Whats in a name?

Occasionally I will have a conversation with expectant parents about names. For the most part, I have found that they are not asking for my opinion. Most parents treasure the responsibility of choosing a child’s name and do so with care. They have a process which is unique to them. Many parents do not reveal their name choice until the child is born. A few are still struggling with the choice when the child has arrived. I try to respect the choices that parents make and, as I told our son when he and his wife were expecting, “We already know we are going to love this child whatever name is chosen.”

Still, I am surprised at the choices that parents make. There is a preschool in our church and between the three classes there are nearly 100 3- and 4-year-old children. Each autumn there are colorful posters with the first names of each child posted in the entryway of the school so parents can learn the names of the children as they wait to pick up their child. Each fall, I am attracted to those posters and make time to read all of the names. I get to see some names that are common and frequently-used. Some classes have more than one child with the same first name. I also get to see names that are less common and, from time to time, I wonder about the correct pronunciation of a name. Sometimes I speculate on the origins of a name, wondering if it has a specific national or ethnic history. Sometimes I look up a name to find out what I can about that particular name by searching a naming dictionary.

There have been a few names that have become part of stories I tell to others. I am very careful not to comment about a child’s name in front of the child or directly to a parents with anything more than to say it is a pretty name, or to inquire about whether it is a family name or a new name.

I have a granddaughter who has a less usual name. Emmala is not recognized by the spell correction on my computer. I had to teach it to the computer. Her personality is such, however, that by the time she was 3 years old she was introducing herself to strangers. She’d march right up to someone and say, “Hello! My name is Emmala. E-M-M-A-L-A Emmala!” She doesn’t want to be called Emma or Emily.

So I caught my eye when I saw a news story about Southwest Airlines’ apology to a family after an employee apparently made fun of a child’s name. Traci Redford and her daughter Abcde (pronounced ab-si-dee), were boarding a plane at California’s John Wayne Airport when a gate agent, surprised at the spelling of the girl’s name, laughed and took a photo of her boarding pass. I think that the apology was in order and I hope that the airline does some careful education of their employees about how to behave when they encounter an unusual name, but I also have a bit of sympathy for the employee. I, myself, have told others about a child named Abcde. My standard joke has been to say that I wonder what they named their second child and how you would pronounce Fghij. I have never made those comments in front of the child or her family, but I have been less than respectful of the name. And my story is not about Abcde Redford. The article I read states that in 2014 there were 328 children in the US named Abcde.

Frequently I discover that children have unique spellings to names with common pronunciations. La-a is pronounced Ladasha. I’ve heard stories of this spelling, but have never met a person who spells her name this way. I suppose it would be more confusing if the name were Le-a, which might be mispronounced as Leah. As far as I know Cody, Coady, and Kody are all pronounced the same. I think that when parents chose unusual spelling it might be a good idea to expect occasional questions about pronunciation.

Then, again, I’ve got it easy. My name is Ted. And that is all there is to it. I am not named Edward or Theodore and called Ted. My name is just Ted. The family story is that my father said, “If they’re going to call him Ted, why not name him Ted? I’ve appreciated the name. People rarely misspell it. When I order coffee in a shop, the cup comes with my name spelled correctly. This isn’t the case with our son, whose name is Isaac. He used to send me photos of the various ways his name as misspelled on cups in coffee shops. Our daughter, Rachel, also gets variations on the spelling of her name. I taught both of our children that their names are a bit challenging to spell in English because we have a different alphabet than Hebrew the original language of their names. The way that English and Hebrew treat vowels is different and the letters of the alphabet don’t line up exactly, so there are variations on how to transliterate words. At the time our children were named, we believed Isaac and Rachel to be the most common English spellings of those names. Neither seem to have suffered for our choice.

I’m not sure that the same can be said of Abcde. According to the news article about the incident with the Southwest Airlines employee, the 5-year-old felt mocked. The article quotes her mother: “She said: ‘Mom, why is she laughing at my name?’ And I said not everyone is nice and not everyone is going to be nice and it’s unfortunate.”

Each person is unique and I understand parents’ desire to have a unique name for the special child that they are welcoming into the world. On the other hand, I have met some wonderful people with whom I share a name. I don’t mind that there are others with my name.

You can’t judge a book by its cover and you can’t judge a person by their name. We all could use a bit of restraint and a dose of compassion in our relationships with others.

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

Treasured colleagues

For all of my life, I have had projects that are on the side of the main focus of my life. I had many different part-time jobs while I was a student. Although my studies were my main focus, the need for income taught me to stretch my days and to be creative in the management of my time. I worked as a janitor and a machinery assembler, as a baker and a truck driver. I learned skills that, although not directly job requirements, have helped me in my regular work. A pastor needs to have certain janitorial skills. I have been known to say that Holy Week is 50% leading worship and 50% moving furniture. And the miles of driving truck pay off when we load trucks and trailers with firewood and head to our partners with a delivery.

In the early years of my career, I worked as a radio DJ, as a school bus driver, and at a few other odd jobs. I also volunteered for community and denominational committees and served on various boards. My professional life has always been a bit of a balancing act between my commitments to my family, my commitments to the church, and my commitments to the community. It has been a meaningful lifestyle and I am grateful for the many lessons learned in places other than the church that have helped me forge relationships with people within the church. There are a lot of things about being an effective pastor that are learned in places other than school.

Back in the 1990’s and 2000’s, I was a member of a team of educational consultants in the United Church of Christ. We were deployed from the national setting of our church to serve congregations and Conferences in what then were the six regions of the denomination. Our team was relatively small, ranging from 12 to 15 consultants. We met once or twice each year to coordinate our work, learn about new resources, and plan national events. I had just started this work when we lived in Idaho and was named a consultant for the Western Region. When we moved to South Dakota, I was recruited to serve as a West Central consultant and was deployed in North and South Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Missouri and Arkansas. I served as a resource office to congregations and Conferences and did much of my work by email and phone, but did make physical visits and lead workshops in all of the Conferences I served.

That process of working with the other educational consultants formed deep relationships with the others who did this work. Around our meetings, we learned of each other’s families and work. We consulted when colleagues were considering major life decisions such as a change in jobs or new family configurations. We prayed for each other and maintained a strong email correspondence.

When the program was ended we continued our connections, meeting occasionally at General Synod matings of the United Church of Christ and mostly keeping our email group going. Over the years we have experienced the deaths of several of our colleagues and have participated in creating memorials to them. We have seen our colleagues through cancer treatment and heart attacks and joint replacement surgery. We have prayed for each other through the growing up and launching of our children and the deaths of our parents. Lately I recognize that I get a surge of tension when I see an email from the group because it often contains the news of deep grief. This week one of our colleagues, herself recently widowed, is traveling back to a church she once served for the funeral of a 22-year-old cancer victim. She baptized this person, led her youth group and traveled on several mission trips with her. She confirmed her and watched as she went off to college. In the scheme of things, we don’t expect to bury those who are so much younger than we, but here she is with a unique blend of pastoral concern and deep grief. We, her colleagues, pray with and for her. We write her notes, and we are a wordy bunch. Most of us are writers and all of us are impressed at the eloquence of our colleagues. Words make a difference to us and are deeply appreciated.

