Exotic, yet familiar

Our congregation is entering the fourth year of a five-year capital funds campaign. That campaign was preceded by a one-year drive that also functioned as a feasibility study for the five-year drive. As we have been doing the work funded by the campaign, we have discovered another need for our building that is quite expensive and so have had some conversations about the best ways to pursue the installation of a fire suppression system for the building. We have had several serious conversations about donor fatigue. It is, frankly, not an issue about which I have much concern. Our fund-raising efforts have been low pressure and, for the most part, low key. Our people have been generous and the campaign has gone smoothly. Income to the fund has been steady. Furthermore, I can cite recent examples in our community including a congregation that ran a five-year campaign followed by a second five-year campaign followed by a two-year campaign, all without a break. 12 consecutive years of intense capital funds raising. The initial project grew from a 5 million dollar estimate to over 12 million in that time.

That’s nothing compared to the Cathedral Church of Saint Peter in Cologne, Germany. In 1164, the Archbishop of Cologne, Rainald of Dassel, acquired the relics of the Three Kings which had been taken from the Basilica of Saint’Eustorgio in Milan, Italy. To properly store the relics, he proposed a building in the then-new Gothic style of architecture. After a period of fund raising, the foundation stone was laid in the summer of 1248 and construction began. The eastern arm was consecrated in 1322 with a temporary wall so it could be used as construction proceeded on the rest of the building. Work halted on the building in 1473, with the south tower complete to the belfry level and a crane above it. The crane remained in place for the next 400 years. That’s right, after 225 years of construction donor fatigue set in for the next 400 years. A little work was done on the nave, but that work was ceased during the 16th century. Work finally resumed in 1842 and continued to completion in August 1880. It took 632 years from the laying of the foundation stone to completion of the cathedral.

The cathedral is near a major bridge and its twin towers provided a lear navigational aid for bombers during the Second World War. The cathedral suffered 14 hits from bombs. While most of the rest of the city was flattened during the war, the cathedral continued to stand, though it was damaged. In the post war period some repairs were made with low quality bricks and the shattered transept window was replaced with plain glass.

That was pretty much the way the cathedral looked when I was privileged to visit in the summer of 1978. Since that time the temporary brick repairs have been replaced and a new transept window has been installed. The 770-year old building is an amazing and beautiful structure that continues to tower over the surrounding neighborhoods.

cathedral mcdonalds
And, for the record, it is right next door to a McDonald’s restaurant.

There, as they say, goes the neighborhood.

Nonetheless the cathedral is a world heritage site and a place that is well worth a visit. It is and amazing building.

There are other feats of human construction that I have not seen that I’d love to see. Take for example the Great Sphinx and the pyramids of Giza. I’ve seen the pictures of these structures, surrounded by desert, with tourists riding camels. Like the cathedral, however, my vision may be a bit romantic. Giza is a city of millions of people. There is a Pizza Hut a quarter of a mile from the Great Sphinx with expansive views of the site. Nearby is also the Oberol golf course and a hotel with lush green lawns. It is hardly the desert scene I imagine.

I don’t know what it is about American fast food restaurants, but they certainly aren’t American any more. You can travel thousands of miles around the world and encounter the same brands as you’ll find right here in Rapid City. We are planning a trip to Japan this summer and I’ve heard that Starbucks cafes are as common in Tokyo as they are in Seattle. The same can be said for Burger King, McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, Arby’s, Wendy’s and a whole lot of other restaurants that we see here. I can’t imagine eating any of those foods with chopsticks. I also do not plan to patronize any of them during our visit. When I travel, I prefer to have new experiences and eat new foods, thank you very much. I’m going to seek out some unique Japanese foods, like Kit-Kat bars in green tea flavor. They also have other flavors of the US cookie/candy treat: strawberry cheesecake, apple vinegar, sweet potato, wasabi, sakura, coco banana, lemon, sweet corn and grape. I’m of the belief that it will be way better than eating a big mac while viewing a cathedral or munching on pizza with a view of the great pyramid.

Airline travel has enabled us to visit places that are very far away and the interchange between cultures and the rise of global companies means that there are all kinds of cross-cultural sharing. Some fear that the ways in which the global economy operates means that we are losing the unique character of individual cultures and regions of the globe. Check it out. I bed you wear socks that were made in China. Most of the people on this planet do. And that is not all. Try to buy dried apricots that come from some place other than Turkey. We’ve become used to having access to products from around the world and some places have small corners on certain segments of the economy.

Still we travel to experience something new and so I plan to avoid USA brands while we visit Japan. After all, I’ll be looking for Wasabi Kit-Kat.

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!

No airplane for this preacher

I don’t watch televangelists. I worship with a live congregation on Sundays. And I don’t follow them on the Internet. I have other priorities for the use of my time. And, usually, I don’t criticize other Christians because I know that the Church of Jesus Christ is a very wide community with many different expressions and many different interpretations.

On the other hand, when I talk with people who do not participate in churches, something that I do on a family regular basis, I often get stories that chronicle the abuses of churches. They tell me of pastors and congregations who practice bigotry. They report congregations that are blatantly homophobic. They speak of pedophile priests and ministers who are shielded by the hierarchies of their churches. They tell me about preachers who are far more interested in the contents of the offering plates than the truths of the Bible. And they speak of the financial excesses and abuses of churches and church leaders.

The churches these people describe bear no similarity to the congregation I serve. Still there is no doubt in my mind that churches have contributed to the open animosity towards religious institutions that is common in our society. Sociologists of religion report that the fastest growing segment of American religion is “no religious preference.” It has become acceptable, and even fashionable, to answer the question of religion with the word “none.” These “nones” are not evil people. They are thinking people who have had negative experiences with the church. They are also people with whom we are called to engage in ministry. Read the Gospels. Jesus spent a lot of time with the poor, the sick, and those marginalized by society. Jesus chose of life of poverty, trusting God to provide what he needed and he urged his disciples to do the same. The evangelical call of the church continues to invite us to spend time with those who see themselves on the outside.

Our work with those who do not have a connection to a church is made more difficult by some of our colleagues - by some who claim the title of Christian minister.

Televangelist Jesse Duplantis, with his wife, founded Covenant Church in Destrhan, LA, just outside of New Orleans in 1997. He now heads Jesse Duplantis Ministries which includes a weekly television program that reaches 106 million U.S. Households, according to the author biography on amazon.com. That’s a fair bit bigger than the congregation I serve. He says that the “real” Jesus is approachable, personable, compassionate and full of joy.” He may be right with that, though I’m always a bit suspicious of those who claim to divide the “real” Jesus from the views of other Christians.

He also says that if Jesus were to descend from heaven to earth today, he wouldn’t ride on a donkey. “He’d be on an airplane preaching the gospel all over the world.” And since, Duplantis doesn’t see Jesus on earth today, he has decided that he (Duplantis) is the one who should be traveling by airplane. Specifically, he told people on “This Week with Jesse” “We believe in God for a brand new Falcon 7X so we can go anywhere in the world, one stop.”

The price tag on a Falcon 7X is $54 million. It travels at near the speed of sound, has noise-limiting acoustic technology, a Bluetooth-enabled entertainment center and an in-flight shower. It tops the narrow field of super-luxury executive aircraft.

It wouldn’t be the only airplane in Duplantis’ fleet. It would be the forth paid for by donations from his followers. “Now people say . . . can’t you go with this one?” he said, pointing to a picture of the plane he currently uses. “Yes, but I can’t go it one stop. And if I can do it one stop, I can fly it for a lot cheaper, because I have my own fuel farm. And that’s what’s been a blessing of the Lord.”

Let me go on record to say that I don’t think it is accurate to say having one’s own fuel farm is “a blessing of the Lord.” And I don’t think Duplantis is following Jesus’ advice to “store up for yourself treasures in heaven.”

What Duplantis is doing with his taste for luxury and his belief that he should engage in the most exclusive form of travel, is giving critics of the church more reason to be skeptical. Duplantis may have plenty of television viewers, but the net effect of his ministry is fewer, not more believers. His narcissistic lust for luxury exceeds all bounds.

So much for the televangelist who thinks that he deserves a $54 million private jet.

He also believes that he needs a team of full-time pilots to operate his jets.

I am no longer current, but I am a licensed private pilot. I’m certainly not qualified to fly the kind of airplane that Duplantis desires, but there was a time, long ago when I rented a small 2-seat plane on occasion. And I was a partner in a slightly larger four-seat plane for a few years. Once, as a joke, I added a $40,000 item to a draft budget and labeled it “pastor’s aviation expenses.” I used $40,000 because I knew it was a ridiculously large number that would be quickly spotted and easily removed from the budget, which it was. It was a joke and it got a laugh. That’s all.

I wouldn’t make that kind of joke today. Critics of the church don’t need more reasons to tell stories about the extravagances of clergy and the excesses of congregations. I’m trying to attract those who don’t participate in churches back into the fold, not drive more people away from religious practice.

I won’t be asking my congregation to pray for or donate to any luxuries for me. They have been very generous with my salary and benefits over the years. My family has had a meaningful life and a secure home for all of the years of my service to the church. We have not been rich in things, but we have been blessed nonetheless.

I don’t have any airplanes for anyone on my prayer list.

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!

Of fear and love

I’ve been a Starbucks customer for quite a long time. I’m not one of the people who go to Starbucks every day, but over the year’s I’ve spent a considerable amount of money in their stores. I’ve been to the original Starbucks near Pike Place Market in Seattle and before the franchises spread to towns where I lived, I would seek out a Starbucks when traveling. These days I no longer drink caffeinated beverages, so it is easier for me to make the things I like to drink at home, but I will still meet church member at Starbucks for conversation, or go out with my kids when we are visiting.

You wouldn’t need to be a Starbucks customer, however, to be aware that they are closing all of their stores for diversity and unconscious bias training. It is part of the chain’s response to an incident in Philadelphia where two black men were arrested for sitting in a Starbucks while waiting for another man. The staff of the store clearly over-reacted to the incident and called the police when the men did not make a purchase. After the video of the arrest went viral, the chain reacted. Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson went to Philadelphia to apologize to the men. He also announced that more than 8,000 Starbucks stores in the U.S. would close on the afternoon of May 29 so that nearly 175,000 employees can be trained.

I applaud the desire of the chain to eliminate bias from its stores. I think that the trainings are a good first step. But discovering and overcoming biases is more than a 2 1/2 hour class.We have been working for all of my active career to overcome bias and invite diversity in the church. We are far from perfect. We still have a long ways to go. And so does Starbucks. I worry that a one-time response to a systematic problem will be more of a publicity stunt than a long-term solution.

At least Starbucks is making a concerted effort. They have hired consultants and devised a plan. That is more than can be said for a lot of other corporations in America, where bias figures into the actions of their employees every day.

Law enforcement agencies have regular and recurrent bias and diversity training for their employees. They invest a lot in training their officers to not allow their biases to govern their decisions. Still examples of officer bias abound. And some of those interactions are fatal.

What Starbucks will discover, if they don’t already know it, is that it is very difficult to teach people not to be afraid. Part of what is going on in our society is a failure of courage. People become afraid even when no danger exists. It is hard to train a person to accurately assess risk and danger. It is even harder to train a person to behave with courage in the face of their fear.

What happened in Philadelphia was that the employee became afraid. The fear may have come from biases that the employee had. But somewhere in that person’s upbringing and life experiences, that person had learned to be afraid of black men. And so a threat was perceived even when no danger existed. It is the fear that is difficult to control.

Even highly trained and experienced law enforcement officers are subject to fear. They are not emotionless automatons. They are complex human beings. For some time weapons training in law enforcement agencies focused on accurate and correct handling of weapons. Weapons safety and accuracy were emphasized. Training was often adapted from military training, where soldiers are taught to handle their weapons safely and use them effectively. They are also taught to use them decisively and quickly. What military and law enforcement trainers know is that it is relatively easy to train people to use weapons effectively. What is much more difficult is to train them when not to use their weapons. Friendly fire and civilian casualties are part of the cost of war. Although such incidents are rare, law enforcement officers do, on occasion use their weapons inappropriately. That is why every discharge of a weapon in a law enforcement setting is carefully investigated and reviewed.

Businesses focus on training employees in customer service, in doing the tasks of their jobs and eliminating expensive waste. A Starbucks employee needs to know how to operate a computer-based cash register, handle transactions, make a variety of espresso and cold drinks, warm and serve food and do it all at a very fast pace with a minimum of waste. They are also trained in how to greet and make small talk with customers and how to be aware of the people who come into the store. It will be a challenge for the large organization to also train them to be aware of their own biases and to respond appropriately to each customer.

The problem goes beyond organizational logistics and employee training. At least from my perspective, the problem is religious. What our faith teaches us is that the answer to fear is not bravado, but rather love. 1 John 4:18 states, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and he who fears is not perfected in love.”

Starbucks, or any other business, cannot teach love. Love is not a set of behaviors that can be conditioned. You learn love by being loved. We know this because the church has been trying to teach faith, hope and love for millennia, and we know that there is sufficient fear within our institution. Churches often behave with biases, and fail to practice the faith that we proclaim. One of the most common reasons that I hear for people not being involved in church are experiences with congregations that fail to practice what they preach.

Ours is a crisis of faith. And closing 8,000 stores for a couple of hours of training won’t address the problem. It won’t hurt, however. Now we all need to commit ourselves to reaching out to others and confronting our fears with love.

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

Memorial Day, 2018

It is Memorial Day and I suspect that most people observe the day by taking the first camping trip of the season, going to enjoy a visit with relatives, or engaging in a variety of different recreational activities. I’m sure there are some visits to cemeteries. I know that there will be flags on the individual graves at Black Hills National Cemetery, and there will be a few ceremonies dedicated to remembering. For most people, however, it is a three-day weekend that marks the beginning of summer. The traditional day for Memorial Day was May 30, but it is now officially observed on the last Monday in May.

The day has been set aside to remember those who died in active military service. Wars are filled with statistics, but behind the statistics are real persons with unique thoughts, dreams and ambitions. Each had a unique set of family relationships, a unique circle of friends and each loss has been mourned and grieved by those who knew them.

Memorial Day, however, is not a day that is without controversy. It took 100 years from the time that mourners first decorated graves of Union soldiers on May 5, 1866 before congress officially recognize the story of its founding.They granted recognition to Waterloo, N.Y., which first decorated graves on May 5, 1866. But there was a story behind that story as well. A Northern abolitionist who traveled to Charleston, S.C., to organize schools for freed elves, led a group of black children to a cemetery for Union soldiers to scatter flowers on their graves a year earlier on May 1, 1865.

If you consider the dates the the circumstances, you can understand why our nation has had mixed feelings about the holiday. The pain and division of the Civil War was so deep and continues so much today that there are bound to be different versions of the stories we tell and different claims to the origins of the holiday.

This has been made even more difficult by organized efforts of revisionist history. Shortly after the end of the Civil War, a cult grew up over an alternative version of the events of the war. Members of the cult of the lost cause claimed that the losing side in the civil war was a group of noble people who sacrificed and died for the cause of state’s rights and stood up against an oppressive federal government. They erected statues to the leaders of the Confederacy all over the country and tried to elevate those who fought agains the United States to the status of honored heroes. They made a point of using Memorial Day as an occasion to spread their version of the Civil War. They were very successful in changing attitudes.

The revisionist view of history forgets that in the bitter war between the states one side prevailed and the other lost - and the losing side was on the wrong side of history. Shortly before the war broke out, the vice president of the Confederacy, Alexander Stephens made it clear that the Confederate cause was about painting slavery. In his famous “corner-stone speech,” he said that the Confederacy’s “corner-stone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery - subordination to the superior race - is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”

It was not the truth. And history now has rightly judged the falsehood of that claim. The false narrative of history that has taught that the Civil War was not a war over slavery has sought to soften the harsh, cruel and false foundations of those who rose up in treason and fought a war against the United States. And we do no favor to their memories, or to the south by perpetuating a lie. Our nation came very close to standing with the cruel practice of human slavery with all of the violence that the buying and selling of human beings as property entails. We fought and won a bitter war for justice for all people, and not just for some.

Our history demands not only that we remember the past on Memorial Day. We owe it to the 620,000 soldiers who died from combat in the Civil War. We owe it to the memories of the 12.5 million Africans who were shipped against their will to the New World between 1525 and 1866.

