January 2018

Remembering

Many years ago, before we knew much about Alzheimer’s Disease, we had a friend who was experiencing some form of age-related dementia. I was told the official diagnosis, but the name of the condition didn’t stick with me. What I do know is that she would tell the same stories and ask the same questions over and over again. We stayed in their home when our children were 2 and 4 years old and our 4-year-old noticed and was bothered by the repeated questions. He was polite, but he kept asking us why she kept repeating herself. In the years that followed, her condition became even more pronounced. At some point, it seemed like every conversation with her was the exact same conversation that we had had before. It was a repetition of the same themes, questions, and statements that we had already heard. And she began to stop telling her own personal stories. we would hear repeated questions, but very little of her story was being told. It was clear, and very sad and tragic, that she was losing her own past. She failed to recognize friends they had known for years. She failed to recognize her own children. Her husband became a stranger to her. Fortunately, her loss of memory didn’t seem to distress her. She remained cheerful and upbeat. Her husband commented that he felt free to travel with her because one place was just as good as another. Since she didn’t know where she was, she didn’t care if the place changed.

I think about her even though it has been decades since she died. In the years that have passed, I have known others who have experienced conditions that affected their memories. Some have been more self aware of their condition than others. Another friend was increasingly confused, distressed and angry about his inability to remember.

I’ve wondered whether it is better to be losing one’s memory and not know or to be aware of the tragedy of what is being lost day by day. I don’t know the answer. And I do know that we don’t get to choose all of the paths of our lives. We don’t get to choose what disease we contract or the timing of many events in our lives. I’ve watched too many people carefully plan their retirements only to have a disease or a family tragedy scuttle all of the plans.

But that is not the only thing about which I wonder. I wonder about what might be going on in my own brain as I age. Are there things that I have forgotten that are forever lost. Frequently when I struggle with a name or the details of a particular story, I will eventually recall the name or detail later. But there are names that I cannot recall. Occasionally I think of an elementary school classmate and can recall a bit about the person but the name is gone. I used to say that I had displaced the names of some people in my home town by learning the names of so many new people. Whenever we have moved from one congregation to another, I have had to work hard to learn names and my focus has been on the people coming through the doors of the church, not the people with whom I shared childhood classrooms. In this particular congregation, the turnover is not too quick, but there are a dozen or more new names to learn every year and it doesn’t get any easier for me to keep the names all sorted out. Fortunately we have a system of name tags and our newer members are pretty good about wearing their name tags, so I get their names after a while. Visitors, however, often begin with irregular attendance patterns and I don’t see them every week and getting their names fixed in my mind takes me longer than I wish were the case.

When it comes to my preaching and to my journal entries, I worry about repetition. I write an essay ever morning. What if I have already written everything that i know and all I’m doing is writing the same stories, but I’ve forgotten that I wrote them before. It could be checked, but I have over 36,500 essays available in my online archives these days. That’s a lot of reading for the purpose of looking for repetition. I could well be repeating myself and not be aware of it. I know that I have written essays that have focused on memory in the past. I know that I have told stories of the friends with whom I started this essay, but I don’t know if I have written their stories.

Then one has to ask whether or not a little repetition matters. When it comes to my preaching, if I am speaking the truth, surely the truth bears repetition. And even if the words are repeated, the context changes with each passing week and because I follow a 3-year lectionary, it is unlikely that the repetition is of something said more recently than 3 years ago.

Still, as I grow older, I wonder. Will I have fresh, new stories to tell my grandchildren or will they remember a grandpa who always tells the same stories? I’d like to be the kind of person who has something new to add to a conversation, but I realize that many of the factors that make that possible are well beyond my control.

One consolation for me in all of this speculation is that it seems to me that the practice of writing is making me a better writer. I am hoping that even if I am repeating the stories, I might be being a bit more articulate and skilled in the way I am telling the stories. I’m not sure that my spelling and grammar are getting any better, but I am more skilled at recognizing certain kinds of mistakes than used to be the case.

Another possibility, I suppose is that my readers’ memories also fade with time. Maybe by the time I get to repeating on a regular basis, they will have forgotten what they have previously read and be happy to read the story again. If that happens, we’ll never know.

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 buyer's guide

A couple of years ago The American Canoe Association and Canoe Kayak Canada, formerly the Canadian Canoe Society, got together and merged all of their publications. Instead of separate magazines for sea kayaking, whitewater kayaking, kayak fishing, canoeing, canoe hermitage and standup paddleboarding, there is now a large journal with sections devoted to each aspect of the sport. The journal retains The ACA commitment to training and safety, which I appreciate and, from the letters to the editor, I think that it is generally appreciated by those of use who used to get more than one of the magazines. The new journal has two super issues each year, one devoted to a buyers guide for equipment and the other a destination guide for trips and outfitters. In general, I like the destination guide a bit better than the buyer’s guide. I’ve never been limited in my on the water activities by a lack of equipment. Even before I owned a canoe, I had access to boats through the church camp where I volunteered. It seems that there is always someone who is willing to loan you a boat for an afternoon’s paddle.

So I don’t need more equipment, not that that has kept me from buying equipment in the past. I have both canoes and kayaks that I have built and others that I have purchased, mostly used, over the years. I have only purchased two new boats in my life and that is probably enough, because the best boats are the ones I build myself. There are some qualities of plastics and advanced composites, however, that aren’t quite do-it-yourself items. While wood and wood composite construction is wonderful for touring boats, intense whitewater paddling goes a bit better with boats made of materials that can withstand hard impacts with rocks.

The basic formula for the number of boats a person should own, which I’m sure I’ve mentioned in this journal before is n+1. The number of boats that any boater needs is the number of boats currently owned (represented by the letter n) plus one. You always need one more boat. This applies to purists who only paddle one kind of boat as well as to generalists.

“If I could only have one boat,” I sometimes speculate, “It would be a 16’ Chestnut Prospector. Now I don’t have a real Chestnut Prospector. Mine is a wood strip boat built to the shape copied from a Chestnut Prospector. It is a wonderful boat. I paddle it bow first when paddling tandem and the other way around when paddling solo. The boat is symmetrical, so the only difference between the two ends is the arrangement of seats in the boat. Since I prefer to paddle solo kneeling on the bottom of the boat with a stuff sack filled with foam or perhaps a sleeping bag to sit back on, I don’t really need a seat, but once in a while on calm water, I’ll slide back onto the seat and paddle with one knee bent just to sit in a different position. The Prospector has sufficient rocker to handle well in short turns, but sufficient length to paddle well on flat water. I could sing the praises of the design for an entire journal entry.

My prospector, however, wasn’t the first boat I obtained. I already had two boats when I built it. One is a slightly longer tandem canoe, originally designed as a tripping boat, but modified to be a sailing canoe. The other is a very small, short, and lightweight little boat for shallow water and just playing around. It was that small boat that got me into kayaks. When our children were teens and we had an exchange student we took off on a vacation from Rapid City to the Pacific Northwest. We had five of us all adult-sized in a five-passenger car with a tent trailer in tow. It was pretty crowded, so I only put one canoe on the roof rack. I had to take a cargo pod to have room for paddle, life jacket and other items. My brother was living on Whidbey Island in the Puget Sound at the time, so, of course the two of us both got in the little solo boat and went paddling on the sound. It was a fairly calm day, but there was little freeboard with both of us in the boat and the waves were a bit intimidating to the brother from South Dakota. We got pretty wet. I decided to make a kayak. It looked like kayak paddlers stayed dryer.

Of course, the joke in the community is that canoeists never really enjoy kayaks. They just take up paddling them for an excuse to buy more boats.

That first kayak that I built has been a wonderful boat. I’ve paddled it in the Pacific and Atlantic, in the Puget Sound and the Bay of Fundy, in three of the Great Lakes and down a lot of rivers including the Yellowstone and the Missouri. It needs a little work these days, but I plan to get it into the shop for a new cockpit coaming and a general refinishing as soon as I complete the project that is currently occupying half of my garage.

Both canoeing and kayaking have three general categories of boats: flatwater, whitewater and racing or marathon. Then there are boats designed specifically for fishing and especially when it comes to kayaks, fishing boats are a category unto themselves. I love to eat fish and I like to fish on occasion, but I’ve never needed a specialty boat for that activity. That makes a whole section of the magazine that I read very lightly. And I’ve never gotten into stand up paddle boarding. I did some wind surfing for a few years, and helped a camp that I directed obtain a half dozen boards for teaching basic sailing, but I like to be able to sit in my boats and I appreciate being closer to the water. That gives me another section of the magazine to read lightly.

Still, there is a lot of canoe and kayak gear in the rest of the buyer’s guide. Too much. The formula is n+1 not n+4 for a very good reason. In fact, it might be a good practice to place the buyer’s guide directly into the recycle bin before I read it.

It’s too late for this year’s issue, 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!

A super blue blood moon

I haven’t made a solid study, but it seems to me that long range forecasts are getting a bit more reliable with all of the new tools that meteorologists have at hand. I’ve always had an eye on the weather. When I was growing up, Federal Aviation Administration service centers were the place to go for the most accurate weather information. They were very skilled at observations of current weather conditions. They used balloons to determine winds aloft and the information form several different stations gave a pretty good picture of the overall weather pattern. In those days, before doppler radar, there was a fair amount of guesswork involved in predicting the weather for a specific location, but forecasts of general patterns were pretty good. Being an aviation family, we made decisions about when to travel based on the information from the flight service stations. When a big trip came up, conditions were watched carefully for as long as possible to have a picture of the patterns of weather across the nation.

These days, I can call up a fairly accurate forecast on my computer and with tools readily available at no cost, I can look at radar and enhanced radar to see actual cloud patterns and get a sense of storm tracks. Still, long-range forecasting involves quite a bit of uncertain information and are subject to change.

All of that makes me a bit reluctant to make predictions, but it does look fairly promising that we will have clear skies on Wednesday night. I’m hoping for it. The sky should be putting on a really good show and we’re in a good place to watch it. All we need is cloudless skies. The forecast calls for wind, which helps to clear out the clouds and fairly cool temperatures - it should get down in the mid teens overnight. Cool and clear is how we want it.

A night like Wednesday comes around once in a blue moon as they say, but to say that wouldn’t be accurate, because it is truly a once in a lifetime lineup of events.

But it will be a blue moon. A blue moon is what happens when there is a second full moon in the same month. Because the cycle of the moon is a bit less than the length of a month, it is technically possible for it to happen, but for it to occur, the full moon has to line up with the first few days of the month. It is the second full moon in a month that is called the blue moon. It happen on average about once every 2.7 years. A blue moon doesn’t actually appear to be blue in color. The moon can appear to be different colors, and blue is one of the colors that it can assume, but a blue appearance is caused by smoke or ash in the atmosphere, most commonly from large fires or volcanic eruptions. Despite a seemingly unending fire season in the hills this winter, it probably won’t be smoky on Wednesday night when we are out looking at the moon.

The blue moon on Wednesday will likely look red, if you happen to be looking at it at the right time. Red is the color that the moon appears as the earth’s shadow begins to fall on it from our perspective. As the moon begins to be eclipsed, it glows red instead of its usual more yellow or white color. Now technically, our best shot at the most red color comes early in the morning on Wednesday, not in the evening. The red color is caused by the eclipse, which reaches full at 5:51 a.m. Wednesday morning. Partial eclipse will begin at 4:48 am and continue to 7:07, with moon set at 7:15. That makes the timing good for me to see it because it is a time when I am generally awake, but my location isn’t the best as the hills rise to the west of my home and there are a lot of trees that prevent a full viewing of the moonset. I may need to be prepared to get in the car and drive a bit for the full effect.

And that would be enough a red-blue moon, an eclipse and a second full moon of the month all at once, but it is even better than that. It is also time of a supermoon. A supermoon occurs when the moon is at the point in its orbit when it is closest to the earth, thus making it appear to be bigger than normal. Supermoons are not that uncommon. There are 4 - 6 supermoons on average each year.

What makes this Wednesday so unusual - in fact a once in a lifetime experience is the occurrence of all of these things at the same time: a blue moon, a supermoon and an eclipse. That particular lineup occurs only once in every 150 years on average.

Some people are calling it the super blue blood moon. A blue moon that looks red.

Of course when we are considering human traditions and ways of talking about the movement of the earth and moon, it is never simple. People have noticed the moon for as long as there have been people and many traditions have grown up around how we speak of the moon. Not all of them are consistent with others. So, to be fair, there is another way of determining a blue moon. In addition to the appearance of color and the number of full moons in a month, there is an older way of identifying a blue moon: the third full moon in a season in which there are four moons, which happens every 2.7 years. We only will have three full moons during winter this year, so Wednesday isn’t a blue moon by this definition. Maybe it is only a super blood moon.

Still, I’m going to look for the super blue blood moon. It should be dramatic and worth a little effort to see the phenomenon.

Keep looking up. The sky is sure to surprise 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!

Being human

When I was a student one of our professors had a combination of words that he frequently used to describe human limitations: “sin, ignorance, finitude and lethargy.” We are imperfect and his point is that to be human is to have limitations that are a part of our nature. He was an excellent teacher and I learned a lot from him, but I also resisted putting those particular concepts in the same category. Certainly sin is a product of human willfulness. Can’t we choose not to sin - or at least to sin less? Is ignorance a perpetual condition or can it be overcome through study and careful learning? Finitude seems to be a fixed reality. There is nothing we can do about it. And lethargy seems to be something that is within our power to overcome. I’ve never considered myself to be a slow or lazy person. I may not always do the right thing, but laziness isn’t one of the qualities that marks my life.

Older now, I think that I understand the concepts better.

We all sin, not only through our actions, but also through our inactions. We leave undone things that we ought to have done. No one is capable of doing all the good that this world requires. My understanding of the concept of original sin has evolved over the years. I have tried throughout my life to be a good person, but that doesn’t mean that others have not suffered because of my decisions and actions. Some of the benefits of my life have come at the expense of others - far less through intentional actions than through my inability to share and my inability to see the long range consequences of my decisions. To be human is to be imperfect in our understanding and vision. That imperfection means that we make choices that are not always in the best interests of others.

A lifetime of study has taught me how much I do not know. When I was younger I thought I knew how to conduct a literature review, test my ideas against those of others and understand what original concepts I might have to offer. Now, in the age of the Internet, I have discovered that I never can truly cover any field of information. Each discovery leads to the knowledge of how much I do not understand. I used to think that the perception of losing intellectual capacity as one aged was the product of diminishing memory. Quite the contrary - at least so far in my experience - I discover that there is so much more to be learned that what I do understand is a small fraction of what could be known. It is not that my ignorance is growing, rather my perception of how much I do not understand is gaining perspective.

And lethargy is less a product of willful sluggishness than a realization of the limits of human strength. Yesterday, I spent a couple of hours cutting wood. It is something that I’ve often done in my life. But I accomplished a bit less than I used to be able to accomplish in that amount of time. I had to stop to catch my breath a bit more often. I did less work than I could do when I was younger. I’m certainly not an invalid, but I’m not superman, either. There are limits to what I can do.

I am aware of the persistent reality of lethargy in the work that I do. I have always been willing to put in the hours at my job. I arrive early and stay late. But I have had to learn that there is always more that can be done in the ministry. I am constantly leaving tasks undone, not because I don’t want to do them, but because there are only so many hours in the day.

Finitude. We all share that reality.

These factors-the real limits of human nature are especially interesting when considering the Christian notion of incarnation. We believe that Jesus became fully human. Which, contrary to some theological statements, means that he experienced human limitations. Even though we understand Jesus to be fully God, during his human life he was not capable to doing everything. He needed to sleep. He needed moments of privacy. He couldn’t be everything to everyone. There were conversations left unfinished, people whose needs were not met. As shocking as it is to read in three of the gospels that Jesus said to his disciples, “you will always have the poor among you.” The human presence of the messiah did not solve all of the problems of human suffering. Jesus experienced the finitude of the human condition.

I spend quite a bit of time with people who are deeply aware of their own finitude because disease has advanced to the point that they cannot escape the knowledge of their coming death. Knowing the their time in this life is short focus them to reevaluate their priorities and confess that there are limits to what they can do. With advancing illness there also is a decreased stamina and lessoned ability to accomplish tasks. It is frustrating to many who are nearing the end of their life that the time is so short and the things they wish to accomplish are larger than the time they have been granted.

Maybe one of the realities of human existence is the ability to imagine that we might do more than we are able. We can dream bigger than we can produce.