The majority of our team are now retired from the profession of ministry. We still have a role in our denomination as part of the institutional memory of the major themes of late 20th Century and early 21st Century faith formation ministries in our denomination. Not long ago the national office of our church was unable to find a report of a major educational study conducted in the early 1990’s. The word went out that they were looking for the report and most of the educational consultants had kept a copy. I had extra copies and was glad to send one on to the national office. We know that much of the work we did and the major projects in which we engaged are no longer relevant to the current configuration of the church, but we also know that our work was foundational for some of the ministries of the church today. In our own way we contributed to what we have together become.

I am grateful for the time when we shared at the heart of the church’s educational ministries. I learned some valuable skills that I use in my work today. A few weeks ago, our choir director asked me to write the narration for a Christmas cantata. I assured him that it was no problem and had a document ready for him to review in a couple of weeks. The actual work was done in a few hours at a time spread over two or three days. I learned this skill as a consultant when I had to come up with programming for Conference or national meetings at the drop of a hat while still doing my regular work.

Most valuable, however, have been the relationships. My colleagues have become valued friends and their prayers are deeply treasured. The church has never been about one place only. Our heritage lies in a faith that transcends space. From the letters of Paul to the emails of my colleagues I am grateful to belong to a worldwide church.

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!

Feeling wonky

“I’m feeling wonky today.” It is a common comment from a friend when I ask him how he is feeling. He’s highly educated and uses language precisely, so I suspect that despite his choice of an informal word, he is aware of its dictionary definition: “crooked, off-center, askew.” It makes sense because the side effects of the medicines with which he is being treated include problems with light-headedness and balance, as well as a tendency to become dehydrated which will produce similar symptoms.

I’ve been meeting regularly with two men, both lightly older than myself, who are struggling with illnesses that typically have short timelines. The median survival for untreated cases of one of the diseases is about 3 1/2 months. Effective treatment of that illness can produce an extension of up to eight months. That’s still less than a year from diagnosis to death. The short timeline is daunting. But many people go well beyond the median. Some live for a few years. Less than 10% survive five years. The men with whom I visit are well aware that their life’s timeline is dramatically shortened from what they had expected. They are realistic about death. They are worried about those they will leave behind.

The blessing for my life and for the lives of their loved ones and other friends is that they are honest and vulnerable as they speak of their illness. My father was similarly honest and frank when he spoke of his coming death after his cancer diagnosis. I have always been grateful that he gave me the gift of being able to talk about what was going on with him. It reduced my fear of dying. Those who die before we do have a lot of different gifts and legacies that they leave behind. Frank talk about dying and about what it is like to face and accept one’s own death is one of those gifts.

For these particular people, as would be the case for most of us, I assume, facing death means a change in priorities. Things that used to be very important become less important. Tasks that have been put off rise to the top of the “to do” list.

One afternoon as I sat with one of my friends he lamented that his illness had taken away his appetite. He had enjoyed eating, but that seemed to no longer be a pleasure. One of the joys of his life had been tasting and sharing fine wines. Now his ability to savor that a particular pleasure was gone. It wasn’t that his life was meaningless without a glass of his favorite wine. It was just that his priorities had changed. He was learning to savor conversation and treasure moments with his friends. He had even learned to offer a glass to a friend when he didn’t share the bottle and enjoy the friend’s reaction to his once-favorite vintages.

Another friend persists in inviting me to go out to eat with him even though his appetite is not what it once was and his choice of food is most often simple. He commonly doesn’t eat much when we are together, but somehow the ritual of going out for a meal still carries some of the sense of being a treat and a gift that he can offer to a friend.

What I know is that we all are on a limited timeline. Each of us will one day die. No one gets to escape that reality. And the number of days of our lives is unknown to all of us. Even without the diagnosis of a rare or particularly untreatable disease, there are no guarantees. I’ve had the challenging task of informing loved ones of sudden and traumatic deaths often enough to know that an accident can occur when least expected. Being at the wrong place at the wrong time can be fatal. There are no guarantees. Good people die young on occasion.

On the other hand, as a pastor, I am also given the privilege of visiting with those who have lived very long lives. I’ve had conversations with those past the age of 100. I enjoy relationships with several people who are in their nineties. Their experiences and history fascinate me. I am also fascinated that some of those who have accumulated a lot of decades are more interested in asking about the future than they are in reminiscing about the past.

I’ve been wondering about my friend lately. “Feeling wonky” is the closest he has complained about his illness. I’ve asked him if he experiences any pain and he doesn’t describe any to me. It is possible that he is not experiencing pain, though we all have our aches and pains. I wonder if he will soon be using another term to describe his symptoms and how I will feel when he does. So far, I’ve drawn closer to him and learned more about who he is since his diagnosis than I had during the previous two decades and more of our relationship. I’m not even sure that I would have described him as a friend in years past even though that title seems most appropriate these days. I often use the term when talking with him: “How are your doing today, my friend?” I don’t want him to be dishonest, but I dread the day when he says, “lousy.”

The human spirit is an amazing thing. There are illnesses that leave their victims in very dark places and overwhelm them with depression and sadness and bring them to the brink of despair. There are illnesses that are as dangerous and life-threatening that somehow bring out the best in a parson’s character and they display abundant gratitude

Years ago I once fainted. It turned out that I was dehydrated and needed to receive fluids by IV in a hospital emergency room before I could recover my equilibrium. So I think that I know a little bit about what “wonky” feels like. It is not an unpleasant sensation. I hovered on the edge of consciousness without fear. I’m hoping that wonky is that way for my friend. I have him sit down and get him a glass of water and we talk.

I will forever be grateful for those conversations.

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 Beech 18

For a while, when I was growing up, my father and a few partners owned a twin Beech. The model 18 Beech was (and still is) an iconic airplane that gave rise to modern corporate aviation, supported bye expansion of overnight freight deliveries and was an important part of World War II, the Korean War and the War in Vietnam.

Walter Beech made his corporation and his name with the model 17 Staggerwing. The airplane had a distinctive look for a biplane with the top wing mounted farther aft than the bottom wing. The plane featured a luxurious enclosed cabin and could cruse at over 200 mph. 785 of the planes were built after the prototype first flew in 1932. The plane was powered by a reliable Pratt & Whitney wasp junior 9 cylinder radial engine that produced 450 horsepower. Beech followed up with the success of the staggering with a thoroughly modern, aluminum-skinned twin engine, low wing cruiser with an iconic twin tail. By placing vertical stabilizers at the ends of the horizontal stabilizer, the rudders were in line with the prop wash from the engines and had much more authority than a conventional single rudder. First flown in 1937 the twin came with seating configurations from 6 to 11 seats and was built very stout. The coming of World War II increased demand for the reliable airplane. Two military configurations, the AT-11 and the C-45 were produced, the first being a trainer to transition pilots form single to multiple-engine aircraft and the latter a cargo version. They were real workhorses during the War.

My father spent much of his time in the Army Air Corps training pilots in the AT11 and accumulated a lot of hours in the type. In the early 1960’s he saw the opportunity to buy a surplus C45G and began the process of upgrading it to serve as a charter and air ambulance platform. The engines were overhauled and new three-blade props were installed. The nose was lengthened with a cargo area up front. A one-piece windshield was installed and insulation and soundproofing added to the passenger compartment. The airplane took burn patients to Houston, TX, brain injury patients to Rochester, MN, and transported prisoners between federal and state prisons. It took our family on some wonderful vacations including a one-stop trip to Washington, D.C. with a stop in Chicago on the return, a trip to San Francisco with a stop in Salt Lake City and a non-stop return, and a trip to Seattle. Our time of owning the airplane was before the boon in night flown package delivery pioneered by UPS, and the airplane just couldn’t generate quite enough business to make it a big financial success. It was eventually sold and continued to work for many years. A lot of the original 9,000 twin beeches manufactured are still flying, though more an more of them are retired to the luxury of collectors items and show planes. The only serious air worthiness directive on the plane had to do with the attachment points for the main spar that ran through the cockpit just behind the pilot’s cockpit. The spar straps that became mandatory solved the problem and the airplanes remain safe and reliable to this day.