You cannot honor the memory of those who died without remembering the cause for which they fought. Yes, our nation was divided. Yes, families lost loved ones on both sides of the war. Yes, the bloodshed was horrific and the losses were deep. But the cause for which the Northern troops fought was the noble cause. Imagine how different our world would be had they not prevailed.

But we should not stop with that truth on Memorial Day. For there is more truth worthy of our memories. After that great war, with hundreds of thousands in their graves and millions left with deep grief, with a monumental struggle exhausting and wearing down the spirit of our land, the man who was, perhaps, the greatest president of our nation rose to deliver his second inaugural speech and led the nation towards a new recovery of national identity, purpose, and meaning: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds . . . to do all which may achieve and charts a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

Abraham Lincoln left this nation with a truth based on Biblical proportions: justice and peace go hand in hand. The only possible way to peace for our broken nation was the path of justice. Had we not embraced the dignity, worth and equality of all of our citizens, we could not have been a nation at peace. In the Civil War there was only one outcome that would bring peace: the defeat of the notion that slavery was morally acceptable.

So today we pause and we remember and we grieve the loser of those in that generation and in much more recent generations who have fought and died for peace. May God grant peace to this world and may we continue to understand that the cause of justice is worthy of sacrifice and honor.

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!

Of grandpas and their pictures

One of the gifts I received for my 12th birthday was a wallet. I was delivering newspapers and mowing lawns that summer, so I had a bit of cash to put in the wallet. The wallet was made out of leather and had a pocket for bills and another for coins. I quickly abandoned the coin pouch. It made the wallet uncomfortable to carry in my back pocket and to sit upon. I decided that carrying coins in my right front pocket was just fine. The wallet also had a set of transparent plastic pages for cards and photographs. I didn’t have any credit cards. I didn’t have a driver’s license. I didn’t have an insurance card. The only official card I had was my fairly new social security card which was in our family’s safety deposit box for safe keeping. I filled out the identification card that came with the wallet with my name, address and phone number. I made up another card with my social security number on it so I wouldn’t be able to forget it. I had memorized it, however, and never actually needed to refer to the card. My mother helped me find a school picture of myself and a couple of pictures of school mates for which I had swapped. It was interesting to me that the spaces in my wallet were quite a bit larger than the “wallet sized” pictures we had gotten. In those days school pictures were black and white. I still had some empty slots in my wallet, that I eventually filled up with pictures of classmates. The problem is that I never really found an excuse to show any of those pictures to anyone else. I noticed that my mother occasionally got out pictures of her grandchildren to show to others, but I don’t remember ever seeing my father taking out his wallet for the purpose of showing pictures to others. He, of course had a driver’s license and a pilot’s medical certificate and license to take up space in his wallet.

These days, my wallet is filled mostly with cards. I try to keep the number of cards to a minimum, but I have a bank card from the bank as well as a credit card and a bank card from the credit union. Then there is my insurance card and my prescription card and my dental insurance card and my medicare card. I have my driver’s license. The stack of cards comprises the bulk of the depth of my wallet. a few bills of cash are also there, but not much more.

Ah, but I do have my phone. And my phone has thousands of pictures on it. Most of them are of my grandchildren and I take it out frequently to show off those photographs. I’m not sure, but I’m beginning to think that my father missed out on one of the great joys of life. He loved being a grandfather and he loved spending time with his grandchildren and we have a few precious photographs of him down on the floor playing with grandchildren. But I don’t think he ever had pictures of them that he could readily show to friends and acquaintances.

It isn’t at all uncommon for me to get out my photos of my children and grandchildren as a way of introducing myself to someone that I have just met. And the pictures always come out when I meet up with an old friend with whom I’ve not seen for a while.

The other day, I was visiting with a friend who lives in Turkey but who has daughters and granddaughters in Rapid City and who visits regularly. I took out my phone to show him a couple of pictures of our newest granddaughter who was born since the last time I have seen him. He then pulled out his phone and showed me photos of his youngest granddaughter who lives in Turkey. As he showed me the pictures he told stories about her. She loves to visit his home. He has a big garden and a lot of fruit trees. She loves to just dig in the dirt in the garden. And, each time she sees him, she runs to him with her arms up in the air, yelling, Papa, papa! I loved the story because it reminds me of our grandchildren. Our youngest is still crawling and doesn’t run quite yet, but the middle one definitely runs to me with her arms up in the air. It is one of life’s sweetest gifts.

What was fun about sharing pictures with my friend is that the experience of being a grandfather and the miracle of grandchildren is universal. We grew up far away from each other, speaking different languages, though his English is very good and I’m impressed, given that I only know one or two words of Turkish. He worked in banking and I’ve never been good at finance. He grew up Muslim. I grew up Christian. You might think hat we would have little in common and would struggle with conversation. But we have an instant bond and connection because being a grandpa is something that transcends language and culture and religion. It is simply wonderful and all grandpas know it.

Last week he told someone else that I am his best friend in America. And he is my best friend in Turkey. However, to be fair, I don’t know very many people from Turkey. But we are definitely friends and our friendship is based, in part, on our appreciation for each other’s love of our children and grandchildren. The things we have in common are far more important than the differences we have.

I don’t know what became of that wallet I got when I was 12. I’ve had several different ones since. These days I try to be as minimalist as possible when it comes to my wallet. In fact I have a small case of extra cards such as customer loyalty cards, membership cards and the like that I don’t carry with me every day. But I don’t have a shortage of photographs. Thanks to the technology of digital photos and smart phones, I’ve got a few thousand that I’d be glad to share with 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!

Do you know you look like . . . ?

Easy Rider
When I was in collage a fellow student and I went around for a couple of days sort of presenting that we were the characters in the movie Easy Rider. He had a jacket with fringe on it and I started calling him “Billy” after the character played by Dennis Hopper. He responded by calling me “Captain” after Peter Fonda’s character. It never really caught on and I don’t think that anyone else caught the reference. The truth is that he didn’t look like Dennis Hopper and I didn’t look like Peter Fonda.

A couple of years later, when I first met my wife’s grandmother, she made no bones about the fact that she didn’t like my beard. My beard was a bit thin and sketchy in those days. She said I looked “scruffy” and said, “Ugh. Whiskers! I don’t like whiskers! I’d never kiss a man with whiskers!” When we parted from that visit, she gave me a kiss on the forehead. Over the years I began to look forward to those kisses on the forehead. Even back then, I didn’t have any hair on my forehead and she was in no danger of kissing whiskers. Amy was a wonderful woman. She lived to be 100 years old and she got up dressed herself, had three meals and hosted a card group as well as got herself ready for bed on the day that she died. Not bad. She always had her dignity. And she had enough years of my being in the family to accept me, whiskers and all. One time, in a church meeting, she defended a minister who was a candidate for leading their church by telling her fellow congregants that I had whiskers and I was a darn good minister and they should give this minister, who also had a beard, a chance. One time she even introduced me and my wife as “my grandson and his wife,” instead of the other way around, which was the way we were. As I said, I learned to look forward to those kisses on the forehead.

Furthermore, she was right. I am kind of scruffy.

Good Will Hunting
So it surprised me the first time someone said that I looked like Robin Williams. That was back in the days when my beard wasn’t white. Williams had a full beard in the movie Good Will Hunting and there might even have been a touch of gray in his beard at the time. He had a slightly receding hairline, but his hair was nowhere as thin as mine. I didn’t think we looked much alike at all.

But it kept happening. People kept asking me, “Did you know you look like Robin Williams?” We moved from Idaho, where we lived at the time, to South Dakota and people in South Dakota also asked me the same question.

Woody-Harrelson
Then one day I stopped at a gas station in Nebraska. It was a station that did not have pay at the pump, so after I filled up my car, I went inside to pay. I handed the cashier my credit card and she said, “Are you Woody Harrelson?” I was thrown by her question and stammered, “If I am, its going to be hard to explain why I just gave you Ted Huffman’s credit card.”

Richard-Dreyfuss
As I aged, my hair started to turn all white and my hairline receded even more. I began to hear folks asking me, “Did you know you look like Richard Dreyfuss?” I’m pretty sure that any resemblance that they saw was with the scene in Mr. Holand’s Opus when the character is old and retired.

I don’t think I look like any of those people, but it was interesting to me that others thought that I looked like them. It also may be the case that some people aren’t very good at estimating the age of another person. Robin Williams was, at least, near to my age. He was born a couple of years before me. But Woody Harrelson is nine years younger than me and Richard Dreyfuss is six year older than me.

It’s been several years, however, since someone has asked me if I knew that I looked like someone famous. Robin Williams, of course, has died, so the images of him that we see on the Internet are of a man who is younger than I now am. We don’t know what he would look like if he had continued to live.

Woody Harrelson and Richard Dreyfuss haven’t been appearing in popular movies and television shows quite as much as they did earlier in their careers, so perhaps they aren’t on people’s minds as much as once was the case. It is also possible that they have aged more gracefully than I.

At any rate, I’m perfectly happy not to be considered to look like someone who is famous. I like being me and I never did think I looked like those people. I’ve no problem with just being Ted.

bono
Then, a week ago, we were at a wedding reception. Seated as tour table was the photographer for the event. He took a brief break from his other duties to eat a bite and as he ate he was busy, photographing his plate, perhaps for instagram, and playing with his phone. Then, suddenly, he looked at me and then at his phone and said, “I’ve got it now. I thought you looked like someone I knew. Did you know you look like Bono?” And he handed me his phone with a picture of Bono on it. I didn’t know how to tell him that I don’t think I look much like Bono at all. I do wear round glasses. But he has dark hair.

And, for the record, I’ve never worn earrings. Never had the urge.

On the other hand, maybe I’m gaining in my appearance. Bono is the youngest famous person with whom my appearance has been compared. He’s 13 years younger than I.

I don’t think I look like Bono or Dreyfuss or Harrleson or Williams. I do think, however, that Amy was right. I do look scruffy.

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!

Church economies

I am not a businessperson. I have invested my entire adult life in the church. What I know about running a for-profit company is primarily theoretical. I have very little practical experience. I am a partner in a very small LLC that was formed to manage a piece of property that belonged to our parents. It is not, however, focused on profits, but rather on maintaining a break-even enterprise to maintain the property. Outside of a very modest reserve, all income is reinvested in the property.

One of the tasks I have had to do over and over again is to teach very competent and intelligent business people that a church doesn’t run like a business. People who are very successful and very good at running businesses often try to apply principles that make them successful in business to the operation of the church. These ideas generally need to be significantly modified in order to be applied to a church.

For example, a business needs to carry significant operating reserves to be able to respond to ups and downs in the market. The basic principle of “buy low, sell high” requires that cash be available to make purchases during market downturns. A church, however, doesn’t play the market. While we try to be prudent and keep costs low, the things that a church consume are, for the most part, purchased as needed. A church’s highest expenses are salaries, utilities and the costs of owning a building. There are a few churches that don’t go the route of being building owners, but all of the churches I have served have had building expenses as a large slice of their operating budget. There are other expanses that support programs, but they are small by comparison with salaries, utilities and building. Our income stream, unlike a business, however, is the generosity of our members and friends. We do not set the price of any services. We gratefully receive donations. And donors are not motivated by large reserves. I try to help people understand that the real reserves of a church are not financial, but rather people. If there is a deep need, we ask our people to respond and they will. Jesus was frequently reminding his disciples not to be afraid of the future and to not worry about the details. This faith approach is what works best for churches.

The churches I have served have all had simple budgets. We operate as a cash business. What we do not have, we do not spend. What we have we spend according to our priorities.

Other than mortgage debt, churches really have no need of debt. The reality is that interest is expensive and a luxury that churches often cannot afford. This is not a hard and fast rule and there are, I am sure, times when it makes sense for a church to incur debt, such as making a major building expansion or acquiring new property. However, for the most part the concept of leveraging a purchase is not a good idea for a church.

Churches really don’t have a product. We exist to serve and there is no way and no reason to put a price on what we do. How can you translate the process of walking with another person in the midst of grief into numbers? What price would you apply to raising our children in faith? What is the value of Sabbath? These are not things that can or should be measured in dollars and cents.

As a brief aside, it is my observation that government also does not run like a business and this is also due to the nonprofit nature of government. Government exists to serve the people not to make a profit. I am suspicious that too many generations of governmental leaders who try to run government as a business are a big factor in the ever-increasing debt piled up by our government.

I have often said that rather than apply a business model to a church’s finances, it is helpful to think of a church more as a family. A prudent family will have some kind of savings, but it will also dip into savings for significant expenses such as the downpayment on a house or a college education. The savings exist for a greater purpose. Families, like healthy churches, focus on the future. The education of children and planning for retirement are important factors in family finance.

All economies, whether business, church, government or family take place within a certain set of larger cultural assumptions. One of the assumptions that dominates the US economy is that growth will continue. The belief that continued growth is not only possible but desirable dominates so many decisions about money in our time. The future will have more goods, more profits, more jobs, more people. And there is certainly evidence that growth is continuing. Just keep count of the number of people in the world and growth is obvious. But we also operate in a world with finite resources. There are only so many fossil fuels. When they are gone they will be gone. There are only so many precious metals. The limited supply is what makes the price go up and up. We only have one atmosphere and a finite amount of water. We are only just beginning to take the limits of our resources seriously after many generations of operating as if they were infinite.

While there are still some churches that are based on continual growth models as was common in the 1950’s, most mailing congregations have learned to adapt to a different way of thinking. We understand the sociology of religion and do not expect that we will continue to have more an more members year after year. We extend an extravagant welcome out of our calling to serve others, not out of a belief that we will somehow be bigger and grander institutions in the future. In fact, many congregations will continue to experience decline in membership. This does not, however, mean that they cannot be effective means of ministry. It does meant that we need to adjust our way of thinking and our expectations.

The most important factor in running a church, business, government or family is the ability to learn and to adapt to changing times. Churches, however, as well as prudent families, governments and businesses understand that most important is not money or resources but rather faith. We exist because we believe.

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!

Reclaiming Jesus

The Rev. Michael Curry, who was the preacher at the royal wedding last Saturday has gained a lot of public attention for the sermon he delivered. It focused on a Biblical theme that is near and dear to the harts of Christians: love. God is love. It is impossible to speak of our faith without speaking of love. Bishop Curry’s words were gentle and inspiring an he had a huge worldwide audience for his remarks.

But preaching at royal weddings is a very small slice of the work that Bishop Curry does. He has been busy and vocal and very involved in a lot of other important actions of the church. As presiding bishop and primate of the Episcopal Church, he often speaks to the faithful of his denomination on important theological, moral and social issues. He also confers with religious leaders from other denominations and joins with them to advance Christianity in our time.

Today, he will join with other Christians for a candlelight vigil in Washington, D.C. With him will be some other important Christians whose lives and work have been deeply important to me. Rev. Dr. Water Brueggemann is a beloved minister of our United Church of Christ and a prolific Old Testament Scholar. Perhaps no single other person has had a deeper influence upon my Biblical Studies and preaching. James Forbes is a professor of preaching at Union Theological Seminary whose books have deeply influenced the ministry of many working pastors. Rev. Dr. Otis Moss is the pastor of the largest and fastest-growing church in the United Church of Christ and the head of the National African American Clergy Network. He is an amazing preacher whose gifts of oratory and rhetoric have gained him international attention. Father Richard Rohr is the founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation whose teachings have been used on many occasions in our church. Rev. Jim Wallis is the founder of Sojourners. Bishop Will Willimon is a professor at Duke Divinity School. These are remarkable and incredibly important leaders and teachers in the Christian Church and they gathered with other Christians in an important Ash Wednesday retreat this year. From that retreat has come a statement addressed to all Americans called “Reclaiming Jesus.”

Their assertion is that politics are undermining theology and the church is called to speak out when the behavior of political leaders is contrary to Christian faith. They quote Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state.”

Although Christian leaders are commonly called to speak the truth in love to our churches, the statement from these great leaders and elders of the church is one that should not be ignored. It speaks directly of six great biblical truths and rejects six trends in contemporary American politics.

Because each human being is made in God’s image and likeness (Genesis 1:26), the statement rejects the resurgence of white nationalism and racism in our nation.

Because we are one body in Christ (Galatians 3:28), it rejects misogyny, mistreatment and abuse of women.

Because how we treat the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the stranger, the sick and the prisoner is how we treat Christ (Matthew 25:31-46), it rejects the language and policies of political leaders that attack immigrants and refugees. It reminds all Christians that God makes the treatment of strangers a test of faith (Leviticus 19:33-34).

Because truth is central to the moral lives of all people and because the ninth commandment prohibits false witness (Exodus 20:16), the statement rejects the current pattern of lying that is invading our political life.