There is a story that our people have been telling for many centuries that Moses, upon reaching the end of his life, tried to bargain with God for more time, a request that was denied. I wonder if Jesus, in his prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, asked God for a few more years, a few more weeks, a few more days so that he could teach a bit more, heal a few more people, and reach more.

This human condition is far from perfect and we have to make the best of it that we can. Part of the process for all of us is being honest with the reality of our limitations.

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 story of a ghost town

In the mountains southeast of the town where I grew up is an old ghost town. There isn’t as much there today as was the case when I was younger. The years and the weather have combined to collapse some of the structures and more than a few of the items in the old town have been looted and carried away by scavengers who have visited the place. Back in the day, however, a trip up to Independence was an adventure that took a whole day and gave a bit of a lesson about the history of the area.

Gold was first discovered there in the 1860’s, but at the time the area was part of the Crow Indian Reservation and the federal government ran prospectors out of the area. The government reversed its position and forced the Crows to cede the land and shrink the reservation in 1882. That unleashed a flood of miners and a pack trail was cut up the Boulder River to its source and then beyond, nearly to the Slough Creek divide. The divide is nearly 11,000 feet above sea level and the trail that rose up from the 9,000 foot level of the Boulder headwaters was rough and steep.

About three miles from the Boulder River, the town of Independence was founded and quickly grew to be the center of mining activity in the area. There were mining camps at Solomon city and Horseshoe Basin, but they never developed into real cities. Horseshoe basin is so high that until recent years you could always find the edge of the glacier there and pink snow, caused by algae that grows in the summer at the melting edge of a glacier was easy to find. The snow appears normal until you step in it and then it turns bright pink. We used to think it was worth the hike to show it to visitors to our area.

Back in the late 1800’s, travel was slow on the mule and horse track. It took five days to travel the 50 miles to my home town, Big Timber. Independence grew to about 500 people with four saloons, two general stores and cabins of various sizes, ranging from hillside hovels to elegant homes. The first stamp mill opened in 1888. Eventually there were seven stamp mills and at least one roller mill in the area.

Mining in the area peaked by 1890 and the depression of 1893 combined with the exhaustion of the easily accessed ore to bring about the decline of the town. The Independence mine closed briefly in 1894, but was re-opened and operated under a lease for three more years. Three mines, the Independence, the Daisy, and the Hidden Treasure continued to operate beyond the turn of the century. Hidden Treasure Mill burned in 1904.

There were some workings over the early decades of the 20th century and by the time I was roaming the country in the 1960’s there were still a couple of old prospectors who spent their summers in the high country and wintered farther down the valley. They would assume the role of caretaker or cabin builder at one the the church camps over the winter and then disappear up into the high country when the campers arrived. In those days the high country was being leased out by the government as summer pasture for sheep and except for an occasional day trip by folks like us the sheepherders had the space to themselves, sharing it with an occasional visit from a bear. Trouble bears from Yellowstone Park that park rangers succeeded in trapping were deposited at the end of the Boulder Road and would wander in the valley for a while before making their way back to the Park.

We used to enjoy exploring the ghost towns and speculate on what life must have been like for the folks who lived there. Winters must have been long and the isolation deep, but people will endure a lot for the promise of wealth. And nothing promises wealth like gold in the mountains.

Most of the ghost towns throughout the west have some association with mining activity. They were true boom and bust towns, arising very quickly and fading at a slower pace, but not many of the mining towns in the remote country survived. The gold that was easy to access played out pretty quickly.

These days, about 25 miles from the old Independence mine there is an active platinum and palladium mine that has bored through a mountain on the divide between the Boulder and Stillwater rivers. The buses haul workers up to the mine when the price of minerals supports active mining and operations are scaled back when the price drops. The economy is still boom and bust. The town receives a burst of income when mining operations are going and finds itself in a bit of trouble keeping its bonds paid when mining operations are shut down. You can still find people who are certain that mining will make them rich, even though the wealth is pretty much extracted and exported by the big mining companies, with little left in the local economy.

I personally never encountered any ghosts in my explorations of the Independence town site. Mostly I found weathered boards and a few rusty nails and lots of old tin cans and bottles. One summer day when I was a teenager, I backed off the road to turn around and dropped into a muddy hole. The vehicle I was driving didn’t have 4-wheel drive and though I had a shovel, a jack and tire chains, it took a couple of hours to get the car jacked up and placed on old planks to drive it out. I learned a lesson about checking the ground before driving off of the road that day. There were, however, no ghosts to haunt my activities.

These days there aren’t many standing buildings and there are not many people who remember the story of the place. I haven’t made the trip up there for more than a couple of decades.

The stories, however, remain. Some of them will grow larger in the retelling.

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 Road not Taken

I think I was in high school when I first encountered Robert Frost’s famous poem about two roads. It didn’t have a very big impact on me at the time, but somehow, I remembered the beginning and the ending: “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,” and “I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.” I liked the notion of choosing a path in life that is unique and less crowded. I have been attracted to roads less traveled. It isn’t like the majority of my high school or college friends chose to be ministers. Truthfully, the majority of them aren’t very active in the church these days. I’m not much for reunions, so I don’t know the stories of many of the people whose paths crossed with mine earlier in my life. The Internet gives me a bit more contact with people from other phases of my life than might be the case otherwise, but for the most part I have focused on going forward with my life and not spending too much time looking back.

These days, however, from the perspective of six decades and a bit more under my belt, I am struck by the regret in the poem. Frost isn’t sad for the choice he made, but he remembers the feeling of wanting to keep both options - to travel down both roads. “Oh, I kept the first for another day! Yet knowing how way leads on to way, I doubted if I should ever come back.”

I occasionally speculate about the roads I never traveled.

I got a great start on a career as a pilot, and if not a career then a hobby. I earned my pilot’s license as soon as I was old enough. I had strong support from my parents for my flying and opportunities that few other have. My father not only was a skilled and patient instructor, he also was an airframe and powerplant mechanic and had the means to help me have access to a variety of different airplanes. When I went off to college, however, I was so focused on my studies in other areas that I completely quit flying for a decade and when I returned, I enjoyed it as an avocation, but never made it a high enough financial priority to really call myself fully proficient. When we made the decision to sell our partnership in the plane and I quit flying as a pilot in command, I was at home with the decision. I don’t regret it. But sometimes, when I have time I imagine “what if . . .”

I graduated from seminary fully intending to serve 3 or 4 years as a parish minister and then move on to a speciality: health care ministry. I so fell in love with being a pastor that those 3 or 4 years have stretched to 30 or 40 and I have no desire to leave the life of a pastor. Still, it comes to my mind on occasion to think of the other options. Like Frost, I used to think I might go back and try another path, but because decisions lead to other decisions and time passes, I’ve never gone back.

I like the perspective of the poem: “I shall be telling this with a sigh somewhere ages and ages hence:”

Somehow, I have now reached that point ages and ages hence. The years have turned to decades and my life is playing out as a result of the decisions I have made. Not every decision has been completely logical. I’ve lived my life far from major bodies of water and in places that get small amounts of rainfall. Yet I’ve collected a garage full of boats and continue to build more than I am able to paddle. Last year I renewed licenses on two boats that never made it into the water. I always imagine that I will have more time than I find. A logical person would shed some of the boats and many of the tools and admit that no one person can do everything. One life is too short to pursue all of the interests I have with equal focus.

There have, however, been times in my life when I have traveled on the freeways and roads “more traveled.” I’ve flowed with the mainstream in a lot of ways. Reading Robert Frost’s famous poem was expected of every student in my high school. I’m thinking that it is part of the standard curriculum in a lot of schools. It is familiar and famous. In a kind of unique twist of fate, the poem about the road less traveled has become incredibly mainstream. Reading it is hardly taking an unusual path. Still, it came to me this morning ini a fresh way. I doubt that many of my peers awoke with that particular poem on their mind this morning, and not many chose to begin their day writing an essay inspired by it. Many have relegated it to their past - to those places where decisions were made and life went on and to which they never returned.

I, however, find that the poem is poignantly powerful - more so than when I read it as a somewhat bored high school student. It is rich and meaningful from my current perspective:

The Road Not Taken
BY ROBERT FROST

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

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 Camels and Cats

People are fascinating creatures. The things that hold their interest and capture their passion continue to amaze me. My life is filled with the joys of being a husband, father and grandfather, the joys and concerns of a pastor with a complex congregation and the struggles of life in a community that has its own tragedies and triumphs. I sleep with a phone on the headboard of my bed and there are nights when its ring signals that I need to get up and respond to an event, usually a crisis, in our community. I have my hobbies. I love to paddle and row boats and I enjoy building them. And I have the normal chores of living, including a list of home repairs that are unfinished and a stack of books that are unread. It all seems to me to me to be normal human stuff.

But there are other people whose passions and concerns seem foreign and exotic to me.

Take camel beauty contests, for example. I’ve never owned a camel. I’ve never wanted to own a camel. I’ve only ridden on a camel one time and that was in an enclosed paddock in Central Australia, not far from Uluru. I’ve looked at camels in zoos and a couple of other places and have failed to see the beauty that others perceive. I’m perfectly content to let camels live their natural lives and, if others want to raise them and ride them and even race them, I’ve no problem with that.

But camels are a big deal in some parts of the world. The King Abdulaziz Camel Festival in Saudi Arabia is a big deal. Prizes this year are worth $57 million. That’s a lot of money for a camel. Of course there are many prizes for different categories of judging. The main part of the event is the camel beauty contest, but there are also camel races and a camel milk tasting event. The beauty of a camel is judged by the shape of its lips and also of its humps. I guess you have to be a camel fan to understand. I’m not sure I know the difference between beautiful and ugly camel lips. And as for humps, I guess I haven’t paid enough attention to know which shapes are the most prized. But the festival was rocked by scandal this year. The owners of twelve camels were caught enhancing the looks of their animals for the beauty contest. Botox injections were used to shape the camel’s lips and other facial features. There were camels entered in the contest that had had nose jobs and even enhancements to their jaws. It was shocking to the camel fans.

Here in the United States our newspapers are so filled with stories about the Mueller investigation and the President’s decision to impose tariffs and the resignation of the president of Michigan State after an athletic doctor was convicted and sentenced for abusing athletes. Our papers report of sexual misconduct and the deferred action on childhood arrivals and how well our President’s ideas are going at Davos. It’s hard to find serious articles on camel beauty in the midst of stories of school shootings and drug policies and diet news and the stories of children held captive by their parents.

So I thought I’d bring you up to date just in case you missed it.

And if camel beauty contests aren’t your thing, I can also report that Grumpy the Cat won $710,000 in a lawsuit in a California federal court. Grumpy the Cat Limited sued the coffee company Grenade for exceeding an agreement over the cat’s picture. Well, it wasn’t a photograph, just a drawing. Back in 2013, the coffee company purchased the rights to use the cat’s image on its “Grumppuccino” iced coffee drink. They paid $150,000 to use the cat’s scowling face on bottles that held their iced coffee beverages. All would have gone well, had the coffee company only done that. But the cat’s owners were horrified to learn that the cat’s image had also been placed on t-shirts and even on roasted coffee.

They were shocked. They were horrified. They felt that their cat was being exploited. They sued. And they won a $710,000 settlement. From what I can tell, the cat didn’t really need the money. One story that I read claimed that the cat has already earned millions in endorsement and advertising deals.

By the way, the cat’s name isn’t really grumpy. That’s just a nickname. Its real name is Tardar Sauce. There have been rumors that Tardar Sauce is set to star in a film alongside Will Ferrell and Jack Black, though that may just be a rumor.

Courthouse News reported that the cat herself made a brief courthouse appearance, but she didn’t show up for the verdict. And, to be accurate, the award was $710,001. The extra dollar was awarded for breach of contract. The rest of the settlement was for copyright and trademark infringement.

The cat is pretty famous. She has traveled the world and has appeared on television and in 2014 she starred in her own Christmas film. She has a range of merchandise including calendars, clothing and soft toys. She has an animatronic likeness at San Francisco’s Madame Tussauds.

If you are wondering, Grumpy the Cat, or rather Tardar Sauce, does not have any artificial enhancements to her appearance. No botox for her. the cat’s perpetually sad and unique expression is reported to be caused by feline dwarfism and an underbite that causes her lower jaw to extend forward.

I’m guessing her owners can afford to feed her soft food.

Grumpy, however, needs to earn all the money she can, because in case you haven’t noticed, cats aren’t trending too well. Their future as the dominant stars of internet videos is in question. According to BBC’s North American Technology Reporter, Dave Lee, “Cats on the internet are over. Done.” Dogs are all the thing now. The most popular animal on Facebook is a dog named Boo. He’s got more than 17.5 million likes, more than double that of Grumpy the Cat. Dogs outpace cats in Google searches as well. “Cute Dogs” gets more searches than “Funny Cats.”

I’m not making this stuff up. I read about it on the Internet. And now you know, too.

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!

Our too fast news cycle

For many years of my life, my day began with the morning newspaper. That habit has changed in recent years simply because the newspaper is no longer news. The Internet delivers the news faster and more reliably than print media. Our local newspaper might occasionally have in coverage of a local news story, but they will have published that story online before the paper can be delivered to me. I’m coming very close to simply cancelling the local newspaper. Daily delivery is close to $400 per year. That does, however, include unlimited access to the Washington Post web site, which is a benefit.

So these days I frequently scan the headlines in a half dozen news sites as I begin my day. I read about what is going on. Lately, however, I am beginning to worry about myself. I think that in some ways I am becoming numb to the news. The scandals out of our government come so quickly that one fades before it is investigated. It used to be that a racist or curse-filled comment from a Washington DC official would dominate the news for a while while an investigation was undertaken. These days the story makes the headlines one day and is seemingly forgotten the next. Allegations of politicians and prostitutes don’t even seem ti pique the interests of reporters these days.

Yesterday, I woke to the news of a major earthquake and a tsunami warning off of the coast of Alaska. There were tsunami watches as far away as California. The tsunamis never developed, thank goodness, but the story doesn’t even appear in today’s headlines.

Yesterday, in Benton, Kentucky, a 15-year-old student entered the high school with a hand gun just before 8 am. He fired shots that struck 14 people and set off a panicked flight in which five more were hurt. Two students are dead. Of the 18 people injured, five remain in critical condition. It was shocking. It was horrible. It was enough to make us think of Columbine and Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook Elementary.

It was also the 11th school shooting in the United States in 2018. It was January 23rd. That’s right the average is nearly one every-other day.

The shooting will last forever in the minds of those who witnessed the carnage. It will alter the lives of those involved forever. It will be forgotten by the nation in days and overshadowed by another shooting in weeks.

I am worried that I am becoming numb to the suffering of others.

On Tuesday, it was a high school in small-town Kentucky. On Monday, a school cafeteria outside Dallas and a charter school parking lot in New Orleans. Before that it was a school bus in Iowa, a college campus in Southern California, a high school in Seattle . . . roughly 50 school shootings in this academic year.

I can’t keep track of them all.

I don’t want to be numb to the tragedy of school shootings. I don’t want to ignore the suffering of victims and their families. I don’t want to be blind to the terror.

But the news cycle is so fast and so filled with shocking events that we are becoming numb.

Yesterday’s shooting was less than an hour’s drive away from Paducah, where about 20 years ago three people were killed and five more injured when a student opened fire into a prayer circle. It was big news at the time. I had nearly forgotten it when I was reading of yesterday’s incident. I might have not remembered had not a news story I read mentioned it.

So how do we balance our desire to remain informed with our need to take a break from the constant barrage of the news? How do we avoid becoming so saturated with shocking news that we lose our ability to be shocked?

Even as I try to carefully nurture my compassion and empathy for victims and their families, I know that if we have a period without shooting incidents, complacency is not far behind. As soon as there is a lull in shootings, school officials are distracted by other needs and concerns. Active shooter trainings and drills are at best imperfect and the flaws of such exercises are easy to discern, so there is a tendency to do nothing, which also isn’t the right approach.

I know that I don’t have the answers.

I meet regularly with colleagues to study books and discuss the Bible. We try each week to make connections between our faith, our vocation as pastors, and the events of our community, state and nation. Most weeks we begin with a kind of litany of the highlights of the week’s news. We can easily fall into complaining about all of the scandals and visible examples of poor judgment. We are easily overwhelmed.

But we keep on meeting. We keep on speaking of faith to our congregations. We keep on telling the stories of Jesus. We refuse to let the stories of tragedy be the final words on the human condition in our time.

