent among those settlements was the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

Massachusetts was established by the Puritans in 1629. They wanted to purify the church of England, however after years of persecution they opted to found a new colony and start fresh. Unlike the Pilgrims who wanted complete separation from England and who were, for the most part not well-educated, the Puritans were, for the most part educated and their enterprise was successful because of organization and planning. The Pilgrim Plymouth Colony struggled. Massachusetts Bay was successful earlier and soon experienced a population explosion that ended up it its absorbing Plymouth. John Winthrop is often credited as the founder of Massachusetts Bay Colony. He served as Governor four different times and was a strong and successful Colonial pioneer.

It is a bit of a simplification, but the colonies of Rhode Island and Connecticut both grew out of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The area around modern-day Boston and Salem grew out of the efforts of Puritan and Pilgrim colonists.

The end of the 17th century was a time of unrest throughout the New England colonies. As the leaders of the church began to impose more and more theological imperatives on the colonists, England was reasserting control over the colonial government. In Boston Cotton Mather was doing daily battle with the devil, whom he believed was at work everywhere. He was convinced that the devil was aided by witches. His account of Goody Glover, the witch of Boston was widely circulated. The Rev. Samuel Parris of Salem certainly read Mather’s work.

In 1692 accusations of witchcraft and possession began to arise in Salem Village. In May of that year the constable was dispatched to arrest Wilmot “Mammy” Redd of Marblehead for having “committed sundry acts of witchcraft on the bodies of Mary Wolcott and Mercy Lewis and others in Salem Village to their great hurt.”

Mammy Redd was the wife of a poor fisherman and sometimes worker in the boatyards. She was old and disagreeable. By the time she was in here seventies her quarrels with a neighbor and disputes involving her butter business had inspired rumors that she was a witch. Her daughter had been married to Rev. George Burroughs, who had been identified as the “ringleader” of the witches.

After her arrest on May 28, she was taken to Salem for a preliminary examination in the home of Nathan Ingersoll on May 31. The “affected girls” whom she had never before met, promptly fell into fits. When asked what she thought ailed them, Redd said, “I cannot tell.” Urged to give an opinion, she replied, “My opinion is they are in a sad condition.”

She was indicted as a witch and four months later tried in Salem Town. She as not granted defense counsel. Testifying against here were Ambrose Gale, Charity Pitman and Sarah Doddy. Doddy claimed that she was unable to defecate for a month, which caused her stomach to swell and inflicted great pain.

Wilmot Redd refused to confess to being a witch. No one from Marblehead came forward at the trial to speak on her behalf. She was convicted and hanged on September 22, 1692. Seven others were executed with her. Her body was not claimed. She was probably buried in an unmarked grave her her home because the law would not allow her to be buried in consecrated ground.

The witch hysteria in New England was short lived. It suddenly ended when the wife of Massachusetts Governor William Phipps was accused. Phipps reacted swiftly in defense of his wife. The frenzy ended. Common sense returned. The bubble had been burst. An awareness of the horror of what they had done began to sink in. There were public apologies and attempts to make amends.

Time moved on. The pond near where her small house once stood now bears her name. Redd’s Pond is about the only sign of the memory of the times. On October 31, 2001, Massachusetts Governor Jane Swift signed a bill pardoning Wilmot Redd along with four other victims who had been executed for witchcraft.

Mammy Redd was the only resident of Marblehead executed for witchcraft, but her story is chilling nonetheless. Fervent preaching led to a kind of mass hysteria that ended in violence and innocent victims.

Some of us are touchy about fundamentalism because we can remember where it led our forebears.

Thoughts of Mammy Redd came to my mind recently as I read an article in Wooden Boat Magazine about a re-created Herreschoff steam launch that was built at Redd’s Pond Boatworks. Building boats is still practiced at Redd’s Pond and traditional wooden construction and restoration is an art practiced by the craftsmen at Redd’s Pond Boatworks.

At the boatworks, they have managed to keep alive the traditions of earlier centuries without preserving the mistakes of the past. They pass on their skills of traditional boatbuilding with an innovative summer school experience where students gain hands on experience covering a range of boatbuilding skills from reading a table of offsets through the final coat of pain and the launch of the boat. Each year the class constructs one boat which is sold for the cost of the materials. In the winter they construct some of the best wooden sleds and toboggans out of ash and oak slats. Their convertible sled/wagon is a classic.

Every picture of that red and white barn at the edge of the pond, however, is also a reminder that the history that unfolds at that place contains stories of violence and horror. It is a history that we must never forget.

Seriously, we never want to do that again.

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!

Real voices

There seems to be some misconception in popular culture about objective truth. There is such a thing as objective truth. Some things are true. Some things are false. Not everything you hear said is true. So today, I would like to simply state a few objective truths.

George Washington was a real man. He is not just an idea or a symbol or a carving on the mountain, though he may be all of these. He was an actual, living, breathing human man. He was born on February 22, 1732. He did December 14, 1799. We know this because there are all kinds of letters and papers and writings that he left behind. We know it because he sat for portrait after portrait. We know it because his false teeth are in the Smithsonian Institution. They aren’t wooden, by the way. They are made out of human teeth and animal teeth and elephant ivory carved to fit. They couldn’t have been very comfortable. They didn’t open and chew properly and most likely he rarely put them in. But they exist and they were actually in his mouth. The mouth of a real human being. He is known as the father of our country. He was our first President. He wrote, in his own hand, “Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation.” He didn’t actually compose the rules, but copied them from an English translation of a 16th century Jesuit treatise. Maybe he wrote them to practice penmanship. We’ll never know. What we do know is that they shaped his character.

John Adams was a real man. He was born October 30, 1735 in the Province of Massachusetts Bay. He died July 4, 1826. We know this because he too left behind letters and official writings and journals. And because his family wrote about him and described him. He too sat for portraits. He enshrined in the Massachusetts Constitution that ours is “a government of laws and not of men.” The principle he established understood that people are mortal, but we are able to engage in enterprises which are larger than ourselves. When our leaders are sworn into office, whether it be the President of the United States or a legislator or a deputy sheriff in a small isolated county, they promise to uphold and protect the constitution and laws. This is not a matter of opinion. This is really true.

Abraham Lincoln was a real man. They called him the great emancipator. He is the one who wrote “Government of the people, by the people, shall not perish from the earth. He was born February 12, 1809 and died April 15, 1865 as the result of an assassin’s bullet. We know he was real because of portraits and letters and journals and news articles and statues and the eloquent quotes that are engraved into the walls of the Lincoln Monument in Washington DC. We also know he was real because we live in a nation where slavery has been abolished, though the traces left by this abhorrent practice still have an effect on our culture and our people.

Donald Trump is a real man. Trump is more than a brand or the fancy letters on some skyscraper. It is more than the lettering on a cap. There is a real man, born June 14, 1946. He is 6’3’ tall. He has been married three times. He has founded many different companies, including at least five that filed for bankruptcies. More than a dozen failed. But he is no doubt real. He is the President of the United States.

The survivors of the shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School are real. They are not as some Internet trolls have suggested, actors playing their part in some vast conspiracy. They are real, living, breathing people. And they are not the only ones deeply affected by school shootings. Their parents and the parents of the victims. And the survivors and victims of the other school shootings that have ravaged our country like a plague in less than a decade since the Columbine High School massacre.

One of those very real survivors of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School is senior Samuel Zeif. He met the very real Donald Trump face to face at the White House this week. He asked a very real question: “How did we not stop this after Columbine? After Sandy Hook?” One of his best friends died. “That’s why I’m here,” he said. “I lost my best friend; he was practically a brother. I’m here to use my voice because I know he can’t.” He also said to the President, and the Vice President, who also is a real man, and the Secretary of Education, who is a real woman, “I don’t understand. I turned 18 the day after, woke up to the news that my best friend was gone. And I don’t understand why I could still go in a store and buy a weapon of war.”

I pray that the very real people in the room might have touched one another reply enough to have made a lasting impression. Because the situation of our nation isn’t about theories or donor bases or campaign donations or any other matters of speculation. It is about real people.

And real people have the power to make real laws and to live by them.

This is objectively true.

Parkland survivors have also spoken at Florida’s state capital i Tallahassee. They have spoken out on the news and the Internet. They have been joined by thousands of other high school students across the nation in calling upon all of us to do something to prevent future school shootings. They are real and their voices are real and their opinions matter.

Unlike members of Congress, who truly are motivated by money and constantly in search of doors be they individuals or corporations or lobbying groups, these teens aren’t motivated by money. Their passion is not fake. It is real.

We ignore them at our own peril. They won’t go away. They are real.

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!

I don't have the answers

A few days ago I was engaged in a there way conversation. My partners were a man just a few years older than I and a young man, just completing his college degree. As we spoke, questions were raised, as is often the case in situations like that. Our young partner, fresh with his growing education, gave the answers he knew - often brilliantly. He was accurate and cited sources as we spoke. I was, and continue to be, impressed with his knowledge and his ability to listen and respond to complex questions. It is the kind of conversation that I enjoy very much - one that shows respect for research and education and where ideas are offered with the intention of raising the level of the debate, not with an eye to winning an argument or changing another’s opinion.

I was also reminded by him of a time in my life when I was flush with answers. It was when I was about the same age as he is now. Sometimes I have said, partly joking, that I reached the height of my intellectual powers at age 25. I completed my graduate education and was awarded my doctorate the week before my 25th birthday. I was treated to a marvelous trip through Europe with my wife, parents, sister and brother-in-law that summer. I returned to become a small town pastor. I believed that people were coming to me with their questions because I was recognized as an expert - a product of a sophisticated equation system. It wasn’t that I saw myself as smarter than the people I served, I just felt that I had been privileged to have a unique type of education. I had left the small town of my growing up and survived in the educational world of a major city and returned to a rural part of the country with experiences and information. I felt as if it was my job to answer the questions that came my way - and when I didn’t have the answer to get to work and find the answer.

People would call me with Biblical questions and when I couldn’t answer off the top of my head, I would do my research and sometimes give them a short paper with the answer. I had yet to discover all of the quirks and false leads that come from people’s questions. For example, today I know that when a person says, “Where it the Bible does it say . . .” that they are often spouting a quote from some other source. The answer is going to be that the Bible really doesn’t say the thing that they think it does. Today, with the power of the Internet, I can usually find the source of the quote - or approximation of a quote - that they remember. Back then, I’d keep searching in the Bible, wondering if I had somehow missed something.

Having the opportunity to observe the young man this week, however, I became aware of a different and important change that has occurred in my life. With my 65th birthday just around the corner I no longer feel the need to have answers to every question. It isn’t that I have lost my love of reading and research. It isn’t that I’ve forgotten my education and training that give me skills to seek answers. It is just that I no longer need to be the expert. I no longer need to be seen as the one who has all of the answers. Deeper yet, I have had enough experiences to have come to the conclusion that there are questions for which I do not have the answers. I’ve been at the bedside of too many cancer patients. I’ve counseled a few too many inmates in jails and prisons. I’ve watched too many couples go through divorce. I’ve delivered too many death notices in cases of suicide completed. I no longer believe that this world has answers to all of its questions.

Of course this is obvious to many folks long before they reach my age. My scientist friends are completely happy to work with imagined hypotheses and theories. They are unafraid to examine a “what if” scenario knowing that whether their hypothesis works out or is proven to be flawed, they are engaged in discovery. It is a bit different for a religious leader, because there is an expectation of our people that we come up with answers that are always true. Too often, in religious circles the word faith itself has come to mean its exact opposite. We somehow have the urge to capture a belief that we can hold onto with and promote in others with evangelical zeal.

I, however, find that I do not possess those permanent and immutable answers. The more experiences with God that I have in my life’s journey, the more I am confronted with mystery. An encounter with God is an encounter with mystery. I find myself face to face with a depth upon depth mystery of this world that defies simple answers. It may even be that now, 40 years later, I have become just a bit more humble. I not only know that I don’t have all of the answers, but I also know that I don’t have to pretend I know the answers when the reality is mystery beyond answers.

I am convinced that the role of religious leaders in our community lies far from providing answers, though I still attend those community meetings where we seek to solve problems and come up with answers. My role, however, is not to provide the answers and sometimes it is to ask new questions. At a recent meeting about food insecurity and the distribution of food in our community, I was struck by the assumption that the assumption that the problem of hunger could be solved by providing more food and better distribution. No one was asking what happens when outsiders step in and remove a parent’s responsibility for providing food for their children. No one was asking whether a community kitchen or a classes in canning and food preservation might accompany a community garden. So I asked questions. I think I was seen as an obstacle to the meeting’s intended goal of providing answers.

My faith, however, is born in the encounter with mystery. And i am becoming quite comfortable living with the questions.

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!