Because Christ’s way of leading is servanthood and not dominion (Matthew 20:25-26), it rejects movements toward autocratic political leadership and authoritarian rule.

Because Christians are called to go among the nations making disciples (Matthew 28:18), the statement rejects “America first” as a theological heresy for followers of Christ.

The statement expresses the deep concern for the soul of our nation brought about by these times and the current political climate of our country. It reminds us all of the First Commandment, “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3). The statement concludes with a commendation to all pastors, congregations and young people:

Our urgent need, in a time of moral and political crisis, is to recover the power of confessing our faith. Lament, repent, and then repair. If Jesus is Lord, there is always space for grace. We believe it is time to speak and to act in faith and conscience, not because of politics, but because we are disciples of Jesus Christ—to whom be all authority, honor, and glory. It is time for a fresh confession of faith. Jesus is Lord. He is the light in our darkness. “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12).

I cannot ignore these important teachers and Christian leaders. As I prepare to preach my last sermon before a three-month sabbatical, I am deeply aware that what I say is important. Furthermore, their statement will become a guide to my study, thoughts and prayers for the next three months. I am not by nature, nor have I been in my pastoral ministry, one to take sides or to make political statements from the pulpit. However, I understand that it is necessary to take risks and to speak body for the faith that we share. As the statement says, “It is time to be followers of Jesus before anything else - nationality, political party, race, ethnicity, gender, geography - our identity in Christ precedes every other identity.”

I join the authors of the statement in their prayer that our nation will see Jesus’ words in us. “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).

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!

Packing two centuries into 40 years

For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
and do not return there until they have watered the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout
giving seed to the sowers and bread to the eater,
—Isaiah 55:10

As it is wont to do in the hills, the rain has been coming down for the past week, making the grass in my lawn very tall and in need of mowing, but more importantly providing subsoil moisture for the trees, we’ve entered into our version of monsoon season here. It isn’t very dramatic, to tell the truth. We get showers many afternoons and some of them pack a punch with lots of lightning and thunder, a bit of wind and some pretty impressive downfalls. When the rain comes hard there is a lot of runoff. The hills are prone to flash flooding. You can see that just by looking at the terrain. Combine the ups and downs of the hills with storms that drop an inch or more in a short amount of time and there can be impressive runoff.

I read that last Friday’s rain, in which about 1.5 inches fell in less than an hour in downtown Rapid City after more having fallen upstream, was a 100 year flood event. Considering that we’ve had at least two 100 years flood events in the 23 years that I’ve lived in Rapid City, it could explain why some mornings when I get up I feel a bit tired. Having lived through two century events must mean that I’ve got a couple of hundred years under my belt.

It is a place where living on a hill is quite nice. We don’t worry about flooding where we live.

Having lived in both North and South Dakota, I can attest that one of the part of our culture is our penchant for talking about the weather. Each of the seven years I lived in North Dakota was in some aspect unusual for the state. I don’t know how many times I heard, “It isn’t usually like this.” The words were applied to a period of very warm weather in the summer, to extremely cold winters, to stretches of drought and to a spring that was so muddy that stuck tractors became spectator sports for the locals. “This is really unusual. It usually isn’t like this.”

I don’t hear those words quite as much here in South Dakota. Here we like to talk about other years by mentioning conditions that are even more severe. A good spring blizzard will bring about conversations about blizzards that were even worse and the snow was piled even deeper. A gully washer of a downpour will bring out tales of the 1972 flood. A chilly June will spark stories of years when the snow appeared after school got out for the year. Our attitude around here seems to include, “If you think this is bad, you should have ben here when . . .”

I’m not sure how many years you have to have lived in South Dakota to be able to claim the ability to tell stories about how extreme the weather was in the good old days, but I do know that being a senior citizen helps even if you haven’t lived here all that long. We used to say that you had to live in North Dakota for three generations before you were considered a native. I’m not sure that it is quite the same thing here in South Dakota.

Yesterday a young woman was cleaning my teeth in the dentist’s office. She is new to our dentist and it was the first time I’d met her. Making small talk, which is always a bit of a challenge for me when someone else has their hands in your mouth, she asked what work I did. When I told here I was a minister, she asked how long I’d been doing that. I answered, “40 years” since I’ve been earning my living as a minister and have been ordained since 1978. “Wow!” she said. I don’t think she could imagine what 40 years would feel like at all. She then asked me if I was getting ready to retire. I still don’t know exactly how to answer that question. I mumbled something about not quite yet. Mumbling is accepted in the dentist’s chair. It is a bit like getting my har cut. The person who is receiving the service doesn’t really have to talk. The other person will go on with the conversation even if you sit in silence. She did a good job of cleaning my teeth, which is what I came for.

I’m pretty sure that had the topic turned to the weather, I could have regaled her with stories of rainfall, flooded streets and other severe weather events that I have witnessed. After all, I’ve been in town for two 100-year flood events.

What I like about spring in the hills most, however, is that between the rain showers we have truly lovely days. It was beautiful outside for most of the day yesterday. Each time I had to go out, I felt like lingering outside. The temperature was just perfect - not too hot and hot too cold. I’d roll down all the windows in the car as I drove around town, just enjoying the fresh smell and good felling of the breeze cooling the car. I commented to several people about how much I was enjoying just being able to go outside. It occurred to me that if my profession were a job that made you stay inside all day long, like the dental technician, I probably would find the prospect of 40 years at the job to be daunting. As it is, I get a lot of variation in my work. I do a lot of work inside, but I do it in many different places. I go from the hospital to a nursing home to a private home to the church to many other places in town.

And after 40 years and two century events, I’ve got a few stories to tell as I make my way around the town.

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!

Its only a game

OK sports fans. I guess I should start by saying that I’m not much of a sports fan. I’m not opposed to sports. I wrestled in high school, I’ve been a skier and a paddler most of my adult life. I enjoy playing with friends and neighbors. I pay attention to the NBA finals, the World Series and the Super Bowl. I read the box scores and keep track of the Chicago Cubs. But watching others compete isn’t the highest of my priorities. Part of it is that I simply don’t watch much television. It seems like I always have other things that I’d rather do.

When it comes to watching sports, my favorites are the ones where I know the players. A good high school basketball game is more fun if I know the kids who are playing. I enjoy watching small children play soccer and t ball, but I often really do not enjoy watching their parents. The behavior of parents at children’s sports events is often quite disturbing.

Still, some sports stories do get my attention.

I wasn’t paying much attention as the Cleveland Cavaliers lost the first two games of the Eastern Conference finals in Boston. The Celtics were predicted to win. They have a well-balanced team with plenty of power. Both teams have amazing home crowds, but the series favored Boston on that score. Now, after four games, I’ve started to take notice. LeBron James is an amazing basketball player and he leads the Cavaliers well. To win the series, however, Cleveland now has to win in Boston, which is not an easy task.

You get the point. I’m not oblivious to sports. I’m paying attention even though I will often say that I’m not a sports fan.

There is one more team that has captured my attention this year. And this one is surprising. Because I don’t really enjoy watching hockey. I did watch a bunch of youth games a few years ago when a member of our congregation was really into the game and I wanted to support him in his passion, but for the most part the game is a bit wild for my tastes. It seems to encourage unnecessary violence and often appears as if brute force is valued over intelligent game play.

It is, however, difficult to ignore the Las Vegas Golden Knights. This is a brand new expansion team that was just created out of the leftovers form the league. For an expansion team to pull of a winning season is a very unusual and unlikely event. But the Golden Knights are headed to the Stanley Cup after defeating the Winnipeg Jets. That is an upset that is unheard of.

The Knights ended their regular season 51-24-7. Compare that with the last two NHL expansion teams, the Columbus Blue Jackets who won 28 games in their opening season, and the Minnesota Wild who won 25. And now they are headed to the Stanley Cup. You’ve got to admit that this is an unusual story.

What has been most interesting to me, however, is the way that the team ant its community have formed such a strong bond. I think that part of the story happened before the team ever played its first NHL game. Back in the fall, on October 1, a lone shooter, armed with semi-automatic rifles equipped with bump stocks rained bullets down on a concert crowd from a high-rise hotel in Las Vegas. 58 people died. Team members stepped up to help the victims’ families and to offer their support to first responders. They made connections with their community that went far beyond the usual for a sports team.

On opening night for the new team, as a row of first responders stood near center ice and the huge video monitors showed scenes of the grieving community, Vegas defensemen Deryk Engelland skated to center ice and made an emotional and inspirational speech about what it means to be Vegas strong, about how much he loved the community, and how ready Las Vegas was for NHL competition. It was a speech that none who attended will ever forget.

I’m no hockey fan, but I’ve watched the speech on YouTube several times.

The passion behind that speech seems to have carried over into a nearly perfect season for the young team. They are fast. They are aggressive. Beyond that, they are passionate. And now they are headed to the Stanley Cup. The final series begins next Monday.

There are moments when sports can bring out the best in a community. Teams can provide emotional centers for community spirit and cohesiveness. Sports have the power to reach beyond the differences that divide us from one another. But they also can bring out the worst in us. Intense completion can result in the vilification of the opposing team. Thee are too many stories of how racism has reared its ugly head in high school sports in South Dakota for anyone to say that sports are the cure all for the ills of society.

All too often we forget that it is only a game.

Maybe that is why I’m a fan of the Chicago Cubs. In addition to having lived in Chicago for four years, I’ve been attracted to the Cubs in part because they aren’t always winners. They aren’t World Series regulars. They’ve lost some heart-breaking games in my years of watching them. They teach their fans the love of the game over the love of winning - the joy of the journey above the success of the destination. It is a lesson every coach of youth teams espouses, but very few actually practice. In the heat of the game a win-at-all-costs attitude can take over even the most philosophical of coaches.

It may be that losing has more to teach us than winning.

Still you’ve got to love the story of the Golden Knights. The Capitals prevailed over the Lightning forcing a seventh game, so we won’t know until tomorrow who the Knights will be facing. I think I know which team I’ll be rooting for.

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!

Thumbs and technology

A dozen years ago I had a bout of stenosing tenosynovitis in the thumb of my right hand. I did not have De Quervain’s Tendinosis. The distinction is important. At least to me.

OK, I’m messing with you just a little bit. I really am not that good with medical terminology. I had to look up the names of the medical conditions just to write the first two sentences of my journal for today. Here’s the real story. I developed a trigger thumb. I’ve actually experienced it in both hands, though so far the treatment has been a bit different. The condition causes a finger to get stuck in a bent position. When it bends or when it straightens, it does so with a nap. The condition is caused by inflammation in the sheath that surrounds the tendon in the affected finger. It is thought that the condition is related to repeated gripping actions.

The other condition, Tendinosis, is a repetitive motion inflammation caused by using a particular digit more than the others. Whereas the condition I suffered is more common in older adults, this condition is most common in late teens and those in their twenties. It is caused by the repetitive motion of using the thumbs to type on smartphones.

To be clear, I’ve never learned to type on my phone with my thumbs. I use my forefinger. I’m way slower than those who type with their thumbs. When I want to type, I prefer a keyboard. In fact, I developed my trigger thumb before I owned a smart phone.

The treatment was relatively straightforward. I received a steroid injection in my thumb. That provided relief for several months. The second injection provided relief for several weeks. When I went back for the third injection, I was referred to a surgeon. It was a rather simple procedure. It took less than 10 minutes. A small incision was made at the base of my thumb and the sheath was opened up. After I healed up from the surgery, I was good as new. The condition has never returned to that thumb and I have had no further symptoms. My strength and grip in that hand are good. Later I developed a similar condition in my left thumb, but the first injection has so far given me complete relief for nearly a year.

The kind of tendinosis that is caused by chronic overuse has reached crisis proportions in many areas. It is normal for there to be a bit of stiffening of joints as we age. Our tendons aren’t quite as pliable as they once were. Orthopedic surgeons, however, are concerned at the rate that the condition is becoming common among teens and young adults. The use of hand-held devices is making the condition appear to be the result of addiction to the devices. People can’t stop using their devices even when their fingers become numb or sore. The condition would probably clear up on its own if the repetitive motion were ceased. However, they are unable to stop using the devices.

The issue of tendon disorders came up recently in a conversation with some other ministers about what we consider to be essential tools of our profession. I was reporting how important it was for me, at the beginning of my career, to own a complete set of the Interpreter’s Bible. The 12-volume set plus the four volumes Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible and an additional supplement to the dictionary contain thousands upon thousands articles by thousands of scholars. It was, at the time, considered to be the most complete reference for biblical scholars. These days I don’t use those books at all. I have, on my computer, access to those articles plus thousands more. I can check cross references between multiple commentaries without pulling a single volume off of my shelf.

I was wondering how much the strain of years of pulling heavy books off of the shelf with one hand (in my case the right hand) contributed to my trigger thumb. Will the next generation of ministers, who do not need physical books to do their work, be prone to different ailments than I?

When I began as a minister, I used a manual typewriter to write out my sermons, which I then read to the congregation. I would enter the pulpit with a bible, a hymnal, and a small folder of papers each week. At some point I switched to an electric typewriter and from that to a computer. These days I don’t print out my worship notes on paper. I have all that I need on a tablet computer. I have the hymns, bible verses, prayers, worship notes - everything I need - all on the computer. It is light weight and portable. We even have a bluetooth connection to the church’s sound system so I can play music or audio clips directly from the device.

I’ve wondered if the ability to cut and paste combined with the availability of having multiple Bible translations on the computer results in ministers who know the bible less well than was the case int he past. I’ve typed paragraphs from the bible over and over again in preparation for worship. I don’t do that any more. I just select the verses I need and import them into my document. I can do it without even carefully reading what I’m copying.

Who knows if it is better or worse? It is different. And I don’t expect things to ever go back to the way they were. I also am aware that there are skills possessed by younger pastors that I don’t have. They are more adept at the use of social media than I. I’ll probably never grow comfortable with FaceBook and Twitter and Instagram. I use them, but rather awkwardly..

We each belong to a particular range of time. I am who I am in part of because of where I have been and what I have experienced. At least it seems unlikely, giving how things have been going, that I will suffer from the over use of my thumbs by typing on my phone.

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!

Pentecost, 2018

The Christian movement found itself at a strange place before it was clear that it has any future at all. Jesus was dead. Although there had been wonderful and miraculous experiences with the resurrected Christ, the community was struggling with leadership and purpose. They didn’t know what they were supposed to do. Jesus had spoken to them about not being afraid and allowing God to show them what to do. Jesus had promised that there would be guidance when it was needed. Still, things were disorganized and unclear.

They knew that they did not aspire to become a religious institution. After all, Jesus had taught them to be wary of all of the trappings of institutionalization. Expensive buildings, a priestly class that had to be supported, the possibility of scandal and corruption - these were all pitfalls into which they had seen religious groups and religious leaders fall. This wasn’t the kind of community that they desired. They had felt an incredible closeness when Jesus was still alive and with them. They had sensed that closeness again when the resurrected Christ appeared in their midst, but the feeling was fleeting. It was hard to recapture that sense of mission and calling. They weren’t even confident that they had the ability to go on.

Jesus had tried to prepare them for precisely this time. He had spoken to them about his death. He had promised that they would not be left alone. He had sent them out in pairs to teach and heal and spread the good news. But everything was different now. They didn’t have Jesus to return to after trying to imitate his ministries. They didn’t have him to answer their questions.

They did have a prayer that he had taught them to pray. They did have each other. They did have a story to tell.

It was at this point that the first Pentecost occurred. 50 days after Jesus’ resurrection they came together and they invited others and they prepared for some kind of event, though they knew not what. The event has become known as the birthday of the church. It is reported in the second chapter of the Acts of the Apostles. And we read that story every year on Pentecost and try to imagine the events from which the story grew. You can tell, simply by reading the words of the story that what happened was beyond the power of words to describe. The writer resorts to analogy because words fail to convey the power of the moment. The sound was “like the rush of a mighty wind.” It is an analogy. It doesn’t sound that the sound was that of a mighty wind, but like. The word “like” is a sign of the metaphor. The author has struggled to find the words and needs to point beyond the power of words. “There appeared to them tongues as of fire.” In that metaphor, the key word is “as.” It doesn’t say that tongues of fire appeared, but rather “tongues as of fire.”