So, for a moment, I’m going back to the story of the shootings in Benton, Kentucky. The victims were real people, with names, thoughts, identities, all their own. Bailey Nicole Holt died at the scene. Preston Ryan Cope died of his injuries at a hospital. They are more than statistics. They are not just more numbers. They are unique individuals who held great promise and whose loss will be mourned. Their families will never recover from the traumatic loss and shock of yesterday’s events. This is not something that you can get over. You get through it with the love and prayers and support of a community, but you never get over it. Their life stories have now taken a turn not of their choosing, but unavoidable nonetheless. I am praying for those family members. I am hoping that the day will come when they realize that these two precious lives were not lost in vain. May their memories become their friends and their lives become signs that God’s gift of live has the final victory.

And, I pray that I will not become numb to their story. May I not forget. May I do everything in my power to prevent future tragedies similar to theirs.

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!

Emotional support animals

We travel by air infrequently, so we were quite surprised last time we took a trip by airline at how many people were traveling with their pets. We saw multiple dogs on nearly every flight we took. Many of the pets were traveling without any carriers, were leashed and simply sat at the feet of their handlers. We also noticed pet care areas in major airports, a change from our previous experiences. It isn’t just our experience. A recent Washington Post article reports that animals traveling with people is up 150 percent from 2015 and “incidents” such as biting or defecating have nearly doubled since 2016.

The airlines are caught in a bit of a bind. The Air Carrier Access Act of 1986 allows for free travel for “any animal” that is trained to assist a person with a disability or that provides emotional support. Translated into practice it means that anyone who wants to travel with a pet can escape the usual airline fee, which averages about $100 for an animal to travel by declaring that their pet is an emotional support animal.

And plenty of people are declaring their need for the emotional support of their animals.

The Americans with Disabilities Act has more specific guidelines for defining service animals. It is specific about the type of animal, typically a dog or a miniature horse. It is also specific about the training required for a service animal. Certified service animals require 1 - 2 years of intense training and receive training in specific areas. They are trained to mitigate the disability. They possess specific disability mitigation skills such as looking for traffic, turning on light switches, and alerting for hidden dangers. They also are highly trained in public access behaviors.

There is a lot of research about which animals provide the best support for persons with physical disabilities. There is a lot of research that backs the specific screening and training received by service animals.

Beyond that, however, there has been a recent recognition of the ability for pets to provide emotional support. Emotional disabilities are challenging because they are often invisible and people don’t always recognize anxieties or fears or other emotional problems that can prevent others from fully participating in life. There is an emerging body of evidence that companion animals can provide emotional support. In general these emotional support animals have not received the intensive training of service animals. And there is a wide range of different animals that have been identified as emotional support animals. Cats, ducks, hedgehogs, parakeets and many different types of animals have been given the designation of emotional support animal.

While a service dog must be trained by a recognized training facility, there are no specific training requirements for emotional support animals. It does not even require that the owner have a diagnosed disability such as PTSD, debilitating chronic illness or neurological disorder.

There are plenty of web sites that offer free instant registration, vests and ID cards for pets advertising that it is easy to take your pet anywhere legally and without conflict.

There is, however, a definite flaw in the system. A pet has impact on more people than the owner who may have developed an emotional connection with the animal. People who are allergic to animal dander are legally protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act. An airline that allows a cat on board has to remember their legal obligation to provide safe travel to those who suffer from allergies. The problem is more difficult to manage than removing the peanut packages from flights.

When Marlin Jackson arrived at his row on a Delta flight from Atlanta to San Diego in June, the middle seat was already occupied by a man with a sizable dog on his lap. As Jackson squeezed by them to his window seat the Labrador mix lunged at his face. He was left with facial wounds that required 28 stitches and left visible scars. The dog was identified as an “emotional support animal.”

I have witnessed the positive value of animals for those who suffer from a wide variety of disabilities and disorders. I have watched highly trained animals provide necessary support in nursing homes, hospice house and an agency that provides services for persons with disabilities.

On the other hand, I suspect that there is more than a small amount of fraud when it comes to people who simply want to travel with there pets without paying a surcharge and who assume that a pet that is well behaved at home is trained to handle the stresses of airline travel. Some flyers are simply taking advantage of federal law and bringing untrained pets of many different species into crowded cabins.

The Association of Flight Attendants has given endorsement to new regulations recently issued by Delta Airlines that will require increased documentation for animals to board airplanes.

I am not opposed to animals. We felt that pets were an important part of raising our children. But it never occurred to us to take the children’s pets on an airliner. A metal tube traveling at high speed through the air with every seat occupied by a human being, narrow aisles, and limited restroom facilities is a unique environment. I’m pretty sure it would have frightened and upset the animals we had as pets. I wasn’t comfortable having our pet cats in the car unless they were inside of a carrier. They didn’t like riding in the car and a trip to the vet was an ordeal.

There are now nineteen states that have laws criminalizing passing off pets as service animals. Restrictions are being tightened because of what appears to be abuse by some pet owners.

I suspect that more than new laws, what we need is a dose of common sense. Does that little dog really enjoy being stuffed into a handbag? Is your cat really at home in a crowded airport? Does your retriever really fit in the space provided for your feet in the tourist class cabin?

We live in strange times and we see strange behavior from other people. I receive lots of emotional support from other family members. The airlines, however, require that we pay for a ticket for them to travel.

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!

Dreaming of ice roads

We woke to two or three inches of new snow yesterday. It didn’t take me long to clear the driveway, but the snow had been preceded by warm temperatures and the driveway was still pretty slippery after I removed the snow. We’re used to it. One of the advantages to the location of our house is that the slippery hill falls away from the house. It would take a lot of momentum to slide down our driveway and across the street into the neighbor’s yard and trees. So far, we’ve never had that problem. And we don’t have to worry about sliding through a garage door, which is a problem for some homes in our neighborhood.

Living in a place where we git a bit of winter gives us a touch of experience with driving on slippery roads. Our cars are all wheel drive and we have a pickup with conventional four-wheel drive, locking hubs and other traction devices. I’ve had tire chains on all four wheels of the truck and it pretty much will go through most snow with those on board.

But most of the time, we don’t deal with much in the way of travel challenges. The city and county plow roads when needed and our city is really loves to spread the magnesium chloride. Our street is white with salt whenever it dries out in the winter and our cars are covered with the sticky, corrosive stuff.

I have a fascination, however, with roads that are in very remote locations that might be a real challenge to drive. One of those roads is Canada Highway 10. It is also called the inureik-Tuktoyaktuk Highway or ITH. It is the first all weather road to the Arctic Ocean in Canada. The all weather road just opened las fall, with the official opening on November 15. Prior to the completion of the highway, which took three years to build, it was possible to drive to Tuktoyaktuk only in the winter, when an ice road made it possible to cover the distance.

From where I sit, the journey seems exotic. Just saying the name of the destination, Tuktoyaktuk, is fun. And getting to the beginning of the road, Inuvik, is a challenge in itself. It lies at the end of the Dempster Highway, 457 miles of mostly dirt and gravel road that stretches across very empty country in the Yukon and Northwest Territories, beginning 35 miles east of Dawson City, Yukon and cross the Ogilvie and Richardson mountains. 252 miles from the Klondike Highway, the road crosses the Arctic Circle. Crossing the Peale and Mackenzie Rivers are done by very from June to October and by ice bridge from November to April. Once you get to Inuvik, you still have 86 miles of two-lane gravel road to get to Tuktoyaktuk.

Some of the members of my family don’t really understand my fascination with the road and the communities at its conclusion. They enjoy travel but probably prefer destinations with a few more people and a few less polar bears.

Mind you, I’ve never been on the road. I’ve not yet even made it to the Yukon, so my trips up to the Arctic are only in my imagination at this point of my life. That doesn’t stop my dreaming.

Another highway that fascinates is Route E69, a bit of extreme and icy engineering in Norway. The ribbon of ice-covered tarmac runs 80 mies north from Olderfjord to Nordkapp on a finger of land at the top of Arctic Norway. It is the world’s most northerly highway.. Although the road was first proposed in 1908, it was started in the 1930’s to connect the remote fishing villages that previously were connected to the outside world only by boat. A downturn in the fishing industry caused grave financial stress in the communities and it was felt that the locals could earn more from tourism than from fishing. Building the road seemed to be an impossible challenge, but it was a challenge that was accomplished. The final 8 1/2 miles was completed in 1956. And in 1999, a deep sea tunnel connecting the island of Magerøya to the Porsanger Peninsula was opened. The E69 is known for developing thick ice and being very difficult to drive. Weather can prevent travel for days at a time. People learn to live closer to nature because nature limits their activities. When the road is icy, certain supplies simply are not available until conditions improve. When the snow is blowing, travel comes to a stop.

I’ve read the stories of people who have traveled extreme distances on remote roads in all kinds of weather and many different climates. The Pan American Highway is a network of roads that stretches from the tip of Argentina to Prudhoe Bay in Alaska. It is possible to drive the series of official and a few unofficial roads from one end to the other with the exception of the Darién Gap, a section of rainforest of about 100 miles that remains undriveable. Those who have driven the entire highway have loaded their vehicles onto boats for the connection between South and Central America. I’m not as intrigued by tropical mud as I am by ice roads. Depending on the season of the year, mosquitos are abundant on every section of the highway, but the parts at the polar tips are most fascinating to me, though, truth be told, I’m not very interested in the Dalton Highway, the United States’ most northern road. It covers some amazing country north of Fairbanks, Alaska, but it is a commercial haul road, next to a a pipeline and concludes not in a remote village, but rather in a huge industrial site. You can’t drive to the Arctic Ocean at Deadhorse, but must pay to ride a tour bus and the cost isn’t inexpensive.

So I try not to complain when my driveway is a bit slippery or when it is a bit of a challenge to get around town. I still have a desire to drive some genuine ice roads. It may never happen outside of my imagination, but that doesn’t keep me from dreaming.

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 world religion

I was listening to the radio while I was driving recently. The trip was short, so I didn’t hear much of the program. The topic of the program was astrology, a topic in which I have very little to no interest. So I wasn’t really paying attention to the radio. It was sort of background noise to my running of errands. In that background, somewhere, there was a speaker who was discounting astrology, saying that science has proven time and time again that there is no basis to the predictions of astrology. Then the speaker said that the thing she loved most about science was its ability to admit its own mistakes. This, she said, is something that religion cannot do.

I was offended, first of all that she seemed to speak of astrology as if it were religion. I don’t think of it as a religion at all. It is a strange set of unsubstantiated ideas that are used to manipulate people into feeling good and giving money to people who are self-named and self-educated.

As I have been thinking about it, I keep thinking that she doesn’t seem to know anything about religion in the form in which I experience it. We’ve been admitting our mistakes for many years. I confess that the church was a bit slow to admit that it had a problem with sexual exploitation. It took far to long for the stories of victims to he heard and for the church to institute policies and processes to protect the innocent. And there are still problems with sexual exploitation in the church, but we are aware of those problems and we are not trying to pretend that they don’t exist. I have been personally involved in misconduct investigations and I have seen the seriousness with which the church is able to admit to our problem and address it head on.

I also remember very clearly the apology that was issued by our United Church of Christ in 1993 on the centennial of its role in the illegal overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy in 1893. Our missionaries and church leaders had made a mistake and the apology took a century. But the apology was present and we were able to admit that we had made grave mistakes.

We may not be as quick as science to recognize our mistakes, but we do recognize them. Furthermore we apologize for them. That’s something that I’ve never noticed science doing. You don’t hear scientists apologizing for the development of nuclear weapons. You don’t hear scientists apologizing for outdated medical theories such as blood letting. You don’t hear scientists apologizing for the formulas of ozone depleting chemicals. There have been plenty of scientific mistakes that caused a lot of damage for which there have been no apologies.

My experience in the church, however, is not of an arrogant and blind faith. It is not of people wedded to their certainties despite the evidence. In the past week, I’ve spent quite a bit of time with people who are experiencing doubts and asking deep questions.

I spent some time with a young woman on Friday. She has been in excellent health and has a job that is physically demanding. She developed a cough last fall that she thought was just part of a normal cold. The cough persisted, however, and upon medical examination it was discovered that she has a very severe lung infection. Rounds of antibiotics followed. This weekend she traveled to Denver and tomorrow she will undergo surgery to remove a portion of her lung in an attempt to clear up the infection. She is, understandably, frightened. This medical procedure could result in her bing unable to pass the physical tests required for her job. It might mean that she has to change careers. It is a huge, life-altering event for someone who has not yet reached her 30th birthday. She is not anti-science. She believes in the power of evidence-based medicine. She is placing her trust in scientists and medical professionals. But she needs more than science can offer. For her, science and religion are not opposed ideologies, they are two different sources of strength and healing. She asked for prayers and she is getting them. Yes, she has doubts and deep questions. No, her religious faith doesn’t provide all of the answers. Neither does science.

That same day, I listened as a different person told me of a brand-new cancer diagnosis. It is a very serious and potentially life-shortening condition. It came out of the blue. He had no symptoms. A routine physical with lab work showed some abnormalities. Follow-up tests ruled out the least severe and easiest to treat conditions. One more test, coming up tomorrow, will confirm the diagnosis or sent him into another round of tests to figure out what is going on. He has access to the best medical care. He is literally placing his life in the hands of scientists. But science is not enough. Although he knows there are no answers to some of his questions, they persist: why me? why now? He doesn’t see science and religion as opposed. He simply understands that he needs both in his life right now.

When I meet with people like this, I don’t bring them answers. It would be naive to believe that I could easily explain the deep doubts and questions that arise in moments of life’s crises. I offer prayer. I offer a connection with a community of faith and prayer. I do not promise to solve their problems. I encourage them to seek the best of modern scientific medicine. I am also honest with the simple truth that all of us will one day die from this life. That can be a comfort after rounds of medical appointments in which doctors use every euphemism in the book to avoid talking about death. Doctors don’t like that topic at all.

In the real world situations I encounter every week, religion is not obsolete. It is not irrelevant ant. It is not a relic of the past. In the lives of the people with whom I work, religion is a necessary component of a meaningful life.

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

Do meetings solve problems of hunger?

I think that anyone who has witnessed the birth of a baby will agree that it is a sacred moment. The child arrives, often after a period of intense work by the mother. The cord is cut. Soon the baby is being fed. It is a sacred and important bond. It is not vastly different when a child comes into a family through adoption. When we received our daughter, within minutes of first holding her, we received instructions about what and how she was fed. We took a small supply of formula with us and our first stop with that new baby was at a store where additional supplies of formula could be purchased. I learned about getting the formula mixed properly, about heating it to the right temperature, about holding the bottle so that she could eat conveniently, about how to gently pat her so that she could burp when excess air was sucked into her system. I learned to force myself to wake up to change and feed her in the middle of the night. I learned to put her needs first, denying my desire for sleep and making sure that she was fed and properly cared for.

It is the sacred job of parents to feed their children. In every culture, in every place around the world, providing for families is a critical task of parents and grandparents.

Because of that sacred duty, we are alarmed and seek to intervene whenever we see hungry children. News stories, like the ones coming out of the California home of David and Louis Turpin, turn our stomachs and make us ask, “How could parents do this to their own children?” How could anyone do this to any child?

We are willing to give to causes that feed hungry children. Se send monies to charities. We volunteer at soup kitchens, we stuff food into backpacks for children to take home from school. We create school feeding programs. When children come to school hungry it is the first instinct of their dedicated teachers to feed them.

We don’t seem to notice that we are interrupting a sacred cycle. When we get between parents and children in the process of feeding, we deny the first basic responsibility of parents. When we feed children instead of enabling the parents to assume this responsibility, we become involved in a multiple-generational cycle that interrupts a sacred bond.

Yesterday a group of us were invited to yet another meeting in our community addressing the problems of hunger in our community. We began by watching brightly colored slides projected on a huge screen mapping hunger in our community. The addresses of recipients of food from the Feeding South Dakota food bank were overlaid on a map of the city. Other demographics were also displayed. The locations of grocery stores and food distribution places were projected on the screens. The pictures were the result of over a year’s work of interviewing people, collecting data from emergency food providers and the employment of sophisticated computer modeling software.

Then we were divided into groups, based on the geography of our community, and asked to come up with solutions to the problems. We were urged to think creatively, but given little time for actual thinking. Ideas began to arise from the group. “What about extended hours for the food bank?” “What about new locations for distribution of commodities?” “What about using food trucks to deliver prepared meals to hungry people in different locations?” What about using more schools as points of distribution?”