Pastor and congregation

When I was a seminarian, we had a series of substantive conversations with our professors about the relationship between pastor and congregation. That relationship was seen as sacred, called and ordained by God, with special commitments and obligations for both pastor and congregation. When the right relationship is formed, it holds the potential for wonderful ministry. When there is a problem in the relationship, it can be threatening to all involved.

Back in those days, I had a vision of that relationship as being rather simple. I was newly wed, having married a year before entering seminary. I had some understanding that relationships could be challenging and worth the challenge. I had grown up in a stable family with a healthy marriage at its heart, so i had good examples to which to look. I had witnessed my small home congregation go through pastors at the rate of about one every four years, with some relationships being better than others. I had a little bit of experience. So I imagined that the relationship between a pastor and a congregation was fairly simple. The congregation would be a group of people who were already formed into a community and they would come to common agreement and call a pastor according to their needs and mission and the gifts and abilities of the pastor. It would be a simple, two-party relationship.

Of course there is nothing simple about the relationship and I learned that early in my career. A congregation is never a single entity. We began our careers serving two small congregations yoked together in a parish. The smaller of the two churches was essentially two family groups. All of the members of the congregation, with the exception of my family, could trace trace their connections to one of two family trees in the congregation. It is important, to understand the dynamics of that congregation that there were two family groupings - as in the church was not of a single mind on many different aspects of its life. There was a kind of natural tension in the church that was built into the lives of its members. The first disagreements in the church were a bit frightening to me. I thought the church might split. But splitting was never considered as a serious option. The members of the church knew they needed each other.

That parish also had the dynamic of two congregations who had to negotiate all kinds of different items each year. What time wold their services were to be held? They both wanted the same hour for worship. How much should the pastor be paid and who should pay which percentage? They split the salary 50/50, but had different opinions about benefits. Who assumes costs for shared office services, like printing bulletins? There were plenty of differences of opinion in the relationship. It was complex, to say the least.

But, in another sense, the relationship was fairly straight-forward. The parish was small enough that I could visit every household each year. I could visit everyone in the local hospital every day and those in regional hospitals once a week. I visited shut-ins and those in the nursing home once a month. And I had time left over for a part-time job on the side.

Our next call was to a congregation that was a bit larger and located in an urban area. Just figuring out how to make home visits was a challenge. Not everyone was at home during the day. Just dropping in for a visit wasn’t the norm. And there were more people for starters. The congregation gathered for a single worship service each week, but not everyone attended every week. There were plenty of sub groups within the congregation. The youth group and the women’s fellowship had different senses of how the space of the church should be used and different standards of cleaning. The physical plant of the church was a bit too small for the congregation, so there were conflicts over space, including storage space. The quilters liked the temperature in the fellowship hall to be very warm. Another group complained about the wastefulness of having the room so warm. You get the picture.

By the time I was called to this congregation, I had already begun to understand that the relationship between pastor and congregation is not a single thing because a church is not just one congregation. We have many different congregations gathered in one organization. Some people really enjoy participating in the church’s boards and departments and understand the structures of decision-making. Others ignore it. Some people strive hard to uphold traditions. Traditions mean nothing to others. We have a congregation about the same size as that first small church we served, who check into Facebook every day. It isn’t a majority, but it is too many people to ignore. We have a choir who, in addition to being mostly every-Sunday worshipers who understand that side of our church very well, are also their own social group with relationships forged over hours and hours of rehearsal. We have new members who seem attracted to each other, but who don’t even know the names of some of the people who sit at different tables during coffee hour. We have people who consider this to be their church, but who rarely attend worship. They expect and receive pastoral services when needs arise, and are somewhat unseen at other times. We have people whose primary connection to the church is a class or study group. Others connect through a fellowship group. There are participants in craft groups who never attend worship. Last night we were discussing possible members for a task force when someone commented that all of the names suggested so far, save one, were of women over 70 years of age. We get lots of leadership from those women, but they don’t represent the entire congregation.

I still believe that the relationship between pastor and congregation is a sacred relationship. It is a covenant, worthy of the best of our efforts. And it is a challenge because a congregation is many-faceted.

I’m still learning how to nurture that relationship.

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 day off

OK, so we weren’t really snowed in. It did snow quite a bit. I think we got at least 9 or 10 inches between noon on Sunday and yesterday evening. It was light and fluffy snow and I saw four wheel drive vehicles going both directions on the street in front of the house. We din’t have any reason to go out, so stayed at home, but we noticed the snow plows making regular trips up and down Sheridan Lake Road and knew that if we had needed to get out, it would not have been a problem. The county and the city had issued “no travel advised” statements, hoping that cars would, for the most part, stay off of the roads allowing the snow plows to get their work done.

So we had a holiday of sorts. Of course Monday is our usual day off each week, so we frequently have stay at home days on Mondays. And we did have some work that needed to be completed in preparation for today’s meetings, so we didn’t completely stay away from working, but the work load was light - not at all like the day put in by snow plow operators. As near as I can figure, they put in very long days. We saw plows out early in the morning and the city got to the streets in our subdivision after midnight. Cold temperatures make for harder working conditions as well. Things break. Fuel has to be monitored. Visibility is reduced. Care has to be taken.

In the United States there are a few jobs: federal employees, bank employees, school employees, where all of the federal holidays are observed. That means that there are a few extra days off in the middle of winter, notably Martin Luther King Day in January and President’s Day in February. We notice the difference because our son now has a job where he receives those holidays whereas they were not a part of his previous job. As a parent of three children, the extra days off are nice as they afford family time and solve a childcare problem because many schools observe the holiday. So we all had a day off, except our daughter lives in Japan where the time zones make it one day farther down the calendar than here. But she did have Monday off from work when it was Monday there.

We’ve been having a national discussion about how many hours of work per week is best for our economy and for our workers for a long time. More than a century ago, there were large work actions that often turned into outright riots over the number of hours per day and the conditions faced by workers in the railroad, mining and manufacturing industries. Wages and benefits continued to be arguing points throughout the twentieth century, with a trend towards more time off and more benefits for workers that lasted until about the mid 1970’s and then began to gradually reverse.

The standard 40 hour work week common in the United States refers to a single full-time job. Increasingly US workers are having trouble finding jobs that offer the full 40 hours. A new unofficial standard is arising from the large number of workers who juggle two part time employments, averaging 25 - 30 hours were week in each part time situation making for a combined work week of 50 or more hours. Part time employees tend to have fewer paid holidays and time off as well.

It is hard to make comparisons with other countries, but Germany and France are often cited as examples of a different attitude toward work. In both countries there is an official policy that calls for 35 hour work weeks. In Germany there is an average of 24 paid vacation days per year as well. These policies are based upon the belief that well-rested workers are more productive and that there is a benefit to the overall economy of the country. The Netherlands, with an average working week of 30 hours, ranks among the lowest in terms of the number of hours.

On the other end of the spectrum, Central American and Asian Countries tend to have longer work weeks. In Mexico the official cap is 48 hours per week. Costa Rica and South Korea are not far behind Mexico in terms of hours per week. Interestingly, Greece, which is a European Country with huge fiscal problems, ranks up there not far behind South Korea.

I have had the good fortune of having a career in which the hours are not counted and the distinction between working and not working is blurred. My family always participated in the life of the church, so there wasn’t always a rigid line between church and family. They often were present in my workplace and there were moments of genuine relationship with family members in the midst of the work being completed. They also endured late nights, early mornings and interrupted family gatherings over the years. The thing about not measuring work by hours is that it is sometimes hard to tell where work ends. Essentially I am on call 24/7. People in the congregation know my home phone number and my cell phone number. And when there is a need, they call. And I respond. That is the relationship that we have.

Then again, there are delicious days like yesterday when no one called. I know there is a bit of work stacking up at the office, but there will be time to deal with that today.

Perhaps there is value in not counting the days, just as there is in not counting the hours. Knowing that I am evaluated in terms of the amount of work performed, not the number of days or hours worked, gives me a great deal of flexibility in my work week. I took advantage of that when we had young children at home and again when we cared for elderly parents. That is a luxury that few enjoy.

So, I don’t know what is best, but the conversation continues. And for some lucky folks - the employees of the Rapid City School District, for example, today is a bonus day as the schools are taking an additional day to get the snow plowed and prepare for classes tomorrow. I hope that folks can enjoy their extra time off.

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!

Each death is unique

There is something intensely personal about dying. No matter how often I’ve been privileged to observe the death of a person, there is nothing routine or normal about the process. Each death is unique.

I’ve been thinking about that because I have friends at various points in their struggles with cancer and though cancer might not be the cause of their deaths, the disease is significant enough that it brings a deep awareness of mortality.

I remember, many years ago, when a member of our church was admitted to Hospice House and then later released as his health had become too good to require the level of care that the house provides.He was rather proud to say that he “flunked out of hospice house.” He didn’t live forever. He did one day die, but there was a period of grace in which his family got to enjoy him and one another in some unexpected bonus time.

That sense of a connection between the process of education and the process of dying is a topic that comes up when I visit those who are bring the end of their lives. Not long ago, a member of our congregation described being admitted to Hospice House to me this way: “I guess I graduated today.”

There was another person, who I visited several times in the last weeks of his life who seemed less aware that he was dying. He would tell me, “I’m getting better and should be going home soon.” He wasn’t referring to heaven as his eternal home, from what I could tell. His wife and other family members confirmed my sense that he never dwelt on thoughts of dying - in a sense he never came to the belief that he was dying. And then he died. His passing was gentle and without struggle.

Not all passages are that easy. I’ve sat at bedside with ones who struggle for every breath, writhe in pain, and exhibit significant fear about what is going on. Reading scripture and singing hymns doesn’t always calm those who are agitated. Hospitals and hospice houses are very uncomfortable with that kind of anxiety and frequently administer psychotropic medicines to alleviate the anxiety. These drugs sometimes work wonderfully at their intended tasks. Sometimes they are less effective.

Many years ago and very relaxed and very realistic member of my congregation was as curious about the process of dying as he had been about other aspects of his life. He was careful in his preparations and at home talking about the fact that he was going to die. About two hours before his death, he sent me an email, which I didn’t read until after he had died, that began, “There is some disagreement among the doctors as to the seriousness of my condition. . .”

Over the years I have read a lot of books but near-death experiences and the experiences of those who were revived after a temporary cessation of breathing or heart function. There is a remarkable similarity in some of the descriptions of the experiences: a bright light, a feeling of well being, a sense of being welcomed to a new dimension. I have no evidence or reason to discount the experiences. But I do suspect that having a near-death experience or dying and being revived is somehow not the same thing as actually dying. Not that we can’t learn about the nature of death from those who have had these experiences, just that their experiences aren’t the final experiences of this life for them. My observation of those who actually dies leads me to believe that there is far more diversity and far less similarity in what occurs to them. After all, those who are revived and then live to tell or write of their experiences, all are articulate and fluent in the use of language to describe events and experiences that seem to be at the best on the edge of previous experiences.

There is something about an actual death - every on that I have witnessed - that is beyond words. That does not beg to be described, simply accepted.

I say that, but accepting death is rarely simple, either for those who are dying or for the family members who grieve their loss. For the grieving, death frequently comes too soon, before we are ready, before we have had time to think things through. Even in cases where there has been a lot of advance planning and some frank discussion of death and plans for what to do when death comes, there is a sense that the actual experience of making decisions and bringing a sense of closure is done under pressure. It all unfolds on its own timescale and those of us left behind often have a sense of being a bit out of control. Despite our best-laid plans, things rarely unfold according to the plan.

It is not that we shouldn’t talk about death. We should. It is not that we shouldn’t make plans. We should. But like other experiences of life, we need to acknowledge the difference between the plan and the actual experience. Decisions sometimes simply have to be made in context. Part of the process of dying is releasing control and there is a lot that we are unable to control as death nears. Pain management is an interesting subject when its discussion is esoteric. It is an entirely different subject when trying to balance the desire for one more meaningful conversation against the discomfort experienced by one’s self or one’s loved one. Decisions about inserting or withdrawing a breathing tube seem a bit more straightforward in discussion than they do in context where there is no clear vision of what the results might be or how the timing will turn out.

I am convinced that none of us become experts in dying. Even if we did, our expertise would apply only to others, not to our own death. Each death is unique, a truly once-in-a-lifetime experience. As it approaches, it can be nice to have experts to consult, but there are no magic formulas of special tricks.

“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.”

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!

The first Sunday of Lent

Each time that we come around to year “B” in the Lectionary, I sort of look forward to the quick pace of the Gospel of Mark. Mark doesn’t waste words. Stories that run into paragraphs in the other gospels might get a sentence in Mark. Mark goes from the baptism of Jesus to the temptation in the wilderness to the arrest of John and the launch of Jesus’ ministry in six verses. The temptation in the wilderness is two sentences: “And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.”

That’s it. 40 days in a single sentence.

You know that there is more to the story.