I recently began reading “I’ll Take the 18” by Scott Gloodt. It is the story of freight hauling in twin beeches during the seventies and early eighties by a pilot who is very realistic and only a little bit nostalgic about the airplanes. It is a good recreational read for someone who loves airplanes and flying lore. The book reads a bit like sitting around a hanger at the airport and listening to the stories of the old hands. I’ve invested more than a few hours listening to that kind of story over the years as bit of an airport bum.

Reading the book reminds me of the sound of those twin wasp engines when they were in perfect synchronization. Our plane didn’t have an automatic synchronization system, so adjusting the throttles and props to their perfect settings for best fuel economy and cruise was an art. Seasoned pilots like my dad would advance the left engine an inch or so more in manifold pressure than the right for takeoff and landing to counter the torque of the engines and give more rudder authority for a crosswind. Dad would wait until he was on final approach to move the props to full pitch just to keep the noise down as he flew over town. I learned to recognize not only the sound of the twin beech, which was distinctive, but I could tell who was flying it by the sound of an approach. In later years, when the spray planes all had constant speed props, we got used to hearing them increase in noise as they flew over our place because the pilots advanced the throttles as part of their pre-landing checklist and without any concern for their noise footprint on the ground.

In cruise, the 900 hp of those engines would just purr. In the back of the airplane it was a gentle drone and it was easy to sleep as we flew. Most trips, however, I was too excited to sleep. My favorite place to ride was perched on the spar between and little bit behind the pilot and copilot seats. I had a clear view of the instrument panel, the throttles and other engine controls, and could see out the window clearly. I have a very clear memory of sitting there as we broke out of the clouds approaching Chicago from Lake Michigan and lingering even though I had ben ordered back to my seat and buckling up for the landing. It was an amazing sight.

I owned a share in a Beechcraft for a few years, though it was a basic trainer, the 4 passenger Musketeer. Ours was a 1963 model and I flew it enough to give our children a few memories of flying. These days my flying is reserved to passenger seats and a fair amount of daydreaming. I still rush outside and look at the sky when I hear a radial engine, especially when it is a twin. And, most of the time, when I do, it is a Beech 18 still gracing the skies after all these years.

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!

Listening for God's call

Fairly early in my college career, I set my eyes and my mind on theological seminary. I was inspired by some pastors, many of whom I met a church camp, and by a couple of teachers at college. I enjoyed reading and talking about philosophy and theology and it seemed to me like a good thing to do with my life. Later, as a seminary student, I began to work on the paperwork for ordination. One of the the requirements of an ordination paper in our denomination is a discussion of your sense of call. A pastor is seen as one who is called by God into the ministry and part of that process is a discussion with a Committee on the Ministry of the candidate’s experience of being called by God.

I had a bit of a struggle discerning an absolutely clear call from God. I didn’t hear voices. I didn’t experience direct revelation. I ended up using the term “chosen chooser” in my ordination paper. I saw my path towards the ministry as the result of a partnership between choices I made and being chosen by the church and by God to move into leadership.

Now, more than four decades later, I am fairly certain that I have been called by God. The life of a pastor has been a good life for me and I believe I have contributed to the church and helped a few people. A life of service has been a good path for me.

But I have not experienced a burning bush like Moses. I have not heard God directly telling me what to do like Joan of Arc. I still struggle with discerning the difference between what I want and God’s call. I’ve learned that in this process consulting with others is essential. Left to my own, I might just think that whatever I want in life is God’s call. When I consult with others, I discover that God sometimes calls me in directions that I would not otherwise go. I have served most of my career in the Dakotas and it is not a place that I might have chosen if I were left to my own desires. It has been a good choice for me, and, I hope, a good choice for the churches I have served.

I remember being a young college student, reading about other Christian leaders and pastors and their experiences and wishing that I could get a really dramatic sign from God. All of the choices that were open as I began my career were a bit overwhelming. Life can be confusing. There are a lot of decisions that can be made fairly early in life that set or alter the entire course of one’s life. I was fortunate to have found love and a partner in my wife early in my life. I’ve seen how relationship choices can be big problems for some of my peers. I have a friend who has been twice divorced and I am aware of the incredible amount of energy and investment that he has put into a search for love and a meaningful life partner and what a struggle it has been for him. I, on the other other hand, found that partner when I was still a teenager and our decision to marry has definitely been a very good decision for me.

And, to be fair, my choice of vocation has also turned out to be the right choice. Unlike those who have switched vocations multiple times in search of just the right career, I have been blessed with a direction in my work life that has provided a structure for other decisions and delivered a place where I feel like I belong. Not everyone is as fortunate.

It is interesting for me to note however, that as I grow older, I still experience a kind of longing for clarity about God’s call. I still haven’t seen any burning bushes. I still haven’t heard God’s voice in my head speaking in words.

I don’t think I realized it when I was younger, but growing older doesn’t reduce the number of decisions that one needs to make. I wrestle with questions bout when is the right time for me to step aside and allow new leadership to develop in the church. This isn’t just a question of retirement, but also of which of the things I am now doing should be entrusted to the leadership of others and which new projects I should undertake. I am constantly invited to serve in various volunteer positions and on different boards and committees and I need to choose which places are the right places to serve.

We talk about where we might live for the next phase of our lives and I have seen colleagues who have been challenged by this decision. One college made five major moves after he retired. And that count only includes semi-permanent homes. It doesn’t count the half dozen or more interim pastorates he filled while living for months and sometimes years in a different place. His life was far more nomadic after retirement than it had been when he was working. I watch others a few years my senior as they move from a retirement home to a townhouse to an apartment to a smaller apartment to an assisted living facility and to a nursing home. Each move has its own trauma and its own set of decisions. I know that my future holds as much confusion, as many decisions and as deep a need to discern God’s call as the years that have passed.

I know that taking time to be quiet and to listen is essential to this process. I know that consulting with other faithful people is critical for me. I know that God’s call is more than just following my own desires. I also know that God has been good to me in my life’s journey so far. I’ve been forgiven for mistakes made and poor choices.

So I’ll keep listening. And if I fail to hear a clear call, perhaps a vague sense of direction will be sufficient. I’ll have to wait to see.

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!

Reign of Christ

And so here we are. It is Reign of Christ Sunday. For those of us who follow the lectionary around the year, it is the last Sunday of the liturgical year. Next Sunday we start a whole new year with Advent. As I grow older each year seems to go a little bit faster. We’ve run through the anticipation and the birth, followed quickly by a quick trip trough Jesus baptism and the visit of the Magi. We’ve re-read the stories of the Gospel of Mark and followed Jesus and his disciples to Jerusalem where we faced the awe-full events of Holy Week and the devastation of crucifixion before the triumph and joy of Easter. We’ve followed the readings of Pentecost, the longest season of the church year and come full circle for the final festival of the liturgical year.

Reign of Christ, also known as Christ the King, is not one of the ancient festivals of the church. Although there were scattered observances going back a very long time, the feast day was declared official in 1925 by Pope Pius XI. It was slowly embraced by the liturgical parts of Protestantism over the next couple of decades.