And the story doesn’t end there, for what is next is as powerful as the sound and the tongues as of fire. Those who were gathered gained the ability to reach out in ways that they could never have done before. They began to speak in many different languages. It wasn’t just that they were making sounds. It wasn’t another analogy. They spoke and they were understood. They began to tell the story of Jesus and of his resurrection in words that could be understood by the many different people who were visiting the multi-cultural city.

The birth of the church was a multilingual, multicultural event at which every visitor was welcomed and greeted with words that could be understood. The report in the book of Acts names their countries of origin. It speaks of their cultures and languages. The report even records that some who witnessed this explosion of communication as believing that they must be drunk. They were not.

Peter addressed the crowd by quoting the prophet Joel. and then King David. And he told the story of Jesus and those who were gathered round heard the story in language that they could understand.

It is critical for the contemporary church to hear these words of our beginning every year. It is crucial that we hear these words over and over and over again. Because we have become the kind of religious institution that the first disciples feared. We have become the custodians of buildings and archives and records and traditions. We have formed structures and ways of governing ourselves and rules and special clothing and even have a few secretes that have been hidden. We have become an institution with all of the failings and foibles of institutions. And sometimes we forget the community from which we have grown.

I’ve heard faithful Christians complain about singing one verse of a song in a language that is unfamiliar to them. I’ve heard faithful Christians asking, “What are they doing here?” I’ve experienced the church as a place that is less than welcoming to those who are different. I’ve hard Christians complain about the noise and the mess.

It seems that we all to easily forget our roots.

The first Pentecost was noisy and messy and loud enough that the neighbors thought the gathered church was a group of drunks. We don’t behave like that much anymore. We prefer to be seen as respectable and quiet and even though our bell may occasionally annoy our neighbors, we are careful to keep the noise down most of the time.

Some people, looking at us from the outside, don’t see a place where everyone is welcome. They don’t see a place where it is acceptable to speak your own language and think in your own way. They expect us to be regimented and ordered and about as far away from chaotic as we can get. We see ourselves that way as well.

Pentecost was a gift of God. So is the story. It has much to teach us still.

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

Funerals

As a pastor, I have officiated at a lot of funerals. In addition, as a member of our community’s suicide outreach and support team, I have attended a lot of funerals. Add to that number the usual amount of funerals of family members and friends and for a guy my age, I have been to a lot of funerals. When you go to a lot of funerals, it is difficult not to compare what you have experienced. Each funeral, however, is a completely unique experience for those who were closest to the deceased. Each experience of grief is individual and unique. The funeral service is designed to ease some of that personal grief by reminding those who grieve that they are not alone and that their grief has an impact on a wider community. In a funeral we gather to give our support to those most affected while expressing publicly our own sense of loss and sorrow.

It is a tricky process to find the right words to say at a funeral. As an officiant, you know that different people will be at different stages of their grief. Different people will have different connections to the deceased. Some people want to speak of their grief. Others prefer to remain silent. In each funeral, I try to make connections with the scriptures and traditions of our people. In times of crisis it is especially important to be reminded that ours isn’t the first generation to have faced loss and grief. We are not alone in the span of history, but rather are the inheritors of generations of faithful people who have sought meaning and understanding in the midst of life and death. I also strive to make each funeral unique, personal and find words that tell at least part of the story of the life we have come to celebrate. And although I think the word “celebrate” is overused in contemporary funerals, it is important to express gratitude in a funeral. Each life is a unique gift of God and even though it hurts to have to say good bye, none of us would wish that we had never known the one who has died. I also find that in most cases it helps to use language that is frank and direct. People know that a death has occurred. Using euphemisms such as “passed on” sometimes are a bit misleading, almost as if we are uncomfortable speaking the truth. When I use direct and frank language, I give mourners permission to themselves use similar language.

Because I attend more funerals that occur following suicides than an average people, I have witnessed all kinds of language in reference to suicide. I’ve attended funerals where everyone in the room is aware of the means of death, and still the word suicide is never spoken. I am aware that denial is one way of coping with sudden and traumatic loss and often it is a natural part of the grieving process, but it isn’t helped by a kind of social and corporate denial. The truth is that we will never know the exact intentions of the person who has died. We can not know his or her state of mind at the moment of death. On the other hand, calling a suicide a “tragic accident” usually does not help the family. It would be more accurate to say that the victim died of a fatal mental illness. The failure to use the word “suicide” has left grieving people believing that talk of suicide is not welcome in the church.

I make a point of publicizing the Survivors of Suicide Support Group that meets at our church in official church publications in part, to make sure that those who have lost a loved one to suicide know that this is a safe place to talk about their loss.

Still, as a professional who officiates at funerals as well as one who attends funerals with other officiants, I am careful not to criticize of attack others. I often have criticisms about choices of words or other elements in services, but I try my best to keep those comments to myself. A loss and the associated grief is an opportunity for a family to draw closer to the community of the church and I want to promote that closeness, not provide some roadblock to that relationship. Beyond that, I own a certain degree of professional courtesy to my colleagues. I know how hard it is to be a pastor and I know how challenging it is to find the right words. If, on occasion, a pastor doesn’t get it right it is simply a sign of the simple fact that ours is a human institution and we humans are prone to failure from time to time. Ours also is an institution of forgiveness, and we are called to continually practice forgiveness for others and for ourselves.

Still, there have been times when I have had to bite my tongue, figuratively if not literally. There are thoughts that I choose to keep to myself. Part of the problem is that there is a great deal of variation in the level of preparation and equipping for ministry in different parts of the church. Some of us have gone through intense periods of study and academic preparation as well as supervised internships and close supervision. Others are practically self-appointed and head into the pastors ministry without having read the history and traditions of the church, studied psychology and contemporary thought, or become familiar with the resources that are available to pastors. It is not at all common for me to present a colleague with a set of guidelines for pastors who officiate at funerals where death was the result of suicide and that colleague was completely ignorant that such guidelines exist. As we educate ourselves, we also must continue to educate our colleagues as well.

Attending funerals at which others officiate has helped me become a better pastor for the people that I serve. Observing is a good way to learn. In fact, I think I would recommend that all ministers regularly worship as congregants as well as officiants. The change in perspective is very valuable.

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!

This Weekend's Wedding

I thought that it might be a good idea, for the record, to notify the readers of my journal that, yes, I will be officiating at a wedding on Saturday, May 19. However, for the record, I won’t be at St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle. In fact, for the record, I didn’t receive an invitation to that wedding. The officiant of the royal wedding will be the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby. That comes as no surprise, because Archbishop Welby is the head of the Church of England’s 13,000 parishes and he is “regarded as the nation’s senior Christian and spiritual voice.” When interviewed by the Telegraph about the wedding, Archbishop Welby quoted Stormzy’’s song, “Blinded by Your Grace,” to explain how he feels about the wedding. “I stay prayed up and get the job done.” He went on to say, “I’m always nervous at weddings because it is such an important day for th ecouple - whoever they are.” He also added that he’s been worried about flubbing his lines or dropping the ring.

Hmmm. . . I worry about the same things. I always do weddings from a manuscript because it is such an important day. It is a once-in-a-lifetime event for the couple and for those in attendance. I don’t want to mess up my lines. And, I’ve only dropped a ring once in 40 years of performing weddings and, in my own defense, that was due at least in part to the fact that the ring bearer in that particular ceremony was a dog who wouldn’t hold still for me to remove the rings from his collar.

But Archbishop Welby shouldn’t be all that worried. After all, he doesn’t have to do the service all by himself. Although he will officiate over the exchange of vows and will be considered the officiant of the wedding, the service will be presided over by the Dean of Windsor, David John Connor. And the sermon at the wedding ceremony will be delivered by The Most Reverend Michael Bruce Curry, the presiding bishop of the American Episcopal Church. Three big-nome clergy for one ceremony. After all it is a royal wedding.

I’ll be working solo on Saturday. That’s right presiding, officiating and preaching! Whew! It probably isn’t the first time and it won’t be the last time that I’m working harder than church bigwigs. But, of course, I’m biased. I’m not now, have never been and will never be a church bigwig, even though there are some who think that a wig might improve my appearance. And, in our church, no one, not even the General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, gets to wear a mitre - the fancy hat that the bishops get to wear in the Episcopalian and Anglican communion.

Still, in my mind, the bride in the wedding that I’ll be attending this weekend is a princess. Not that I’m an expert in royalty. And she really did choose a prince of a groom. And they really are a great couple together. I’m going into the confidence that they’ve got what it takes to make a successful marriage. And they deserve a royal wedding - at least one where the words are carefully chosen and the ceremony is competently led and the vows are exchanged with all due ceremony.

I have noticed a few other differences, however, for the record.

At the royal wedding, it is expected that all women, including every guest, will be wearing a hat. And those Brits have some pretty showy hats. All eyes will be on the queen and her choice of hat for the occasion, but every other woman in attendance will be expected to have a hat worth remembering.

I don’t think there will be any women wearing hats at the wedding at our church on Saturday. There may be a few Stetsons in the parking lot afterward, but everyone is expected to be bare headed for the ceremony itself.

In the United Kingdom, it is traditional for the Best Man’s speech to be a little bit risqué with a few references to prior events and memories. It is a bit like a roast. Here in the United States, the Best Man makes a toast and is expected to keep it short and simple, and, perhaps, just a little bit sentimental and sweet.

Thee has been quite a bit of attention to the fact that Meghan has ordered a Lemon and Elderflower sponge cake for the wedding. But there will also be a traditional cake which is tiers of fruitcake with marzipan icing. The top tier is kept to be eaten on the occasion of the christening of the couple’s first child.

I’m pretty sure that there won’t be any fruitcake at the reception of the wedding I’ll be attending this weekend. And I had to look up marzipan. It’s a paste of ground almonds, sugar and egg whites that is colored and used as icing. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a whole lot of cupcakes at this wedding. I don’t know for sure, but that has been very common at recent weddings that I have attended. A fruit filling is pretty common for US wedding cakes.

The guests for the Royal Wedding are expected to arrive around 9:30 a.m. for a ceremony that is expected to begin at 1 p.m. I’m thinking that we will have a few people who show up a half hour early, but most guests will arrive at about 15 minutes before the appointed hour. The main factor determining the exact start time of the ceremony will be whether or not there are guests waiting to sign the guest book who have not yet been seated. When they all get into the sanctuary, we’ll begin.

If you want to watch the royal wedding it will be at about 5 a.m. here due to the differences in time zones. That will give you plenty of time to make the ceremony at our church that afternoon.

And, for what it is worth, I’m thinking that with three ministers at their wedding and only one at ours, our ceremony should be finished in about 1/3 the time that theirs will take.

Congratulations and many happy years to all of the couples getting married this weekend.

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 joy of travel

Yesterday I gathered with some friends at a local coffee shop and cafe that has an old Volkswagen van as part of its decor. As I sat there it occurred to me that this summer will be the 40th anniversary of a grand adventure.

In the summer of 1978 my parents took my wife and me and my sister and her husband to Europe. My parents always loved to travel and had taken quite a few adventures as a couple and others as a family. We had just finished seminary and were able to take off a little time before staring our new job. My sister and her husband were similarly able to take a little time off. It all worked out. My family had participated in a group called SERVAS, in which people provide hosting for international guests. They had a good list of contacts and friends in various places in Europe. We found reasonably-priced airfares from Calgary, Canada. Susan and I graduated from seminary in Chicago, packed up our belongings and drove from Chicago to Montana, were we met up with the others. We all drove in my parents’ station wagon to Calgary and flew to Amsterdam where we had reserved a rental van. Waiting for us was a shiny new Volkswagen van that was bright orange with the Eurovan logo painted boldly on both sides. There was no way not to notice that this van was being used by tourists. I reinforced that image fairly early in the trip by locking the keys in the van, which brought no small amount of attention from helpful locals and provided no small amount of amusement for them as well.

It was a grand adventure. We stayed in Youth Hostels, with friends and traveled about visiting cathedrals and castles and seeing as much as we could in the time we had. We even put the van on a ferry and spend a little time in England. Driving on the left hand side of the road is even more challenging when you have a vehicle designed for driving on the right hand side. We took lots and lots of pictures and had lots of wonderful memories of the trip. We had no way of knowing that it would be the last big trip for my father, who died of brain cancer just a little more than two years later.

And life goes on. And here we are 40 years later. Among the delightful legacies of that trip is that the joy of traveling as a family has been handed down to the next generation. This summer Susan and I will be off on a grand adventure: a sabbatical that includes a trip to Japan. Japan is very special because our daughter and son-in-law live there. It is also special because when our children were teen agers, they participated in exchanges in Japan and we hosted a Japanese exchange daughter for a year.

The summer that our exchange daughter was with us we took a family adventure, driving west with the five of us, two adults and three teens, in our 5-passenger car, pulling a pop-up tent trailer. We camped our way through Montana, Idaho, Oregon and Washington, introducing our Japanese daughter to family and friends and showing her some of the expanse of the American West and some of the sights of our country beyond Rapid City. We went to the top of the Space Needle and visited the beach and camped in some very beautiful locations.

One thing that we are looking forward to on this trip to Japan is being able to meet our Japanese daughter and her husband. We’ll travel with them, along with our daughter and son in law by train to another city where we will meet her parents and her sister and family. It will be a special time of reunion and reconnection with people who have graced our lives with their generosity of spirit.

There have been many other trips.

In 2006 our congregation was recipient of a grant to support a sabbatical that funded excellent leadership for the church in our absence and paid for our family to travel to Australia. The trip included our adult children. We got to drive on the left hand side of the road again, which, by the way, is the way they drive in Japan. We were able to tour quite a bit of Australia from Tasmania to the center of the continent at Alice Springs. We saw Melbourne and Sydney as well as visiting a number of small and rural towns.

I’ve read plenty of horror stories about family vacations. It is a popular theme for comedy movies. I’m sure that there are a lot of families who have had vacations that were less than perfect and filled with experiences that were painful. But we have been very fortunate. Travel has been a real blessing and a grand adventure for our family and the joy of traveling together had never left us. It is not that we are unhappy at our home. We’ve lived in the same house for nearly a quarter of a century. We love to come home. We are delighted with the deer and turkeys and people of our neighborhood. We enjoy the wind in the trees and the sweet smells of living in such a place. We feel fortunate and blessed to be able to live in such a wonderful place. Still. it is a lot of fun to travel and see more of the world.

I realize that travel is a luxury item and a great privilege afforded to some but not all. It is an indulgence that we have allowed and enjoyed over the years. We are indeed blessed to be able to make such grand trips. I plan to share as much of the trip as possible through this journal and in reports upon our return. And I am confident that the trip will provide stories that we will be telling for the rest of our lives.

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!

Community

Long ago, before any of us can remember, two people huddled together for warmth. Perhaps they were in the crook of a tree where they had climbed for safety from animals on the ground. No one knows for sure and since we are uncertain, our imaginations can make up quite a story. What we know is that getting together was good for the people. It felt good. They were able to do more than they could do individually. They formed families, tribes, clans and communities. And it was this desire to have others around that was a strong motivation for their actions.

That, of course, is only one way to tell the story. Our people have preferred a slightly different version: In the beginning was God. And God is love. And in love God created people in the image of God. All people were created in love and have love in them. That love brings people together. Early in the creative process, when there was only one human it became evident that it is not good for people to live alone. We were made for each other. We were made to live together.

Almost every version of the story, no matter how you tell it, comes to the conclusion that there is great value in human community. Somehow, together we are more capable, more creative, more productive and happier than we are alone. Even folks who chose to live in the most remote and isolate locations on the planet chose to have someone with them. There are a few stories of hermits and others who live alone, but they are always the exception and never the general rule.

I’ve been reflecting on this because it seems to me that at the heart of the Christian church is the quest for community. People want to have a place where they belong, where their presence is honored, where their gifts are recognized and where they find genuine relationships with other people. Much of what I do as a pastor is to build up and strengthen community. We gather regularly for worship and worship of God is important, but if you watch the people gather for worship and if you watch them when the service is ended, you notice that one of the great motivators for participation is to be with other people. They enjoy being with the others who come to this place. The sharing of a meal, after all is a sacrament. So, too, is making commitments to raise children in the community. We see community as holy business.

Sadly, however, we are not always good at nurturing that community. More frequently than I would like, I hear stories of people who have been insensitive to others. Even in the church, cruel words get said, feelings get hurt, people feel attacked. Even in the church, a kind of selfishness sets in that results in a lack of sharing. As a pastor, I spend a fair amount of time going around the community and listening to those who have been hurt and trying to patch up relationships that are frayed and broken.