I listened, but I failed to hear any new ideas. No one was suggesting anything different from obtaining food from a variety of sources and giving it to hungry people. We just talked about different ways to distribute food.

There was little talk of community gardens to teach people how to grow their own food. There was no talk of revising community statutes to allow growing food, such as chickens for eggs or consumption. There was no talk about creating neighborhood greenhouses that could produce food year round. There was no talk about community kitchens in neighborhoods where hungry people don’t have access to cooking facilities. There was no talk about basic living skills classes that teach nutrition, efficient shopping, low-energy food preparation, or other subjects.

I didn’t hear any truly new ideas in the entire session.

And I noticed that there were no children present. There were no people who appeared to be hungry present. There were very few people of color present. The location was a place where one would have to have a car to attend. No city bus routes run by the place. The parking lot is huge. It is miles away from the places where homeless people hang out in our town. It was a long way from any low cost housing.

We sat there in the room talking about what we were going to do for other people without considering what we might do with them and without any knowledge of what they wanted.

We are practiced in the skill of interrupting the sacred bond between parents and children. We are very practiced in saying, “You can’t feed your child? Then let us do it for you.”

I suspect that very few, if any, in the room were willing to see the meeting as part of the problem. We were there to be part of the solution.

I don’t often walk out of meetings before they are finished, but I couldn’t take that meeting. After trying to suggest some new ideas and “out of the box” thinking, I realized how unwelcome those ideas were. Mind you, all I did was to talk about the experience of South Park United Church of Christ, who started a modest community gardening project in 2017. I was told, bluntly, that a community garden isn’t a solution because it doesn’t feed people in the winter. It is, of course, true that if one wants to be fed by a garden in the winter one has to learn the skills of food preservation. But I doubt if the person responding to my comments is a gardener or knows how to can tomatoes or make pickles. When the meeting paused for a break, I went back to my other duties.

As we go forward, I seem to have less patience and less time for perpetuating the things we are already doing. I’ll still donate to food pantries. I’ll still volunteer at the mission. But I intend to invest more of my time in working with people to give them the skills and opportunities to feed their own children. It is a sacred responsibility.

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!

Excellent health

Let’s start out this morning with the good news. I have discovered that I am in excellent health. In fact, I believe that my “overall health is excellent. Hands down, there’s no question that [I] am in the excellent range . . . . I put out the statement that [my] health is excellent, because [my] overall health is excellent . . . Overall, {I have] very, very good health. Excellent health.”

No mind you, I’m not basing that on what my doctor would say. I’m not basing it on what my most recent examination. I’m not basing it on the results of any medical tests or other empirical information.

I’m just comparing myself to another overweight, slightly sedentary man in the 65 - 75 age range who takes medicine to keep his cholesterol in control and has a job with a fairly high degree of stress.

I don’t mean to make light of the health of our President. And I certainly do not wish the President any ill health. I pray for his health on a regular basis, as I also do for other leaders of our state and nation.

I raise the point for another, somewhat unrelated concern.

I am concerned about the health of Rear Admiral Ronny Jackson. He is the doctor who was so effusive in extolling the health of our president on Tuesday that he sounded what I might call “Trumpian.” He said exactly what I believe the President wanted him to say.

Ok. Ok. I know that I am in no way qualified to make any judgment about the President’s physician. I believe that he is eminently qualified to practice medicine and I trust that our system is sufficiently robust to guarantee that the President is attended only by the best qualified physicians.

Here is what worries me. Rear Admiral Ronny Jackson is a Naval officer. And I fear that somehow the United States Navy has encouraged people, regardless of rank, to say and do exactly what their superiors ask. I have no doubt that the President of the United States expects sycophancy from all his subordinates. You only have to watch the publicly televised portions of cabinet meetings to understand this. All who work with him are expected to tell him how great and extraordinary he is.

That is a dangerous way to run a military operation. When people are promoted because they learn to say what their superiors expect, incompetent people who are willing to say anything for a promotion rise to the top.

There is more than a small amount of evidence that this has occurred in the US Navy. Just look at the past year:
  • A C2-A Greyhound transport aircraft headed to the USS Ronald Reagan crashed into the Philippine Sea.
  • A Japanese tugboat lost propulsion and drifted into the USS Benfold causing minor damage to the guided missile destroyer.
  • The USS John S. McCain, a Navy guided missile destroyer collided with the oil tanker Alnic MC, leaving 10 US sailors dead.
  • The USS Fitzgerald collided with the container ship MC Crystal off the coast of Japan resulting in the death of 7 US sailors.
  • A South Korean fishing boat struck the USS Lake Champlain, while the warship was conducting operations near the Korean Peninsula.
  • The USS Antietam ran aground while trying to anchor in Tokyo Bay.

When the commanders of ships seem not to know the basic commands of sailing, when they do not understand the effects of differential thrust on rudder positions, when they issue commands that appear to have confused starboard with port, there is reason to suspect that people have been promoted not because of their knowledge of ship operation, but because of other factors.

I pray that sucking up, brown nosing and sycophancy aren’t the reasons these eminent and highly ranked naval officers have been put in charge of ships.

Five officers involved in the two fatal collisions have had a variety of charges filed against them including dereliction of duty, endangering a ship and negligent homicide. Now, to be fair, everyone charged in our system is innocent until proven guilty and the trials have not yet taken place, so it is unfair to jump to conclusions. And it is worth noting that the commander of the Fitzgerald, Bryce Benson, suffered a head injury in the collision and had to be airlifted from the ship for treatment. He was not on the bridge at the time of the collision. But investigators have concluded that both of the fatal accidents were avoidable. Several top leaders, including the commander of the 7th Fleet, Vice Admiral Joseph Auction, and several other senior commanders, have been fired.

The US Navy’s top officers have been found to have failed to quickly recognize and respond to unfolding emergency situations. The responsibility of a Commanding Officer for his or her ship is absolute. Whatever decisions are made by those on the ship relate directly to the judgment and decision making of the commanding officer, who alone has the authority to control who has the ships controls at hand at all times. The commander is responsible for training and preparing sailors for their duties and when those duties are not performed properly it reflects on the commander.

None of this has to do with whether or not the subordinates say what the commander wants to hear. It has to do with how competent they are at their job.

Yet it appears that the commanders have been named more for their ability to say good things about their superiors than for their ability to sail ships. And sailing ships is what the US Navy is supposed to do.

So I don’t really know how excellent my health is. I don’t even know how good the President’s health is. I wish that when I listened to the television and heard Rear Admiral Ronny Jackson be so effusive in extolling the totally amazing, surpassingly marvelous, superbly stupendous and extremely awesome health of the President that it really means that the President is genuinely in the best of health. But my suspicions remain. Anyone who uses the word “excellent” eight times in a half dozen sentences, might be prone to just a touch of exaggeration.

And at this moment in the history of our nation, the US Navy doesn’t need officers who are prone to exaggeration. It needs officers who are brutally honest.

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!

Reading owner's manuals

We have friends who recently purchased a new car. Our particular circle of friends is such that we tend to drive pretty old vehicles and replacement comes infrequently, so a new car is noticed by us. These particular friends had piled up well over 200.,000 miles on their previous vehicle, so a new one was in order. I was admiring the new car and our friend told me that he had now read the owner’s manual twice and was in the process of reading the section about programming the radio a third time. Of course the radio is much more than just a radio. I think that some manufacturers are calling them “infotainment systems.” It has a fairly large video display with a touchscreen that is used to operate the car’s climate controls, the heated seats, the stereo, which in addition to playing radio, can play MP3 files and take audio entertainment from external sources via Bluetooth as well as with a cable. It also features a GPS navigation system and displays a moving map. It can be used to program special features including the operation of the car’s key fobs. It is a fairly sophisticated computer.

The conversation got me to thinking about all of the owner’s manuals I have. In addition to the vehicle manuals which I have read and which ride in the car, I have a drawer filled with owner’s manuals next to my desk in my library. I have manuals for power tools, for computer equipment, for home appliances, and countless other devices. Periodically I have to go through the drawer to remove manuals for devices that we no longer own. While I keep that large stack of manuals in the drawer, the truth is that I almost never go to the drawer to take out and read the manuals. When I need help understanding, repairing or using an item I am most likely to “Google” the item and find the manual online. I also watch YouTube videos of repairs and adjustments to learn how to make them myself.

Paper manuals are becoming a thing of the past.

It isn’t difficult to imagine the day when a customer will buy a new car, slide into the seat, and touch a display in the dashboard that teaches the owner how to operate the vehicle and its various systems. Despite this development, however, I have noticed an increasing number of vehicles that feature two glove compartments in the dashboard. Since I have never kept gloves in the glove compartment and use it exclusively for the operator’s manuals, proof of insurance, registration and repair receipts, I am not sure what one is supposed to do with multiple glove compartments in a vehicle where no paper manuals are required. While I keep a paper copy of my proof of insurance in each car, I also have an application on my cell phone that displays proof of insurance. I have already set up maintenance records keeping on the web sites of the manufacturers of our vehicles. It isn’t hard to imagine the day when we are paperless when it comes to automobile records and documents.

When my computer gives me problems, I use my phone to look up possible solutions. When my phone doesn’t work properly I use my computer to seek a solution.

Yes, I’m even reading books on a tablet computer these days. I’m trying to avoid collecting any more books in my already overfilled home and office, but I have to admit that there is something different about reading a book on the screen. I’m currently reading a volume given me by a friend that is a physical book with over 500 pages. I like the heft of the book in my hands and it is fun to watch the bookmark move through all of those pages as I read. There is no similar satisfaction with reading a book on the computer.

Yesterday I had a conversation with another friend who was reporting that among the tasks of his day was going with his wife to select a new phone. He told me, “We recently had a small fire in our home, started by a candle. We had to repaint a wall, replace carpet, get the paint refinished and elect new curtains for the room. All of that was less effort and less trauma for us than selecting a new phone.”

I told him I understood perfectly. We recently added a new phone in our home with a significant learning curve and more than a little bit of disruption. Bringing a new piece of technology into our lives frequently involves a change in our lifestyle.

I’m not sure that I am happy with having to conform to the demands of technology. I have enough trouble keeping up with relationships and the expectations of the people in my life. I’ve no desire to have technology raising additional expectations for me. This is, however, the world in which we live today. We ignore the advances of technology at our own peril. I think that part of what makes it such a challenge for us to adapt to new technology is that we don’t keep up. Our newest car is 7 years old. It is in good shape and it will be quite a while before we are thinking of replacing it. My daily driver is 19 years old. When it was delivered it didn’t even have a CD player in it (remember CD’s?). I was impressed with its electric door locks with a remote control at the time. If I had traded cars every couple of years, the technology would seem to have evolved for me. Instead, when I do replace that car I’ll be like my friend. needing to study for several days in order to know how to operate it. The same is true of the new phone in our home. It replaced one that has been around for several years. The old phone had actual buttons that you pushed. The new one features a touchscreen and no physical buttons.

So, I’m going to sort through the owner's manuals once again. Which is another way of saying I’m not going to throw them all out quite yet.

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 Costs of Discipleship

Each year, during Epiphany, we read the stories of Jesus calling disciples and we make connections between the call of the disciples and the call of contemporary Christians to be disciples. The word disciple comes from the same root as discipline. It refers to a way of living that conforms to a particular set of standards. The Statement of Faith of the United Church of Christ is a confession of faith that was adopted by our church in 1959 as a testament of what we believe. In 1981, the Executive Council of the church approved a version of the statement in the form of a Doxology for use in connection with the twenty-fifth anniversary of the denomination. That version addresses God directly as a prayer. It is the version most commonly used by our congregation. In that version. we say, “You call us into your church to accept the cost and joy of discipleship.”

Christian churches are frequently quick to point out the joys of discipleship: supportive community, forgiveness fo sins, confidence in times of trial, peace in the knowledge that one is beloved. But we don’t spend much time speaking about the costs. In our covenant with new members, our congregation asks a question about participation in the life of the church and mentions the obligation of members to support the community, but we don’t make a big deal about the costs.

I have been specially thinking of the costs of discipleship this week because in this second year of our lectionary cycle, we read about Jesus calling disciples in the Gospel of John last week and we will read Mark’s version of the calling of disciples in this week’s Gospel. In John there is some questioning and discussion. Mark tells the story more succinctly: “As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a new into the sea - for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him.” A change of career, leaving behind the livelihood of generations of their families, heading off without a visible means of support and the word Mark uses is “immediately.” The story of the calling of James and John is as compact in Mark’s version: “As he went a little farther, he saw James and John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.” Mark likes to use the word “immediately.”

As a pastor, who frequently has conversations with people considering participating in a church, I have to say that I have never experienced anyone’s response to the invitation to become a follower of Jesus as “immediate.” It can take a long time for someone to make that commitment. We have people who join the church only after years of participation. We have people who count themselves as members of the church and still are reluctant to see themselves as disciples of Jesus. They like the community. They may even enjoy worship services, but they are not at a point in their lives where they are willing to make a big commitment.

I think the sense of immediacy comes more from Mark’s impatience with telling certain parts of his story than from a lack of consideration of the consequences on the part of the disciples. After all, it is impossible in a short volume like the Gospel of Mark to report all of the details. And Mark is eager to tell the story of the crucifixion and his Gospel is driven, from its first words to reach its conclusion.

I’ve been having conversations with three different people recently about the call to ministry as a vocation. Right now all three have other sources of income and work at other jobs. They like the idea of ministry as a vocation. They feel a sense of call But they also have commitments that need to be fulfilled, obligations to meet and are uncertain about the timing of leaving their day jobs and making the commitment.

It wouldn’t be honest for me to advise any of them that responding to the call to the ministry is in their best financial interests - at least if best financial interests is speaking of the amount of income that they will earn. There re many rewards to a life of Christian ministry. Wealth isn’t one of them. In fact, in some parts of the church ordination vows come only after a vow of poverty is taken.

Consider the lives of the four who are called in the passage of Mark’s Gospel that we read this week. Simon, also known as Peter, was martyred in Rome during the reign of emperor Nero. The tradition is that Peter asked to be crucified upside down, so that his death would not be the equal of Jesus and the Romans obliged.

Andrew, his brother, went to Patras in western Greece in 69 AD,, where the Roman proconsul Aegeates debated religion with him. Aegeates tried to convince Andrew to give up Christianity so he wouldn’t have to torture and execute him. Andrew refused. He was scourged, and then tied rather than nailed to a cross, so that he would suffer for a longer time before dying. The historian Dorman Newman reports that it took him two days to die on the cross.

James, the son of Zebedee, also known as James the greater, was killed with a sword. Herod Agrippa, governor of Judea was especially harsh in the persecution of Christians. Tradition teaches that the one who accused him was inspired by his courage and converted to Christianity on the spot and asked to be executed alongside James. The Romans obliged, and both men were beheaded.

Of the four named in this week’s reading, only John escaped a violent death. It is reported that he passed away peacefully in Patmos in his old age sometime around 100 AD. He is probably the only one of Jesus 12 original disciples who escaped a violent death. After all Jesus was crucified by the Romans. The story of a very violent death is reported in all of our Gospels.

Although few are martyred for faith in our country today, a life of faith may not be the easiest pathway through this life. Discipleship has its costs.

I’m not saying that it is not worth it. The joys are deep and real. I would not choose a different path for myself. There are things in life much worse than sacrifice. But it is only fair to be honest about the cost.

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!

Remembering

We live in an amazing maze of usernames and passwords. It seems that every piece of software on the computer wants a unique username and password. I have number codes for my bank card, for locks on doors, for my phone, and several other devices. Usually I do pretty well with such things. I have my standards that i use. But there are all kinds of techniques that are employed to keep us from having standards. I use code devices that require 4, 5 or 6 digits. Some of them allow me to set the codes. Others are for more general use and have the codes set by someone else. Some computer passwords require the use of both upper and lower case characters. Some require the use of numbers and/or special characters. Some do not allow the use of certain characters.

Some days I wonder how much of my brain is occupied with codes and passwords and how much more productive I might be if I didn’t have to memories them.

My new phone promised to move beyond all of the codes and passwords with biometric identification. It has a sensor that learns to read and then memorizes finger prints. It works fairly well. But every time the software is upgraded I have to re-enter a six digit numeric code before the fingerprint reader will work. Anyone who knows that code can bypass all of the finger identification applications on the phone.

The security systems on our phones work well enough that law enforcement agencies have had trouble accessing evidence that is stored on cell phones. There have been court cases and there will be more as we seek an appropriate balance of privacy and security.