As strange as it may seem, however, the roots of this modern celebration go back a long ways, long before the birth of Jesus, back to the very origins of the Judeo-Christian story. Among the oldest stories of our scripture are the stories of Abram and Sarai, who left the land of their mothers and fathers and ventured out into the world to follow God’s call. This story comes in part out of what must have been long and intense conversations with others about the nature of God and the nature of religion. The concept of monotheism was rare in the ancient near east and the claim that the God who called the pair forth from their homes was the same God who spoke to them throughout their lives no matter where they went was a novel concept. Locals in the places they visited would have talked about the gods of their region and the gods of their weather. To assert that there is only one God and that God is the God of every place was a radical idea. It took many generations for the concept to fully develop. Our Bible contains stories about people who believed that the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob actively competed with the gods of Baal. That isn’t the same thing as asserting that there are no other gods at all. Such a belief developed, but it took many generations to grow.

All along the way, the notions of the emerging religion faced governments and temporal rulers who asserted that they were gods. The Egyptian Pharaohs were hailed as gods. This was true of certain Greek and Roman rulers as well. The Assyrians and Babylonians had notions about governmental leaders being divine.

The assertion that there is only one God is an assertion that there is an absolute truth. Truth is not relative, but rather there is a single and absolute truth. Because people experience events from all different perspectives and because things seem different depending on how you look at them, it is easy to assert that there are many different and competing truths. Police investigators become aware of this. Eye witness stories do not always agree. But they also know that even through one witness swears that the light was green and another swears that it was red the light in reality was only one of those colors. The different perspectives and different perceptions don’t change reality.

It is not an accident that the church began to observe Christ the King as a holiday at the same time as authoritarian rulers began to rise in governments in Europe. People needed to be reminded that there is an authority that is greater than the temporal powers of earthly readers. Just because Hitler declares that Jews are evil and should be eliminated does not make it so. There is an authority that is higher than Hitler. It is an assertion that beyond all of the temporal truths that may appear to humans, there is an ultimate Truth. Beyond the corrupted attempts at justice offered by humans there is the Justice of God.

The Gospel reading for this Sunday reports a conversation between Jesus and Pilate on the occasion of the trial of Jesus that covers this very topic. Jesus states to Pilate: “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” The reading of the lectionary end with these words, but in the very next verse, Pilate asks, “What is truth.”

Both Roman and Greek intellectuals had among their number those who asserted that there was no such thing as an absolute truth. Truth was, for them, relative. Pilate, who was educated and aware of these teachings, uses their perspective in his exchange with Jesus, asking if Jesus can assert anything as truth if there is no absolute truth. When one wields the power of the Roman government to execute, it seems to many that the truth is whatever he says it is. Jesus clearly understand that even if he dies, there is a reality that a is beyond the way things appear. If all truth is relative, Jesus’ version of the truth would die with him. This is not the case.

It is no small thing to observe Reign of Christ as a holiday. It is a bold assertion that there is authority beyond the authorities of society. Authoritarian leaders will often assert that they have the power to create truth. A phrase that is often attributed to Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels states, “If you repeat a lie often enough, it becomes the truth.” It is possible that Goebbels never said this. It may be a reference to the paragraph about the propaganda technique know as “the big lie,” in Adolf Hitler’s memoir Mein Kampf. At any rate, it doesn’t matter which leader makes such a statement. There is truth beyond their assertions. Even if you convince many people to believe that something is true, it does not make that thing true.

Time and history have a way of bringing the truth to the surface. Sometimes we simply have to wait for the truth to be revealed.

So today, we celebrate the Reign of Christ and reassert our belief in truth and power that lie beyond the rhetoric and manipulations of politics.

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!

Living the questions

I probably run in different circles of friends than was the case years ago. When I was in seminary, my friends were seminary students. We were reading the same books and listening to some of the same lectures. We were all involved in churches and immersed in the process of learning to lead congregations. Our first parish out of seminary was in a small town, where I had friends who were members of other congregations, but no friends that I remember who would have identified as not religious. Our next parish was in a small city and there I began to make friends with folks who were more diverse than was the case previously in my life. these days, I have made an effort to cultivate friendships with people outside of our congregation and with people who are different ages than I. I still have a lot of friends who are pastors and who are members of Christian congregations, but I have more friends who identify as members of other religions and more friends who are not formally affiliated with any religious institution.

I have begun to develop an interest in people who like to identify as “spiritual but not religious.” Actually, I think that their self-chosen identifier is often not quite accurate. At least they don’t seem to be spiritual in the sense of practicing spiritual disciplines on a consistent basis. And they don’t appear to be irreligious. They do tend to have a slightly anti-institutional bias, and they have some distrust of Christianity. But they seem interested in ritual and eager to find some form of community where they are free to talk about their religious ideas.

There don’t seem to be very many places where people feel free to explore their spiritual curiosity. There are plenty of religious institutions that seek to tell others what to believe and how to practice their faith, but places where the questions are embraced without pre-formed or pat answers are less common.

When I encounter open hostility towards the church it is almost always hostility towards religious institutions that are very different than the church that I serve. There are a lot of people who believe that all churches are narrow-minded, anti-science, homophobic and judgmental. Churches are often described as places filled with hate and judgment by those who don’t attend church. I suspect that this comes in part from media churches and from some of the mega churches that are based on the personality of their leaders. A quick scan of congregations in our city reveals that the majority are part of religious traditions that have no specific educational requirements for their leaders. Rather leaders are self-appointed and pick up whatever parts of religious tradition they encounter without every engaging in a systematic study of the history or theological traditions of the church. This produces a kind of self-defined
Christianity that does an interesting kind of “pick and choose,” quoting various parts of the Bible and Christianity while ignoring other parts.

Whatever the cause, it is the case that there are people who are interested in exploring spiritual traditions and who are longing for community who are potential members for a congregation such as the one I serve and who are not aware that such a congregation exists. They are often surprised to discover that I am curious about religion, and study other world religions. They expect me to be closed minded and dogmatic, neither of which are my normal positions.

I think that I meet these people in part because they are searching. They don’t want to become part of some Christian churches because of narrow approaches or anti-science and anti-anti-intellectual preaching, but they long for a spiritual community of people who are honest, vulnerable and connected.

The Bohemian-Austrian poet and novelist Rainer Maria Rilke wrote in German, but much of his work has been translated into English. There are several quotes of Rilke that have influenced me, but one seems helpful for those who are searching for a connection with a religious community:

“Be patient with all this is unresolved in your heart. Love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”

I think that this quote inspired a group of teachers and religious scholars to develop a series of books and educational resources aimed at engaging people in ongoing conversation around some of the big issues of life. They call their group and their curricula “Living the Questions.” I have used some of their resources and we hav watched some of their videos together in our church. I appreciate their approach and suspect that it might be helpful for those who are seeking.

It is my sense that some of those outside of the church are eager to find a safe environment for talking about their questions. They are afraid that churches and church leaders will dismiss their questions or label them heretic for them. It is true that there are plenty of churches and church leaders who are not at all comfortable living with the questions. They rush to answers even when their answers are misinformed or not really answers to the questions asked. I spend enough time with other pastors to notice in them a need to be experts and to always have the answers. I’ve become old and experienced enough to know that I don’t have the answers to all of the questions and that sometimes just sitting with the questions is more helpful than rushing to establish one’s self as an expert.

There are people both inside and outside of the institutional church who seek grace, kindness and authenticity. Fortunately, I have been blessed to know many of them. Our questions are the bond that ties us together.