Life in community demands a ritual of confession and forgiveness. We are human and we make mistakes. We need to be able to admit our failures. We need to receive forgiveness. We need to be able to forgive ourselves. We have a formal process in the church, but often we are a bit inattentive to that process. We think of sins in terms of personal excesses and self indulgence and forget that our deepest sins are the way we relate to others. We go through the process and say the words, but don’t really forgive those who have hurt us. We hang on to our griefs and grudges way longer than is good for our own health.

As we witness the crumbling of religious institutions in the 21st Century in America, it can be painful to see the ways in which our culture has changed. Attendance at church is optional - something that is done when there isn’t something else that is more interesting. The same person who will wax eloquently about the foundational necessity of faith in the life of their children will report to me that they can only attend worship when it doesn’t conflict with soccer. When we have a guest minister, people want to know who is preaching before they decide whether or not to attend worship. I can cry and complain about these phenomena, but they are realities with which we need to learn to cope in the life of the church today.

I rely on my belief that despite the trappings of contemporary society, despite the trends away from institutions, especially the institutional church, there is, deep within all people, that desire for community. We do not long to be alone. And the church can offer genuine community. A sports team can be a community for a while, but it is rarely a lifetime commitment. When your prowess and ability fades, as it will for all people, your role on the team fades as well. Those relationships are for a while and then they are gone. That is why so many other institutions in our society divide people by age. You won’t see 10-year-olds playing with grandparents in any of the city’s baseball leagues. Watch a family go into the YMCA. They might enter the building together, but they quickly divide to activities that are appropriate for their ages.

The church still holds the ideal of intergenerational community where people form all walks of life meet in a community that endures. The congregation I serve has been a part of this community since 1878. It has literally been here for as long as the city has existed. We plan to be here for many more generations. And once in a while we experience our community at its best. This weekend I will officiate at a wedding where the maid of honor is the first baby that I baptized when I came to serve this church 23 years ago. Despite our flaws, we have endured through time.

Much work remains. Our church is imperfect. But the promise we hold is tremendous.

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

What they remember

Yesterday I met with a family to plan a funeral. The deceased was not a person that I had known. I had met him briefly on one previous occasion and had read his obituary. Obviously I came into the meeting without enough information to tell his life story and without enough information to do a good job officiating at his funeral. So I was listening carefully and paying attention to details and nuances as his family spoke about him. What I heard was a fascinating story about an intelligent and thoughtful man who had done many different things in his life. At one point in the conversation, his daughters spoke about his enjoyment of certain public television shows. I have enjoyed the same shows. One of the shows they mentioned was “Waiting for God,” a British situation comedy.

I decided to watch an episode of the show just to refresh my memory about the kinds of jokes and the type of humor it portrayed. It is easy to watch old television shows because many of them are available on YouTube. I pulled up a random episode. If you are unfamiliar with the series, the stories are set at Bayview Retirement Home a facility whose manager is Harvey. Harvey is a very self-centered individual, concerned mostly with the bottom line and how the financial performance of the institution will reflect on his career. His assistant, Jane, is completely devoted to him, though he pays no attention to her affections. They provide the counter to two residents, Tom and Diane, who are constantly thinking of ways to make Harvey’s life more miserable as a way of dealing with the boredom of their situation. Tom is prone to wild fantasies and tells stories that obviously are not true. Diane appears to be continually grumpy and gruff, but has a tender heart somewhere under that exterior. In the episode that I watched yesterday there is another important character, Dick Sparrow, who is the vicar at the local church. Sparrow is portrayed as completely incompetent, forgetting the name of the baby he is christening, inserting lines from weddings into funerals and making other mistakes. In other episodes his sermons are so boring that he literally falls asleep while preaching. The theme of an incompetent vicar seems to be common in British sit coms. In this particular episode, a man who was 90 years old has died after a very brief stay at Bayview. He had been an insurance agent and was seen by the other residents as a very boring man. The vicar launches into a eulogy of a young rock star who used drugs extensively and who was killed in a hang gliding accident in the Swiss Alps. His rantings are a horror to Jane and a delight to Tom and Diane who keep laughing.

I would never try to imitate the character in a comedy as part of what I do in a funeral or in any other worship service. While I am quite capable of laughing at a character ini a drama and I think that it is healthy for us to laugh at ourselves, a funeral is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for the grieving family and they deserve the highest and best effort that we can invest in making sure that the service is meaningful and personal.

Still, watching the program got me to thinking. The man whose funeral we will observe today was, in fact, a very fascinating man who had many interests and whose many interests might not have been evident to those who knew him for only part of his life. This was especially true at the very end of his life when a degenerative condition had left him needing a wheelchair for mobility. The doctors and nurses who met him at that stage of his life might never have known that he was once an avid skier, roaming around the intermountain west in search of perfect powder. Other patients in the hospital might not have realized that he had been a race car owner and driver and once owned and operated a drag race course. People who spoke with him near the end of his life might not have learned that he was a brilliant student who completed vocational school and high school at the same time and earned a degree in electrical engineering while raising his family and operating his own business. There are so many stories of his life that it does seem a bit possible that someone who had recently met him would come to his funeral and learn things that they did not know.

I’m often told by people who attend funerals at which I officiate that they learned something new about the person whose life we celebrated. The truth is that we are complex and fascinating beings that there is often more to a person than immediately meets the eye.

One of the gifts of my vocation is that I am allowed into the homes of families at key and vulnerable moments. I am allowed to plunge deeply into a family story that had previously taken place outside of the range of my experience and knowledge. I am privileged to share intimate details of lives that are hidden from others. These fascinating and wonderful stories are, of course, not my stories to tell. It would be wrong for me to simply repeat the details of conversations I share with others. But there are occasions such as funerals and weddings when I am allowed to give a glimpse at aspects of others in the context of recognizing the significance of their lives and the significance of particular moments in their lives.

These moments are fleeting. Today’s funeral is not about me or about what I say. At least some of those who attend will never hear me speak again and will even remember my name a while form now. What I do hope is that they remember the person whose life we honor. I hope they remember that he was a complex and nuanced individual with many varied interests and many unique abilities. I hope they remember the sense that this life was a gift from God and that death is not the end. I hope they will be able to tell the story with both laughter and tears.

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!

Thinking of the future

There is a business I drive by nearly every day that has a big banner out front advertising discount princes for having a remote starter installed in your car. I know that there are several different cars that come from the factory with remote start functions. There is a button on the key fob that starts the engine and allows the car to warm up or cool down the interior space before the driver enters it. I suppose it might be handy for clearing light frost from the windshield as well. These features, of course, depend on the heating controls having been left in the proper position when the car was last used. I’ve never had a car with that feature and I’ve never felt the desire to have such a feature. I have noticed that there seem to be more cars left running in parking lots. The other day I noticed a car next to mine was running, so I was very careful as I got out of my car to go into the store. I thought the car might move at any moment. Then I noticed that there was no one in the car. Its owner must have either left it running while hoe or she ran into the store or used a remote starter to start it as she or he was waking across the parking lot. I guess those people don’t mind the extra cost of poor gas mileage from long periods of idling. Here is the deal. On that particular day it was absolutely beautiful outside. There was no need for heat or air conditioning in a car if you rolled down the windows. But, as usual, I noticed a lot of cars with their windows all rolled up.

“Rolled up” s a term that is nearly meaningless these days because so few cars have cranks that you use to roll up windows. It wasn’t many years ago that I saw this feature as completely useless. Who needs a complex motor system to raise and lower windows when a simple hand crank works well? I was completely happy with the hand crank system until it became nearly impossible to get a car with hand cranks. These days I use the electric windows all of the time. It is way easier to lower the passenger window from the driver’s side than it used to be to lean across the vehicle and turn a crank. I don’t think I’ve complained about electric windows for several years, now.

It is similar with the key fob that you use to lock and unlock doors. I thought it was a totally useless device. How hard is it to use a key? Then we got a car that had the electric lock and unlock feature. I immediately began to use and enjoy the feature. Before long I bought the parts and retrofitted remote lock and unlock onto another vehicle that we owned. Now all of our vehicles have that feature. I still drive that car that was our first to have the remote lock and unlock. It is now 19 years old and has more than 270,000 miles on it and the buttons on the key fobs are wearing out. Sometimes I can’t get the devices to work at all and I have to use the key to get into the car the old fashioned way. I find myself getting annoyed at the technology not working.

The list of extra features that we have on our cars these days is really long. We’ve gotten used to power steering and automatic transmissions and air conditioning as standard features. I can remember my father staying that he saw no reason for a radio in a work truck. Radios just distracted drivers and he wanted his employees to focus their attention on the job. I’ve never owned a car that did not have a radio. My kids have never owned a car that didn’t have electric windows.

Old guys like me complain about change, but we are completely ineffective at stopping change from occurring.

My grandchildren will probably live to see a world in which no cars have internal combustion engines and remote starters are a thing of the past.

Of course another thing that old guys like me do, when we aren’t complaining, is to comment on how the world didn’t turn out the way we expected.

When I was a young teen, I believed that general aviation was going to become so common that everyone would have their own personal airplanes. I expected to see flying cars in my lifetime. I watched the Jetsons cartoons on TV and figured that such a life was within the range of possibility. I couldn’t understand why everyone seemed to live in towers like the space needle without using the space beneath the towers, but I liked the idea of a robot that would select your clothing and help you dress. The robot that cleaned the house and did the dishes was quite nice, too. We don’t have one of those and we don’t have a flying car.

At the time we thought that the way to explore distant planets was to send people there. It never occurred to us that we would be sending robots to explore mars while we did our own dishes and dressed ourselves at home.

Robots are coming into our homes, however. So far I’ve resisted the “smart speakers” for my home. The idea of a machine that is always listening to me sort of creeps me out. I have no desire for a company such as Amazon or Apple to know more about me than they already do. But I found myself looking, just last night, at web sites with information about remotely controlled mowers. I was looking specifically for a mower to tackle the steep slopes at the church, but my mind wandered to the idea of being able to sit in the shade while the mower took care of the lawn.

Who knows what the future will hold? Maybe it will bring a way to keep old guys from complaining.

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!

More to the story

I live my life away from the headlines in the newspaper and the lead stories on the television news. I’m happy to have it be that way. I have no need for publicity or a larger audience than I have worshipping with my congregation each week. I am frequently present at events that are deemed newsworthy, but when the television cameras arrive, I do my best to find someone else to talk to the press. I’m not one for giving sound bytes to news crews.

I do, however, work in the background. I spent several hours yesterday providing support and assistance to people who were at the heart of the story that was the lead story on the local news and the top headline in the newspaper. Their stories belong to them and I won’t be telling them here. What I do want to say is that there is a great deal more to the story than appears in the newspaper or in the television report. If you think you know what happened or understand the dynamics from having seen the television, checkout the online news feeds, read the newspaper or all of the above, the fact remains that there is more to these stories than what appears in the headlines.

There are real people behind the stories that we read. The effects on real lives are complex and long lasting. The news will report on a death, for example, and then go on to the next story. For those involved, however, life does not move on in the same way. Grief can las for years. The impact of the events of a single day can remain with an individual for the rest of that person’s life. Our news-hungry society moves on from event to event. In each event are those who cannot move on, whose lives are forever changed, who will never get over what has occurred.

One of the things that we do is to assist people with developing long term coping strategies. We connect them with professional counselors. We facilitate support groups. We identify resources. We walk with them through major life readjustments.

It has taught me to read the news at a slower pace and to look for the stories behind the stories.

This morning I read about how suicide bombers have attacked three churches in Indonesia’s second-largest city Surabaya, killing at least 11 people and injuring around 40. Chances are that some of the victims are related and the impact on some families is more widespread than on others, but for each individual there is a family whose lives are forever changed. Imagine having to live with the aftermath of having lost a family member to violence that makes no sense at all. Your loved one was a victim of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. They were singled out by events that took place in the midst of a violence-filled world where people cause the deaths of others over ideology and theology and a sense of empowerment. The causes of the militants may have nothing to do with the personal realities of their victims.

Imagine, also, being the parent of one of the suicide bombers. Not only has your child died, but he or she has become involved in the killing of others. Perhaps your child was swept up in a wave of emotional recruitment, his or her brain not fully developed and especially vulnerable to the techniques of manipulative persons who see others as expendable in their cause. How does a parent deal with grief that is coupled with such horror and shame? As this particular story unfolded, the BBC reported that the attackers were all members of one family system. The dynamics of a family that could become so estranged and twisted in their thinking that they would send three family members on suicide missions in attack of innocent victims are beyond imagination. You know that there is much more to this story than can be learned from reading news reports.

There is always a story behind the story and the real human drama lasts a lot longer than the attention of the news reporters.

A 29-year-old passerby died in Paris last night. Four more were injured, though fortunately their injuries are not thought to be life-threatening. The attacker has been arrested. So have his parents. The attackers was born in the Russian republic of Chechnya and the Islamic State (IS) has claimed responsibility for the attack. From the news reports it seems as if the victims were random. They were not targeted for their political beliefs or their religious affiliations. They were simply innocent people visiting central Paris on a spring evening.

Each of those individuals has a story. Each has family who love them. Each has had their life divided into “before the attack” and “after the attack.” The changes in their lives are permanent and will deeply affect each moment from no own. They won’t walk down crowded sidewalks without fear. They will always be watching their backs. They will be reluctant to engage in normal activities that were routine before the attack.

Having been involved in some small way with people whose stories have made the news headlines has taught me that there is always a story behind the story and that the whole story is much bigger, much more complex, much more emotionally engaging and much longer lasting than the media reports.

It reminds me once again why I shy away from the reporters and the television cameras. My role is not to be in front of an audience, but rather to serve those who have need. I sit with those who grieve, knowing that I don’t have words that will soothe their pain. I visit those who are in jail, knowing that I cannot justify their behavior. I understand that only part of the truth will come out in court proceedings and that there is always more to the story.

Sometimes I just listen to a bit more of the story.

Sometimes I witness the beginning of amazing stories of healing.

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!

Conservative?

I’m having trouble understanding the contemporary meanings of words at times. One of the words with which I struggle is “conservative.” Leaving politics aside, where the term is frequently abused to the point of being unrecognizable, it has a similar murky meaning in the life of the church. To understand how the meaning got so blurred, you need to know a little about the history of the church. There are far too many stories for a single journal entry, but one example can be seen in the history of the Methodist Church. After the Church of England split from the Roman Catholic Church, there was, within the Church of England a reform movement. A group of men began to meet regularly and systematically setting about to live a holy life. They celebrated communion every week, fasted regularly, abstained from most forms of amusement and luxury, visited the sick and prisoners on a regular basis. The name “methodist” came from outside the group - their particular style of personal piety was seen as a “method.”

Prominent among those early methodists was John Wesley and his younger brother Charles. At the invitation of Georgia Colony governor, James Oglethorpe, they both set off for America as ministers to the colonists and missionaries to the Native Americans. Upon return from a mostly unsuccessful first mission trip, they began to look for other sources of faith. This brought them into contact with Moravians and John had an evangelical conversion experience. Together they began to preach salvation to individual sand groups. The movement led to the development of societies within the Anglican church which needed organizational elements. The organization of societies led to an eventual separation from the Church of England over many different items, including the fact that the methodist system allowed women authority in church leadership.

As the budding new church grew in the American colonies, there was a lack of leadership and the recruitment and training of lay leaders led to a different system of selecting and preparing ministers than had been the case in the Anglican church. There was far less emphasis on scholasticism and more emphasis on personal piety and a strong sense of vocation.

Meanwhile, anabaptists also were spreading their theology and religious practice in the colonies. They developed, among other qualities, a strong sense of individual congregational autonomy and responsibility for choosing and preparing leaders for ministry. Both traditions, the methodist and baptist had strong convictions about education of children and were diligent in pursuing education, but placed a lower emphasis on scholasticism and university education as prerequisites for ordination than was the case in some other Protestant denominations that were forming.

As Protestantism grew in America it developed a very strong anti-catholic bias. In rejecting the forms of the high church, including vestments, architectural excess, and the use of Latin, Protestant churches began to see themselves as separate and different from Roman Catholic members. This anti-catholic bias turned into bigotry and labeling of the Roman Catholic Church as enemy.

Eventually the combination of the emphasis on personal piety, the emphasis on congregational autonomy and the anti-catholic bias led to large numbers of Christian ministers who had little exposure to traditional university education, and a deep separation from the history of the church. They were strongly committed and, for the most part diligent in their personal study of the Bible, but many were unexposed to systematic teaching of the history of the church.