There was a day, a few years ago, when I went to work feeling as if I was coming down with the flu. I take the flu shot every year, but that particular day, I was feeling feverish and not on top of my game. I sat down to my computer and I couldn’t remember the password. This is a different computer than I use at home for my blog. I had written my blog earlier in the day and had logged on successfully, but the computer at work stumped me. I entered what I though was my password, and it wouldn’t let me in. I was feeling bad enough already that I decided that it wasn’t a day to accomplish anything so I went home, went to bed, slept for 4 hours and when I got up, I was thinking clearly and when I returned to work the next day I remembered the password and went on with my life.

The indigent bothered me, however, and later, when I was at my doctor’s office for a routine check-up, I reported it to the doctor. My doctor had previously been my mother’s doctor and she knew about the mini-strokes that my mother experienced and some of the brain fog and confusion that would sweep over her. A few extra tests were ordered and I received firm instructions that if I experience a similar incident in the future I should take an aspirin and immediately get to the emergency room. There has been no repeat of the experience.

It did, however, get me to thinking. There is a whole lot in my life that is based on my memory. And human memory is imperfect and subject to being altered by all kinds of diseases. We used to call it senility, but these days dementia is the preferred description. And we know that there are many different kinds of dementia. Alzheimer’s disease has received a lot of attention and we have witnessed some pretty dramatic cases of how that disease alters relationships. It can be a deep tragedy. But there are other diseases of the brain that affect memory and the ability to recall.

Some of the people who I visit who are experiencing dementia don’t experience much distress. Not long ago I visited a man who had considerable memory problems. I don’t know what the formal diagnosis for his memory difficulties was, but his family had previously commented to me about it. At any rate, he had also received a devastating cancer diagnosis and been given the prediction of a short timeline for his life. When I visited him, he was in a cheerful mood and when I asked him how things were going, he said, “Great!” He seemed to have forgotten every bit of bad news that the oncologist had given to him and his wife. Subsequent visits were similar. To the end of his life he didn’t seem to have any distress about his illness at all. The dementia seemed to allow his brain to focus on other things than his illness.

I have, however, visited with people who were equally distressed about memory problems. A couple of decades ago I visited a man who had been a brilliant attorney. He was suffering from the early stages of dementia. In his bedroom there was a wall of mirrored closet doors. He showed me that he had covered those mirrors with hundreds of sticky notes on which he had written the names of people, important events in his life, cases he had tried, places he had visited and other notes. He was desperately trying to organize the notes into a meaningful pattern. The task was frustrating him to tears. He just couldn’t get his memories sorted out and he was deeply aware of it. As his illness progressed, so did his frustration. He was frequently angry and visibly distressed for most of the rest of his life.

Who knows how aging will play out for me? There are things that are more important for me to remember than user names and passwords. The birth of our son, the day our daughter came into our family, the arrival of our grandchildren - there are pivotal life events that I treasure and recall with great pleasure. To forget them would be incredibly sad.

So, when I get to the point where I can’t remember, I want to let go of the excess user names and passwords first. I can get by without being able to access customer support on a piece of software. I probably can get by without being able to log onto a device. And, who knows, maybe by that time they’ll abandon the use of user names and passwords all together and use some other way of determining our identity.

That’s a future worth anticipating.

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 choices we make

We have a family story that has ben told so many times in so many different ways that i probably have written about it in my blog before. After completing his service in the Army Air Corps, my father used GI Bill benefits to earn his airframe and power plant certifications at a school in Oklahoma. Upon graduation he and my mother began looking for airport operations that they could purchase. One operation in Oklahoma was for sale, but the price was high and the bank financing didn’t come through. There are many other details, including those that I don’t know, but the result was that they left Oklahoma and looked in other places.

When our daughter was a student at Western Wyoming Community College in Rock Springs, Wyoming, my mother told us of them flying into Rock Springs to look at that airport and its operation. It was a very windy day and there were no trees in sight. It was one time when my mother put her foot down and said, “Absolutely not!”

The search continued and they ended up settling in Big Timber, Montana, a small town that, at the time, had a small dirt airfield, but no airport operations of any kind. They saw promise in the possibility of charter, air ambulance, agricultural and contract work for the Forest Service and Yellowstone National Park. It turned out well for them and that is the place where they settled and where I grew up.

We’ve made it a bit of a family game, on occasion, to speculate on the “what ifs?” What if they had obtained the financing and settled in Oklahoma? Certainly our life would have been vastly different. Our parents’ first two daughters were adopted after our parents became foster parents. Foster care is done state by state and they most certainly would not have been in a position to adopt those particular two girls. The entire shape of our family would have been different. Those of us born to the family would have had vastly different lives. We would have gone to school with different people, to church with different people, and met different people along the way. My wife and I met a church camp - a place that was about an hour and a half’s drive from my home. I’d likely have never visited that place if I hadn’t grown up in Montana.

Now that the years have gone by, I can look back and see decisions in our lives that have made all the difference in the world. We might have attended theological seminary in a different part of the country. We might have accepted our first call in a different state. Since we began our careers in North Dakota and our life story includes an adopted daughter, our family would certainly have been different had we not lived in that place at that time.

Like my parents, I was young when I was married. It has been a wonderful decision that has made my life incredibly rich. But that wasn’t my decision alone. Susan had to agree to the relationship. She had plenty of options. She was intellectually brilliant, a top tier student, with parents that were fully supportive of her education. She had the capability to do graduate study in a number of fields and the choice to pursue a seminary degree was, in part, because of her relationship with me. She could have ended up with a partner with a more lucrative career and be comfortably retired at this point of her life. Somehow, however, her choice to take this life’s journey with me was made.

That choice opened up so many different doors. Obviously our children and grandchildren are the product of our marriage. The places we have lived and the things we have done have been direct results of her thoughts and ideas. I don’t think I would have ever considered living in North Dakota. But she had family in the state. Her grandparents and an aunt and cousins lived there. It turned out that living in North Dakota was a wonderful adventure. It was the birth state of our children. It was the place we learned the practical skills of pastoral leadership. It was the place where we learned to navigate church politics and become engaged in the Conference. It was while we were living in North Dakota that we came to Rapid City regularly. Susan had an aunt and uncle and a cousin living in Rapid City at the time. Those trips planted the seeds of appreciation for the Black Hills and opened doors that eventually led to our moving here. It is the place where both of us have lived for the longest period of our lives.

I don’t invest much energy playing, “What if?” these days. I am deeply grateful for the events that have shaped my life. It seems that the choices that have been made by others and by ourselves have led us to a very good place in our lives. There is great joy in this particular phase of our lives. When we have vacation, we have no problem choosing what to do. We almost always want to head the same direction. Grandchildren have a powerful pulling power and we both feel that pull strongly. We often trade books and even when we are reading different books, we enjoy discussing what is being read. We have similar tastes in food and both of us can cook a meal for the other that is deeply appreciated. We can trade off family chores without even needing to think about it.

I can’t explain how I got lucky in the choice of a mate. Others, including some of my siblings have not been so fortunate in their choices. I know that it wasn’t the product of great maturity or deep insight. I was young and impulsive. Now I am old and impulsive. I’ve made my share of mistakes in this life and some of them have been significant. But the good choices outweigh the bad and life is good.

Our family’s story now is deeply influenced by the choices our children make. And, from the looks of things, they are making some pretty good choices. Soon the decisions of our grandchildren will shape our family’s future.

Life goes on. And our choices make all the difference in the world.

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!

Costa Rica Sunday morning

We’’re getting a little break from the cold weather today. It is already 24 degrees outside and my computer says, “Today is forecast to be MUCH WARMER than yesterday.” A high of 39 degrees will melt more of the small amount of snow we have on the ground. Yesterday I worked outside for a while and I was really layered up. Insulated coveralls are a real comfort item in this part of the world.

Rain showers are ini the forecast for San Jose, Costa Rica today, where it is currently 62 degrees on the way to a high of 68. That’s not exactly summer weather, but that is what the weather has in store for most of the week to come, with things warming up to the mid seventies by Saturday and rain showers and thunderstorms forecast for most days. Tuesday might be the best day for outside activities, but it will be cloudy all week long. By the weekend, it is likely to feel muggy with all of the moisture in the air and rising temperatures.

I’m thinking of Costa Rica because it is time for Vacation Bible School at our sister church in Los Guido, on the south side of San Jose. A lot has changed in the little church in the past decade or so. Building improvements have improved the process of creating and serving meals. Many church families have better and more permanent places to live. Numbers of children rise and fall, but Vacation Bible School remains one of the big events in the life of the church. It brings out some people that aren’t seen during much of the rest of the year.

Members of our congregation here in Rapid City have been visiting our sister church in Costa Rica every year since 1988, when a couple from our church made contact through a denominational program called “person to person.” The long-term relationship has allowed both congregations to get to know the partnership through the ups and downs of church life and change. The couple from our church who made the original contact no longer go to Costa Rica. The husband has died and his widow is in poor health. A pair of missionaries who lived in Costa Rica and were major players in our visits in the early 2000’s have now retired to the United States and the husband suffered a stroke last week and is in the hospital. The pastor of our Costa Rica congregation is preparing for retirement and here are lots of questions about leadership in that congregation. I, too, have had thoughts and conversations about retirement in the past year.

One of the things that we have learned from our sister church is that we have more in common than the differences that were apparent when we made our first visits with the church. I wasn’t around in the early years, but made several trips just after the turn of the century and remember the gentle transition from being surprised and at times shocked to feeling that the community was familiar. Even though we live a long ways apart and don’t see each other very often, I feel like I’ve been through a lot with Pastor Dorotea. Our children have grown to adulthood. We’ve welcomed grandchildren. Some plans have worked out well. Others have not turned out the way we expected.

18 years ago I thought I’d learn more Spanish than has been the case. We don’t really have a common language if you consider only words on paper. But we definitely share the language of faith. I keep a picture on my desk at work of the two of us, dressed in white, standing in a public swimming pool and celebrating the baptism of members of a recent confirmation class. Those kids are all adults now and most of them are not active in that particular congregation. but at least on that day, we had a shared understanding of what it means to be members of the body of Christ and how the community of the church transcends distance. We have led public prayer in each other’s churches, though Pastor Dorotea was only able to visit South Dakota once in the years of our relationship.

We are different people in different places but we belong to the same church. We think of each other even when the concerns of daily living are quite a bit different. Pastor Dorotea doesn’t have to shovel snow or worry about the high cost of having the parking lot plowed. I don’t have to struggle with the seemingly endless bureaucracy of health inspectors who seem to be always threatening to close down the feeding program at the church. We both know what it means to love and serve people and how the ministry is so much more than preaching words and getting people to make some sort of intellectual assent to a particular set of beliefs. Real ministry is serving people where they are and sometimes that means getting involved in the nitty gritty real world of dirt. We’ve both spend enough time on our hands and knees scrubbing the floors to hav first hand meaning of the concept of service. Neither of us have much time for the power and prestige of ordained ministry. We’re not too much into fancy vestments and other trappings of the office.

This morning we’ll both be leading worship. Ours will start a bit before theirs. We’ll have a few more people show up. It is amazing what a few degrees of warmer weather will do after a cold snap. Ours will start on time after a bell, connected to a clock rings right at 9:30. Theirs will start when enough people show up, probably at least a half hour after the posted time. We will both mention the other congregation in our prayers. We will both feel the connection of our communities. We will both try to speak of the love of Christ in a meaningful way. We will both speak of our gratitude for each other.

We are one in the Spirit.

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!

Coffee

I have owned an espresso machine for about 25 years. When I moved to Rapid City, I commend to someone that although I enjoy going out with my wife for a cup of coffee, the best coffee in town was what I made in my own kitchen. I discovered premium coffees more than a decade earlier when we purchased a small grinder and learned to purchase coffee from an importer/roaster. The freshly-roasted coffee not only yields a better flavor, it also goes a bit farther than canned coffee. It doesn’t take quite as much coffee per cup when using freshly roasted and ground coffee. And, if you enjoy coffee, the smell of the beans in the grinder adds to the pleasure.

There were very few commercial espresso machines in Rapid City back when we moved here. The coffee shop explosion had begun in Boise, Idaho, where we moved from and there were a lot of coffee shops in town, though Starbucks was just moving into the Boise market at the time we moved. Things have really changed in the past couple of decades. Coffee shops are springing up all over town and there are $10,000 espresso machines in grocery stores and in small kiosks in parking lots all over town.

Yesterday, I was thinking about coffee as I drove to the office from the hospital. There was a line of 3 or 4 customers at the espresso stand in the hospital lobby. I went down 5th street where the builders are putting the finishing touches on a new drive-through coffee shop on a busy corner. Three blocks to 8th street where the parking lot of another coffee shop was so full it was backing up traffic into the street. It takes about 10 minutes to drive from the hospital to the church and I passed three coffee shops. If I were walking, I wouldn’t be able to finish a cup of coffee before reaching the next coffee shop.

Clearly the coffee business is booming.

At home, when I buy premium coffee, I might pay as much as $12 per pound. That yields somewhere around 40 cups of coffee, making my cost around 30 cents per cup. Of course I have the costs of the grinder and the coffee machine, but an espresso machine lasts at least 25 years, so when you amortize it over the time, the cost per cup is pretty small. Then I sometimes add milk to my coffee and occasionally even honey. So lets say the actual cost is around 50 cents per cup, though I’m sure it is less than that. An Americano, which is espresso and water, runs about $3 in a coffee shop, giving the operator of the shop $2.50 for overhead and profit. And a prudent coffee shop operator could certainly command a lower price for the coffee than I pay. There is a stiff markup in coffee. Raw coffee is selling for around $1.23 a pound. Roasting and bagging and shipping the coffee then selling it through a retail market makes the cost about 10 times the cost of the raw coffee.

All I am saying is that there are a lot of people who are earning their living off of the coffee business. A cup of coffee in a coffee shop is paying a lot of people along the way, and still producing a respectable profit for the owner of the shop.

And, in my case, it isn’t the result of a physical addiction. I gave up caffeine, except for small doses in an occasional cup of tea, a couple of years ago upon the advice of a doctor. I only drink decaffeinated coffee and teas these days. Of course removing the caffeine from coffee adds to the price.

Coffee shops are a cultural phenomenon, not unlike bars and taverns that sell more than the beverages that are consumed. They sell a meeting place, an ambiance, an escape from daily life.

And, at least here in Rapid City, we seem to have an appetite for whatever it is that they sell.

I guess I should add that making a premium cup of coffee at home isn’t a difficult task. We have a pod coffee maker in our office at work. The convenience and easy clean-up of that system comes at a healthy price, but it is still a lot less expensive than a cup purchased in a coffee shop. Although I think coffee shop workers deserve fair wages, they are doing work that one can easily do for oneself.

We don’t seem to be intimidated by the price of coffee.

One year our church was doing a “second effort” pledge drive and I gave up purchasing coffee in coffee shops and instead gave the money to the pledge drive. It was a generous donation. Another time, I wanted a large number of clamps for a boat building project. I allowed my self one clamp for each day that I did not purchase any brewed coffee. I had the needed clamps in less than a month. I seem to go back to purchasing coffee in coffee shops even though I am aware of the savings, however.

It would be easy for me to criticize the foolishness of those who go to coffee shops every day, but it would also be hypocritical. I’ve dropped more of our family’s financial resources in coffee shops than makes sense.

If someone on the street asks you for a dollar for a cup of coffee, you should probably give him the dollar and then follow him to find out where he’s getting coffee for $1 a cup. Actually, I think fast food restraints and convenience stores are still selling coffee at around $1 a cup and some of those places make pretty good coffee. They are not, however, experiencing the growth in numbers or profits that is occurring in high end coffee shops.

We humans are really rather strange beings. I’m not sure that i understand why we do what we do. Watching us, however, is great entertainment.

It will be interesting to see how many coffee shops there will be in town a decade from now.

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 suicide - again

South Dakota state epidemiologist Josh Clayton told the House Health and Human Services Committee that suicide rates set a record high in 2017. That is the third year in a row that this has occurred. While the final numbers have not yet been released, there were more suicides in 2017 than the record 173 in 2016, which was higher than the record 161 in 2016.

South Dakota ranks 13th in the nation for suicide rate, with 18.6 self-inflicted deaths per 100,000 compared to the national average of 13.9.

While I’m citing statistics, it is important to note that Native Americans die by suicide at 1.8 times the rate for whites. Veterans die by suicide at double the rate for those who have not served in the armed forces.