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

In the midst of brokenness

Krista Tippett interviewed the physician and medical educator Rachel Naomi Remen, and when asked about her growing up years, Dr. Remen spoke of her grandfather who was an orthodox Jewish rabbi and a student of kabbalah. I’ve read a few books on kabbalah, and find the Jewish mysticism to be challenging. My mind doesn’t always follow all of the stories and their meaning, and once, when sharing a book on kabbalah with colleagues, we decided that there are some mysteries that we don’t understand and that while we enjoy that perspective, we might not always share it. At any rate, in the interview, Dr. Remen told an ancient story about creation:

This is the story of the birthday of the world. In the beginning, there was only the holy darkness, the Ein Sof, the source of life. Then, in the course of history, at a moment in time, this world, the world of a thousand thousand things, emerged from the heart of the holy darkness as a great ray of light. And then, perhaps because this is a Jewish story, there was an accident. [laughs] And the vessels containing the light of the world, the wholeness of the world, broke. And the wholeness in the world, the light of the world, was scattered into a thousand thousand fragments of light. And they fell into all events and all people, where they remain deeply hidden until this very day.

Now, according to my grandfather, the whole human race is a response to this accident. We are here because we are born with the capacity to find the hidden light in all events and all people; to lift it up and make it visible once again and, thereby, to restore the inate wholeness of the world. This is a very important story for our times — that we heal the world one heart at a time. This task is called “tikkun olam” in Hebrew, “restoring the world.”

What I like about the story is that it sees every human being as belonging to a collective process of healing the world. Most of us are not called to make a huge difference. Rather each of us is called to heal the world that touches us, that is close to us.

It is easy to look at the troubles and problems of this world and come to the conclusion that we have too little power or too few resources to make a real difference. But in this story, each bit of light that is held up contributes to the total picture. A small contribution becomes important.

I like to think that making a small difference has value. It seems to be what I am able to do in so many situations in my life. I frequently come face-to-face with situations that I cannot fix and pain that I cannot eliminate. I visit someone who is living with cancer that will one day be the cause of his death and I cannot make the cancer go away. I cannot even make the pain go away. The best I can do is to sit with that person in his pain and reflect on the meanings of his life. I go to be with people on what they will often describe as the worst day of their lives, when they receive the news of the death of a loved one and I can’t make the pain and grief go away. All I am able to do is to remind them that they are not alone in their suffering - that there are others who are here when needed. So much of what I do in working with people is not about repairing the brokenness of the world, but rather recognizing a bit of light in the darkness.

Recently I have been visiting quite a few people who are experiencing chronic medical conditions. Their suffering can be eased with appropriate medical treatment, but their diseases are ones that never go away. They will not be cured in a conventional sense, but rather have to learn to live with conditions that others don’t experience. Some of these conditions require fairly significant changes in lifestyle, including changes in diet and exercise and accepting restrictions that didn’t used to be present. What I have come to recognize is that in these situations it is not just the individual who is affected, but an entire family system. When one person in a family has an altered died, all change their eating patterns. When one person has a change in activity level, all are affected. It reminds me of the story of all of the people in the world searching for and holding up their tiny bits of light.

The job of a pastor is searching for hidden light and holding it up to be seen. But this is really the job of every human being. What I do is not unique, but rather a way of demonstrating to others what they can do and what they can become.

A friend and colleague whose son died by suicide once commented to me that he was annoyed by people who tried to fix the brokenness or to make everything better. He didn’t want to be fixed and he still doesn’t. When you lose a child, pain is exactly what you should be feeling. Getting over the loss is not something you seek. This colleague continues to teach me about our role in the world. I am not the one who will fix everything. I am not the one who will discover the cure. Rather I cam called to sit with those who suffer and to share with them the realities of brokenness and occasionally also share the bright light of hope and peace that come in the midst of all of the brokenness.

Dr. Remen teaches that the practice of medicine is like that as well. Medicine rarely is able to cure a disease. What it can do is to lessen a small amount of human suffering. Healing is not curing, but rather connecting with the mystery, courage, heroism and love of the individual in the midst of a medical condition.

Today is a good day to look for the small pieces of light in the midst of all of the brokenness.

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!

Thanksgiving, 2018

Gratitude is a basic spiritual discipline that is shared by all religions of the world. It is, even beyond religion, recognized as an essential practice of healthy humans. Life coaches, secular therapists, teachers, and a host of others all teach various practices of gratitude. A quick Internet search of the term “gratitude journal” will reveal a host of articles and no small amount of items for sale to support the practice of daily noting things for which one is grateful.

Years ago, when we were working on a series of curricula for teaching spiritual disciplines, gratitude was one of the first disciplines that came up in our discussions and one of the first practices that was explored by a team of writers and practitioners. The resources we produced were not earth-shattering. Our challenge as writers and editors, in fact, was to produce something that was new. There already was so much literature in the field, that virtually anything that one of our writers came up with had been published in some form or another in another document.

We can pretty much assume that nearly everyone will acknowledge at some level that gratitude is important. Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives, Christians and those who claim no religion, practitioners of all of the major world religions, business leaders . . . the list can go on and on and on.

Yet, if you have looked at the newspapers, scanned the Internet or watched television in the last few weeks, you might get the impression that the US holiday called Thanksgiving has more to do with consumption than with expressing gratitude. Beyond the ever-present advertisements that claim purchasing certain foods and products or going to certain restaurants or resorts will enhance the celebration of Thanksgiving, there are constant reminders that Thanksgiving sets off a frenzy of buying in our culture. Black Friday is followed by Cyber Monday and Giving Tuesday. It is almost as if there is an expectation that citizens of our nation empty out their bank accounts and max out their credit cards before the end of the year. Yes, I stuck in Giving Tuesday. I know that the focus of that day is not on consumption. It appears that it is partially on eliminating the guilt that comes with needless spending. You can spend so much on yourself, perhaps you should give a little away. The truth is that Giving Tuesday, while representing a peak in donations, hardly provides for the day to day needs of our communities. People get hungry all year around, not just in the season between Thanksgiving and Christmas. A discipline of giving is quite a bit different than clicking boxes on the computer to make a few $5 donations from your credit card. That, however, is a different story.

It seems that we can all agree that gratitude is an important part of joyful living. We don’t however, have agreement about what it means to live a life of gratitude. This disagreement and discussion has been going on for a long time. Many Christians will recognize this story from the Gospel of Luke:

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

One of the things about having learned Bible stories in Sunday School and having repeated their study over and over for a lifetime is that I approach most familiar stories with a preconceived notion of my role and place in the story. In the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, I know that I am the Tax Collector - and if not the Tax Collector, at least I am definitely not the Pharisee.

It might help to know a little bit about the giving practices of the time. A tithe, which is 10% of one’s income, was an expected offering for the institutional support of the temple. It was not supposed to represent all of one’s giving, but rather the portion of each family’s resources that were required for the temple to exist and continue in operation. Over and above the tithe, faithful people were expected to give alms. Alms could be given directly to people in need, such as beggars in the street, or to common funds that supported widows, orphans and immigrants.

it is not the giving, however, upon which Jesus comments, as in the story of the Widow’s mite. What Jesus is commenting on is the attitude of the Pharisee.

I wonder, however, how often our expressions of gratitude are a bit like the prayer of the Pharisee: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people.” I am deeply grateful for my wife and my marriage, but how often to I compare myself to those who have experienced divorce or the death of a spouse? I am deeply grateful for our children and grandchildren, but how often do I compare myself to those who have a child suffering from addiction or another serious disease? We are quick to compare ourselves to others even when we are trying to express our gratitude.