Growing out of this history there is in the contemporary church in America a strong and vibrant evangelical group that emphasizes traditionalism, but is strangely uncoupled from a robust understanding of the history of the church. It is not at all uncommon to find among these church leaders individuals who are ignorant of the long history of leadership in the church and who are disconnected from some of the reforms that were instrumental in the founding of their own denominations.

For example, for a Methodist to fail to pass on the rich tradition of female leadership that was present in the founding of their own movement is scarcely “conservative.” It represents not a conservation of the history of the church, but rather a radical departure from that tradition.

The situation in the contemporary church makes it very difficult for the label “conservative” to carry significant meaning. Those claiming to be conservative often are not truly conserving the rich history and tradition of the church because they are unfamiliar with or ignorant of it.

The assumption, within the contemporary evangelical church, that faithful persons cannot or should not glean wisdom form high church history has led to the introduction of ideas and even church doctrines that are strangely disconnected from the history and traditions of the church. It also leads to interpretations of Scripture that are anything but conservative.

Returning to the topic of the leadership of women, for example, there are teachers of the Bible who seem to be skeptical of the many examples of female heroism within the Bible. They don’t teach the stories of Deborah, Esther, Mary the mother of Jesus, Mary, Martha, Susanna and Mary Magdalene, Lydia, Phoebe, Priscilla and Dorcas. And women’s roles didn’t stop with the Acts of the Apostles. Women played a huge role in the early church. According to Bishop Cyprian of Carthage, the early church was dominated by women, many of whom studied Hebrew and Greek.

There are those who teach about Augustine without studying or even knowing anything about the life of his mother, Monica of Hippo, a peacemaker and minister to teachers and pastors in the early church to whom Augustine credits his salvation and ministry.

There are church leaders who know nothing of Hildegard von Bingen, the 12th century saint who was a polymath who wrote treatises on medicine and natural history, composed music and poetry, experienced visions and provided extensive religious leadership. They don’t teach about Teresa of Avila, who wrote theological works on prayer and contemplation and founded multiple monasteries.

There is a much longer list of prominent women in the history and traditions of the church. Those who reject the role of women in the leadership of the church don’t deserve to use the title “conservative.” They are not conserving anything, but rather inserting their own made up ideas of church history in place of the truth.

Actually, I think I am a conservative. But my evangelical brothers might not ever think to use that title for me.

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

In the complaint department

Disclaimer: Today might be a good day to skip over reading my journal, especially if you are, like me, not particularly fond of whiners. I’ve got a couple of complaints. It is no big deal, really. I am an exceptionally fortunate person with little about which to complain. So read on at your own risk.

I have a lot of compassion for older workers who feel threatened by technology. I’m no luddite. There are technological innovations that have made my job much easier. The new digital sound system in our sanctuary has reduced my work load quite a bit. Basically, we just turn it on before worship and turn it off following worship. Once in a while we switch batteries in microphones. That’s it. It really works nearly flawlessly. It is so much better than the way things were as recently as six or seven years ago. And I’m very attached to using an iPad for all kinds of tasks. I read many books on the device. I use it almost exclusively for my worship notes. I can have hymns and prayers and everything else I need all together in a compact and very usable package. It is superior to a laptop for taking notes at meetings.

But technology consumes my days in ways that are unexpected and often disrupt what I consider to be more important tasks. Yesterday was a good example. I was trying to work out some problems with our building’s guest wi-fi network early in the morning to make sure that it would be functional for a meeting scheduled for 10:30 am. I wasn’t having much luck, due, in part, to the fact that I don’t really understand how our network works. It is, in my opinion, unduly complex. That is in part due to the use of paid computer experts, who seem to build complexity into all of their systems as a kind of job security. They believe that the system should not be fully understood by the consumer so they can possess special knowledge that makes them necessary. At any rate, while I was working, the fire alarm system went off. I rushed to get the key to silence the system. We are not able to cancel fire trucks once dispatched, but I called the alarm monitor station to ask them to inform dispatch that there was no fire. When the firemen arrived, we were unable to reset the system due to a malfunctioning smoke alarm. I put in a call for emergency service to the company that services our alarms just as the first of 40 preschool children were arriving at the building. They got the bonus of getting to see the big fire truck and the firemen in their bunker gear. The alarm system was serviced later in the day. I also had a technician dispatched from our Internet provider who came and helped me debug part of the wifi system. In addition, I made an appointment for next Tuesday for a network technician to complete getting our system up and running. In the early afternoon as I headed to a meeting having not had time for lunch we finally had wifi working in the building.

Then, at the other end of the day, just before 10 pm, the fire alarm went off again. This time I was at home and received the call. I rushed back to the church where it was discovered that there was a glitch in the system of unknown origin. A church member and I went through the system and cleaned every smoke detector. The system seemed to be operating normally when I finally headed home to bed. Like the office network, I really don’t understand the fire alarm system. It is a lot of lights and wires and sophisticated technology and when it works it is wonderful. When it doesn’t I call trained technicians and the problem often still is not solved.

Sigh . . .

My other complaint has nothing to do with technology. Regular readers of this blog may have noticed that I haven’t written about paddling or rowing yet this year. I am usually on the water as soon as the ice is out of the lake. Paddling is an important outlet for me. It brings me into contact with nature, gives me much-needed exercise and allows me space to clear my head. I frequently write about the inspiration I draw from a canoe or kayak on the lake and watching the sunrise from the surface of the water.

I have, however, spent enough time outdoors and on the lake and have very light skin and have reached the age where some of that is catching up to me. My dermatologist discovered a spot of squamous cell carcinoma on my left elbow. After reviewing treatment options, I took the doctor’s recommendation an had it surgically removed. The result is a beautiful row of tiny dermatologist sewn stitches right in the fold of my elbow, with the skin stretched tight to cover up the space where the tumor was removed. I am not able to stretch my arm out all the way and have limits on how much I can lift for at least the next couple of weeks. Paddling and rowing are both out of the question at least until the end of this month. The long term outlook is very good. I’ll have to be examined by a dermatologist more frequently for the next 5 years, but other than that, I’ll be back to life as normal by early summer.

I really don’t have grounds for a complaint. But I do miss paddling. I need to discipline myself to taking hikes and walks to replace the exercise, contact with nature, and head-clearing. But I’m putting in a few extra hours at work to get prepared for an upcoming sabbatical, so I talk myself out of taking time out of my work days and, in my profession, most days are work days.

So there you have it. No paddling pictures yet. Please be patient. And, it probably wouldn’t hurt to pray for my patience as well. I know I am.

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!

Libertarian ideas

I don’t consider myself to be a libertarian. I believe in the power of government to improve the lives of citizens and the role of government to regulate industries and interests that cause harm to others. I believe that it is necessary for there to be limits on power. I’ve been known, in friendly political debates with others, to advocate proportional representation as a desirable form of democracy. In my family of origin, I had two brothers who could occasionally sound quite libertarian in their discourse. One, Dan, ran for the U.S. Senate from Montana in 2006, losing in the Republican primary to an incumbent Senator. The other, Vernon, has also run unsuccessfully for office in his state. I know from personal experience that not all libertarians are cut from the same cloth. There are left-leaning libertarians and right-leaning libertarians. Don’t expect to see me run for office. It isn’t my style.

I was thinking of libertarians and their political positions recently, however. Those whom I know are not of the type that oppose all government. While they definitely are proponents of limited government and would like to see less regulation from the government, they adhere to the principle that personal liberty only extends to the next person. When one person’s liberty infringes on that of another, it is legitimate for government to step in to promote maximum liberty for the maximum number of people. The libertarians I know aren’t anarchists.

I remember a friendly debate with a libertarian-leaning friend years ago. This was during the time when there was a national 55 mph speed limit. My libertarian friend was completely opposed to the speed limit. In fact, he argued that there should be no speed limits at all except in urban areas. Out in the open country, he believed, people should be able to drive as fast as they want. “Ah,” I argued, “But what if that person driving 80 or 90 mph runs into you and injures you through no fault of your own? What does that do to your freedom?” My friend conceded that there was a potential problem, but thought that the risk was fairly low. In those days, I was a bit more combative, so a while later I confronted my friend with statistics about speed limits and brain injuries, citing the impact of such accidents on insurance rates. “What if your manner of driving causes insurance rates to rise for all people? Isn’t your liberty then bought at the cost of others?” It wasn’t the kind of debate where either of us expected to change the other’s mind, but it was a thoughtful exchange and the fact that we disagreed didn’t affect our friendship.

Another place where most thoughtful libertarians might agree to limits to personal liberties is where extreme injustices in the distribution of resources occurs. Most of my libertarian friends believe that those who are extremely wealthy have obtained their wealth in part by taking advantage of others. They simply take more than is their fair share. Some of my libertarian friends still wouldn’t favor putting limits on the greedy, but others argue that it is unethical to take more than one needs and that a completely laissez-faire government results in unfair distribution of resources. They believe in the right of the individual to acquire wealth, but might argue that hoarding is not a desirable outcome.

Here is an example of another debate one might have with a libertarian. Some libertarians would say that not having health insurance is an individual right. The government should not have the power to require individuals to have health insurance. However, in that scenario, what happens when a person with no insurance and no means encounters a life-threatening illness? Should that person be denied health care because of the choice that has been made? Or does the society pay the bill for that health care? And if so, is the choice not to have health insurance an infringement on the liberties of those who choose to carry appropriate insurance?

At what point does the liberty afforded to one individual infringe on the liberty of another? It is an area of discussion and debate that could be argued over and over again.

Although we do have a libertarian party in the United States and we see libertarian candidates from time to time, it simply doesn’t work to assume that all libertarians are of the same political persuasion. Libertarianism is more of a political philosophy than it is a coherent platform of proposed governmental policy.

I’m not exactly sure why I chose such a topic for my journal entry today, but it does reflect my interest in philosophy. I enjoy wrestling with systems of thought and seeking to understand the thoughts that underlie the opinions and actions of others. Furthermore, I miss opportunities for simple civil conversation in places where we don’t see eye-to-eye. It seems to me that our current political atmosphere is so partisan and so divisive that we hold back from speaking to one another out of fear of offending or of discovering some difference. Political difference escalates to enmity so quickly these days.

I want to go on record to say that people who disagree with me aren’t bad people. They are not my enemies. It is perfectly reasonable to disagree with a friend. Our differences are part of the strength of our society, but only so if we are able to engage one another in meaningful conversation without becoming enemies. As has been said so many times, “We’re all in this together.” I think it is a worthwhile investment of time to try to understand the thinking and the political philosophies of others. I don’t really believe that politics and religion are topics that should be avoided in polite conversation. I long for opportunities to discuss politics in an atmosphere of mutual respect and careful listening.

And, quite frankly, I love to discuss religion as well. Once you get me going on that topic, it is hard to get me to quit.

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 Japan

A few days ago I went into our local AAA office to get an international driving permit. We plan to travel to Japan this summer and I may be doing a bit of driving there. It is a small expense that might result in a bit of convenience during our trip. You need passport pictures for the permit, so I had them taken at the AAA office. As I sat down to have my picture taken, the person operating the camera advised me to take off my glasses. I complied, but commented that I need my glasses to drive. The response from the person was “Glasses have to be removed in all passport pictures.”

So I went home and took a look at my passport. I’m wearing glasses in the picture. I took a look at my previous passport which had been returned after it was replaced at renewal. I’m wearing glasses in that picture too. Hmm . . . either the camera operator is misinformed or the regulations have changed. It is no big deal either way. I’m pretty sure that a careful observer could tell it is me in the pictures.

International travel is a big deal for us. We haven’t done too much of it, unless you count trips to Canada, where we have traveled fairly frequently. Other trips have been more rare. I have made four trips to Costa Rica where we have a sister church. The last time Susan and I used our passports was a trip to England when our daughter was living there.

The trip to Japan is something we’ve been looking forward to for a long time. When our children were in high school they participated in a 10-day sister cities exchange and traveled to Japan. We hosted Japanese students in our home for 10 day exchanges and had a Japanese exchange daughter for a year back then. We imagined that one day we would travel to Japan, visit our sister city, see our Japan daughter and meet her parents. This summer we’ll be doing that, made possible, in part, by the fact that our daughter and her husband are now living in Japan. They’ve been there for more than a year, so we’re eager to see them face to face.

I visit with people who travel outside of the United States on a regular basis, some who take multiple trips every year. They develop a set of skills that ease the process of dealing with luggage, long airline flights, airport security, customs, immigration and other details of international travel. We aren’t as practiced with all of that. On the other hand, we know the basic procedures and aren’t intimidated by the prospects of travel. Although neither of us speak Japanese or read the language, we are fortunate in that most of Japan is really well set-up for American tourists. Our rail passes for traveling around inside of Japan came with a detailed book, in English, that explains the railway system and has clear instructions for finding the correct train and making sure that the travel goes smoothly.

It got me to thinking about how we might seem to international guests who visit our country. Actually, there are quite a few Japanese tourists who come to the Black Hills to see Mount Rushmore, the Crazy Horse mountain carving, the game in Custer State Park, Wind Cave National Park, Badlands National Park and much more. Many of the Japanese tourists arrive in tour buses with guides who speak Japanese and facilitate their welcome to our country. Sometimes I will see couples or small groups of tourists walking around downtown and taking in the sights. I make a point of saying, “Hello” and smiling, but that is usually the extent of our contact.

We will arrive in Japan at Narita International Airport, one of two airports that serve the city of Tokyo. By anybody’s standards Tokyo is a big city. Wikipedia lists the population of Tokyo as 13 million, but that is just the city limits. It is a conglomeration of urban sprawl that reaches well beyond the prefecture. A 2014 report by the U.N. said, “Tokyo is the world’s largest city with an agglomeration of 38 million inhabitants.” Imagine the entire greater Los Angeles area plus the entire greater New York area. You get the picture. There are a lot of people.

And we are, for the most part, country folks, accustomed to our small city and lacking in urban skills such as using mass transportation, managing ourselves in crowds and navigating urban areas. Fortunately for us, instead of heading from the airport into the midst of the city, we will board a train and head away from the city to a more rural and isolated area in the north of the island to begin our trip. Our days of visiting Tokyo city and nearby Nikko city will be in the presence of our daughter and son-in-law and our exchange daughter and her family. Later in our trip we will make visits to other parts of Japan by ourselves, but by then we will have become comfortable using our train passes and looking for signs that have directions in English. We’ll also have the tools of Google translator and the simple fact that many Japanese nationals speak English. Add to that that graciousness of the Japanese people and the fact that it is a very safe place to travel and we are set for an excellent adventure.

Our departure is more than a month away. We’ve got a lot to do before we depart. But we have our tickets and a rough outline of our travel and we are growing excited. I spend a bit of each day thinking about the trip. It will be exciting and fun for us. I’m glad that we haven’t traveled so much that such a trip might be considered routine. Having a very special trip with many once-in-a-lifetime experiences is a real treat.

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!

Awesome volcano

I’ve been fascinated by the photographs and video of the recent eruption of Kilauea on the Big Island of Hawaii. The glowing fissures, the dramatic up bursts of hot lava, the advancing lava all fascinate me. It is good that we have modern technology and lots of pictures, because going to look at the volcano in person is just what is not needed at this time. Civil Defense workers have done a good job of keeping people safe despite the unexpected nature of the eruption. According to the news that I can find this morning 35 structures, including at least 26 homes, have been destroyed as a dozen fissures have formed, including at least two new ones yesterday. The seismic activity has slowed a bit, which may be signaling a decrease in activity. It may not be signaling anything, however. That is one of the things that is so fascinating about volcanoes. They are unpredictable.

Over the weekend we were discussing the phenomena with our son and grandson over Skype. We spoke of the people who were forced to evacuate on relatively short notice. Our grandson, speculating on what it would be like to have to evacuate, stated that he would take a blue bin and load up all of his lego bricks. His father suggested that it might also be a good idea to take some clothes, which our grandsons acknowledged, but returned to the importance to him of saving the lego bricks.

We all have our priorities when disaster threatens. Thinking about such an event helps us sort out what is really most important to us. We’ve been pretty stable for a lot of years. Although the biggest natural threat to our lifestyle is probably wildfire, our house sits in an area that is fairly defensible and so far the fires have been most destructive in places far from our home. We’v lived here long enough to have collected a lot of things, including things that are not really necessary for our day to day life. There are a few items that we would easily grab and take with us if we had to evacuate. Photo albums, medicines, computers loaded with additional images and memories, a couple of keepsake items and the like. It would be easier now than in the days when our house was filled with children and pets and elders. We’d likely hook on to our camping trailer and take mobile shelter with us were we forced to evacuate our home.