Having started today’s journal entry with statistics, I must continue by saying that the tragedy of suicide is not about statistics. I personally responded to more suicides in 2017 than in 2016. I got up in the middle of the night more often. I drove more miles to b with families. I struggled to recruit volunteers to assist more than ever before. But I am not alone.

We have organized well here in the Black Hills. Our LOSS team has been recognized as one of the best teams in the nation and the team that is best integrated into law enforcement in the United States. Our trainers are reaching out beyond the boundaries of our county, providing training statewide as much as we are able within the limits of a small organization. Our Front Porch Coalition turns very modest resources into powerful prevention training while at the same time providing volunteers to respond 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

In December the Board of Directors authorized thousands of dollars to be invested in sending two Front Porch Coalition employees to the latest training for trainers in suicide prevention. By keeping our employees equipped with the highest levels of training we are able to not only provide the latest research-based resources to our community, but also to provide training for other communities in our state. We are on the front lines of changing the statistics in South Dakota.

South Dakota now requires schools to provide suicide awareness training. We are helping them to provide the latest and best training that is available.

It is a simple fact that most people thinking about suicide don’t actually want to die. They need someone who can help then choose to stay alive. It is equally true that when someone dies by suicide the loss affects those closest to that person in very deep ways. Losing a loved one to suicide roughly doubles one’s risk of dying of suicide themselves.

As I have already written in this journal, I do not understand why the Mayor and City Council of Rapid City do not think that investing in suicide prevention is a priority. It baffles me. But we will continue to work in our city despite the lack of their support. We have strong partnerships with our schools, law enforcement, churches and other important community institutions.

One of the saints of suicide prevention in Rapid City is a close friend of mine and a member of our congregation. Laura Boyd lost her son to suicide nearly 24 years ago. She has transformed her grief into service by becoming educated and working tirelessly for suicide prevention. The Survivors of Suicide Support group that she organized and still leads has served our community for more than two decades. She was instrumental in folding the Front Porch Coalition and the LOSS team. She has sought out training not only for herself, but has supported training of professionals and volunteers alike in our community. Part of the reason that I continue to be involved, sometimes near to the limits of my energy, is that I am inspired by Laura. Her dedication to the community and to the service of others is an example for me. If I am tired because my sleep is interrupted, I know she has responded to more calls than I. If I am discouraged because politicians are reluctant to speak of suicide, I know that she has persisted longer than I. She stays out in front of us as a shining example of what we can aspire to become. I am grateful that she is in my life and in the life of our community.

I want to set new records for Rapid City and for South Dakota. I believe that it is reasonable to set new record LOWS for suicide rates. I have witnessed effective suicide prevention. I have seen the results of successful mental illness treatment. Setting that kind of record, however, will require risk and investment.

I know that it is not popular to speak of any limits on gun ownership in our state. I also know that half of our suicides are by gun and that a large percentage of those who die by suicide use someone else’s guns. Common sense security items such as gun safes and trigger locks are effective to reduce suicide.

I know that it is not popular to speak of spending government money, but the lack of reasonable mental health services in our communities is not, as hospitals, and members of our state government will tell you, “a lack of beds.” We don’t have a furniture problem in South Dakota. We have a funding problem in South Dakota. As long as our legislature is unwilling to invest the needed money in mental health services, we will lack those services. And the cost to our state will continue to rise. Not investing in prevention costs more money in the long run.

I know that I am a lousy politician. I have no desire to do appear before legislative committees. I hope that they will listen to Josh Clayton and State Health Secretary Kim Malsam-Rysdon when they testify about preventable deaths. Suicide is a pressing public health issue.

It is clear to me that I will keep writing on this topic for years to come. I cringe at the pain that lies ahead for victims. I refuse, however, to be silent or to give up hope.

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 busy day

As I woke this morning I did my usual mental exercise of going through the day ahead and thinking about the highlights. I have a meeting in the morning, a funeral in the early afternoon and a late afternoon budget session with our church’s Department of Stewardship and Budget. Thee meeting is routine. There was a time when every budget session caused me considerable anxiety. After all my salary is a big part of the church’s budget. I care about the entire budget of the church. Sometimes numbers budgeted for programs cause me more alarm than those for my salary. That is true of other people who work at the church as well. They work for the church because they believe in its mission, when that mission seems to be threatened, it can be very upsetting to them. Program items in the budget are relatively small. You can’t make substantive cuts or balance the budget on the back of the programs of the church. Our budget is driven by salaries and the costs of owning and maintaining a building, most notably by energy costs. Some people, when approaching the church budget see these areas as fixed expenses and program as the only part of the budget over which there is discretion. And I’ve been in enough church meetings to know that very little time is spent on the income side of the budget. People are good at basic math. They can see that expenses and income need to match, but they rarely think that the solution to an out of balance budget is to figure out how to increase income. They don’t like asking others for money. They don’t want to have to think about their own giving too closely. This is true even in a congregation like ours where we are very laid back about soliciting pledges and donations. We haven’t begun to tap the deep generosity of our congregation. Still I will need to be prepared to defend small programs and mission projects that are in our annual budget.

So you can tell I’m uptight about the budget meeting. I may be a bit more relaxed than was the case earlier in my career, but every budget meeting makes me a bit nervous. Having said that, however, the truth is that our congregation has a very capable and caring team working on the budget. They are not going to sabotage the ministries of the church. They could be left alone - I could be called away from participating in the meeting - and the results would be in the best interests of the church. I know in my mind that I can trust the people and the process. Still a bit of anxiety remains.

But I don’t have room for that anxiety today and I need to lay it aside. “Consider the lilies of the field.” Set aside your worries. It is frequent advice from Jesus and much needed in my day.

I am nervous about every funeral. And I should be. For the grieving family it is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Every word I say is important. They deserve my focused attention and the best I have to offer. No matter what was going through my mind as I woke this morning, there are four children with their families and a widow who have already or soon will awake with one thought - today is the day of our father’s funeral. Life can never return to the way it was for them. As confident as they are about his personal faith, as trusting as they are in the power of resurrection, as deep is their gratitude and no matter how few regrets they have, today is still a major tuning point in their lives. The love, care and nurture of the church that surrounds them is critical.

Funerals are exhausting for me. When we finally get to the moments of saying good bye to the family, I’m ready for a nap. I know from experience, however, that they are even more exhausting for the grieving family. They have been wrestling with their emotions all day long. They have been greeting friends and listening to tributes to their loved ones. Grief takes a lot of energy and it leaves you very tired. I, who am generously supported by the congregation to be available to the family, have nothing about which to complain. Of course funerals are hard work and I have the privilege of having been given work that is not only hard, but also filled with purpose. My work is meaningful and worth of my time. That makes me a very fortunate person. There are those whose work is not the center of their meaning. It is something they do to earn income, but not what is most meaningful to them.

I am aware, however, that I need to have a balance of focus and of big picture. Today’s service is a very important part of the lives of those whom I serve, but it is not the whole picture. After the funeral they will go off to their homes in other parts of the country and return to lives that are complex and challenging. This day is not the only day. It is not even the only day of grief. It is one of many days - part of a lifetime filled with decisions and challenges and events that are important.

While officiating at a funeral requires intense focus, my role in the community requires that I keep the big picture in mind. I need to remember that yesterday I met with two individuals who show great promise as they move toward official recognized ministry in the church. I need to support and nurture their leadership. I have members of my community in the hospital and in nursing homes that need my attention and care. There is a couple to whom I wanted to take communion this week, and that has been put off to next week. They also need my care. The list goes on and on.

So thank you, God for allowing me to wake this morning and to have a day filled with purpose. Bless me with courage and stamina, focus and vision. And, if possible, grant me the humility to understand that this day is not about me. Give your love and grace to the people I serve.

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!

Enjoying our State Bird

A delicious aroma filled our home when I arrived yesterday evening after a long day of meetings and other activities. We were having pheasant noodle soup for dinner. I had cooked pheasant for dinner on Monday evening and the leftovers were incorporated into a delicious soup with noodles and vegetables for last night’s meal. Mmmm . . .

I think that South Dakota is unique among the states in the fact that we hunt and eat our state bird. Actually I don’t hunt anymore and I never did hunt birds, but I have friends who are skillful hunters and they share the bounty of their fall harvest with us by supplying a few pheasants for our freezer. The other states where we have lived have had state birds that are too small to make for much nutrition if eaten. Montana and North Dakota both have the Western Meadowlark as their state bird. Illinois chose the Northern Cardinal and Idaho claims the Mountain Bluebird as its state bird. They all are relatively small birds when compared with the ring-necked pheasant.

Unlike all of the other states where we have lived, South Dakota has chosen a bird that stays in the state all year long. The other states’ birds are snowbirds that spend their winters in warmer southern climates. I think it is kind of nice that we have chosen a bird that is at least willing to spend the winter with us.

We are also unique, however, in having chosen a state bird that is not a native. In the spring of 1881, United States counsel general Owen Nickerson Denny and his wife Gertrude Jane Hall Denny shipped pheasants, along with other Chinese birds and plants from Shanghai to Oregon in hopes of establishing a population there. Most of the pheasants died traveling from Port Townsend on the Olympic Peninsula to Portland, Oregon. It is uncertain whether any of the birds from this first shipment remained to establish a population in the US, but subsequent shipments of pheasants in 1882 and 1884 were successful in populating Oregon and Washington with the birds. The birds were exported from Oregon and Washington to other states and now they have such firmly established populations that they seem native to much of the United States. They certainly behave like locals here in South Dakota, populating farm fields, highway barrow pits and much of the open prairie of our state.

The birds are quite attractive, with their brightly colored feathers, but their behavior doesn’t engender much sympathy from those of us who enjoy them as an occasional source of food. Like other poultry, they seem to have a lot of body and a very small amount of brain. Their success at thriving in the sometimes harsh winters of South Dakota is somewhat offset by their erratic behavior of running and flying straight into traffic on our state’s roads. It has been quite a while since I last hit one with a vehicle. That was back in 2005 when my “unbreakable” headlight in a new pickup truck proved to be so, though the same was not true of the cheap plastic bracket that held the headlight and is a good seller for parts dealers at about $85 each. The damage to vehicles and people is relatively light, however, compared with other critters that are known to wander the roads around here. This fall friends encountered a black angus cow on a dark highway in Wyoming and that was the end of that car, though luckily no people were injured in the accident.

The South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks and the conservation organization Pheasants Forever conduct annual surveys to count the birds. Hunting is allowed only of roosters to keep the population strong. The biggest threat to healthy populations of the birds, however, isn’t the roads or hunting, but rather the loss of habitat. Harsh winters and drought conditions also contribute to declines in the population. We hit our modern day low in population in 2013 when the roadside count was 1.52 birds per mile and an estimated 6.2 million birds were in the state. The harvest that year was just under a million birds. The 2017 count was higher in some areas, and the harvest was similar to recent years at around a million birds. The addition of more acres of Conservation Reserve Program lands has combined with landowners providing more walk in hunting access points to keep pheasant hunters happy and excited about each season.

As I have said, I’ve never practiced the art of hunting birds, but I don’t mind eating them from time to time. I joke that if I were forced to living off of the land, my first step would be to leave some cracked corn in my backyard shed and slam the door when the turkeys go inside to get the corn. Other than that and our modest backyard garden, I don’t have the skills or equipment to provide my own food. I’m pretty dependent on all of the producers and distributors who keep the shelves stocked at the grocery store. The peas and carrots in last night’s soup didn’t come from our garden and the durum wheat from which the pasta was made didn’t come from around here - most likely it is from North Dakota.

An awful lot of the food that we eat does quite a bit of traveling before it gets to our table. I have read that the average American can save more fuel by the choices of food to eat than by choices about driving their car. It’s probably true. I’ve gotten used to eating apples and oranges year round. We like fresh spinach every week regardless of the weather outside. We’re not too big on processed food in our house but we’ve been known to snack on dried apricots that were shipped from Turkey from time to time.

It is probably better for the world for us to sit down to supper of our state bird than some of the foods that we eat, even if our state bird is an immigrant. I did really enjoy the soup and there is enough left over for lunch today, too.

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 Winter Games are Coming

It was about 30 years ago I was into winter sports a lot more than is currently the case. I was active in cross country and downhill skiing, had a season pass to the local downhill area, which featured night skiing and was about a half hour’s drive from my home, and was working on improving my telemarking technique. I used three or four different sets of skis and was a big fan of Warren Miller skiing movies. I purchased my ski pass on the spring sale and was skiing after the snow turned hard and icy. There was always a ski rack on the roof of my car and I often had a set of skis up there.

I also was a fan of watching winter sports. In fact, we were laying plans to travel to Calgary in February of 1988 to attend the winter Olympics. I had a cousin who lived in Calgary and we were planning to travel to Calgary with my mother, who would provide child care part of the time so that we could attend outdoor events. We felt that our children would benefit from seeing the olympic village and the crowds of people from all around the world. We carefully selected the events we wanted to see, balancing our desire to watch big stadium events such as figure skating with a desire to watch at least some outdoor events. Then we got the big, official looking envelope in the mail that informed us that we had been the victims of a ticket scam. Our check had been seized by officials and would not be cashed, but was being held as evidence in the case. Olympic officials were offering us the opportunity to purchase tickets to selected events if we responded by a very close deadline. We read through the list of available tickets. There were no stadium events. There were no events to which we would consider taking our children. The only events involved standing outdoors for many hours. I know that biathlon is a challenging sport, but when competitors race against the clock, it doesn’t have the same visual effect as speed skating. And the sport lacks the thrill of watching slalom skiers running the gates. We decided that the 88 games were not for us.

OK, a short break for trivia. I know 30 years isn’t divisible by four, but there were really winter games in 1988. Back then the winter and summer games took place in the same year. But the Olympic committee had already decided to place the summer and winter games on separate cycles to have them in offsetting years, so we got back-to-back winter games in 1992 and then again in 1994 so that the current system could be observed.

I’ve paid attention to the Winter Olympics for as long as I can remember, though I’m a bit less likely to watch the games on television these days and I certainly don’t keep up with the competitors like I once did. When I think of the games, I remember several moments that probably won’t go don in history as the highlights, but were nonetheless fun for me.

In 1998, at Nagano, Japan, Picabo Street won the Super G Gold medal after having won the downhill at the 1996 World Championships. We had recently moved from Idaho to South Dakota and Picabo was a local hero in Idaho, especially on Bald Mountain at Sun Valley. We skied there only once or twice a year. It was expensive, except on all Idaho day, when our lift tickets from our local hill were accepted at all of the ski resorts in Idaho. But I had seen Picabo on the hill and in the lodge and had a sense of here connections with the state. Her name, after all comes from the town of Picabo, not far from Sun Valley.

Then in 2002, we watched the opening of the Salt Lake Games on television with the grand opening ceremonies with music composed by John Williams and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir singing in the stadium. I purchased a recording of the music from that event and get it out from time to time announcing that it is the theme song I had composed for my wife’s birthday, which was the same day as the opening ceremonies.

So, yes, I plan to pay attention on February 9 - 25 this year when the XXIII Olympic Winter Games are held in PyeongChang, Korea. It was recently announced that North Korea will send a team to the games, the first sign of meaningful talks between North Korea and other countries after a season of saber rattling and threats and dangerous expansion of nuclear weapons. It is helpful to think of fair competition in such a threatening situation.

Then, of course, there is the specter of cheating hanging over all of the Olympic games. The International Olympic Committee has banned Russia from sending a team to this year’s games, with only certain Russian athletes allowed to compete under the designation Olympic Athlete from Russia (OAR). There will be no playing of the Russian anthem or display of the Russian flag at these games. It has to do with a long-standing controllers of the used of banned drugs to enhance the performance of athletes. The doping scandal has left a scar on the celebrations not only this year, but it affects how we think of the games in general.

So I’m paying attention to news about the games, but I don’t have the enthusiasm I once had for them. And I realized not long ago that I have come to a different place in my life. I used to think that attending the winter games was one thing that I would accomplish at some point in my life. It was an item on a sort of informal list of things I wanted to do. Now I realize that I don’t really care if I live my whole life without attending the games. I can watch and pay attention from a distance without needing to be there in person. Maybe it is part of aging. Maybe it comes from the perspective of having watched from afar for so many years. Whatever the reason, I’m comfortable with the games proceeding without me.

I’ll still watch on the computer, 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!