I hope and pray that this Thanksgiving will be an opportunity for all of us to understand that all we have and all we are is a gift, not of our own making, but of the generosity of God.

And if that doesn’t make sense to you, Google Widow’s Mite and you will find ways to purchase rings and earrings created around the theme.

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!

SD turkeys in DC

It probably isn’t much news for the national media, but here in South Dakota, the local news outlets are all running stories about the two turkeys that were pardoned by President Trump in a Whitehouse ceremony. The light-hearted ceremony, held in the White House Rose Garden showed the two turkeys - a 39 pound bird named Peas and a 41-pounder named Carrots. Both were raised on a farm near Huron, South Dakota. I’m pretty sure that i have not previously paid any attention to where the turkeys at the Whitehouse have come from, which likely means that they didn’t come from where I was living at the time.

You might say that is because Montana, North Dakota and Idaho aren’t exactly known for their turkeys, but I know a little bit more about turkey production in North Dakota because my father-in-law raised turkeys commercially on their farm when he was a young man. We have black and white photos of him, skinny as a rail, standing in the midst of a field of turkeys. Talking with him about that experience when he was older revealed that it wasn’t his favorite job. The turkeys were a way to provide income for the farm in a time when grain prices were abysmal, the drought was severe, and his father was forced to cut back on work due to a heart attack. They raised the turkeys as a last-ditch survival attempt. It worked. They kept the farm. He held title to part of the property at the end of his life. The turkeys, however, were not beloved. He was not sad to see the last of them on the train in Minot, heading towards St. Paul where they would be processed for dinner tables in the city. Although he didn’t have to raise turkeys again, it did provide a great family story.

I’m pretty sure he wasn’t raising turkeys that weighed over 30 pounds. That 41 pound bird must e a sight to see.

Most readers know what follows. Each year several turkeys are shipped to the Whitehouse. In a tradition started by President George H.W. Bush in 1989, one or two turkeys are chosen to be “pardoned” by the President. Those birds get to live out their lives at a Virginia farm, after Whitehouse photographers take a series of pictures of the birds as if turkeys were allowed to roam freely within the Whitehouse. Other turkeys are processed and prepared for the Whitehouse Thanksgiving Dinner.

In light of the occasion, I would like to make a few observations.

In the first place, I am not opposed to eating turkeys. We eat turkey meat fairly often at our house. I am sure that turkeys are raised in a variety of different conditions, some better than others, but the bottom line is that turkey producers have to pamper their birds. Their profits are based on healthy birds. Turkeys are prone to all kinds of diseases and when one bird gets sick he illness spreads quickly. A producer can lose an entire flock if care is not taken. Of course the turkeys we eat are raised through generations of selective breading to produce huge amounts of breast meat. They don’t look very much like the wild birds at all, who can run after and sometimes fly for short distances. These farm birds become so overgrown that they become pretty sedentary compared to birds in the wild. Anyway, though I’m sure improvements can be made in the treatment of birds raised for food production, I think it is reasonable for the Whitehouse chefs to prepare turkeys for the Presidential family and guests to enjoy.

Having said that, despite what the media has been reporting, these are not the first turkeys that South Dakota has sent to Washington, DC. They may be the first to be pardoned by the president, but that leaves us in a strange position. South Dakotans have sent turkeys to the House of Representatives and to the US Senate for years. We have sent turkeys to work in previous administrations. These two birds, unlike some of the turkeys we have sent to Washington D.C., have not committed any crimes. They needed no pardon. In fact what they received wasn’t really a pardon. They received a resume from being butchered, which happens to most turkeys, but it is not technically true that they were pardoned. They had not previously been convicted of any crime. In recent years the human turkeys that South Dakota have sent to Washington, D.C., have not all been so innocent. William Janklow resigned as a member of the US House of Representatives after he was convicted of a felony charge of vehicular homicide after an automobile accident in which a man died when Janklow was driving far in excess of the speed limit. Automobile violations seem to top the list for the turkeys that South Dakota sends to Washington DC. The turkey who represents us in the US House of Representatives until the end of the year and who will be inaugurated as our next governor has made public apology for a string of tickets for speeding and other infractions over the past 21 years. She has compiled quite a record with the South Dakota Highway Patrol. She has not been pardoned for those violations of the law.

Fortunately for South Dakotans, some of the turkeys that we send to Washington, D.C., like Peas and Carrots, end up retiring in the D.C. area and don’t come back to South Dakota very often after tasting the political life of the nation’s capital. That is perfectly acceptable to those of use who live here. We’d probably welcome them as neighbors. We put up with a lot of neighbors who are turkeys. But it doesn’t bother us that some of them just decide to stay on back east and don’t come home to visit very often.

As for me, I’ve got a flock of wild turkeys for neighbors. They’re a bit messy and occasionally noisy, but that’s true of my other neighbors as well. All-in-all, I’m perfectly happy to live with a wide variety of different kinds of turkeys. And I don’t mind that once in a while we send a few turkeys to Washington D.C. We’ve got enough to share.

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

Pain builds connections

Last weekend I hauled firewood with others in our church. The day wasn’t overly challenging. We were going to a place north of Eagle butte about 200 miles from Rapid City. There were a few small areas of slippery roads in the early part of the drive, but most of the trip was on dry roads. We managed to pick up a good layer of dirt and salt and muck from the roads, so the trucks and trailers were really dirty when we handled them, but this is normal for firewood delivery. The trip home, on dry roads, went without problems. It was a good day and we had done good work to help others.

While we traveled, others gathered at our church for the annual observance of International Survivors of Suicide day. Had we not been delivering firewood, it is where I would have been. The speaker for the event at our church was a father who lost his son to suicide. We have bond because I have been present for part of his journey. I would have liked to spend some time with him, remembering and reflecting on how things have changed since the night when he received the news.

In a few days it will be the anniversary of the death of another young man, the son of a friend and colleague of ours. In many ways that loss still seems very fresh. His father has written eloquently about the loss, but his writings are, as you would expect, raw and full of emotion. I read them with tears in my eyes and I can only take the intensity of his writing in short doses. Still I am very grateful for his eloquence and his offering of his thoughts and ideas to the world.

Yesterday I attended a board meeting of the Front Porch Coalition, a local agency that seeks to bring the talk of suicide out into the open to decrease the stigma of death by suicide and to provide support to those who have lost loved ones to suicide. The meeting was feeling with a bit of disagreement among members of the board and it was briefly intense with a bit of emotion.

When we think of loss, we become emotional. When our emotions come to the surface it feels at times as if they will overwhelm us.

In the midst of all of that, however, I am aware of a deep connection that I share with those who have shared their loss and grief with me. While I would never wish such a tragedy upon anyone, there is something about pain that builds closeness. We share the space of pain and grief and loss and that shared space creates a connection. There are people with whom I would have never been friends who now greet me like family because we have shared the space of loss.

As I age, I have acquired a few more aches and pains. I carry with me the scars of losses. I have seen more grief than was the case earlier in my life. I notice a difference in how I approach the world because of my awareness that life isn’t just sunshine and good times. I am not afraid of pain or loss, but I do not relish them, either. In a strange way, my hands have become an interesting focus of my experience of aging and growing experience. I have been blessed with strong hands. I have a reputation in my family for being able to remove the lids from jars that others cannot. We have an ongoing joke about opening the peanut butter jar. My hands have also been very good at performing a wide range of tasks. Back in the days of high school and typing tests, I achieved good speed and accuracy. I used to say that I’ve never had a secretary who would type as fast as I. These days, of course, secretaries don’t really do typing. Their job responsibilities are focused on other tasks. Still, I can sit at a computer and enter data much more quickly than others who are on the staff of the church.