We don’t have any close friends who live on the big island of Hawaii. A friend of a friend works at the Mauna Kea Observatory, one of the largest astronomical observatories in the world. I would guess that the biggest problem for the scientists who work there would be the volcanoes. I don’t know how severe they are at the summit of the mountain, but it is hard to imagine that having an erupting volcano on the island where you live and work is sufficient to gain your attention.

I suppose that every place on the earth stands in the path of some potential natural disaster: earthquake, hurricane, mudslides, tornado, volcano, wildfire, flood. We’ve seen a lot of disaster pictures over the years. Civil Defense and Federal Emergency Management agencies are fairly good at responding to disasters. People, however, never seem to be truly prepared. There are always losses that are grieved. I understand it. It would be terribly sad to lose our home and its contents. There are items in our home that have been passed down for generations. Although most of the things we have are not valuable in the sense of money, many of them have emotional meaning for us and we enjoy having those items in our life. The essentials - food, water and shelter - seem to be fairly easy to obtain. We’ve invested much of our lives in pursuit of the extras: photos of children, mementoes of trips, artwork that has meaning.

Maybe one of the values of our interconnected world where we can watch disasters in other parts of the world in real time is that it gets us to thinking about our own lives and what is most important.

Disaster impact aside, the photos and videos of the lava are stunning and beautiful. The raw power of this planet is incredible. The things that we humans make - houses and cars and other objects - seem pretty insignificant in the face of the great forces of the natural world. Especially beautiful are the images that have been taken at night where the sparks and glow of the flowing lava really stand out against the dark background. The raw power of this planet is awesome. It genuinely does inspire awe. And awe is something that can be hard to come by in our somewhat jaded world. We are so used to technological innovations and smart devices that we sometimes convince ourselves that the things that matter most in our lives are the products of human creativity. We have the power to make things and we are often filled with our own sense of power and importance. But humans are only a small part of the vastness of this universe. It existed before our planet was populated and it will continue with our without us depending on our ability to adapt and survive in changing circumstances.

Once in a while we gain an open window to the power and wonder of this universe. Looking at pictures of volcanic fissure and hot lava emerging from the depths of the earth is a powerful experience. So I look. I find myself going to the computer to check to see if there are new images. I wonder what the sulfurous fumes smell like. I wonder what the rumble of the earth sounds like, I wonder what the heat of the lava feels like. Looking at the images on my computer is not the same as being there, but the images are powerful enough for me to know that it is an incredible moment in the story of our planet.

May we all find ways to experience awe in this life.

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

A lament

For the most part, I try to avoid politics in my journal. It isn’t that I don’t participate in politics. I do. I have political opinions and I vote. I comment privately about the lives of politicians and those who are close to me are well aware of my political preferences. However, I see my role in the community as one who brings people together and politics can be so divisive. It is difficult in our contemporary situation to engage in honest conversation without alienating those who disagree. There is such a rampant rush to the extremes that people struggle to be civil to one another. Friends who have a lot in common will come to shouting matches over topics such as the role of the NRA or the appropriate role of government in health care. I’m not one to promote shouting and division. I don’t want to alienate those who have different opinions than mine.

So in advance, please note that today’s journal entry is not advice on how you should vote or what you should believe. It is a lament. It does, as do the historic laments in the Bible, mention leaders by name. We all share in the actions of our leaders. In a representative democracy, even though we might not have voted for those who hold office, they represent all of us and we all participate in the society that sometimes brings grief. Please don’t take offense at my words. They are not intended to wound or attack, only to express grief.

I am sad that church leaders are contributing so heavily to the exodus of people from churches. It has been well documented that fewer and fewer people are participating in churches. This is especially true of adults under the age of 30. Roughly 40 percent of those people claim no connection to a religious congregation. The pollsters call them “nones.” If you have noticed a distinct lack of young adults in your church, you are not alone. We are all suffering from this phenomenon.

The problem is, in part, due to the words and behaviors of religious leaders. Much publicity has been given to sexual scandals and the abuse of power by religious leaders. Whenever a new scandal erupts it results in less faith in the church and more people who disassociate from religious institutions. It must bring a tear to the eye of God when religious leaders behave in such a despicable manner. But there is more to the story than these highly visible scandals.

Robert Putnam and David Campbell, in their landmark 2010 book, “American Grace,” found that the rise of the nones was driven by the increasing association of organized religion with conservative politics and a lean toward the right in culture wars. They see the church as right wing, judgmental, homophobic, and hypercritical. Those who have more tolerant and open views on homosexuality are more than twice as likely to be religious nones as their statistically similar peers with conservative or traditionalist views on homosexuality according the Putnam and Campbell.

Not all congregations are homophobic. However, we share the same bible, the same Christ and many of the same words with other congregations. And, when young adults reject one congregation they have a tendency to reject religion in general and shun all congregations. It isn’t just that young people are leaving the church. Religious leaders are driving them away.

Recently a young adult, who has no religious affiliation of which I know and who was speaking with me in a context removed from the church, commented to me about the behavior and the words of the President of the United States. He spoke of the President’s claim to be a born again Christian and his close ties with Christian evangelical leaders. The young man referred directly to the President’s words at a recent prayer breakfast about the power of religion. That same day, the President quoted Billy Graham in a tweet. I don’t follow the President’s twitter feed, so I missed it. My young companion noted that this show of religion was made on the same day that the President was forced to admit his lies on the Stormy Daniels payoff. He made a direct connection between the scandal and lies that surround the President and his participation in religious services. He sees such behavior as hypocritical and associates hypocrisy with everyone in the church. He did, graciously, say to me that I was different, which I appreciated.

Had he grown up in the church and studied the stories of our church, he would know that we have all kinds of hypocrisy in our heritage. He would have heard stories of leaders who abused their power and were embroiled in sexual scandal. King David stories are sufficient to make on blush. King Solomon was enough to make the people of God question the concept of having kings at all. The prophets pointed out the failures of human leaders and inspired centuries of movements for justice. the voices of Micah, Isaiah, Amos, Jeremiah and Jesus ring through the centuries with direct attacks on those who possess political power. The church can be, and should be a place for those who seek justice.

Church and political leaders, however, have not been patient teachers of the whole of scripture. They have picked and chosen a few verses and proclaimed them as if they presented the whole truth. The words homosexual or homosexuality never appear in the bible. Not once. There is no word in Biblical Hebrew that refers to the concept. Some contemporary translations that are very loose do mention the word. Contemporary usage has connected the people of Sodom (Sodomites) with male homosexuality even those those people were condemned for a lack of hospitality. At best there might be a half dozen references to homosexual behavior in the bible. But there are those both within the church and without who think that the condemnation of homosexuality is a major biblical theme. And this is just one example of how church leaders misrepresent the faith in ways that drive people out of the church.

We need to confess our sins. We need to repent from our ways. We need to develop ways of reflecting the extravagant welcome that Jesus showed with his life where he reached out directly to those whom the society condemned. God must weep at the way some religious leaders twist the Gospel of love and acceptance into hypocritical rants that drive people away.

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!

Old Kentucky Home

I was walking with friends yesterday. We gather on the first Saturday of May each year to support those who have lost loved ones to suicide. The gathering includes sharing memories, a few tears, and a chance to walk with others and share stories. We’ve been walking formally in Rapid City fir sixteen years and I’ve been out for each walk.

Yesterday was a beautiful day for the walk and those gathered were enjoying the talking. The pace was a bit slower as we had little incentive to finish. As we strolled by the ball fields, we could hear the Star Spangled Banner from the PA system. The conversation paused as we listened to the familiar song. Most of us were, I suspect, thinking of the words to that song that we have known all of our lives. It wasn’t an interruption to our day, but rather a moment of pause and reflection. We appreciated the moment.

There is another tradition that involves singing and the first Saturday of May. Their weather wasn’t as nice as ours. The rain was pouring when the horses started toward the track at the Kentucky Derby. The parade of horses and jockeys is accompanied by the University of Louisville Marching Band playing “My Old Kentucky Home.” With only a couple of exceptions, that tradition has been part of the horse race since 1936. The crowd sings along, the lyrics memorized.

“My Old Kentucky Home” is the state song of Kentucky. It was written before the Civil War by Stephen Foster, sometimes considered to b the “father of American music.” He also has been known by some of his detractors as an appropriate of African culture. Foster is said by some to hav had a condescending attitude towards African Americans. Some have even claimed that he was racist. His songs certainly reflect the attitudes of his time, and racism was endemic in the culture. He is well known for “O Susanna,” “Hard Times Come Again No More,” and “Old Folks at Home” which most of us know by its opening line, “Way down upon the Swanee River . . .”

The song, “My Old Kentucky Home,” tells the story of a slave who has been sold by his master and is forced to leave Kentucky, bound for the Deep South. It tells of the brutal mistreatment that was in store for slaves: “The head must bow and the back will have to bend . . . In the field where the sugar-canes grow.” One might conclude that the song is a lament by a slave who is leaving the place of his birth headed for a place of even harsher servitude. The reality was that slavery was harsh in all states that practiced it. There was no good place to be a slave.

Pausing to think about the deep costs and wounds of slavery is important. It is a piece of our common story that is not particularly well-taught in our schools and increasingly is not well known by people. The controversy stirred up by Kanye West’s statement that made it sound like he thought that slavery was a chore made by Africans illustrates how our public discourse is often based in ignorance of the harsh realities of our history. We like to smooth over and sugar coat the telling of our story in ways that soften the harshness of the reality.

So it might b a good thing to pause and to think about the songs we sing and the traditions we hold.

I’m not a Kentuckian and I haven’t been a fan of horse racing. I’m not up to speed on all of the traditions of the sport. And, other than noting the names of the winners and paying attention enough to see of a horse wins the triple crown, I’m not up on the derby. I don’t have the worlds to “My Old Kentucky Home” memorized. State songs don’t gain the same kind of prominence in our minds that other songs do. I can’t even name, off the top of my head, the state songs of all of the states where I have lived.

Reading the words to the song, however, I can see how people would choose it as a state song. It is filled with nostalgia where “the corn-top’s ripe and the meadow’s in the bloom,” where “birds make music all day.” But the song also speaks of Kentucky as a place where “By’n’by hard times comes a-knocking at the door.”

The song gained a bit of muting of its racial overtones when, in 1986, the Kentucky General Assembly passed a law replacing the words “darky” and “darkies” with “people.” The altered lyrics are the ones sung at Churchill Downs. The song, with the updated words might be misleading. After all Churchill Downs is known to be a place that celebrates the south with the people all dressed up and waxing nostalgic about the old days in the Antebellum South with ladies in crinoline and dashing cavaliers. They have taken a song of lament from a dark time in our history and made it a song of nostalgia for the way things used to be. The problem with that kind of nostalgia is that often the past for which we long isn’t reality, but rather an idealized past.

Stephen Foster was not a native of Kentucky. He wrote a song based on his imagination. It is hard to know what he thought of Kentucky. If he thought that it was somehow a great place to be a slave and a place where slaves longed to go, he was mistaken in that notion. There was no such thing as a great place to be a slave. Slavery was brutal and wrong wherever it was practiced. Having work for slaves that was a bit less harsh is hardly something to be celebrated.

The history of Africans in America is a brutal scar on our history. And future generations deserve honesty when it is told. Cultural traditions may need to shift in order to tell the truth.

Sometimes it is good to pause and think as we repeat traditions that have been kept so long that we don’t examine their meanings.

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!

Summer sleep

We often speak of four seasons, but when it comes to sleepwear, I only have two seasons. And last night was the night for the switch. Details aren’t important for this journal, but I have a warmer, heavier garnet for winter and a lighter, cooler one for summer. I woke this morning in my summer outfit with the ceiling fan gently rotating in the bedroom and the birds singing outside the open window. It really is a pleasant way to sleep and to wake up.

My wife and I have different notions of how to sleep, which despite outward appearances, has made for a very compatible relationship. She likes to be warm and piles a couple of quilts upon herself to sleep. I prefer a light cover and sometimes sleep with just a sheet. That doesn’t keep her from tucking me in an piling the blankets on me if she comes to bed after I’ve fallen asleep. No worries, I can always find a way to stick an arm or leg out from under the pile of covers and soon have things just the way I like them. She, on the other hand, carefully covers herself beneath layers of blankets. This proves to be a very nice arrangement because if she steals blankets from me, which I doubt, she is welcome to them. We never fight over them. We start out with a sufficient supply that there are plenty to go around. And I’m perfectly happy with things the way they are.

I have a few friends who complain about their wives and express difficulties in sharing blankets. I’ve never understood their complaints. Why not just get more blankets? Over the course of a long marriage, they seem to collect around the house anyway. We’ve got small blankets on chairs and the back of the sofa and all around our house. I think they were received as gifts mostly. I’m pretty sure we could have all of the utilities go out for a week in the middle of the winter and we’d be in no danger of hypothermia around here.

Ah, but to sleep under a light sheet, with a quiet fan to sir the air and an open window next to your bed - that’s a really really pleasant experience. And I can hear the sweet sound of my partner’s breathing from somewhere under that big pile of covers next to me on the bed. Life is good.

The weatherman tells us to expect some higher than normal temperatures for the next couple of weeks. I’ve gotten out of touch with what normal is anymore anyway, so what I think it means is that the grass is really growing fast. I need to get out there and mow it right away before it gets away from me. It seems to me like we went from winter to summer all in a very short time. One day there were no daffodils blooming in the bed in front of the porch and the next day there was a profusion of white and yellow that really got your attention. One day I was looking out at the snow on the deck and the next I’m thinking it is time to get out the lawn mower and change the oil on the snowblower and get it ready for summer storage. If we were planting a vegetable garden this year, which we are not due to travel plans, I would be behind on tilling and planting. Time to get seeds in the ground!

Maybe it is a product of age. Maybe it is that the times are changing. Whatever, I used to think of summer as a season with a slightly lazier pace. We got a break from school Summer was a time for tree houses and trips to the library and fishing and playing in the river. I now know that the slow pace of summer was a phenomenon for kids only in our home. My father ran two businesses that serviced agriculture producers. He’d rise at 4 am to be at the airport and flying in the cool early hours of first sunlight. Then he’d put in a busy day at his farm machinery dealership, where things always were hopping in the summer, with emergency repairs, farmers who needed parts right now, and lots of delivery work to enable the farmers and ranchers to be out in the field. I remember once hearing my mother gently advise my father that perhaps it would be wiser to wait until later to make sales calls. He replied, “They’re farmers. If they aren’t up at 6 win the morning they should be!”

I’m pretty sure there wasn’t much lazing around in bed in the summers when I was a kid. But we did sleep with all of the windows in the house open and the wind blowing through the house could be felt in that place in those days. Once school was out for summer we were allowed short pants, which were cutoff jeans, and short pajamas. And open windows meant that we could easily hear the rush of the river outdoors. In addition to occasional camping trips to the mountains, we were allowed to sleep outside in a tent in the yard from time to time. Sleeping in our treehouses, except for an occasional quick nap in the day time, however. was strictly forbidden. I guess there were some structural engineering problems with our tree houses of which I wasn’t particularly aware. On the other hand, the lack of level floors sometimes presented a challenge. I figured that if I did ever sleep up there, I’d need a rope for extra security, sort of like a seat belt in a car.

Best of all, however, was sleeping under the stars on our trampoline. It was a soft, comfortable surface and we didn’t need anything to cover us up. We’d sleep in our daytime clothes, a practice that doesn’t seem appealing to me these days, but which, at the time, was a treat. Why waste time changing clothes? We could “wash” them by playing in the river the next day and they’d be as good as new for another day.

Life is a bit busier for me these days. But, as I sat on the deck after supper last night and enjoyed the pleasant evening, I was aware of how good we really have it and how lucky we are to live in the hills.

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!

Milestone birthdays

There are milestones in every life. Some of them seem bigger at the time than they do in retrospect. Others seem more important when we look back than they did at the time. It is clear that we don’t measure our experiences as a series of equally-spaced events. Looking back, I can tell you where I was and what I was doing on some of my birthdays. There are other years, however, when my birthday just wasn’t one of the most important events of the year. Some years have a long list of important events and occurrences. Other years seem to have passed without all of the significant times. I’m guessing that others see their lives in a similar manner.