Festival of light

One of the ways we tell our story begins like this:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life,[a] and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

Light is one of the most important themes of the season of epiphany. Living in the northern hemisphere, you can see why thoughts of light dominate this season. Ancients would watch as the days got shorter and shorter and the sun’s peak moved closer and closer to the horizon. They noticed that their world was getting colder and closer with the diminishing of light. The elders, those who had experienced many winters, promised that the light would return, that the days would grow longer and the world would grow warmer once again, but nobody knew how much time it would take. Winters varied in length and severity. Tools for measuring were rudimentary at best. Even knowing the time of day or keeping the count of the number of days was imprecise. In a time before organized religion the people prayed without even knowing to whom they were praying. To some the sun itself was like a god. Light was associated with life and light and life became major themes of our story and how we talk about who we are.

As the institution of the church was formed and a calendar of celebrations emerged, the season of Epiphany emerged between Christmas and Lent. We began to speak of Jesus as the light of God made manifest. We formed ceremonies that included the lighting of candles and liturgies that used the word light in many different contexts. We told stories of the Magi following a great star - a mysterious light that appeared in the night sky to announce the birth of the messiah, who came not only to Jews, but to the entire world. The feat of Epiphany became a festival of light. Traditions of light and ceremonies of light began to spread outside of the season. Christmas lights became common in anticipation of the festival of Epiphany.

This year, the natural world has given us several opportunities to think about light. January began with a full moon - the first of two full moons falling in January this year. We don’t get a full moon in February, 2018. On January 1 and 2 we saw the brightest and closest moon of the year. The full moon coincided with the closest lunar perigee of 2018 giving us what has come to be called a supermoon. We also experienced a supermen on December 3 and will get one more, on January 31.

With the snow on the ground, and the bright moon, night hasn’t seemed to be so dark for this first week of the new year. I wake in the night and see light streaming through the windows of my home. It seems to be reassuring and even with cold temperatures outside, the presence of the light makes one hopeful that warmer days are coming.

The supermoon hasn’t been the only amazing and beautiful natural phenomenon of this first week of the new year. We’ve also been treated to sundogs. When there are ice crystals in the upper atmosphere, it appears as if there are two brightly colored spots, one on either side of the sun. These can extend to arcs, and on certain occasions it will look as if there is a rainbow halo surrounding the sun. Sundogs have appeared several days this week.

Then on Friday, those looking towards the eastern side of our city were treated to another amazing light show. The day had been foggy all day long and as the city moved toward darkness light pillars began to appear. Like sundogs, light pillars appear because of ice crystals in the air. They make it appear that light sources on the horizon extend up into the air. Looking at the city from the hills made it look like it was filled with these beautiful pillars of light extending up from the city.

Living in the hills this week brings thoughts of light to mind and with that a deep sense of gratitude for the light that is present in the world. Of course when we speak of light, we speak of more than the phenomena of physics. We also speak of enlightenment of our minds and brightness of spirit, concepts that are much more difficult to define and explain than the natural phenomena of this world. Nonetheless we understand the value of a bright spirit, especially when we feel that we are living in dark times. We learn to look for signs of hope and can feel our spirits lift when we recognize the presence of hope in our lives.

Being witness to such beauty and hope brings to mind those who lack light. This winter, I am especially aware of those in Puerto Rico, which was devastated by Hurricane Maria. The 140 mile per hour winds left only 20% of the cell phone towers on the island standing. The entire power grid of Puerto Rico was destroyed leaving all customers without electricity. Life has been particularly hard for those who continue to live without access to electricity months after the storm has passed. It has been estimated that it will take an entire year to restore light to all of Puerto Rico.

Being dependent upon the natural cycles of sunrise and sunset has changed routines across the island. Nights are long, but days seem long as well as temperatures rise and people know they will not have access to air conditioning. High temperatures combine with high humidity to make the tasks of walking to obtain scarce resources such as food and water especially challenging.

It becomes incumbent upon those of us who are experiencing such abundant gifts of light to share. Pray for Puerto Rico and its people. See out ways to participate in supporting them by donating and sharing in the ways you are able.

It is, after all, the spirit of the season.

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!

Made for relationship

Meeting with families who have lost loved ones to death in the past week, the overwhelming sense I get is one of gratitude. People are grateful for the persons in their lives and the relationships they have shared. Despite the pain of loss, which is very real, there is a deeper sense of thankfulness for the time shared together. I’ve heard stories of everyday life, some humorous, some poignant. I’ve been told stories of travel and new experiences, of family meals and holidays, of conversations and quiet times shared together.

There is no doubt in my mind that we humans are made for relationship. We need each other. One of the versions of creation that has long been told by our people is in the second chapter of the book of Genesis. In that way of telling the story, God is engaged in hands on creative work, planting a garden, causing rain to fall and creates the first human out of the dust of the ground. Trees spring up, food is abundant, a river flows, minerals are abundant. Then God realizes that “It is not good that the man should be alone.” Animals and beasts follow. They receive their names, but somehow they aren’t quite the right companion until God takes one side of Adam and forms a woman. The second chapter of Genesis concludes by commenting on the process of a child leaving the family of origin and forming a new family.

The creation stories of Genesis tell a lot of things about our people and our beliefs. They arose in their current forms out of a time of exile and cultural upheaval when the people of Israel faced near extinction, not only of their ideas and culture, but physical extinction of their family lines. In that time of crisis we began to form a consistent way of telling the stories of who we are and where we came from. Central to those stories was our desire and need for relationship with others.

It makes sense that we would tell the stories this way because our experience of God has consistently been one of God’s presence being that of relationship. God is not somehow distant from human experience, but rather engaged fully in what it means to be human. God becoming human is the core of our Christmas story and the heart of the Christian faith. We speak not only of Jesus’ human presence, but also of the trinity - God in relationship at the very core of God’s being.

And when relationships are good they can be very very good.

This is not to say that we don’t experience pain in relationships. We are capable of taking others for granted, of being selfish, of cruelty and abuse. Humans have done some pretty terrible things to one another. I hear stories of shattered trust, wounded feelings and broken relationships frequently in my work with people. Sometimes I wonder how we are capable of being so cruel to one another. I read about world leaders bragging about the size and potency of their weaponry as if their actions had no impact on millions of innocent victims and I wonder how they could be so blind. The twentieth century taught us that humans are capable of unthinkable war and destruction and genocide and cruelty.

Our people have struggled to tell those stories over the centuries as well. It is enough to make a serious person question the presence and even the goodness of God. A reading trip through the Psalms and Lamentations reminds us that ours is not the first generation of our people to raise deep existential questions about the nature of God and the nature of humans.

Yet, in the midst of all of this, I discover genuine love. I sit with people who tell me the stories of how good their human companions have been, of how wonderful their marriages turned out, of what good parents they had, and of how grateful they are for the experiences of this life. When I am tempted to be cynical about human beings, I sit and listen and they teach me another story.

There are occasions when our desire for relationship leads us into unhealthy relationships and once so engaged it is difficult to find a way towards more healthy relationships. From observation of others I would say that it is far more difficult to extract oneself from a bad marriage than it is to fall into one. But when a marriage is good, life is very good and we continue to seek that kind of a relationship.

The season of Epiphany is, for me, one of developing relationships. At Christmas we once again discover the power of spirit infused into material form - incarnation. We delight in the gift of spirit-infused humanity. We discover God’s intense desire for intimate relationship with us. In Epiphany we discover the responsibility of sharing that good news with others and of living the day to day realities of being in relationship with others. If each person is infused with God’s spirit, and if we are called into relationship with that spirit wherever we discover it, we have a responsibility to develop new relationships - to share the story in new settings - to expand the web of connections of the spirit.

God exists for relationship. We are made in the image of God. We exist for relationship with one another. Sometimes I have to remind myself that we exist for all of those relationships, not just for the easy ones. My phone rings when I am engaged in enjoying a particular activity. I don’t appreciate the interruption. The caller expresses a problem to which I do not have a solution. I don’t always know the right way to respond. Sometimes I have to say no to a request without dismissing the one who asks. I don’t want to foster lopsided relationships. Paternalism might be easy, but it is rarely conducive to long term relationships.

With luck and care, however, I pray that I can live my life in such a way that when I come to the points of looking back I will discover gratitude for the days I have been granted. It is indeed a blessing.

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!

Epiphany 2018

Happy Epiphany! Now that I’ve given you the greeting, I do have to confess that we don’t make much of a celebration of the holiday here in the United States. We have had a few fun family nights to recognize Epiphany in our church, but for the most part, in the popular culture, holiday celebrations have ended around the country. New Year’s Day is the end of our holiday season when it comes to most schools and businesses.

There are quite a few fun Epiphany Day traditions around the world. Children in Italy are delighting today in finding stockings filled with sweets and treats. I don’t know the history of the tradition, but local stories tell of Befana, an old lady who is a kind of trickster. Befana is pictured with missing teeth and jeering eyes. The legend is that she gives candy to good children and coal, or sometimes garlic to those who have been naughty. In Rome you can buy multi-colored statuettes of Befana. Italians place them on a high shelf in their home.

In Quebec and many other places, there is a tradition of gâteau des rois, or king cake. It is a golden cake with flaky layers and a rich frangipane filling. In Latin American cities they call it 3 kings cake called rosca de reyes and the recipe is different. Inside there is a little figurine of a baby, to represent Jesus. Whoever gets the piece of cake with the baby inside of it is obligated to throw a party on February 2, dia de la Candelaria. Rosca is often dipped into hot chocolate when eaten.

The dutch celebrate by blowing horns and noise makers.

Many Epiphany traditions focus on the eve of Epiphany - last night - the twelfth night, marking the end of 12 days of Christmas. It is the traditional day to take down the Christmas tree and store Christmas decorations. Community bonfires to burn old Christmas trees and greenery are also traditional in some places.

The two sides of the Great Schism, Eastern and Western Christianity have different calendars when it comes to the major holidays. In the Eastern Church, Christmas Eve falls on January 6 and Epiphany comes on January 19. Many Russian Orthodox churches have a tradition of taking a plunge into icy waters to commemorate the baptism of Jesus by John in the River Jordan. The Bible makes no mention of having to break a hole in the ice with axes in order to take a dip, but that is the tradition in parts of the north.

Christmas is a newer celebration in the church, arising in the third century and it really wasn’t until the 19th century that Christmas was seen as a more important holiday than Epiphany. Many of the gift-giving traditions of Christmas originally started as Epiphany celebrations and later were moved and adapted to Christmas.

It makes sense, then that we take a look at the meaning of this festival day. The word Epiphany comes from Greek and means a manifestation of the divine. It can also carry a sense of surprises and wonder. Sometimes the word is used to describe a sudden revelation. The tradition is that the magi, mentioned only in Matthew’s Gospel arrived to worship the infant Jesus and brought gifts with them. Because they were scholars from far away, it is also the tradition that these visitors were not members of the Jewish community. This visit becomes important during the early centuries of the church because there was an active debate about whether the messiah was the savior of all people or just the savior of faithful Jews. This debate has long since been forgotten in the dominant conclusion that Jesus comes to Jew and Gentile alike, but this was not always the case. The fact that the story of gentile visitors from far away coming to the Christ child appears in only one Gospel attests to the fact that it was deemed more important in some parts of the early church than in others.

Maybe we’ve long held mixed feelings about Epiphany.

In our church, the Sunday after the day of Epiphany is recognized as Baptism of Christ. Generally, unless Epiphany day lands on a Sunday we probably give more recognition to the Baptism of Christ than to Epiphany. Baptism is seen as a uniting sacrament in the church. We all share in the same baptism as Christ and by sharing in that baptism we also share in Christ’s resurrection. The symbolic gesture of placing water on the forehead or immersing one in water is the mark of entrance into the Christian community. Some years we have a formal baptism remembrance ceremony as part of our recognition of the Baptism of Christ. We also have baptismal remembrance as part of the Great Vigil of Easter, the first celebration of Easter at the end of Holy Week.

Like other Christian holidays, Epiphany has some modern expressions that probably come from traditions that existed before Christianity. Christmas greenery is one of those traditions. Although Christmas trees are now seen as expressions of Christian faith, it is likely that bringing evergreen boughs into homes was a practice in northern climates that is older than Christianity itself. The church has long adapted celebrations and activities from other cultures as it grows and spreads.

However you recognize the festival, there is value in keeping the celebrations of the season going for an extended period. The joy of Christmas - the miracle of spirit infusing the material - is more than just a single day’s event. It is a reality that continues every day and is a part of every life that is aware of our connections to that which is beyond. A dozen days of celebration is, in a way, insufficient for the depth of the revelation we have received.

So I greet you with a hearty “Happy Epiphany!” and I pray that you will experience good health, joy and love in the year to come.

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!

New uses for existing buildings

A couple of local news articles has gotten me to thinking about prospects for new uses for older buildings. I’m always intrigued about how an existing building can be re-purposed for a new life. Each day I drive by what was a funeral chapel in our town that is for sale and doesn’t appear to have any eager customers at this time. I also drive by another former funeral chapel that is a day care center. The one that is still for sale is probably not the best address for a day care center. I think that there are a few congregations in our town who might consider it for use as a church, but it has a couple of problems. It is probably over priced for a church of that size to buy. And it has the big garage that is space that a church just doesn’t need. Still it might be converted with relatively small amounts of remodeling.

The two news stories are about the sale of the former Star Academy by the State of South Dakota and the Sears Holdings announcement that it is closing an additional 103 stores - 64 Kmart stores and 39 Sears stores. That is after more than 400 stores were closed last year. On the list for closure is the Sears store in Rapid City, one of the anchors of our only enclosed shopping mall. The mall lost its Target store a few years ago and it took a long time for them to find another renter. That store is now occupied by a company called At Home that sells home furnishings, rugs, and other related items. But there is no doubt that the mall is not as attractive nor as fully occupied as was the case a couple of decades ago. It seems likely that Rapid City is over built when it comes to retail space. The times are changing. More and more retail sales are made online and brick and mortar stores are less attractive and less successful than once was the case. We have a lot of places for shopping and the mall doesn’t seem to be the kind of destination for shoppers as was once the case.

That gets me to thinking about what else a community like ours might do with the space. There are already quite a few examples of things located in the mall that are not retail stores. The AARP office is in a mall storefront as well as the Armed Forces Recruiting Center, a marshal arts studio, the South Dakota Department of Motor Vehicles, a Spa, an Income Tax preparation service, a church, a Police Sub Station, a theatre group, and a Social Security Service Center. I wonder what kind of tenant might want the large space currently occupied by the Sears Store. The space doesn’t lend itself well into becoming apartments or town houses. It wouldn’t easily be made into a health care center. It would be hard to divide up into office space. It isn’t right for a school. I can think of a lot of things that wouldn’t work, but I’m not coming up with good ideas for what the space might become if it turns out that there is not a major retailer interested in renting the space.

The other space in the news is the former Star Academy. The facility, located on a beautiful campus in the heart of the Black Hills was once a state run juvenile detention and rehabilitation facility. Changes in law enforcement and juvenile incarceration have made the campus unnecessary in today’s climate. That is a good thing, but it seems to me to be a bit sad that the State proceeded to a bargain-basement sale of the property instead of thinking of how it might be repurposed for the service of people in our state. We clearly need a state mental health treatment center in the western part of our state. The state’s two existing facilities in Redfield and Yankton aren not well situated to provide crisis relief for those suffering from mental illness in our community and both claim to have a shortage of beds, although I suspect that the problem has nothing to do with furniture and everything to do with staffing. I could imagine the state investing some money in developing the Star Academy space into a multi-purpose treatment center for addiction, acute mental illness, and other much needed services, but that possibility is now lost as the property has been sold. I suspect that the buyers have a vision for developing the property and I wish them success in their venture, but it is sad to have the church exchange such an irreplaceable resource for a bit of money. We all know how fast the state goes through money. The money, I’m sure, will soon be gone.

I can’t imagine the Sears Store being remodeled into an acceptable treatment facility for those suffering from addiction or mental illness. Maybe an architect with a better imagination than mine could see such a possibility, but it doesn’t seem like a good use of the existing space to my way of thinking.

Rapid City Collective Impact envisions turning a former college campus into a comprehensive facility for providing a huge range of services to homeless people. I haven’t caught up with their vision, but it is worth consideration. At least they are thinking about repurposing existing buildings. The Sheriff is nearing completion of a remodeling of one of the campus buildings into a drug and alcohol treatment facility. It appears to be an improvement over the existing City/County Alcohol Treatment Center. It will be easier to staff than the existing facility because it is right across the street from the courthouse and convenient for staff sharing with existing Sheriff’s Office functions.