And like many other stories in the life of Jesus we supplement with information gleaned from other gospels and with our own imaginations.

Actually forty days in the wilderness is a significant undertaking. I read about wilderness adventures quite a bit. I’m a big fan of canoe adventures in the wilderness of the arctic north. I know a little bit about the planning, preparation and gear that have gone into successful wilderness expeditions. I have read about how the loneliness of being out their can play tricks with the human mind and how challenging it can be to remain focused on the tasks at hand. And I’ve read some of the stories of the failures - the trips that fell short of their goal and the ones where the adventurers did not survive. The wilderness can be a harsh and unforgiving place.

Yet we are driven to the wilderness - or called to it by the Spirit. It might not be the same for contemporary explorers as it was for Jesus, but there is definitely something about the wilderness that calls to us. We are excited by the sense of adventure, the unknown beyond the horizon, the beauty of pure unfiltered nature.

As a theologian, I have been known to slide into an old mistake of describing Jesus in terms of God’s experience of human nature. In Jesus, God becomes flesh, to be sure, but the nature of humanity was no mystery to God before the person of Jesus. God created all of humanity. God understood all of the human experience before it was experienced by humans. God didn’t need a messiah experiment in order to figure out what human nature is about.

It is, rather, the other way around, God comes to us in Jesus to reveal to humans the nature of God.

God, who is unafraid of tough decisions made under intense pressure. God who is in no rush, but is patient with the pace of the wilderness. God who looks beyond the petty and the detail to reveal the bigger picture. God who doesn’t run from the presence of evil, but simply allows the good to shine through.

These are important reminders if for no other reason that we often feel like we are lost in a wilderness. It may be a wilderness of our own making, but it is a wilderness all the same. I watch the video clips of the students addressing a Florida rally after 17 people died on February 14 and I can’t help but feel that we have somehow failed those young people. I feel personally responsible for the inaction in my life that resulted in tragedy so far from where I live. I have been paralyzed by the violence in our society and silent when I could have acted. It is a kind of wilderness.

I read the news stories of how the White House actively worked to scuttle a compromise that was brewing in the Senate to provide a path to citizenship for the dreamers and it feels like our own government is lost in a wilderness.. It is a wilderness of our own making, but it is a wilderness none the less.

We try to distract ourselves with our games and competitions and we enjoy watching the dedication and skill of athletes but we know that the lives of olympians are exceptions and that the majority of the world’s children do not have enough nutritional support to become elite athletes. They will spend their lives in a struggle for enough food to eat and adequate shelter from the storms.

It is a wilderness out there. Forty days might not be enough time to find one’s way through it all.

So, for us, Lent is something that we do every year. It isn’t exactly something that we look forward to. It isn’t exactly something that we do because we enjoy it. It is placed before us as an invitation to be reminded of who we are and how we are connected to the others who are part of this world.

Pain is real. Death is real. Grief is real. And we are given an opportunity to look them in the face. Forty days each year. And over a lifetime, perhaps we begin to experience enough to get a glimpse at the graciousness of God - the deep love of God whose love shines through the darkest of moments and the deepest of our self-made wildernesses.

Despite the failings of our human nature, despite the evil every present, despite the pain so powerful, despite the grief that overwhelms - God loves us just the way we are. It is perhaps the most powerful message of Lent: You are loved in the midst of the wilderness. You are loved as you are. You don’t have to fix all of life’s troubles in order to be beloved by God.

In today’s response the Psalmist declares: “All the paths of the LORD are steadfast love and faithfulness.”

All the paths. Even those that lead through the wilderness.

Every trip into the wilderness is a journey of learning. We have much to learn as we enter this season of our lives. May this year’s Lenten journey reveal to us even more of God’s great love.

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 snow storm is coming

Blizzards, of course, have no sense of human timing. They don’t take a look at our calendars and time their arrival for convenience. But so far, the forecast for this weekend looks like the timing will work out just right. The National Weather Service has issued a Winter Storm Watch for northeast Wyoming and northwestern and southwestern South Dakota. Snowfall accumulations of 6 to 10 inches are possible. Forecasts change, but at the moment, it looks like the timing will be just about right, with snowfall beginning Sunday afternoon and blizzard conditions increasing throughout the evening on Sunday and into Monday morning. That means we can meet for worship and carry through with all of the activities planned for the first Sunday of Lent at our church then go home and watch it snow from the comfort of our home knowing that Monday is a holiday and we don’t have to dig ourselves out first thing in the morning, but can follow a more leisurely pace.

It doesn’t often work out like that. Most of the time, the snow comes when we are trying to do other things. I remember plenty of days when I’ve shoveled early in the morning to head out for a meeting and then shoveled a couple of additional times as they day progressed. I remember trying to finish up work at the office and heading home in a blizzard only to find the road impassable a short walk from home. My car spent that blizzard in the neighbor’s driveway. The good news for the neighbor was that I shoveled his driveway as well as my own following that storm. The good news for me is that that particular house is empty at the moment, awaiting a new family, so if the need arises, the driveway will be available once again.

We need the moisture. Even if the blizzard pans out as predicted, it won’t be enough moisture to reach normal levels for this time of year. 10 inches of snow translates to only about a half inch of actual moisture. I’m not complaining. Last year our blizzards wimped out, with the largest dump of snow being just over four inches around the end of February. That’s not enough to justify the amount of money I have spent on a snowblower or to make my neighbors who have spent a whole lot more on four-wheelers and plows happy. If things work out, we can all go out Monday in the late morning or early afternoon and clear snow to our hearts’ desire. And since it is President’s Day, we won’t even be missing work.

I guess that is the one possible downside. A snow day should give you an extra day off from work. But if you are as far behind in your work as I am, another day off really isn’t a blessing. Monday is my usual day off from work and aside from emergency visits, I usually lay pretty low on that day.

This is the time of the year when we count on the weather to hand out the moisture that we need for a healthy forest. We don’t live in a very wet place. Most years we’re under 19 inches of total moisture. The ponderosa pine trees are resilient plants and can take the dry conditions, but they can fall prey to bugs when they are drought stressed.

Still, it is too early in the year to know exactly how the moisture will work out. January is typically our driest month of the year and February doesn’t do much better, averaging less than a half inch. So if we really get 10 inches of snow that could put February over the average. Typically May and June are our wettest months and we’ve seen a few May blizzards that really dumped the snow over the years. Whether it comes as snow or rain, we depend on those wet months to get through the year.

Mind you, by wet month, we’re talking maybe 3 inches of rain in a month. That’s a significant bit dryer than Western Washington, where our son and his family live. They got nearly 4 inches of rain in the first week of February. On the first weekend of the month, they got .97 inches on Saturday and 1.75 inches on Sunday. It all fell as rain where they live, but if it had come as snow, that would have been a real pile - about 4 feet. When our kids were young and we lived in Boise, Idaho, another typically dry place. We’d go to a meeting or family gathering in Western Oregon and I’d point out that their trees were typically three times as tall as the ones we had and comment, “that’s what happens to a tree when you water it.” There is a fir tree in our son’s yard that is twice as tall as any tree in our yard. And not far from their home you can wander in spruce, fir and hemlock forests with 150’ tall trees. The temperate rainforests of the pacific northwest are amazing.

We, however, have no problem with slugs in our garden. And we don’t miss them a bit. There are some advantages to living in a dryer climate.

The bottom line is that we don’t control the weather. And I’m glad that we don’t. I’m pretty sure that I could run into some unforeseen consequences if I were put in charge. I know that plowing snow from the church parking lot is pretty expensive, and we’ve already had that lot plowed quite a few times this year. That’s nothing compared to the cost the city encounters when it gets to snowing. Darrell Shoemaker, who works for the city recently told the newspaper, “We don’t pay attention to how much it costs.”

I actually do pay attention, not that I can do anything about it.

What is more, the weather gives us something to talk about. It is the one subject that you can always rely on when making conversation anywhere in the Dakotas. And we’re pretty practiced at complaining about the weather - not that it does us any good at all.

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!

Another week, antoher tragedy

Once again I find myself at a loss for words. I’ve been in this place before - too many times. We have all watched the horrific scenes from a South Florida high school as students embraced one another in shock and horror in the aftermath of yet another school shooting. It is the eighth school shooting that resulted in injury or death this year - and the year is only seven weeks old. A little more than one a week. Seventeen people have been confirmed death in Parkland Florida on Wednesday, less than a month earlier a 15-year-old opened fire at a school in Kentucky leaving two dead and 18 injured.

First of all, before I go any farther, it is important to say clearly that this is not about statistics. It is about real people:

Alyssa Alhadeff was 14 years old and had played soccer since she was 3. She had one of the best games of her life the day before she died. She was a debater and studied Spanish.

Martin Anguiano was a 14-year-old freshman, sweet and caring and loved by his family and friends. He was a funny kid, who knew how to make others laugh.

Scott Beigel was a geography teacher who paused to user students into his room as the building went into lockdown. He could have just closed the door, but went out into the hall to make sure that all the students got into the classroom. He died shielding students.

Nicholas Dworet was a swimmer and had just come back from a recruiting visit to the University of Indianapolis. He had already earned an academic scholarship and planned to study physical therapy.

Aaron Feis was well known to all of the students at Sonemand Douglas High School. He was an assistant football coach and security monitor. He also was a graduate of the school. He would go out of his way to help any student who was in need.

Jamie Guttenberg was a dancer and had a special talent for reaching out to a cousin, who has special needs. the 14-year-old enjoyed hanging out with her friends.

Christopher Hixon, 49, was the school’s athletic director and was named athletic director of the year in 2017 by the Broward County Athletics Association. He is described by his students as “a great coach and an awesome motivator.”

Luke Hoyer, 15, was a basketball player who followed the N.B.A. stars and was serious about the sport. He was described by his fellow students as “quiet, with a big heart.”

Cara Loughran loved the beach and was adored by her cousins. The 14-year-old was an excellent student.

Gina Montalto was a member of the school’s winter color guard team. Her choreographer said of the 14-year-old: “We lost a beautiful soul tonight.”

Joaquin Oliver, 17, wrote poetry and played city league basketball, where his jersey was number 2. He went by the nickname, Guac, because people had trouble spelling his name.

Alaina Petty, 14, volunteered to work clean up after Hurricane Irma and was an active member of her church. She was a member of the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps.

Meadow Pollack was 18 and a senior, planning to go to Lynn University in Boca Raton next year. She worked in a motorcycle repair business and was a high achiever.

Helena Ramsay, 17, was smart, kindhearted and thoughtful. She was dedicated to her academic studies and had a way of bringing out the best in others.

Alex Schacter, 14, played trombone in the marching band, which earned highest honors in last year’s state championship.

Carmen Schentrup was a 2018 National Merit Scholarship semifinalist. Her cousin described her in a facebook post as “the smartest 16-year-old I have ever met.”

Peter Wang, 15, was in the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps. He had been active in helping to prevent other students from being bullied. He was friends with all who met him.

Each of these precious souls was loved and is mourned by a wide circle of loving family and friends. Losing such incredible lives is a national tragedy.

And the rhetoric has already begun. The speeches are on-going, and it seems that somehow we lack the national will to really make substantive changes that will prevent future tragedies. Those who argue for simple common sense regulation of access to firearms are shouted down by loud and well-financed voices that label any kind of regulation as prevented by the second amendment. Our President, in his address to the nation, didn’t mention guns or gun control at all, but he did refer to mental health. This is the same president whose proposed budget cuts drastically federal funds that support the meager mental health services that we now have.

Here in South Dakota, as well as in the other states of our nation, those who provide health care to the most vulnerable, generally referred to as Community Service Providers (CSP) are heavily dependent upon funding from Medicaid, a federal program. Health care providers cannot afford to pay living wages to the people who provide direct support to those in need. The state and federal governments are essentially unwilling to invest in basic services at a rate that provides for consistent care to those in need.

The confessed shooter in the Florida school tragedy is a 19-year-old who has a history of mental illness and whose mother died in November. Although he had been referred to counselors in the past, there is no evidence that he received services in recent months. After the shooting it was revealed that he had made an Instagram posts with several photos of guns, including one with at lest six rifles and handguns.

Arguing about whether access to guns or access to mental health care is to blame for the tragedy is pointless. People will retreat to previously-held positions and nothing will change. We moan and cry and fuss when a tragedy occurs and then things will remain as they have been.

I pray for the victims and their families. But each of my prayers includes another appeal: “God help us to find the will to make the changes that will prevent future tragedies.”

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!