But my hands don’t work as well as they once did. I drop things. My fingers ache in the mornings. My thumbs, especially my left thumb, do more bracing and holding and less actual work. My fingers aren’t as flexible as one was he case. I’m not writing this to complain. I’m very lucky in the hands department. I know others whose hands are wracked with arthritis. I know a lot of people who have limited use of one or both of their hands.

Ironically, I have found that the mild pain in my hands is not my enemy. It is my companion. I wake and I stretch my fingers and rub my hands and I know that I am alive. I remember all of the experiences I have had. I think of all of the things my hands have been able to do. It is far better to feel pain than to feel nothing.

Pain is a normal part of life. Sharing the pain of others can be a blessing. Sure I was a bit uncomfortable as emotions were rubbed raw at yesterday’s meeting. Yes, I tear up when I read the words my friend has written. For sure, I squirm when I hear the news of another suicide. Sometimes I even say a few curse words at the news. But these emotions remind me that I am alive. They demonstrate that I care. How horrible it would be to see another in pain and have no reaction at all.

Suffering can be a bridge that connects us with others. Going through hardships gives us strength that we didn’t know we possessed. Sharing our pain is a way of reaching out beyond ourselves and towards others whose pain is as real and as powerful as ours. Knowing that we are not alone can make all the difference in the world.

So I thank God for my hands and even for a bit of pain. I’m learning that not every experience of pain needs to be fixed.

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!

Humans and other species

We like to think of ourselves as the most highly-evolved species on the planet. We believe that we are more intelligent than all of the other species and that we are in some way the apex of evolution - as if all of the changes in life forms over the millennia have led to humans. It makes sense that we would think of ourselves in such a manner. Not very many other species have such a high degree of self awareness. There are plenty of creatures that don’t recognize themselves in a mirror. They don’t have the same highly-developed sense of self identity as we. It may be that there are other observations that justify our conclusions about ourselves. Examinations of humans reveal traces of our genetic and evolutionary heritage. We share traits in common with other species. Our story isn’t quite as simple as was argued in the famous Scopes Monkey Trial decided back in 1925 in Tennessee. That trial was part of what made Clarence Darrow famous and became the dominant story in the life and career of John Thomas Scopes who was a young high school science teacher accused and convicted of teaching evolution in violation of a Tennessee state law. The trial was deliberately staged in order to attract publicity. And Mr. Scopes never had to pay the $100 fine because the verdict was subsequently overturned on a technicality. The trial set the stage of an on-going controversy in which fundamentalists argue that their interpretation of the Bible takes priority over human arguments and modernists who claim that evolution is not inconsistent with religion.

It seems to me that some of these arguments provide a bit of evidence that we may not be quite as highly evolved as we think. There are some aspects of human thought and action that demonstrate quite clearly, in my opinion, that we humans still have a whole lot to learn.

It is impossible for us to fully know what animals think or even how they think, but we like to attribute human feelings and sensations to animals. My sister is visiting us this week and she brought her dog with her. Cody is the dog’s name, and Cody is a very intelligent dog. From the first time I met the dog, I have been attracted to him. He seems to have such a pleasant personality. Or do you call it a “dog-ality”? Anyway, there has been a connection between me and the dog from the beginning. I’m always glad to see him and he seems glad to see me. I don’t know how much memory a dog possesses, but it certainly seems like he remembers me though we see each other only a couple of times each year. He has visited in our home two or three times, but when I got home last evening, he greeted me warmly and he seemed perfectly at home as we sat talking in the living room.

I choose to think that he remembers me and that we are friends.

I have a more distant relationship with the deer that wander through our yard. There are a few of them that I can identify as individuals. I can keep track of the fawns for most of the summer of their birth, but at this time of the year they have changed enough that they seem to blend in with the other animals and I’m not always sure which one is which. There are a few who have distinctive injuries or markings that are easy for me to identify and there is one doe who has had fawns in your yard at least three years. But for the most part the deer are just deer to me. It makes me wonder how much they distinguish one another. Does a doe recognize a three year old as the fawn she bore years ago? Do the bucks remember individual does from year to year?

The turkeys, on the other hand, don’t seem to have much individual personality at all. They don’t appear to have much intelligence. They repeat actions and are creatures of habit, but they can’t figure out which way to run when threatened. They fall off of the porch railing. They just don’t seem to be very bright. If you take a look at the small head on the top of the big bird, you can easily come to the conclusion that there can’t be much brain in that tiny space.

I listened to a radio program about horseshoe crabs recently. Their name is a misnomer since they don’t look like horseshoes and they aren’t true crabs, but rather brackish water arthropods. They have blood that is bright blue instead of red, due to the high copper content in their blood. That blood is drawn and used to test a large number of medicines and medical equipment that are a part of our health care system. The crabs are not killed in the process and although some do not survive, the majority are returned to their watery homes following the procedure. Horseshoe crabs have been around for thousands upon thousands of years. They survived the events that ended the reign of dinosaurs and have continued to be the same species surviving through a lot of changes in the planet. A single horseshoe crab can produce as many as 100,000 offspring in a single year. The survival rates of individual eggs and larvae are very low. They are a seasonal food item of a variety of invertebrates and finish. But enough survive to propagate the species.

We humans have a different approach, reproducing one at at time, with an occasional set of twins or other multiple births. Reproducing much more slowly, we have a higher survival rate among our progeny. We like to think of ourselves as much more advanced than the horseshoe crabs, but their species thrived long before humans appeared on the planet and will likely survive and thrive long after there are no more humans on earth.

Perhaps we are less the pinnacle of evolution as fellow species sharing the same planet. That doesn’t mean that we aren’t unique. After all, I know of no other species that rises in the morning to write in their journal. The dog Cody is napping while I’m sitting at the computer. He may be the smarter of the two of us, but most observers can tell us apart.

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!

Seven deadly sins

In the third century after Jesus, a group of Christian ascetics and monks lived in the Scetes desert of Egypt. They have been referred to as the Desert Fathers, but there were also women who followed those practices, sometimes known as the Desert Mothers. These early monks and nuns eventually numbered in the thousands. What had begun as isolated hermits became communities of people who lived and worked together and formed the model for Christian monasticism which continues to this day. During the middle ages, there were several monastic revivals and all looked to the desert for inspiration and guidance. The influence of these early Christian leaders is also evident in other areas of the church including the pietist movement among Christian evangelicals and the Methodist Revival in England.

Some of our contemporary understandings of faith come out of the thinking and teaching of those early monks and nuns. The Apophthegmata Patrum is a collection of the wisdom of early Desert Fathers and Mothers. It appears in print in English under the taels “The Sayings of the Desert Fathers.”

I was introduced to the Desert Fathers and Mothers through a book by Henri Nowen: “The Way of the Heart: The Spirituality of the Desert Fathers and Mothers.” It is an excellent reminder that our faith and beliefs are connected with the faith of those who have gone before. The enterprise of Christianity is not reserved to a single generation, but rather, is a multi-generational relationship with God.