So I’m hoping that all of the changes in our community will be accompanied by creative thinkers who can envision new purposes for old buildings as opposed to tearing down the buildings and replacing them. Time will tell what will happen.

In the meantime, I can’t think of anything that I want to buy from Sears before the store closes in April. I guess that is part of the problem.

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!

Checking the Mail

I grew up in a town that didn’t have home mail delivery. Mail was delivered to the Post Office, where families could rent boxes for their mail. There was also the possibility of general delivery for those who did not have boxes. Our mail address was P.O. Box 177. The system provided not only a reliable method of communication, but also an important point of social contact. People knew about what time the mail was delivered to the boxes each day and drifted towards the post office at about the same time as their neighbors. As our family business grew, the volume of our mail and therefore the size of our box grew and we graduated to a box with a letter instead of a number.

My first personal mailbox was part of my college experience. We had mailboxes in the Student Union building accessed by keys that were issued at the same time as we received the keys to our dorm rooms. I got into a routine of checking the mail every day when I went to the Student Union building for my meals. I remember a sense of anticipation as I watched for letters from home and other items that might show up in the mail.

We had a bank of mailboxes in our apartment building when we lived in Chicago and returned to a small town post office for our years in North Dakota. In Idaho we had delivery directly to our home and had a mailbox near the front door of our home. Here, we have a bank of mailboxes down the street.

My attitude towards the mail has changed over the years, however. With the rise of email, there is less personal mail, though we still have many friends who send real paper cards and letters at Christmas time. The rest of the year, our mail falls into two categories: bills and advertisements. The bills are getting fewer and fewer each year as we go to electronic communications for those items. Many of our routine bills such as utilities and mortgage payments are automated and come out of our checking account each month. Our bank statements and other official documents now are delivered through the bank web site. Our electric bill still comes in the mail as well as the city water and garbage bill, even though those bills are paid by electronic funds withdrawal. The city and county still send our tax statements through the mail. And we are old fashioned to still file our income taxes on paper forms, though we obtain the forms by downloading them from the IRS web site.

There seems to be no way, however, to stem the flow of unwanted advertisements that come through the mail. Companies obtain our address through several different means. Those with whom we do online business, get our address from our orders. We give them both our billing address and delivery address, which in our case is usually the same. They use that address to mail us catalogues and flyers and offers. I’ve never figured out how the fascination with catalogues continues. We don’t use catalogues to guide our purchases for companies whose products we find online. They mail us a catalogue and it goes straight into the recycling bin. Some of those companies must invest more in printing and mailing catalogues to us than the amount of profit they have made from our purchases. There is one company that sends multiple catalogues to our home and duplicates of all of those catalogues to the church and we probably have done less than $10 worth of business with them in the past 5 years. I don’t have a clue how to get them to stop mailing catalogues.

Some are almost embarrassing. I once ordered a small part for a boat from a company back east and had it delivered to the church, because I was not anticipating being home to receive the package. Since that order, the company mails its catalogues of high-end and very expensive yacht accessories and clothing to the church. I’m not exactly a member of the yacht club and I’m not inclined to purchase clothing in that price range, but the catalogues keep coming.

A lot of companies focus on selling clothing. REI, the outdoor equipment cooperative, of which I have been a member for nearly 40 years, used to be a place for specialty items such as climbing ropes, tents and other outdoor gear. Their catalogue is now primarily clothing. Even Wooden Boat and Lee Valley Tools have clothing sections in their catalogues these days. I’m not all that interested in paying money to wear clothing with and advertising logo on it.

The result of all of this is that I’ve lost that sense of excitement about checking the mail. Most days, I don’t even go to the mailbox. My wife picks up the mail on her way home from work and places it on the table for me to sort. Much can go directly into the recycling bin. A couple of bills need to be paid and/or filed. I read some of the newsletters and magazines that we receive.

Yesterday, however, there was a fun bit of nostalgia in the mail. We got our Burpees Seed Catalogue. It reminded me of days past when the winter cold was given the added bonus of dreaming about spring with the arrival of the seed catalogue. Pages of pictures of lush gardens and healthy fruit trees give a way to imagine a garden that is far more productive and lush than the actual garden that we will have in the summer. We don’t order very many things from the seed catalogue these days - just a few corn and bean and squash seeds. Most of the rest of our garden items come from local sources. I harvest my own sunflower seeds and occasionally supplement with seed packets from the hardware store. We get our tomato plants from a local source. There is no way that the few seeds we order justify the cost of that full-color seed catalogue. But I like to look at the catalogue.

It is almost enough to get me excited about checking the mail.

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 importance of a funeral

One of life’s mysteries is the nature of time. We have our watches and calendars and other devices that seem to measure the passage of time, but none of them give an accurate measure of one of life’s most important numbers - the amount of time remaining before we die. I’s spent enough meaningful time with those whose medical diagnoses predict a statistical possibility that they would die in a very short amount of time to know that not everyone follows the course described by doctors. I’ve also been with families whose grief has come sooner than they thought and sooner than predicted by medical care givers. When I visit people who are hospitalized or receiving hospice treatment, I never know which visit will be the last one. I know that part of being a pastor is officiating at funerals, but I can’t predict which funeral will be the next one.

Part of being human is learning to live with the reality that we don’t really know when our time to die will come. We can claim to be ready and willing to accept our mortality, but exactly how we will react to the events that lead up to death is an unknown. I spend enough time in places of care and in contact with grieving families to know that death catches survivors buy surprise. Even when it is long anticipated the reality is different than the expectations. There are so many ways to die, that there is no accurate way of predicting.

And there is no single way of grieving when you lose a loved one. There are a few common behaviors and a few frequently asked questions, so I don’t go into a situation of meeting with grieving families totally unprepared. There are a few elements in funeral services that seem to help the family and the community grieve, but there are no absolutes.

Over the years, I have not only officiated at a lot of funerals, I also have attended a large number of funerals at which others have officiated. I’ve been at funerals that were well handled and well led and at other ones that were awkwardly led to the point that I would call them “botched” or at least a missed opportunity for ministry to the grieving. A few years ago, I wrote a book-length manuscript of reflections on the funeral service and the process of caring for grieving families. I never pursued the project to publication, but it is something that remains on the back burner for the future. I may have a few ideas that are worth offering to others.

In general one of the problems with contemporary funerals is that while we are good at saying that the person who has died was a good person who will be missed, we are not good at telling those who are gathered what that means or how that impacts the living that is yet to come. Sure, it is nice to say that the deceased was a very good person. But that doesn’t help those who are grieving to get to the next steps of living their lives. A celebration of life is often in order when we have witnessed a life well lived, but just saying that the deceased lived a good life is insufficient information for those whose lives continue.

Not infrequently I witness the death of the last member of a particular generation of a family. Often that person has been the driving force behind bringing together the next generation. I can sense, even while planning the funeral that those who remain have tensions between themselves and don’t know exactly how to maintain their relationships as they go forward. The death of a parent often brings out conflicts between siblings. It would be easy to ignore this or at least allow it to go unmentioned in the funeral service. But there are times when helping families to understand their own dynamics and the need for shifting relationships and learning to forgive can serve the survivors well.

A funeral is just one service. It can’t fix all of the problems of a family. It cannot soothe the raw feelings that exist. But it is an opportunity to serve those who are in a vulnerable point of their lives.

As a result, I don’t have a formula for the funerals at which I officiate. I can’t go into the computer and pull out a service that has already been prepared. One of the most important tasks in the preparation of a funeral service is listening. I have developed some skills and techniques for interviewing grieving family members. There are some questions that help people to work through the meanings that are emerging. For example asking family members to point out qualities and aspects of the deceased that they see in other family members can help them to understand that the impact of the loved one continues far into the future. Similarly, commenting on family pictures or memorabilia in the home can help to remind those who grieve that their memories are important and will not be lost. Mostly, however, I have learned to sit with those who are grieving and to listen carefully to what they say. Often I write a sentence or a few words down verbatim from our conversations to remind me of the character of those conversations when writing the service. Often the actual words of grieving family members can inform not only what I say but how I say it.

A funeral is never just for a family. It is also for the community. And the community and the family may be at very different places in their grief process. What I say must bring meaning to the community as well as the family. Death may be an intensely private reality, but a funeral is a distinctly public event. Balancing the needs of the entire congregation can be a challenge.

So, despite the other tasks that I had planned for this week and despite the other things on my list that must be accomplished, preparing a funeral must be a priority for me now. It is my way of honoring the one who has died - to serve those who grieve as well as I am able.

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!

Back to Work

It’s Tuesday morning and the thermometer is reading 1 degree Fahrenheit. That’s one degree on the right side of zero and the forecast calls for highs above freezing today - perhaps as warm as 38 degrees. Except for a little while yesterday afternoon and overnight we seem to have missed the coldest temperatures by traveling. It is also time to knuckle down and get to work. The beginning of the year is a busy time in the church as we prepare for an annual meeting, which includes formulating the budget - a task that is always a challenge, but one that our church does well. This week will also focus on immediate pastoral concerns as we prepare for the funeral of a long-time member of our community on Friday. Regular meetings resume with a return to activities that were suspended for the holidays. And I haven’t fully adjusted to the change in time zones, which was only one hour, so it won’t disrupt my activities.

There is, however, a part of me that doesn’t want to just return to the usual. A new year deserves some new initiatives. Part of what keeps the church moving forward is visionary leadership that continues to discern God’s call to the future. The members of the congregation don’t want the same old, same old, but they also resist change. There is a need for a degree of comfort in the life of the institution while at the same time the community is continually adjusting to new conditions.

This week’s funeral is an excellent example. We say good bye to a seasoned church leader who for many decades served the church faithfully. But time passes and as she aged she was faced to withdraw from some of the church’s activities. She lived to the age of 99, but on Sunday, the last day of 2017, the time came for her to die. It is the way of life for all human endeavors. Our leaders become elders and our elders pass on. New leaders need to emerge, be supported and nurtured, and allowed to assume the mantle of leadership.

Even if we wanted to, it is impossible for us to do things “the way we’ve always done them.”

A new year gives us the opportunity to think carefully about which changes we want to make. Our annual meeting will be a time to elect new leaders and to give our thanks to those who have completed terms of service.

I was thinking about the ways in which change occur as we traveled yesterday. A century ago, when our church elder was born, the primary modes of long distance transportation were railways and steamships. A much smaller percentage of the population traveled. The idea that there would be busy airports on a holiday, requiring thousands of employees, was a foreign notion. The concept of airliners that could take up to 500 passengers at at time was not even a dream for most people. Even the 50-passenger plane that took us from Salt Lake City to Rapid City yesterday at nearly 500 mph, would have been an incredible marvel to those riding the train in 1918.

50 years ago, when we had the luxury of occasionally traveling by air, airports were places that were filled with people meeting their travelers. In the days before the intense airport security we now have, people went directly to the gate to wait for their loved ones to arrive. Airports would have banks and banks of phone booths, with phone books hanging by cables beneath the coin-operated phones. All of the maps in the phone books would have been torn out by travelers seeking directions.

Travelers 50 years ago would probably have been able to identify the Boeing 737 on which we traveled from Seattle to Salt Lake City. Although the Boeing workhorses have been substantially modified, made more efficient, and improved in cabin luxuries, the company will celebrate 50 years of producing 737 aircraft in February. 1968 travelers would not have known how to operate the touch-screen displays in every seat or what to do with multiple USB ports at each seat or known what the wifi icon in the overhead display meant, however.

These days it is nearly impossible to find a public phone in some airports and while others have a few of them, the vast majority of travelers carry their own phones and are constantly connected to the world. The state of communications in our time is so vastly different than anything we were capable of imagining 50 years ago.

But we have adjusted. Our ways seem normal to us. We complain about waiting in line at airport security a little bit, but it is amazing how many people travel safely and arrive on time in each day. 2017 was one of the safest years in the history of air travel in the United States.

It is impossible for the church to avoid the changes, either. Like the rest of society, we’ve become dependent upon computers. We need our computers to adjust the temperature in the building, to keep our communications flowing, and to maintain our church records. The days of a big church register kept in a fireproof safe have given way to electronic records stored in the cloud. We pay a monthly fee for our accounting and membership software and have an elaborate scheme of multiple back-ups to keep the data safe.

At the core of our life, however, are human relationships. When people are grieving, there is no substitute for being with them face-to-face. When a funeral is needed, a live worship service is the best way to show our support and share the grief.

So, it’s time to get going and to do the work of the church. And as we do so, it is appropriate that we take a little time to contemplate the future and imagine the changes that we would like to see. Time goes on. Change is a given. The future beckons.

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!

New Years 2018

Happy New Year! I’m posting this entry to my 2017 journal and will copy it to the 2018 journal when I get that set up. I’m traveling today, so I am not sure how soon I will get to the job of setting up my web site for 2018. If you are a regular reader of the blog, you may have to check your bookmarks after I get things reconfigured.

I start the new year incredibly grateful for having had a week with our son and his family in Washington. It has been a wonderful time.

I was listening as our daughter-in-law picked up her 7 month-old daughter from her car seat. The baby was fussing a little bit. Mom said, “I know. It isn’t that much fun having someone disrupt your sleep. You just get to sleep and then I come and wake you up. I don’t think I’d like it if someone was waking me up when I was trying to sleep.”

It was about all I could do to giggle. For the past seven months, and probably for a while before that, the baby has been disrupting mother’s sleep and waking her when she wanted to be sleeping. I think that mom doesn’t really need to apologize for waking the baby to take her into the house after a ride in the car.

I see an hear things as a grandfather that I probably missed when our children were little. I remember the stage of having a new born and a two-year-old as a time when I was constantly short of sleep. I learned to take a quick nap whenever the children were both sleeping at the same time. I got used to getting up in the middle of the night to help the baby. I used to joke that our son, the first born, was an excellent sleeper. Besides that, I couldn’t feed the baby, so when I got up with him, I’d just change him and give him to his mother to feed. I used to attribute his good bedtime habits and his tendency to sleep through the night from and early age to superior parenting technique. Then we adopted our daughter. She was fed formula and I could feed her and didn’t need to wake her mom. And she slept all the way through the night once when she was six years old I think. She really woke us up in the middle of the night a lot.

So I have sympathy for parents who have to get up with their children in the middle of the night and who are feeling short of sleep because of it.

There are all kinds of other moments from our trip that I will remember for quite a while. Our grandson went into his bedroom to get into his pajamas one evening. Shortly afterward there was a cry from the bedroom: “Can somebody help me? I’ve got my head stuck in my shirt and I can’t get it out.” I rushed in to help. He usually wears t-shirts and pullover tops. That day he was wearing a shirt that buttons up the front. He had tried to pull it off by pulling it over his head with all of the buttons fastened. It didn’t work. I helped him pull it back on and unbutton the buttons. Problem solved.

“Why are there dirty socks on the kitchen counter?” our daughter-in-law asked. “I don’t know. Probably because someone left them there,” our 3 year-old granddaughter replied, as if she wasn’t the someone who had just left them there.

Being the grandpa gives me a good perspective to appreciate all of the action of a busy household with three children. I can watch and listen and appreciate all of the action while knowing that the parents are responsible for their children and I don’t have to assume responsibility in the same way that I did when I was the father. We are blessed with exceptionally competent children to take care of our grandchildren, so our role is to appreciate them and enjoy being with them. We try to help out as much as possible. we can help with dishes, play with the baby, and do a few tasks that make life a little bit easier for our children when we come to visit, but we don’t have to do the whole job for very long at a time.

We did take care of all three children for a little more than three hours yesterday so our son and daughter-in-law could go to a movie. We had a ball and there were no problems, but both of us had no other tasks to accomplish. We could just play with our grandchildren and enjoy them. Their parents have to take care of all three solo on a regular basis while the mate is working. And they have other tasks to accomplish. Both parents are capable of taking care of all three children single handedly while cooking supper for the family and picking up the house. It is amazing. We only had two children so we have that down. I can pick up the baby in one hand and pick up the three-year-old in the other, no worries. But if the six year old falls down, or needs to hold a hand crossing a parking lot, I’ve completely run out of hands. I see parents with four or more children in the grocery store from time to time. I have a lot more admiration for them now that I’ve spent some time with three grandchildren.

Today we travel back home. It will be cold when we arrive and there will be plenty of work with which to catch up. We’ll begin the new year with the usual tasks of producing an annual report, and preparing for another busy year in the life of the church. It is a real blessing to have begun with such a wonderful visit with our family.

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!