Lent

And so we have begun our season of Lent. We didn’t do anything specific to begin - though some attended the Ash Wednesday observances at the church. Lent happens to us whether or not we are ready or prepared or have a plan. It just is. The name of the season comes from the same rood as the word “lengthen,” and it is a reference to the fact that the days are getting longer in the northern hemisphere at this time of year. Here in Rapid City today is 2 minutes and 50 seconds longer than yesterday and by the end of February, we’ll be adding three minutes to each day. If you happen to be curious about such things, because of the acceptance of time zones, our clocks don’t line up with the highest point of the sun each day. We’re off by about six minutes here, with actual solar noon occurring after the clocks say it is noon. It is close enough that most of us don’t notice the difference, but if you are observant, the lengthening of the days is noticeable, especially if you observe for a couple of weeks.

So the days are getting longer and the nights are getting shorter. In these days of all kinds of artificial lighting, our sleep cycles don’t exactly line up with the hours of darkness. Few of us have any interest in heading to bed at 5:22 in the afternoon, and I prefer not to linger in bed tunic 6:51 - the time of sunrise today. So the change in the length of the day doesn’t really mean that we have more or less time, just that we feel differently about the time that we do have. There is some evidence that people in other periods of time did adjust their sleep and spend more time in bed during the winter and less during the summer. I don’t think there is much of that left in the world today.

Still, it might be interesting to take just one bit of that time as a discipline. What if each of us claimed the extra 2 or 3 minutes that we get each day and set it aside for prayer or meditation. I guess you won’t get very deep into meditation on 3 minutes a day, but 3 minutes a day of prayer will make anyone more aware of the needs of others and more tuned into the ways that God is working in the world. If every member of an entire church were to submit to the discipline of three extra minutes of prayer each day for the 46 days of Lent.

The tradition of 46 days of Lent is itself interesting. It comes from the ancient tradition of using the number 40 to describe a long time. In the Hebrew Bible, the part we call the Old Testament, forty is frequently used for time periods. Rain fell for “forty days and forty nights” during the flood. Moses sent spies to explore the land of Canaan for “forty days.” In the New Testament, Jesus fasted in the wilderness for forty days. 40 is often used for a period of testing or trail in the Bible. Lent, however, does not count the Sundays as days of fasting and therefore the six Sundays in Lent lengthen the overall time to 46 days. This may have been a simple nod to the practical in terms of organizing practices in the early church. People were unable to bear the discipline of extreme austerity for 40 days in a row and giving a feast day in each week offered a break from the self-denial.

I am aware that a bit of self denial can be a good practice, especially in our time when self indulgence is so rampant. Giving up a little of this or that can have positive affects on our outlook and help us to connect with others. The problem with focusing our attention solely on giving up something for Lent, however, is that we are still focusing our attention on ourselves. Often people choose to adopt a discipline that is probably good for their health, by giving up fatty foods, or chocolate or some other indulgence.

I often encourage people to think in terms of what they might take on during Lent other than what they might give up. Of course we all have a limited amount of time and a limited amount f resources, so taking on something can also mean giving up something else.

I am struck by how little changes can add up to significant events in people’s lives. The lengthening of Lent is a god example. The extra 2 minutes and 50 seconds of daylight today doesn’t seem like much, but by Easter Sunday, we will have added 2 hours and 15 minutes to the length of the day. We’ll notice the change in the weather and will feel the touch of spring as the season passes. In a similar way making a small change can add up to big changes. 25 cents a day for the season of lent is $10 if you give yourself Sundays off. Small things can add up. A little bit of extra prayer for others in the life of each member of a congregation can lead to a powerful transformation of a community.

So our season begins. There are great possibilities for us if we seize the opportunity offered us by this particular season in our lives. Lent is always a journey. It begins with the simple reminder of our own mortality and ends with the dramatic revelation that death is not the end. It offers an opportunity to practice the emotions and realities of grief and loss within the context of a loving and supporting community. It has its ups and downs, twists and turns. When we get to the end of the journey, none of us will be the same as we were when we began.

May this season of lengthening be rich in meaning for you.

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!

Reflections on writing

I generally have three or four books going at the same time and my use of a tablet and electronic books has only heightened that tendency. I’m reading at least three books at the same time right now, one of which is a real book with paper and covers and some heft in my hands. One of the books that I have on my e-reader is “Theft by Finding” by David Sedaris. It is a great book for times when my attention is short or when I know I will be distracted. I keep it on my phone and can read a bit here or there while waiting for a meeting or appointment. It contains well-edited excerpts from diaries kept between 1977 and 2002. Since I’ve been a fan of Sedaris for some time, it makes reference to events and projects with which I am already familiar.

What Sedaris does well is satire. I know that not everyone appreciates satire and he uses some course language from time to time, so his writing isn’t for everyone, but I find it to be funny and a refreshing take on cultural norms.

What was striking me yesterday as I was reading, however, is how very different his writing is from my own. Here is a wildly successful author with a dozen best-selling books under his belt, who, like me, keeps journals. But unlike me, he appears not to have anywhere near the same discipline. He doesn’t make journal entries every day. Some of his entries are as short as three or four sentences. None of them are as long as the essays I post. It isn’t that Sedaris doesn’t write essays - many of his books are collections of essays. He just doesn’t write essays in his daily journal.

I realize that this book and other books of his journals, such as his Santa Diaries, are heavily edited. I suspect that he is a very good editor of his own work to begin. He seems to be able to endure the hard work of writing and re-writing. He also has an agent and a publisher and editors who are devoted to his work, which is something that only shows up after a writer has achieved economic success with the books written.

It isn’t hard to see the difference between Sedaris and myself. I’m not even sure that it is a fair comparison. It is just that I am intrigued by how others think and how they write. I have no aspirations to become Sedaris, either. Just the amount of alcohol and marijuana reported in the book I’m currently reading would result in grief for me. I know I couldn’t handle that amount of self abuse.

What I would like to emulate is his capacity for observation. Many of his journal entries are keen observations of the behavior and even verbatim records of things that others have done and said. He pays attention not only to his friends and acquaintances, but also to strangers met on the train or bus or walking down the street. He remembers the things that checkout clerks say to him and recalls conversations with his neighbors. I was surprised yesterday, when I read his essay on the death of one of his neighbors, that it made me feel a little sad. I had gotten to know the woman only by one and two sentence reports of conversations that she had with Sedaris and yet she seemed familiar to me and her death was kind of sad. That is a tribute to the kind of writer Sedaris is.

Good writing can’t be measured by volume or word counts. In fact it may be the sparseness of Sedaris’ language that makes it so interesting. He doesn’t use too many words to describe a simple event and he leaves a lot unsaid, which is another way of saying he leaves a lot to the imagination. My mental image of his neighbor may be very different from that of another reader of the sam words. Both of us may have different images than the reality that Sedaris describes. He takes language and elevates it to the level of art.

Some of us spend a lifetime wrestling with words.

I once had a vision of becoming an author with many books with my name on the spine. I’ve come to the conclusion that such a vision is unrealistic. I have earned a few dollars as a free-lance writer over the years and I have written a lot of words in my journals that I publish on the internet. I started publishing my journals as a discipline. I built an expectation of myself that I would write. That is how one becomes a writer - by writing. Now that years have passed, I don’t worry about whether or not I am a writer any more. I have simply made writing one of the things that I do. Some days I write a bit of humor. Some days I have an insight. Some days (and yesterday is a good example) I just whine about the conditions of this life.

I have probably produced enough essays to comprise a volume, and, with proper editing and revisions, might even have something that would interest a few people. But I know very little about publishing and although I keep thinking I will pull together those essays, I have yet to do so. For now, at this phase of my life, I’m content to get up each morning and spend a little while writing before I get on with the rest of my day. I would probably be no better at promoting a book than I am at promoting my web site. Big markets and lots of fans require a type of dedication and single-mindedness that I don’t possess.

Sedaris was cleaning houses, painting and living day to day on odd jobs as he built up his career. I have a job that I love and I have no intention of leaving. Writing is something I do on the side.

On the other hand, Sedaris’ books can be purchased for less than $20 on Amazon. My one book listed on Amazon, “Giving and Receiving Hospitality” which is out of print lists used on Amazon for $2,398.90 Plus $3.99 shipping. Trust me, none will sell at that price.

I’ve still got a stack of them available for the taking in my 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!

I'm not really sick

I have a feeling that if I were to have a chronic illness I wouldn’t be a very good patient. I’m simply not very patient. I want to get over whatever is ailing me and get on with my life. I don’t like interruptions and changing plans. I’m no fan of cancelling meetings or postponing activities. I can demonstrate a significant amount of patience with learners and those who are inquiring. I can be patient with children who have their own pace of life, but when it comes to myself I expect that I get up get going and get the job done.

I’ve had a bit of a cold the last few days. It isn’t much as far as symptoms go. I’ve got a bit of congestion, a small cough, and have had a low-grade fever. There has been a bit of a sore throat and that is about it. Nothing more than a little extra Vitamin C and a few cough drops won’t get me through. Yesterday was a day off, which in my world means a day set aside for household chores, and I spent most of it in bed. I managed to get the driveway shoveled and take the garbage cans to the curb. I read a few pages in a book. And that was it. I’m not proud of my accomplishments. Then, to top it off, I went to be early and slept all night long. That’s a sure sign that I actually needed the rest, I guess. And it is still early so I don’t know how much I’ll accomplish today. I’ve got a few meetings that I don’t want to miss, but haven’t been up long enough to evaluate.

The one thing I don’t want to do is to spread the virus, or whatever it is that I have to others. There’s been enough of that going around already. We’ve had multiple members of our choir with voices too scratchy to sing and several people have complained about a head cold that keeps hanging on and is hard to overcome.

I’m not used to being sick. I had a bit of a sinus infection around Christmas, but I had too much work to do anything other than take a couple of aspirin and keep going. I had to be careful about pushing my voice by the second service on Christmas Eve, but not much was disrupted in terms of activities and programs. Then I got to feeling better.

I have to be honest. I’m not really feeling better this morning. At least not yet. Sometimes it takes a while to get up and get going. It is clear that I will need to avoid visiting any sick or vulnerable persons for at least one more day.

That’s the thing. I am not a patient person.

Te truth is that I have been blessed with excellent health throughout my life. I haven’t missed many days of work due to illness. I haven’t had any injuries that laid me up for weeks at a time. I’ve been able to count on having a bit of reserve endurance. On the other hand, it is possible that I have shared my viruses and other illnesses with others because it is my instinct to push my self and get out into the public. I hope that I haven’t been making others sick.

And that is way more about me than is necessary. I guess I’m really not feeling all that well if it is all I can think about this morning.

I’ve been missing out on the Olympics. I haven’t watched any of the competition, and the games have already been pretty impressive. As expected, snowboarding has been Team USA’s sport this time around. Mirai Nagasu landed her triple axel, only the third person to do so in olympic history and the first team USA member to achieve the amazing feat. As expected the Norwegians are picking up a lot of medals, as well as Germany, The Netherlands and Canada. The games are pretty exciting and I haven’t watched a bit of it. I have looked at the web site enough to catch a couple of headlines, but that it it.

In other news, the Senate has taken up the immigration debate and it appears that like other debates in recent times, some of the proposals include significant spending without giving much thought to where the income will come from. I guess that’s not really news anymore. The president has offered a budget proposal that makes no attempt to move towards balance but proposes cuts in health care, food stamps and housing.

A federal jury found two Baltimore detectives guilt of fraud, robbery and racketeering in a scheme that netted officers hundreds of thousands of dollars. Six of the pair’s colleagues have already pleaded guilty.

Jacob Zuma has been recalled by his party in South Africa amid allegations of corruption.

And here in South Dakota the House Education Committee rejected a proposed requirement that public schools provide instruction on South Dakota’s Native American history, culture and government.

In our own county, a Canadian company has begun exploratory drilling for gold near Rochford. They believe that a new gold rush is just around the corner and are speaking of a mine as big as the Homestake. That would be big news around here if it pans out, so to speak.

There are plenty of things going on in the world around me and plenty of tasks that need to be done. My “to do” list is getting longer and longer and the work I didn’t get done yesterday still needs to get done. A very important Church Board meeting is just a week away and I’ve got to get together a serious proposal for that meeting as well as work out some budget details for the Department of Stewardship and Budget.

I don’t have time to be sick.

I don’t have the patience.

Alas, I need to come up with the big picture. What works best in the long term. If I don’t really get well and allow this nagging infection to persist, that will be no good, either.

If I make such a big deal out of a little had cold, it sure is a good thing that I’m not really sick.

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!

African American History Month

February is black history month in the United States. It is also an annual celebration in Canada, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands. It started out as Negro History Week in 1926, when historian Carter G. Woodson announced the second week of February to be “Negro History Week.”The week was chosen because it coincided with the birthday of Abraham Lincoln on February 12 and Frederick Douglass on February 14. In 1970, the Black United Students at Kent State University organized the first Black History Month. President Gerald Ford recognized Black History Month during the United States Bicentennial in 1976.