I attended a private kindergarten before our town had a public kindergarten. Turning 5 meant that I had a half day school program, but it wasn’t quite the same as my older sisters. It was when I turned 6 that I got to go to the real school - the big kids’ school. That school was eight grades, so I remember turning 13 - the age when our class was the oldest class in the school. Everyone else had to look up to us. Well, that was mostly symbolic since I wasn’t among the tallest in my class. There were 5th grade girls who were taller than I was in the 8th grade.

Turning 15 was a big deal to me. My birthday was on a Saturday, so 8 am on Monday was the soonest I could take the driving portion of the test to earn my driver’s license. I had already passed the written portion in Driver’s Education Class. I had a learner’s permit, but having my driver’s license meant that I could drive solo on the streets of our town. I’d been driving in the country, at the ranch and at the airport for quite a while.

My 16th birthday was on a Sunday, but I was allowed to fly solo in my dad’s airplane early that morning, before time for church. I did a series of take offs and landings with my dad, then he got out and I made a trip around the patch without him. When I made the 1st solo landing, he waved me on and I made two more trips around the airport. When I had parked the airplane, the guys cut the tail off of my shirt, wrote the date on it and pinned it to the wall in the hangar. I felt like a real pilot. I thought I was pretty much grown up.

My 17th birthday was filled with a sense of accomplishment. I had my college acceptance letter. Sure, it mentioned that I would be admitted on academic probation, but I was sure that I could maintain the minimum GPA to continue my education. I had gotten really high scores on my Private Pilot’s examination and my ACT tests during the spring. I figured I was pretty good at taking tests. And I earned my pilot’s license. What is more there was a girl I was trying to impress who was going to the same college as I.

My 20th birthday was the week before my wedding.

I earned my doctorate, with distinction, just before my 25th birthday.

I was a brand-new father on my 28th birthday.

I was preparing to move to Rapid City, South Dakota on my 42nd birthday.

Then there are a lot of other birthdays. Some correspond to significant events in my life.

So I don’t know quite what to expect as I look forward to my birthday this year. I probably shouldn’t be thinking about it since it is still a month and a half in the future, and I’ve got a lot of other things to occupy my mind. But somehow, this number seems significant to me.

One of the reasons it seems significant is that In preparation for this year’s birthday, I had to fill out my application for Medicare and I have ;a new Red, White and Blue card in my wallet these days. That detail is in my mind this morning because yesterday I had my annual physical at the doctor’s office. I pile up my various appointments in the same month each year - doctor, dentist, dermatologist, etc., so I’m in the midst of that round of appointments for this year. And some of those appointments seem a little less routine because I have reached that certain age.

For a while, in the history of this country, the age that I turn this year was seen as the age for retirement. I suppose that when I was younger, I might have thought that it would be so for me. But for many years now, I haven’t thought of that as the age for me to retire. I have my health. I have work that is meaningful. And there are a host of other reasons that I don’t believe that there is any one-size-fits-all age for retirement. Now, If I were an airline pilot, this birthday would be the age of mandatory retirement. On the other hand, my eyesight has never been quite good enough for that job and though I once thought that I would be a pilot, my vocation has led me in another direction entirely. And I’m lucky to have ended up in a place where I will be allowed to work for a few more years before making a big carer change.

Still, I am aware that I am aging. A lot more young people call me “sir” than was the case a while ago. I attend meetings where I am the oldest person present. High school students hold the door for me at the grocery store. Some stores automatically give me the senior citizen’s discount without my asking. AARP sends me two or three membership applications every month. My standing order at the place where I get my hair cut includes trimming my eyebrows and ear hair.

And, if you haven’t already figured out which birthday is coming up for me, I’ll give you one more clue. I was born on the same day as China’s president for life Xi Jinping. Apparently he isn’t facing a mandatory retirement on his birthday this year, either.

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!

Visiting the jail

Our county jail is a fairly modern facility. Constructed of structured concrete with plenty of steel inside of the walls, it features an extensive system of cameras and doors with electronic locks managed by personnel in a control room equipped with a wall full of monitors. Each pod within the jail has a station from which a corrections officer can remotely lock and unlock individual cells. When I visit within the jail, I use an electronic key card to enter a secure area. From that point, I go through a sally port that consists of two steel doors that are opened electronically one at a time. I enter the space between the doors and the one behind is closed and locked before the one ahead is opened. Once on the secure side of the building, I can navigate using elevators and hallways. The hallways have a series of doors that are opened by the operators in the control room. It is pretty intimidating at first, but once one comes familiar with the process and layout of the building it isn’t difficult to get to the area where the prisoner you need to meet is being detained. It doesn’t hurt to b known by the people in the control room, who get a sense of where you want to go and unlock the doors as you walk along.

Most visitors to the jail are not allowed to go directly into the pods to visit their loved ones. A system of video monitors allow for electronic communications with inmates, not unlike Sykpe or other video conferencing methods. There is even a system for authorized visits that can take place from a home computer.

Our community has several different types of places where prisoners are held and each has a different protocol for visiting. In minimum security facilities face to face visits in a common room are available. At the county jail each pod has one or more conference rooms which are locked in which an attorney or chaplain can visit with an inmate.

The majority of the people in the county jail are incarcerated pending court actions. They have not yet been convicted of a crime, but are awaiting trial. Some of them will be in the facility for a short time. Once they have had an initial hearing before a judge bail will be set and if paid they will be free to leave the facility until their trial in the courtroom. There are reasons of public safety by which a judge may order a very high bail that the defendant cannot pay or, in some cases, no bail is allowed. Some inmates cannot afford bail that is easy for others to pay. The courts are busy and the process takes time. There are also prisoners in the facility who have been convicted of crimes and who have been ordered to serve their sentences in the county jail and those who have been convicted of a crime and are awaiting transfer to state or federal prison facilities.

Prisoners are segregated by gender and perceived threat of harm to themselves, others or corrections officers.

It is a big, complex and expensive system. And our state has a relatively high rate of incarceration of its citizens within our nation which incarcerates more of our citizens than many other nations.

Because of my role in the system as a chaplain and because of the organization of the building, I don’t feel fear as I move around the facility. I know many of the officers and know that there are many eyes looking out for me and my safety. I do, regularly, have to remind myself that the facility is not filled with bad people, but rather with good people who have made bad choices. A person who is addicted to methamphetamines can act very strangely when high on the drugs and during the early stages of withdrawal, but will be very normal after the passage of a few hours. A person who has committed a violent crime may have made dangerous decisions when under pressure, but seems very controlled in the setting of an incarceration facility.

I have also visited maximum security prisoners who are bound and shackled when I am led into their presence and whom I visit in front of a glass wall under the attentive eyes of a corrections officer. The system, however, is designed to provide for the safety of all of the people who are part of it and It is a very safe place for a pastor to visit and a very safe place for those who work there.

The parable of the sheep and goats, also known as Jesus’ teaching about the judgment of nations, in Matthew 25, lists specific actions by which we are judged such as feeing the hungry, carting for the sick, giving drink to the thirsty and the like. In that list of specific actions that we are commissioned to do and judged by whether or not the have done them is visiting prisoners. Although it is more common for me to be called to visit the sick than to visit those who are imprisoned, both are part of calling from God. Of course, that particular parable makes it easy to see my failures as well as my positive actions. Yesterday, for example, I visited one prisoner. There were several hundred others whom I did not visit. I both saw those in prison who I visited and those who I did not visit. It is easy to see myself on both sides of that parable of judgment.

We all are in need of God’s gift of Grace.

The system, however, treats me differently than those who have been arrested. I don’t wear the jail-issued clothing. The officers open the doors for me as I come and go. I spend a while inside the secure side of the building, but go home to my own bed at night. I have never experienced the feeling of being locked in a cell and completely out of control of my coming and going. My compassion is based, in part, upon my imagination of how it must feel to those who are incarcerated.

So I visit when I am able and I pray each day for those who are jailed. May we all learn to live together in peace and share the love of Christ.

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 lot of shirts

When I was growing up, our camp had sweatshirts. My parents purchased one for me and I wore it for several years until I outgrew it or it was worn out. I don’t remember which it was. After I graduated from seminary, I started to receive t-shirts from various events. Regional and National Youth Events all had t-shirts with their logos on them. I attended a couple of National Youth Events that had multiple colors of shirts designating different roles (participant, presenter, planning team). I obtained multiple shirts to reflect multiple roles. The church camps I attended began to have special shirts for specific camps and events. Some started putting dates on t-shirts to create a desire for a new shirt each year. The pile of t-shirts began to grow. By the time I moved to South Dakota, I had more t-shirts than would fit into a single drawer in my dresser.

I talked about having a quilt made out of t-shirts, but decided against it when I realized that I had too many shirts for that project. Either the quilt would be enormous or I would have to have multiple quilts and would probably end up with more quilts than I need. I learned that I could let go of some of my shirts and began allowing them to be donated.

I give away shirts on a fairly regular basis, but they still seem to collect in my drawers and closet. This Saturday is the Front Porch Coalition’s Suicide Awareness walk. I will walk as I have in the previous 14 years. I have a t-shirt from every year. I frequently wear Front Porch Coalition t-shirts on my day off to promote the organization and help raise awareness of suicide and its effects. The shirts are pretty good conversation starters.

I don’t wear logo clothing to work, but most of the rest of the time, I wear shirts and jackets with various logos on them. I grew up wearing shirts and jackets that promoted my father’s business. It seemed as if most of our jackets had logos on them, mostly for John Deere, and a few for Purina Chow. It is amusing to me that John Deere logo clothing has gotten so popular these days that it is sold in stores and I see people of all ages wearing it. I don’t have my old source of free jackets and shirts, but my son still occasionally wears a windbreaker that must be more than 40 years old - much older than he. I’ve got a couple of caps that date back to the days when my father was in the business. I used to joke that I was 25 years old before I owned a jacket that didn’t have John Deere on it. As you might imagine all of our jackets were either green or yellow. I remember distinctly the pretty light blue jacket that I got on a church rummage sale. It was great.

I took a quick look through my closet last night. Mind you, my closet has no t-shirts. Those are folded in drawers (yes multiple). I have jackets and polo shirts from several different organizations. As a member of the LOSS team I have shirts and a jacket with our logo that I wear when I go out on a call. I have casual shirts with the logo of the Pennington County Sheriff’s Office on them. I also have a uniform that I wear for formal occasions when representing the Sheriff. I have shirts with the logo for Pennington County Sheriff’s Search and Rescue team, for which I serve as chaplain.

It appears that although I am not a wealthy person, I certainly will never have to worry about what to eat or what to wear. I’ve certainly got more clothing than I am capable of wearing out in my lifetime. Some of those items of clothing, like the Sheriff’s Office uniform, don’t belong to me and will be turned in when I move on to other adventures in my life. Other items of clothing, such as the LOSS team or informal Sheriff’s Office clothing, need to be turned in. These items shouldn’t show up in thrift shops or on the rummage sale. Only those authorized to do so should wear those logos.

Our society uses clothing to establish identity, to promote products, to build brand names and for a whole host of different purposes. We are used to wearing clothing with logos. Even expensive items that we purchase sport advertisements for companies. The Nike swoosh, the Hurley stylized H and the Under Armor logos are all over clothing worn by a lot of young people. And Under Armor is not just underwear for those of you who don’t know. Hurley is owned by Nike, whose swoosh isn’t the same as New Balance. If you are into brands you have to know all of this stuff. I don’t have clothing with any of those brands on them because you have to pay to purchase those items and people keep giving me shirts at a rate too fast for me to wear them out which is perfectly fine because I don’t like shopping in the first place.

The challenge in my wardrobe is pants. I It used to be that virtually every clothing store had jeans sold by waist and inseam measured in inches. I knew my size and I could find jeans that fit. These days, I wear a boys size 16 Husky in jeans. I used to wear adult sizes, and I haven’t gotten smaller, but the company has revised its sizing. And local stores rarely have my size. I end up ordering them from the Internet. What is more the jeans don’t last me as long as they did when I was a kid and I think I was harder on jeans when I was a kid. We used to get new jeans for Rodeo every summer and then when the next summer rolled around, we’d have the knees out of them and made cutoffs out of them. I can’t get a pair of jeans to last a year anymore and they won’t work for cutoffs because the knees aren’t the only place holes develop. I get holes in pockets, and all sorts of other places.

It makes me wonder why the shirts seem to last so long. I have no shortage of shirts.

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 place in history

The stories we tell about our lives tend to be mostly about events that aren’t evenly spaced. We report the big things and don’t say much about the everyday. For example, my mother died, my grandson was born, my father-in-law passed away and my daughter got married all in the same calendar year. I tell more stories about that year than the year that followed. In the future I probably will tell more stories about that year than the next five or six that followed. After the passage of many generations this effect i pretty dramatic. We tell stories of three generations of our forebears: Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca and Jacob and Rachel. Then we tell a few stories about Joseph and skip up to the time of Moses. The way that we remember and the way that we tell the stories doesn’t mean that the people who lived in other generations weren’t important - they re the way we came to be. We are literally dependent upon every generation that preceded us. Our lives are made up of every moment, not just of the more dramatic ones. We just don’t have many stories about the moments we were sitting and waiting or the times we went to work and performed the same tasks we performed the day before.

The style of journaling that I do reminds me of this on a regular basis. There are days when I awake with two or three ideas for the day’s journal entry in my mind. There are other days when I don’t have an idea what i’m going to write about after having been up for an hour or more. Some essays roll out of my brain and off of my fingertips with ease. Others are struggles. My days and my experiences aren’t equal in terms of what I remember or what inspires me to write. That is part of the reason I adopted this discipline. I want to become a writer. I believe that one becomes a writer by writing. So I write when I feel inspired. And I write when I have to struggle to find inspiration.

If I ever invest the time to go back and select, edit and republish my essays - something I intend to do - I will discover that there are some that stand out and others that don’t need to be included in a collection. They won’t be evenly spaced.

I was thinking about this recently because there are many cycles that repeat in our lives. I get my teeth cleaned every six months. I see my doctor for an annual wellness check once each year. At my age, the doctor’s visit coincides with a visit to the dermatologist and other appointments. Those particular events travel around the calendar because they must be scheduled a certain number of months plus a few days in order for insurance reimbursements to work. That “plus a few days” adds up to move the appointments from one month to the next one and after enough time, the events walk around the calendar. It wasn’t along ago when i had a round of medical appointments in April. Now I have them in May. In a few years, they’ll be in June.

So we use those events to mark the passage of time in our minds. The truth is that a lot of things change. Some of them change slowly, some more rapidly. And our perception of time changes as well. I remember being awake with a fussy baby and it felt as if the night would never end. Looking back, however, the years when we had babies seem to have passed incredibly quickly. Our babies turned to toddlers and into schoolchildren and into teens and into adults at a pace that is amazing when I think about it. I’m older than my grandfather was when I was a child. Perspective makes a big difference.

Over the flow of many generations, our people have come up with a standard way of telling some of our stories. The stories in our Bible, for example have remained the same since the days of careful writing. The advent of the printing press made those stories available to many people. We literally used the same words to tell the stories for many generations. Around the time that the bible became to be available through printing, it became available in common languages. Translators rendered the document in words that average readers could understand. But language is never static, so as our language evolves so do the ways in which we tell our stories. There are many different versions of the Bible available today. The stories are similar, but we use different words to tell them.

It has been said that we are entering an entirely new era. Some have called this new era a “post-truth” society. Politicians and other leaders now label things with which they don’t agree “fake news,” and have no problems with presenting their opinions as fact. Independent verification of facts doesn’t hold the power it once did. People believe that truth is not fixed, but rather changes depending on perspective and opinion. Principles that have governed academics and rational conversation since the time of the Enlightenment are called into question, and in some cases thrown out. Philosophy, once hailed as the highest and most important form of study, isn’t even offered as a subject in major universities. All eras com to an end, and we had a good run of enlightenment for 300 years, but it is difficult to imagine what is coming next.

Sometimes I imagine that when many generations have passed and people look back our time might not stand out as one of the important eras, despite the fact that it seems terribly important to us who are living in this generation. Information technology has surged forward, but we haven’t learned how to control or to properly use our newfound powers. Ours may be more of a time of transition than a time of the really big events that shape history. Like every generation before us, we won’t know how those who follow us will see or judge our place in history.

So we live. We make small attempts at telling and recording our story. And we will trust history to sort it all out In the case of my journal - there will be a lot of words. Perhaps a few of them will carry enough meaning to survive for a while.

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!