Most of the time, when we think of Black History, we think of the pioneering contributions of scientists and inventors such as George Washington Carver, whose experiments in crops led to alternatives to cotton as the principle crop of the southern states, or Percy Lavon Julian, a chemist who synthesized medicinal drugs from plants. Hundreds of engineers, physicists, chemists, mathematicians and inventors have contributed to the quality of life across the globe.

We also think of great civil rights leaders such as Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, and Rosa Parks. Their courage and vision have transformed our country and changed the way that we think about community. They pioneered the integration of schools and churches and military service and every aspect of life in our country.

We are quick to celebrate African American sports heroes. Serena Williams, Magic Johnson, Florence Griffith Joyner, Michael Jordan, George Foreman, and Jesse Owens all made history through their skill and strength.

Among the stories I most love to tell are those of children, who from a veery early age assumed risks, demonstrated courage and transformed the world. Ruby Bridges was only six years old when she became the first African American student to integrate an elementary school in the south. She was born the year that the Supreme Court made its landmark ruling in Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka Kansas. The law of the land was clear - racial segregation in public schools was illegal - but all across the south segregation continued. Her parents were torn about whether or not to allow her to attend the all-white William Frantz Elementary School, just a few blocks from their home. Her father feared for her safety. The school district dragged its feet, delaying admittance until November 14. Two other students decided not to leave their former schools, three others were sent to McDonough Elementary School. Ruby alone entered her school, escorted by federal marshals, through a gauntlet of scaring crowds and vicious slurs. Angry white parents pulled their children from the school. Only one teacher would accept her in a classroom and for an entire year Ruby was in a class of one. She ate lunch alone. She never missed a day of school that year. Her family paid a high price. Her father was fired from his job. Grocery stores refused to sell to her mother. Her grandparents were evicted from the farm where they had lived for 25 years.

Norman Rockwell’s iconic 1964 painting, “The Problem We All Live With” depicts Ruby, carrying her book escorted by four US marshals as they walk past a wall with “Nigger” painted on it on their way to her school.

I am touched by her story each time I hear it. Robert Coles’ biography, “the Story of Ruby Bridges,” is an important telling of that story. His landmark series, “Children of Crisis,” shows the depth of his interview process and the care with which he reached for accuracy in the telling of the story.

It touches me even deeper this particular year as my oldest grandson is a first grader this year. His seventh birthday was last week. The thought of one his age reshaping the history of our nation is overwhelming. Ruby Bridges did just that.

I learned something very important back in the 1970’s when I was living in Chicago. We attended a meeting of Operation Push, an organization founded by Jesse Jackson. It was very much like attending an old time revival. Jackson was an impressive speaker, who got the crowd to their feet and stirred emotions throughout the large auditorium where the meeting took place. He spoke in the style of a preacher, repeating and in full command of rhythm and pitch. He said that there is no such thing as black civil rights. There are only civil rights. African Americans weren’t seeking civil rights for themselves. They weren’t seeking to put their people ahead of others. They were seeking equal rights that benefit all people. My telling of the story does not do justice to Jesse’ preaching, but he got the point across to me.

African American History month is about telling the story of African Americans precisely because it is not someone else’s history. It is our history - the story of our people - the story of our country. Our lives have been improved by the contributions of scientists and engineers. Our health has been improved by doctors and researchers. Our spirits have been lifted by stunning athletes. Our freedoms have been expanded by civil rights leaders. This is a month of telling the stories of people who sacrificed and died for others. They lived for causes that were bigger than just promoting their own community - their own people. They lived for all of us. and we are all shaped by their contributions.

The current moment in American History seems to be one of division and partisanship. Perhaps more than ever before we are in desperate need of being reminded of leaders who didn’t exploit the moment for personal gain, who thought beyond the benefits to their own circle of friends and companions, who sought to improve the lot of all people everywhere.

The story of our nation is a story of many different histories. Native American history, immigrant history, the history of Eastern European slavery, the history of African-American slavery, the stories of Spanish-speaking people who moved north from Central America, and many, many more stories. Each contributes to the larger story of who we are.

It is a good month to learn more of our story.

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!

Winter Olympics

The Olympics are underway in PyeongChang. There have been quite a few stories about the politics, who attended, who talked to whom, what invitations were issued and at the like.

It shouldn’t surprise that so far Norway is leading the medal race, with 1 gold, 4 soldier and 3 bronze. The Netherlands, traditionally a home for skating, has 5 medals so far, Canada his no surprise with 3 and Germany has 2. So far team USA has one gold, earned by a 17-year-old snowboarder from Colorado.

It is said that may Olympic sports grew out of normal survival skills. Skiing and skating began as ways to get from one place to another in a cold and icy season. Biathlon is a deeply of hunting skills. There are a couple of other sports that are hard to imagine having much practical application, however. Bobsleigh, luge and skeleton seem like sledding for the fun of sledding. More accurately they are sledding for the fun of going fast, although I guess one could question how much fun is involved when you are going head first down an icy track at 80 miles per hour on a tiny sled. Lugers go feet first, but they don’t seem to be able to see where they are going. I guess there are people who think that it is fun.

We were talking about the olympics a bit yesterday as we unloaded wood from trucks and trailers. On this particular trip, we had 5 trailers and only one of them was a dump trailer that unloads itself. The rest had to be unloaded by hand. Of course all of them had to be loaded by hand on Thursday in preparation for our delivery. I didn’t pay attention to the thermometer all of the time, but the general range of temperatures was between -15 and +4 Fahrenheit. Despite the cold, there was little wind and workers were shedding layers as they pitched the pieces of split wood from the trailers to the pile. As usual, dedicated workers made short work of the process and we soon had made our delivery. Still, we delivered 185 miles from home, so there was a fair amount of driving in the round trip. It took about 9 hours to get it all done. It was a fair day’s work.

We were treated to good road conditions and sunny skies and although the wind picked up a little bit in the afternoon, for the most part, we didn’t have to endure too much wind. I had peeled off my coveralls and was a tad chilly as I put a half tank of diesel in the pickup for the return trip, but that was the only moment of feeling cold. I had a thermos of hot tea that lasted me all the way home and a sandwich to keep me from being hungry.

The adventure got me to thinking about other potential winter sports. Woodchucking is the obvious one growing out of yesterday’s activities. Since wood is used as a primary heat source in many parts of the world, the event could be focused on different parts of the task of obtaining firewood. There are already lumberjack competitions for speed sawing with both traditional bucksaws and chainsaws. I’m unaware of a firewood splitting contest, but it would be quite an event if traditional mauls were used instead of hydraulic splitters. Stacking could be judged both for speed and for beauty. The ability to make a tight pile that won’t blow over in the wind is just the beginning. Google “artsy wood piles” and take a look at the images some day and you’ll be surprised at how much work some people put into their wood piles.

I’d enjoy watching a driveway shoveling competition. Ideally the event would be held don my driveway after a spring blizzard, but I think it would be fun to see competitors going head to head clearing snow from sidewalks and driveways.

I’m not sure I’ve got all of the rules of curling down, but those people have to stand up and move around on the ice without falling down. There are days when just being able to stand up on the ice is an impressive feat. Maybe we could have a speed walking on ice or another similar event. At least curlers get to hold sticks to keep their balance. As a side note, have you noticed that some teams have short sleeves and others have long sleeves on their jerseys? What is with a short sleeve shirt as a uniform for a winter sport? I think it makes them look unprofessional, which of course they are supposed to be - at las the Olympics used to be for amateurs only. In general, the curling uniforms are less than elegant. What is with checked pants, after all? They look like golfers.

It would be fine to have a few indoor events as well. I know that the Olympics do have stadium events, but most of them, like figure skating, curling and speed skating still involve ice, which isn’t a natural indoor phenomenon. I’m thinking more of events like soup making or cookie baking. I’d be willing to serve as a judge if they needed volunteers for that task.

And, of course, what would winter be without colds or the flu? There could be a tissue tossing event, where contestants were awarded points for distance and accuracy. A crumpled tissue isn’t exactly aerodynamic and it’s fairly hard to throw with any accuracy. Of course points would need to be deducted for tossing the tissue into the territory of your competitor.

Pill taking and gargling might also be events that could be considered.

For this winter, however, the Olympics are focused on sledding, skiing, snowboarding and skating and that’s fine with me. The athletes are truly impressive and world class competition is decided by such small margins that all of the competitors are champions in my mind.

Still, it would be fun to watch someone else shove my driveway . . .

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!

Not spring yet

In New Orleans, this is the big Mardi Gras weekend. If you wanted to see a lot of parades, hear a lot of music, and eat a lot of really good food, this weekend would be the time to be there. Perhaps no place in the United States plays up the season just before Lent as much as New Orleans. Of course, if you were going to be there, it would have made sense to do a lot of planning. The tickets for the bleachers may all be sold, the restaurants will have lines and VIP passes would be helpful, motels and hotels are full and reservations would have been a good idea. And those who haven’t planned ahead may even have trouble finding a public restroom. Maybe the crowds aren’t quite as big as some years in the past, but Mardi Gras is a big deal in New Orleans.

I’ve never been to New Orleans for Mardi Gras. Lent is an important time in my life. I try to build up plenty of energy for extra services, extra study groups and extra prayer during the season.

Mardi Gras is technically only one day: The Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. The name of the festival refers to the tradition of cleaning the house and pantry in preparation for the season of fasting. All of the butter and other fat was removed in some traditions and so a feast to consume that fat grew up with the tradition of preparation. Pancakes became one of the staple foods of Mardi Gras - a way to consume some of the fat in preparation for six weeks of focus on austerity and fasting. The festivals that grew up expanded to consume more days, however, and now the celebrations can last for much of the season of Epiphany.

There are all kinds of ties to pre-Christian celebrations incorporated into the traditions and behaviors of the season. In some places, traditions of mid-winter festivals have been adopted and adapted. In other places, Mardi Gras reflects and anticipation of spring. Of course the date can vary quite a bit. The dates are determined by counting backwards from Easter. In 325 the Council of Nicaea established that Easter would be held on the first Sunday after the first full moon occurring on or after the vernal equinox. Their method of determining the vernal equinox, however, was slightly less precise than in our modern times, so they simply used the fixed date of March 21 for the vernal equinox. Then of course, there is the issue of variations in calendars. The calendar we use in our time was adopted in 1582 and is named after Pope Gregory XIII, who introduced it specifically for the purpose of changing the date of Easter. It replaced he Julian Calendar, implemented in 46 BC by Julius Caesar.

Once you’ve found the right calendar and determined when Easter occurs, you have to count backwards 46 days to find Ash Wednesday. That’s forty days of fasting with six Sundays as festival days. Then add one day for Shrove Tuesday.

If you haven’t got all of that figured out, you can do what I do, which is to use a calendar on which someone else has already marked the days for Easter and Ash Wednesday. At any rate, Ash Wednesday can fall as early as February 4 or as late as March 10 and so this year, with it falling on February 14, is fairly early, but not quite as early as is possible.

Whatever the reasons, this year it is hard to get spring festivals in mind because right now, it is just plain cold outside. It is cold enough that partying is not recommended, especially if you don’t have a warm and secure place to shelter.

It has been a topic of debate in our community since two people were found frozen to death last Sunday morning near the I90 bridge. The woman who died had been in a “popup” shelter the night before she died. People who are working to help homeless people have created shelters, usually in church basements, that they open on some of the coldest nights. The shelters, however, are short of staff and it is a bit unpredictable which nights they will be open. The police chief has been critical of the shelters because they house people who are drunk and some allow people to bring alcohol inside. Shelter organizers call for police help when a person who is drunk causes a disturbance.

The police chief wrote a message to the mayor and city council members criticizing the shelters for being inconsistent and suggested that they might even be contributing to the problem of intoxicated people out on the streets at night. The newspaper has picked up on that memo and run several stories that have fueled debate in our community.

Cold weather and people who consume too much alcohol are a deadly mix. And we haven’t found a perfect solution as a community. We don’t really have a place for people who are intoxicated to go on a regular basis. The rescue mission is not set up to provide services to people who are currently intoxicated. The city and county do run an alcohol and drug treatment center that provides safe shelter, but there are those who avoid that facility. It will soon be relocated and there are plans for a restoration center at the new location that will provide additional services.

In the meantime, having those who are trying to help arguing with each other doesn’t look like progress towards finding a solution.

So I’m avoiding any Mardi Gras type celebrations this year. We will have a pancake supper at our church on Ash Wednesday as we have combined the traditions for our people into a single night’s event, but it is an alcohol-free event. It is appropriate to mourn the loss of life and to stay out of the finger pointing and blaming that is part of our public discussion at this time.

We’ll be working to deliver firewood to those who need it. Any little bit of warmth is a blessing in these cold 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!

Words are still important

I have had the joy to inhabit a world of words. I learned to read at an early age and soon found great joy in trips to the library and summers of reading books. As I moved to college, I adjusted to a new world of reading, increasing the volume of words and pages I covered. Research became a joy for me. For a while, I read very little poetry or fiction, focusing on my academic subjects and pursuing my own interests as well. If you are reading this, you probably are also someone whose world is one of words. Even though the origins of the Internet lie in the desire to exchange information in the form of words, it has moved on. Audio and video now make up the bulk of the bandwidth of the Internet. Computers are used less and less for reading words and more and more for watching videos.

In the midst of this dramatic change in culture, some of us continue to dwell in a world of words. We have a deep sense of how essential words and writing are connected with values that we hold near and dear to our hearts. It is more than mere coincidence that the rise of modern democracies occurred in conjunction with the rise of printing. Written language has the capacity to reach a larger audience than oral language. Even with the use of modern media the ability to reach a huge crowd is limited. Consider the huge parade in Philadelphia that celebrated the Eagles’ victory in the Super Bowl. Officials estimated that nearly two million people gathered - not bad for a city of 1.56 million.Crowds flooded the streets, filled the parks and literally hung from the light poles. Other than a general theme of celebration of a sports victory, however, participants didn’t share a common ideology or go away with new thoughts. In the early days of the founding of the country, those who wanted to influence the directions taken by its government quickly learned the limits of gathering large crowds. A speaker could reach only so many people. An effective pamphleteer could carry ideas much farther and much faster than could be done by gathering crowds. Philadelphia became the center of the ideology of democracy not because of the ability to draw crowds, but by the ability to share common ideas across many different smaller communities and gatherings.

There are, however, many human ideas and concepts that cannot be conveyed in sound bytes and video clips. While those media are effective at reaching masses far beyond the audience of any well-crafted essay, they don’t carry the weight of transformational ideas. Simple slogans don’t solve complex problems. For years it has been popular to criticize the enterprise of government. Politicians have won elections by claiming that politicians are stupid or government is corrupt and then used their election victories to prove the truth of those slogans by being stupid and corrupt themselves. There is more to actually solving problems than to come up with a catchy sound byte. There is a value to professional experience, governing skill, effective diplomacy and carefully crafted legislation.

It is easy to see the effects of governing by slogan rather than governing by complex ideas and concepts. Our federal legislatures are filled with people who were elected on slogans of fiscal conservatism. Belt tightening, less government, jobs for working people and other slogans propelled successful campaigns. Now in power, however, those same politicians have produced governmental action that does not resemble their slogans. The federal government is on track to borrow roughly double what it borrowed last year, driven by an enormous plutocratic tax cut and a two-year budget deal that hikes spending in almost every category. I don’t remember any of those who were elected having used a slogan of “less income, more spending!” but that is exactly what they have voted to do. It takes more than slogans and soundbytes to govern effectively.

In these times it is helpful to read some words from our history. We have a great heritage of leaders who were willing to tackle extremely complex problems with very big ideas. The constitution itself is a wonderfully well-crafted testament to the power of written language. The speeches of former leaders speak of “the intelligence of public debate,” the “integrity of public officials,” courage, compassion and devotion to country.

For the past couple of weeks, I’ve ben reading Tony Lukas’ book, “Big Trouble,” as a recreational adventure. I turn to it at the end of the day when I’m tired and pick it up from time to time when I get a break in the activity. It is kind of fun to have a book that after having read 400 pages the bookmark is still in the first half of the volume. It is a masterful examination of the history and culture of the turn of the 20th century through the an event that took place in Caldwell, Idaho. The volume carefully draws connections to the big issues of the day, eventually demonstrating connections to Theodore Roosevelt, Oliver Wendell Holmes and even baseball as it explores the politics and passions of the time.

It is helpful to have some perspective as we live in tumultuous times. The turn of the previous century was no less dramatic and no less troubled. Capital and labor were at odds in a raw class war. Neither side was innocent. It is reassuring to read that our nation has faced major troubles before. We’ve been divided in ideology and politics. We’ve had some less than noble ideas dominate our thinking. And, more than merely surviving, we have recovered a sense of common good, of higher ideals and of the call to serve others.

Those of us who dwell in a world of many words may not be at the height of popularity. We may be dependent on those who are able to transform some of our words in to the art of video. But the words remain important and continue to propel human endeavors to a higher plane.

I have no intention of ceasing to read or to write. I may decrease my viewing of YouTube, however.

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!

Farewell to newspapers

It has been a long time since that short period early in my working life when I delivered newspapers. I started by being a substitute carrier for another boy in our town and before long was able to obtain a route of my own. My route started with about 60 customers and I built it to just short of 150 customers by going door to door and soliciting customers from homes that didn’t receive the daily paper. I was pretty good at sales and developed a good discipline about making my deliveries early and gained a reputation for having the papers to my customers before they woke in the morning. Most days, I was able to complete my route before 6:30 am, a half hour earlier than the paper’s promise of delivery by 7 am.

But the world has changed. The daily newspaper is about half of the volume it was in those days and despite adding features such as color printing and a wide variety of advertising inserts, it has become less interesting. The comics no longer fill up a page and they’ve stunk in size. More importantly, we don’t get our news from the newspaper any more. That change was already underway back in the days when I was delivering newspapers. America was switching to television as its primary news source. The big three networks were investing millions of dollars ini producing engaging evening news shows that commanded larges segments of the population as viewers.

Back then we didn’t see the Internet coming. We couldn’t imagine a 24/7 news cycle or cable news channels that have abandoned all sense of journalistic impartiality and seek to promote a specific political point of view. Like I said, the world has changed.

We now live on a motor carrier route. Our newspaper is delivered by a carrier driving a car, who reaches out to place the paper in a box without getting out of the car. I used to ride my bike up each driveway or sidewalk to deliver the paper to the front porch or step. Since I lived in a windy location, most of my papers were placed between the screen door and the front door of the house.

A few weeks ago our paper route was taken over by a new carrier. The first thing I noticed was that the Sunday paper didn’t arrive before I left for work. That wasn’t much of a problem as I leave fairly early, often before 7 am, and I could read the Sunday comics, such as they were, over lunch. Then I noticed that more and more days occurred when the paper wasn’t there when I left for work. The last few days the paper hasn’t been delivered before my wife leaves for work, which is a bit later than I.

I returned home from work after evening meetings last night too tired to deal with the newspaper. I glanced at yesterday’s comics this morning. The rest of the information in the newspaper I had already obtained from various sources, including the newspaper’s web site.

I have realized that we have come close to the end of a journey. We are planning to travel a bit more than usual this summer and when we leave on our trip we will cancel delivery of the newspaper. We won’t resume our subscription when we return. Sometime during the summer, I’ll remove the paper box and post from the yard and we’ll join the majority of our neighbors. After 40 years of subscribing to a daily newspaper, I’m sure it will feel a little strange at first, but I don’t expect it to be much of an adjustment. With delivery becoming later, too many copies of the newspaper go directly from the paper box to the recycling bin. the price of the newspaper has increased dramatically over the years as well.

And, to add injury to insult, our local paper has notified us that they will be charging extra for the issues that have mountains of advertising in them, such as the Thanksgiving edition. They give less news and charge more for us to have the added work of recycling all of those advertisements. It might make me angry if I didn’t know that the newspaper is a failing business. They aren’t getting rich. They’re cutting staff and going through the dying throes of a failed enterprise. Even the classified ads are primarily filled with ads promoting the newspaper. And the newspaper’s ads are not cleverly designed or eye catching. If I were teaching journalism, I could use those ads as examples of advertisements that don’t work. There is an ad promoting advertising on the comics page that hasn’t changed in months. It definitely hasn’t encouraged anyone to purchase that ad space.

In Los Angeles Dr. Patrick Soon-Shlong, a doctor who became a billionaire by building a biotech empire with a cancer drug, spent $500 million to acquire the Los Angeles Times and San Diego Union-Tribune newspapers. It is a lot of money for struggling newspapers with falling revenues and aging infrastructure. The Los Angeles Times still has a name and a reputation. It has been an award-winning journalistic enterprise and it had been around for nearly a century by the time I started buying newspapers.

We’ll see if the wealth of a billionaire can salvage a shrinking newspaper in a world where newspapers are becoming increasingly irrelevant. For new the Times joins other papers, like the Washington Post, that are no longer publicly held and are the enterprises of a single owner.

When our nation was founded, a free press was seen as essential to the survival of a democracy. These days, the word “press” and the image of print on paper as the mode of communication seem outdated. We prefer to speak of media and increasingly are turning to the Internet as our preferred means of keeping ourselves informed. Appropriately regulating and providing for a free and open Internet is quite different from defending the freedom of print media.

The times have changed. Now we need to adapt our thinking to keep up.

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 big parade

Several major US newspapers have carried stories recently reporting that planning is underway for a large military parade. It is reported to have started with an idea of the President, who mentioned large military parades in campaign speeches prior to his election. He has had many words of high praise for this past Summer’s Bastille Day Parade which he observed while on a trip to France. One military official reported that the President made his request this way: “I want a parade like the one in France.”

No date for the parade has been announced. It is reported that the President favors Memorial Day or the 4th of July. Some within the Pentagon have suggested that November 11, which will be the 100th anniversary of World War I and Veterans Day would be a more suitable date. I haven’t heard what role the President imagines for himself in the parade, whether he would be in the parade as a Grand Marshall or view it from a reviewing stand.

The President is just a few years older than I. Surely he can remember how large-scale military parades have been associated with totalitarian regimes for many years. Displays of military hardware bring to mind the Soviet Union’s Red Square celebrations. They were often covered by the press in my youth as far more show than substance. It doesn’t take much imagination to make a connection between the President who tweeted that his nuclear button was bigger than the one of Kim Jong Un an the military parades in which Kim showed off his Taepodong misses.

I have no idea whether or not a large scale military parade is a good idea. I suspect that it is a pretty expensive endeavor and might result in military resources being moved away from the places they are most needed. I don’t know what it costs to transport Abrams Tanks from their training and deployment areas, but they’re pretty heavy. I’m not sure how much damage the big hardware causes to city streets, but it might be worth considering in the planning.

I have seen some pretty grand military parades in my day and I’m skeptical that they can be topped, even with the endorsement of the world’s most powerful national leader and what is unquestionably the world’s most powerful military. Let me tell you about one of those parades.

It was a gray Memorial Day in a town of less than 2,000 people in Montana. It is hard to judge the size of the crowd and my memory is a bit foggy, but I suspect that there were less than 500 people lining Main Street. The parade was led by four veterans, two who had served in World War II and Two who had served in World War I. The WWI vets were getting up in age and they had lost some of their former military precision. They kept getting out of step with the others and even a rank of four couldn’t keep a straight line. The flags drooped a couple of times and were almost never held at the same angle as they were carried down the street. By the time the leaders of the parade had traveled two blocks down Main Street, turned the corner at the post office and walked another half block to the Legion Hall they were winded and very grateful that they could deposit their flags in standards and give them a grave salute. The marchers were followed by three or four convertibles of varying ages carrying other World War II veterans. Ours was a small town and there weren’t many convertibles available. Some of the vets didn’t fit into their uniforms very well and some uniforms weren’t buttoned all the way. Ties were crooked and hats slipped to strange angles. After the cars was a half dozen rows of soldiers and sailors in a variety of uniforms and parts of uniforms. Some were carrying rifles, others marched alongside. They weren’t very practiced in parade drill and got spread out quite a bit in the 2 1/2 block march. That group was followed by the high school band, who were a bit more practiced in marching, but were far from a precise group. They marched to a drum cadence for a half block or so and then played the high school fight song complete with shouted “Rah, rah, rah for Sweetgrass High!” It might have been the only song the whole band had memorized. The would later play the Star Spangled Banner while standing still in front of the Legion hall. Carrying up the rear in the parade were the towns fire trucks followed by a lone police car, all with lights flashing.

I know it sounds like I’m making fund of the parade, but you had to have been there to understand our little display. We knew the names of every person in that parade. We knew many of their stories. We understood that the story of our country was that it had been defended by generations of everyday people. The guy who took your money at the bowling alley had served on a navy ship during the war. The man at the elevator had fought in the trenches and survived to tell about it. Among the farmers and ranchers were people who had fought in distant islands in the Pacific and lonely fields in Europe and arid deserts in North Africa.

Our defense had not come from superior technology or practiced parade skills, but from ordinary people who were willing to risk everything for the people and principles they loved. We who watched the parade clapped for them, but we knew that their honor came from deep inside and wasn’t dependent upon display or ceremony. It was as it has always been, the strength of our nation is our people, who are resourceful, creative, dedicated, loyal and self-sacrificing.

I love a parade, and the President certainly has the authority to order one. For the sake of awe and to stir my patriotic fervor, however, nothing is more inspirational than the real men and women who have been there and served and who have come home to work in our community every day. Their stories are worth telling.

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!

Pain, memory and aging

Several years ago I was accidentally burned while igniting a slash pile while doing some work at my mother’s place in Montana. The location was quite a distance from the hospital where they derided my burns and finished cleaning things up so that they could heal, so they gave me morpheme for the pain in preparation for an hour and a half’s ambulance journey. All turned out well and I have recovered with no lasting effects of the event. But I didn’t handle the painkiller well. It worked on the pain, as well as I can tell, but it really messed with my mind. I began to think irrationally and by the time the attendants in the emergency room were working to treat the burns on my arms, I had convinced myself that I was in grave danger. I knew that my thinking was wrong, but I couldn’t help thinking that the attendants meant me harm. Looking back, I can see many examples of my clouded thinking and poor decision-making skills that evening. The strange thing about it was that i was aware that I was being irrational at the time. It wasn’t a fun feeling and, upon consolation with my doctor after the event, I have since reported a morpheme allergy on all of my medical records.

My experience was minor and I have no lasting effects from it, but it has made me more aware of the struggles that patients and families have with pain management, especially when pain is chronic and persistent. My experience was a kind of pain that, while intense at the moment, heals quickly and goes away. There are ailments where the pain is chronic and does not disappear with the passage of time.

I have often watched as families struggle with making care decisions for a person who is nearing the end of their life. When the pain is fully controlled, their loved one sleeps and there is no possibility of conversation or connection. When the medicine is withdrawn, the patient awakes, but experiences pain. Families don’t want their loved ones to be in pain. They also don’t want their loved one to sleep so much that they are nearly comatose. Finding the right balance of medication can take several days and be a difficult process for the patient and the family.

I’m not sure what choices I would make were I to encounter a disease with debilitating pain. I think I would want to be awake and able to share relationship with my family. That seems to be worth experiencing some pain. On the other hand I have to admit that my experience with pain is very limited. I have no way of knowing how I would respond if faced with intense and lasting pain. Maybe I would just want them to give me medicine that would make me sleep.

Sleep is one thing. Being completely confused and incapable of rational thought is something entirely different. I have prided myself in my ability to think and decide. I enjoy the process of rational thought and games of logic. I read nearly constantly and I enjoy writing and talking and the interplay of mind on mind with other people. I don’t know how I would react if I were to not be able to organize my thoughts or if my thoughts and emotions were completely out of line with the experiences and observations of others.

There are other conditions that result in disabilities when it comes to rational thought. Age-related memory loss can combine with specific illnesses that result in dementia. Some who suffer such confusing conditions are sometimes well aware of their loss of memory. Others are less aware of what is going on. I spend enough time visiting with people who have experienced such conditions that I know they are relatively common. Not every one becomes disabled in such a way as they age, but many do. I have no particular reason to expect that I might be somehow exempted from problems with my memory as I age.

It is perhaps a bit of fear of memory loss that keeps me writing each day. If I start to forget, it seems like having a record of my daily thoughts might give me some way of evaluating what is going on with my thinking. Of course, I write so much that I rarely go back and read any number of my previous journal entries. I use them as a way of processing the events and activities in my life, but I don’t really refer to them as a chronicle of the years that have passed. Reading a year’s worth of blogs is roughly equivalent to a month’s worth of reading for me. I’d rather be exploring books written by others than reading my own journals. I’m not exactly sure why I keep them on the web for public access. I enjoy the comments from the folks who read my journal entries, but I don’t really expect anyone to need to access what I wrote a decade ago. But if you explore my web site, you’ll find that all of my journal entries for more than a decade are available online. I’m pretty sure that there is no popular demand to read what I wrote about the weather back in July of 2007. I’m wasting a bit of cloud storage to keep those entries online. Still, I do go back and read some of the entires from time to time. I’ve even given thought to publishing a “best of the blog” in book form some day. David Sedaris, who is an accomplished and acclaimed author published a book last year that is essential an edited edition of his journal entries from 1977 - 2002. It is light, but interesting reading and I think has been a successful venture for his publisher.

I, of course, am no David Sedaris. I don’t have an established relationship with a publisher. I don’t have an audience eager to purchase a book were I to produce one. And I certainly don’t have the wit to produce the intriguing book titles that he comes up with.

However, I do plan to keep the journal entries online for a while yet. They might provide me with some point of reference sometime in the future when I am struggling to sort out my thoughts.

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 home with unanswered questions

I have a friend who is a professor of physics at a university. He teaches both nuclear and particle physics, but his area of research focuses mostly on particle physics. He has just returned from a trip to a meeting held at CERN, the enormous particle physics laboratory located on the boarder between Switzerland and France, not far from Geneva. i am fascinated by his reports of the journey and of the work that a large team of researchers from many different nations are undertaking that will result in a huge physics experience based at the Deep Underground Research Facility here in the hills.

Over the past few years, I’ve had the opportunity to have several conversations with my friend that have ranged from his work to the meaning of life and the nature of religion. I think that part of what makes him such a good scientist is that he seems to have an unending hunger for answers. He is not sidetracked by trivia, nor is he quick to accept simple answers. He is willing to search for very complex answers to very complex problems. As such, he is usually pushing me to think a little bit deeper and look at things from fresh perspectives. A conversation with him is at once challenging and refreshing.

It occurred to me recently, however, as I was speaking to him, that there is a fundamental difference between him and me. I’m not sure that he would agree with my observation, and it will be fun to check it out in some future conversation, but it is an idea that I’ve been mulling in my mind. Whereas his life is a search for answers, I’m more content not to know the answers. I am delighted by mystery. It isn’t that he doesn’t also share my delight in mystery, it is just that he is quick to push beyond the mystery in search of an answer. I’m more content to simply sit in awe of the mystery that we have encountered.

Since he is a teacher of physics and I am a teacher of religion, our different fields may help to explain the difference, but I think it is a more fundamental difference. I think we have different goals in life. He is unsettled by unanswered questions and is willing to be diligent in seeking answers and careful to detect and avoid mistakes in his calculations and in his thinking. I, on the other hand, have come to a point in my life where all of he big questions remain unanswered and I am fascinated at how little that bothers me. Unanswered questions seem to have become my friends.

It is possible that our differences also are related to our ages. He is near the age of my son, perhaps half of my age. His youth and energy and enthusiasm are combined with having lived long enough to have gained genuine wisdom and enough experience for his deep wisdom to be revealed. I, on the other hand, have definitely slowed down a little bit and recognize that one of the jobs of my life is sifting and sorting the experiences I have had. I’m a bit less quick to jump at new experiences and invest a larger portion of my days in organizing the experiences that I’ve already had. It is important to me, however, to maintain friendships with those who are different ages and who are at different life phases than I. They add much richness to my life and help me to open my spirit to new ways that God calls to me in this life.

I don’t wish to change my friend. I admire his quest for answers. But I know that my life doesn’t present unanswered questions with quite the same edge that he experiences. I’m well aware that there are many questions that will go unanswered in my lifetime. And I’m at home with the mystery of unanswered questions.

My life is, after all, messy. I marvel at the precision and attention to detail that marks my friend’s research, but I know I could never match it. I tend to be a big picture thinker, focused more on general trends than on details. I am as aware of my imperfections as is he, but I my less bothered by them. I am an imperfect person in an imperfect world and though I try to contribute to my world and make it better, I have no illusions about being able to solve the really big problems of this world. He, on the other hand, may be capable of solving some of the really enormous unknown realities of life.

If I have gained a bit of wisdom, it comes, in part, from learning to be comfortable with myself. I have no desire to be someone else. I am fascinated by other people. I am amazed and delighted by them, but I’m content to be me. I’ve ended up as pastor of a wonderful congregation here in the hills and that is a good place for me right now. I don’t need to have the business card of one serving in the national setting of our church. I don’t need to travel from congregation to congregation speaking to larger and larger audiences. I don’t need a bigger paycheck or more recognition. I’m content with a few people who read my journals and suspect that I’ll never have a much larger audience. That’s OK. I am who I am and I write what I write.

I am, after all, stuck with myself. And, if you are honest, you’ll realize that you’re stuck with yourself. From the foundation of the world, there has never been anyone like you and there never will be anyone like you in all of the span of history. You’re the one and only. So figuring out who you are and what you’ve been called to do is your job. I’m working on me. And the other people are working on their own unique natures and contributions to life.

At the end of the day, and I suspect at the end of my life, there will be undone work, unsolved mysteries and unanswered questions.

I can life with that. I’m surprisingly at home with that.

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!

Grateful for little things

I’ve been feeling very grateful for small things in my life. Often, when I write a prayer or speak a prayer with people in the church, I speak of big and important things like love and family and community and God’s grace and forgiveness. But I also am aware of things that are much smaller, There are little things that make my day much easier and help me to weave my way through this life.

Last evening, I was grateful for accurate weather reports. We complain about inaccurate reports, but weather science has become much more precise over the span of my life. In anticipation of a meeting in Pierre yesterday, I was able to get hour-by-hour weather forecasts for several points along the way that enabled me to plan my trip in a way that made for safe and relatively easy travel. The meeting was important. It wasn’t the kind of meeting that i wanted to miss, but safety is important too. I had the information to make a good decision and that information was very helpful.

It was a day when experience and perhaps even a touch of wisdom paid off. I knew to fill up th car with gas on the way into town so that I would be leaving with a full gas tank. I was prepared to pursue all of the necessary conversations as we gathered for our time together. I’ve been around enough to know how hard it can be to get out of a church after a worship service, so I made sure that folks didn’t expect me to linger. We were prepared to walk down the aisle during the recessional, take off our robes and head to the car for a quick departure. I even had the car parked so it faced the right direction. I wouldn’t have done many of those things earlier in my career. I would have felt an obligation to greet everyone after worship, to make sure that I had complimented the preacher and given enough time for visiting. Yesterday, an extra half hour would have made the difference between being able to drive straight to our home and pull into our garage, which we did, and being stuck behind cars that had slid out trying to get up the hill, which would have been the case just a few minutes later.

I felt grateful yesterday to be able to have a reliable all-wheel drive car with good tires. As we came up the hill from Walmart there were a half dozen vehicles unable to make their way. A large flatbed tow truck was spinning out and sliding sideways on the hill. Our little car was able to keep going and thread its way around the other vehicles without stopping. Again, on the last set of curves and hills before home, we had to navigate around vehicles that were spinning and sliding and our sure-footed little car got us where we needed to go without spinning a tire.

As long as I am listing the little things that make a big difference, I am grateful that we own a crock pot. In the morning, I placed a pheasant and some of my favorite barbecue sauce in the crock pot. When we returned home, all i had to do was to put some rice in the rice cooker and within a few minutes we had a delicious hot dinner ready to eat. Little fuss and less labor that it took to wash the dishes after dinner. Sometimes an easy meal can make a big difference after a long day.

And speaking of dinner, I am grateful for friends who are generous with the bounty of their hunting. I don’t hunt, but I enjoy the gifts of food that we receive. To have three or four pheasants in the freezer is a luxury. I didn’t have to go to the grocery store to plan dinner. I could just turn to items we had on hand. After the day we had been through and the slightly nervous driving to get home the last thing I wanted to do was to go back out. I wouldn’t have even made a trip to the grocery store without a lot of hassle and on the eve of the Super Bowl I’m pretty sure that the grocery stores were crowded and crazy.

On days like yesterday, I am especially grateful for a warm house. We lived for a couple of summers in a remote cabin that had only a wood stove for heat. It is hard to get up from under a pile of blankets to have to make a cold trip to the outhouse and then build a fire before you can relax in front of the stove. People do that all the time. I could do it too, but it is nice, on days when you are tired to have a few less uncomfortable chores.

And, last night, I was grateful for the live entertainment that was just outside my window. Shortly after we got home, a car slid into the ditch across the road from our house. That got a couple of additional cars stopped on the road. Before long a sheriff’s patrol deputy arrived to direct traffic and they were able to get the car out of the ditch, but not before the spinning tires had really polished the surface of the road. So it wasn’t more than ten minutes before the next car slid into the ditch in the same place. For all of our dinner, we were entertained by a long parade of vehicles, some with flashing lights and some without that were stopped alongside the road at our back yard. When I went out to the deck to have a closer look, I could see down the hill where a large number of additional vehicles were scrambling to get sorted out. More than a few had to turn around and head back down the hill without making it to the top. Fortunately the ditches are shallow and all the cars stayed upright and no one was injured. Their antics were more interesting than the scripted car scenes in movies. Someone with a video camera and the ability to edit could have made a good short movie for YouTube.

Life is good. There is much for which to be grateful. Sometimes it is good to be grateful for the little 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!

Speaking of the Super Bowl

I had a conversation yesterday with a couple of young people and I realized that they had no memory of the time before the Super Bowl. By the time they were born the tradition was well established. It hasn’t, however, been going on forever. I remember the first AFL-NFL World Championship Game back in 1967. It wasn’t even called the Super Bowl back then. The Green Bay Packers won over the Kansas City Chiefs. It wasn’t even close. The game was on January 15 in Los Angeles.

Back in those days (when the dinosaurs were still alive, boys and girls) football game half times were marching bands. This one had a high school drill team thrown in for good measure. Marching routines, including several by high school bands, were the norm until 1976, when a special half time show was created for the bicentennial. By then they were calling it the Super Bowl and using Roman Numerals. The center of the show was Up With People. They were the hit group for the next decade, appearing in a total of four half time shows.

From there, things sort of got out of hand, with headline performers, big time production companies, complex sets, fireworks, Michael Jackson’s performance in 1993 was said to increase the audience significantly, increasing the TV ratings. It has been claimed that it was the most watched event in television history. From that year on, the NFL worked hard to attract top performers for the shows.

I thought the 1997 show as pretty cool, with the Blues Brothers. With the Super Bowl in New Orleans that year, it all seemed to fit together pretty well. A lot of people think that the 2007 half time show, with Prince singing Purple Rain in the rain was one of the best shows. Maybe it made up for the 2004 show with the famous Janet Jackson costume failure. I didn’t see that one myself. Justin Timberlake was featured in that same show and he’ll be back for this year’s big event.

I’m not the biggest fan of football, though I do enjoy watching a game from time to time. My favorite, actually, is high school football when I know the players. And I don’t really care much about the half time shows, either. I have, from time to time, paid attention to the ads.

According to Business Insider this year the cost of a 30-second Super Bowl ad is $5 million. that’s $166,667 per second to reach 111 million viewers. It has been a fairly steep cost increase since that first game back in 1967, when a 30-second ad sold for $43,000, which was a pretty steep price at the time.

Add all of the advertisements up and the Super Bowl is a fairly large business proposition. A few dollars have been invested.

Since 1990 young people have been leading the way to use the Super Bowl to help combat hunger. The Souper Bowl of Caring was founded to inspire the many viewers of the sporting event to share with those who lack sufficient food. All of the donations from the Souper Bowl of Caring are invested locally. The youth in our church had been participating in the program for many years and each year those youth gather non perishable food and raise money for Church Response, a local group that works to provide food for hungry people. The goal of the Souper Bowl of Caring has been the same every year since it was begun. If each person who watches the Super Bowl would donate a single dollar, there would be sufficient funds to end hunger in the USA.

Last year the Souper Bowl of Caring raised $10,168,728 in cash and food items. $4,444,430 of that was cash donated. 4.7 million pounds of food was donated. That is a fair bit below the estimated 110,000,000 people who viewed the Super Bowl. Like many good ideas, the Souper Bowl of Caring has a ways to go before the vision is fulfilled. Still, the Souper Bowl of Caring is one of the nation’s top weekends of caring and sharing.

Colossal half time shows, record-setting costs for advertising and a renewed focus on the needs of our neighbors - the Super Bowl has spun off a lot of different things that attract our attention. There is at least one more thing worthy of mention in today’s journal post.

Avocado sales. Last year’s game set a record with $50 million in Super Bowl avocado sales. Guacamole for the Super Bowl is a big deal. The grocery store where I shop has a large avocado display right by the front door with a cooler filled with pre-made guacamole right next to it. Food sales in general really go up as people prepare for their Super Bowl parties. I’m not sure when the avocado became the featured item of Super Bowl parties. I doubt if it was a big deal back in 1967. I don’t think I even knew what an avocado was back then. I like them these days. The first time I can remember being aware of avocados at a sporting event was back in the late 1980’s when I was able to attend a baseball game at Candlestick Park in San Francisco. They had guacamole as one of the toppings for the hot dogs there. I thought it was some kind of a California thing at the time and it made a big enough impression on me that it was one of the stories that I told when I reported on the game. These days I can’t even remember who the Giants were playing. I don’t remember who won. But I do remember the guacamole on the hot dogs.

So, friends, make sure that you are stocked up on groceries and ready for the big game. I don’t have any plans for a party. But if I get to the grocery store, I might bring home a couple of avocados. I'll also pick up some food to share with others.

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!

Sunday's big contest

I guess that with the big showdown coming on Sunday, I should at least give a nod to popular culture and let the readers of my journal know that I am not completely oblivious to the events that capture the attention of so many.

Sometimes between 8 and 9 pm on Sunday, we should know who he winners and losers are.

I’ve tried to walk a fine line and not show any particular loyalty to one side verses the other. For at least a decade, a member of our congregation who loved to watch football would sign up to be the lay reader on the day of the big game and then ask me to write a script that included a few biblical references and mentioned the teams that were lining up against each other. I tried to carefully avoid saying that God, or even our particular congregation, takes sides in such events. I tried to leave it open that while we could pray for safety and a lack of injury, praying for one side to win or the other side to lose was probably not the kind of prayer that was appropriate.

In addition to the theological considerations, it is simply the case that our congregation is incredibly diverse and there would always be people on both sides of every issue that might come before the congregation. I have no urge to split the church and as pastor, I definitely do not want to be seen as one who takes sides.

Nonetheless I do have my opinions. I try to keep them to myself for the most part, but my biases do show from time to time. I am, after all, human and I do have loyalties that are steeped in family story and tradition.

Rather than tell you who I wan to win, however, I’ll just offer a bit of information that might show a bit of both sides of how the contest might come out.

If we take this in alphabetical order, to avoid any appearance of favoritism, I guess that the place to start is with Fabricio Alvarado. When he left the Catholic Church, he cast his lot with a really Evangelical group. I’m a Protestant, but my loyalties don’t drift to the king of gee whiz, rock band, screening and crying mega church where people get baptized so many times that they get wrinkles on their souls. But that’s where Alvarado landed when he became a preacher.

Oh, did you think that this journal entry was going to be about a football game?

Alvarado joins Antonio Desanti, Juan Castro, and Rodolfo Piza as the leading four candidates in a field of 13 vying for the role of President of Costa Rica. Voting takes place on Sunday and if no candidate achieves 40% of the vote, which is not expected to happen, then the two who get the most votes will face an runoff election. Most of the time Costa Rican Presidential elections end in a runoff. I’m thinking that two of these four will be facing off, but I’m not sure which two.

Normally, I’d say that Alvarado, the Pentecostal preacher with no particular political experience or talent, who represents the National Restoration Party, wouldn’t be in the running. But that was before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (CIDH) issued a ruling in favor of same-sex marriage. That is a binding decision for Costa Rica. All of the other candidates, including others who disagree with the decision, are saying that, Costa Rica is bound to its commitments to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. Alvarado says if elected. he’ll withdraw Costa Rica from the court. The announcement boosted him from about 14% on 17% in just a few days. Now he’s in the running. Desanti is the most experienced of the candidates and is the candidate of the National Liberation Party (PLN). Castro is a criminal lawyer with a very combative style and engaging speaking style and is the candidate of the National Integration Party (PIN). Piza is also a lawyer and the son of a Supreme Court justice. He has raised the hopes of the Social Christian Unity Party (PUSC). He ran in 2014, when Rodolfo Hernandez dropped out of the race. He didn’t make it to the second round in that race, but he has a shot this year.

I don’t have a vote in the race and while I’ll probably check the Internet for the results on Sunday Evening, I think I’ll watch football on television instead. There is, after all, a pretty well recognized game on that day. Kickoff is at 4:30 in our time zone in the face-off between the Philadelphia Eagles and the New England Patriots. I’m sort of glad that I don’t have to write a script for our lay reader this year. While the word Patriot doesn’t actually appear in the Bible, and New England isn’t a biblical region, either, it is the zone of the country where our particular denomination is strongest. We are, after all, partly made up of the church that founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony. We’re pretty big in New England. So Boston vs Philadelphia should be an easy choice. On the other hand, the reading of the Hebrew Scriptures for Sunday mentions Eagles directly: ‘Those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like EAGLES, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”

I hope you can see why I thought it might be safer to discuss the elections in Costa Rica instead of trying to make some kind of prediction about which football team will win the Super Bowl.

Costa Ricans love of the pageantry of elections. There’ll be taxis running around the city honking their horns in rhythm with the theme songs of the different parties, so that those wanting a ride to the polls can pick a driver whose political affiliations align with their own. Despite that, however, I’m betting that if you were to walk through downtown San Jose after the kickoff of the Super Bowl, there’ll be at least a half dozen bars and restaurants where the game is being shown on big screen televisions. They pay attention to USA Culture and to USA sport.

Here’s hoping your side wins!

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!

Warren Miller

moon eclipse
To start off, here is a picture of the Super Blue Blood Red Moon that I took yesterday morning. It is nowhere near as beautiful as some of the images that I saw taken by others, but it is evidence that I did take time to go out and make some pictures of a unique event. There were a few more clouds on the horizon than I expected, but with a little patience, there were some moments when it was possible to get a few pictures.

There is another story that I want to write about this morning, however.

We drove into Boise, Idaho on a hot day in July of 1985. The trip across the desert from Twin Falls in a U-Haul truck with no air conditioning, had seemed to take a lot longer than I expected. I was hot and tired. The car in which my family was traveling was pulling a trailer and I was in the U-haul with another car in tow. The car on the dolly behind the truck had a ski rack with skis on it. By the time we got the U-haul unloaded and fixed up beds for everyone to sleep on and got the U-haul and the car dolly returned, I was totally out of energy so I left the skis on the roof rack. The next day, while running errands, I met a few Boise natives who were attracted to the kind of person who would be driving around in July with skis on the roof of the car.

That fall, through connections with the skiers I had met, I headed to the Egyptian Theater for the annual showing of the latest Warren Miller ski movie. It was an annual tradition in Boise and one that I managed to make most of the ten years that we lived there. That first year, I couldn’t afford the $125 for an annual pass that year, so didn’t go to that table in the lobby of the theater, but I had my seat for the show, which in typical Warren Miller fashion, was great fun. The movie that year was titled “Steep and Deep” and it featured some really fantastic helicopter shots of incredible powder on incredible terrain. It was the first time I had seen heliskiing. There was a shot of two skiers hanging on to the skids of a helicopter and dropping off at the top of the mountain at about 25 feet above the snow.

As is typical for a Warren Miller film, there were plenty of spectacular wipe outs with ski equipment spread all over the hill and a few dramatic collisions with trees and other objects. There were some shots of pretty crazy stuff, like a guy skiing under the belly of a horse. That was the thing about Warren Miller’s annual ski films. They kept you entertained all the way through a feature-length production.

Also typical of the movies was a collection of clips of people falling off of ski lifts. One of the things that Warren Miller used to say was, “A rope tow is a mechanical device designed to make me look like a fool. A chair lift is a mechanical device designed to make me look like a complete fool.”

We laughed and gasped and enjoyed the film. And for the rest of that decade I made it almost every year to the annual showing of the movie. Most years I had my money for my annual ski pass as well.

What I didn’t know at the time is that Warren Miller was already pulling back from the intensity of making a feature-length film every year. He served as executive director of his films only through Winter Heat in 1987, though he was the narrator of the films through the 2004 feature.

Warren Miller made his first feature film over the winter of 1949-1950 while living in a camper trailer in the parking lot of the Sun Valley Ski Resort. They were so short of money that they made tomato soup out of water and ketchup packets from the ski lodge. They couldn’t afford the ski passes, which were less than $10 per day, so they bribed lift attendants with beer to get to the top of the mountain to film. Miller couldn’t afford a sound studio and he couldn’t afford a distribution network, so he hand carried copies of the film from theater to theater throughout the west and stood off to the side and narrated the film live. There weren’t that many showings in 1950.

35 years later, the annual Warren Miller ski film was a well entrenched tradition with product placements, sponsors, and really good sound.

Warren Miller produced 38 annual feature-length films and continued to participate by narrating films through the 55th movie. His company continues to produce films and he was around and participating through the 2017 film, “Line of Descent.” That’s 68 feature length films in 68 years. It is, by any standard, an impressive run not matched by any other film maker.

Warren Miller was 95 when he died on January 24 at his home on Orcas Island off the coast of Washington. Along the way he managed to write and publish at last half dozen books as well as his amazing catalogue of films.

The world has changed. Ski racks no longer clamp to the rain gutters of cars, replaced by rack systems that cost more than an entire set of ski equipment used to cost. And those 210 cm telemarking skis that I used to pack around look outrageously long compared to the curvy skis used by downhill skiers today. And I’m a bit older and a bit stiffer and don’t shred the bumps like I used to. A half day of skiing leaves me a bit stiff and cramped. But I still remember the freedom that skiing gives and the culture of people who enjoy being out of doors, breathing fresh air and experiencing winter in its fullness.

So I didn’t want to let Warren Miller’s passing occur without a mention. He inspired a lot of us for a lot of years and added joy to our lives. His films continue to be worth watching.

Besides, when you need a pick up, you can always search YouTube for “Warren Miller ski lift bloopers” for a good laugh.

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!