Often people have notions and ideas about faith without being fully aware of their source. I am frequently asked to tell someone where a particular saying is located in the Bible. Often the sayings that are offered are things that didn’t come from the bible. One of the questions I get is about the seven deadly sins, sometimes called cardinal sins.

There is no single place in the Bible that contains a simple list of the seven deadly sins. They are, rather a product of careful reflection on scripture steeped in traditional teachings that can be traced all the way back to those early ascetics living in the Egyptian desert. There are a few variations in the list, but the standard list is: pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath and sloth.

Aurelius Clemns Prudentius, a Christian governor who lived in the 5th century, wrote about the battle between good and evil and his writings were very popular during the Middle Ages. In his epic poem titled Psyhchomachia or Battle of the Soul, matches seven virtues with the seven sins:
Pride is overcome by humility.
Greed is overcome by charity.
Lust is overcome by chastity.
Envy is overcome by kindness.
Gluttony is overcome by temperance.
Wrath is overcome by patience.
And sloth is overcome by diligence.

The listing of the sins was not, in the thinking of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, a recipe to judge who has been saved and who has not. It is rather, a spiritual discipline. It functions as a list of thoughts that should b avoided in pursuit of a life of grace. The goal was a change in the way that the individual thinks. Some writers have referred to the seven deadly sins as the foundation upon which all evil is based.

It is, I think, helpful to invest time meditating on the presence of sin or evil within ourselves. Our natural tendency is to externalize evil - to blame its presence on others. We are far better practiced at naming the sins of others than we are at recognizing our own shortcomings. Despite what you will hear in many contemporary Christian churches, Christian teachings, however, lead one to understand that we are all capable of falling short of our potential and that pain can be the result of our own thoughts and actions. The Desert Fathers and Mothers encouraged their followers to look inside themselves for the solutions to the evil of the world.

This complex set of ideas has often been reduced into a kind of preaching that focuses on stirring up fear of hell in the minds of believers. You can find such references in the sermons of Christian preachers throughout history. The formula is simple: “When you die, you face judgment and the only way to escape eternal torture and damnation is through the grace of God.” Some preachers simplify the solution as well claiming that all that one needs to do is to repeat a formula saying and ask Jesus for salvation.

In everyday life, living with grace and in peace with one’s neighbors is not a simple process. Our emotions sometimes take over. We say things that we ought not to have said. Tempers flare. Misunderstandings and miscommunications occur. It is hard work to keep relationships strong. Sometimes apologies are required. Sometimes we need to learn to forgive not only others, but ourselves as well.

I’m not sure that I have found meditating on the seven deadly sins to be particularly helpful in teaching me how to handle the complex relationships of my life. I’m not conscious of how they influence my thought when I am sitting on a board of directors in executive session dealing with complex personnel issues. I don’t have the list in mind when I am working with boards and committees in the church. I don’t have the seven deadly sins as part of my daily discipline of reading and prayer. They are, however, part of the fabric of the spiritual traditions that I have inherited. Knowing that I should emphasize certain qualities and avoid others is part of my way of thinking. But I know of no particular magic about the number seven. There are probably dozens more thoughts that one ought to avoid. No list would be perfect for every time and every occasion.

Still, there is wisdom in the simplicity of the Desert Fathers and Mothers. Seven is a small number. Were we to simply meditate on the evil in the world, we would be overwhelmed. Sometimes it helps to have a short list instead of an endless cavalcade. This time in our history, with the complexity of danger and threats to society that surround us, might be a good time for a nice, concise list.

The idea of seven deadly sins is still meaningful after all of these years.

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!

Listening to the radio

I’m a big fan of radio. I used to say that a lot, but the truth is that I don’t listen to as much radio as some. I’m not the biggest consumer of media in general, and I suppose that my two main sources of news and information these days are radio and the Internet. I don’t spend much time with television and I consume almost as much of my Internet news in the form of podcasts or other ways of listening.

For a few years in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s I worked at a small market radio station. I was the host of the morning show. I read local news, farm reports and weather. I chose which music to play and occasionally took calls from listeners. Our transmitter only put out 1,000 watts, so our coverage was a circle with a 100 mile radius. This was in southwest North Dakota, so there weren’t too many people in that area. My usual on-air shift was 6 to 8:30 am. During the years that I worked for the station, I listened to radio quite a bit, especially when I was driving my car. It was driving across North Dakota that I first discovered Public Radio. In those days, we couldn’t get Public Radio in our town, but I could get a weak and improving signal as I drove towards Bismarck. I got interested in “A Prairie Home Companion,” and soon had acquired several cassette tapes of Garrison Keillor monologues. I enjoyed his storytelling style.

I listen to the radio in part because one can do other things while listening. I can drive my car and listen at the same time. I can do home chores while listening. There are many aspects of my job that are too engaging to have the radio on in the background, so I don’t listen at work very often, but I usually have the radio on in the car when I am driving without passengers.

Radio has another quality that I appreciate. It engages one’s imagination in a way that more visual media fail to do. I will occasionally take a look at the web site of a familiar radio program and be surprised at the photographs of the host. I imagine people to look differently than they actually do. A drama can seem more suspenseful without the visual elements of television and movies.

I remember once, during the time that I worked at the radio station, that the owner and general manager of the station attended a broadcasters convention and came home talking about the future of radio when people would be able to listen on demand. I didn’t know exactly how that would work, but the idea was that a listener could choose the programs and what time to listen to them. Each listener would have his or her own schedule. It turns out that these days I listen mostly to podcasts, which works as predicted.

Like all other media, radio has a combination of good and bad. I’m not a fan of the style of talk radio where the host yells at callers and promotes his or her own point of view. I do, however, enjoy in depth interview programs where a host is a skilled interviewer and the listener feels like the guest becomes better known and appreciated.

One of the radio interviewers I appreciate is Terry Gross. She is the host of NPR’s “Fresh Air.” She has hosted that show since 1975, which among other things, spans met entire career as a pastor, though I didn’t hear the program during its first decade of broadcast. She has interviewed thousands of people over that time, and I have listened to hundreds of her interviews. What I appreciate about her is a combination of rigorous preparation and what seems to be genuine empathy. In the portion of the interview that is produced for broadcast, it is evident that she has read what the subject has written and really has a good scope of the background of the subject of her interview. Then it seems that she goes beyond listening when she is interviewing. She does listen, but she also conveys, through her tone of voice and choice of questions, a sense of really caring about her subject.

My job actually involves some of the same skills. When I meet with a family to plan a funeral, I try to find out as much about the deceased person as I can. I read any published obituaries and when the obituary points to other sources, i try to follow up and learn as much about the person as I am able. Then, when I meet with grieving family members, I listen very carefully and ask questions in a manner that illustrates that while I can’t know exactly what they are experiencing, I really do care about them. I ask gentle questions about the deceased and encourage them to tell me stories. After meeting with the family, I make follow up calls and visits to friends and others who have information.

I also employ interview skills when working with a couple to prepare a wedding. Those skills come into play when assisting people who come to me with problems.

It was from listening to Terry Gross on the radio that I learned my most-used question, that really isn’t a question. “Tell me about yourself” is one of the best ways of starting a conversation. I don’t need more pointed questions, like “What is your job?” or “Where do you live?” Those topics will often come up, but I allow the person with whom I am speaking to choose which parts of their story they share and in which order they speak of themselves. A slightly modified version of the opener that I use when planning funerals is “Tell me about (the name of the deceased).” This works whether or not I know the person who died. Of course it doesn’t hurt to be genuinely curious about that person.

I don’t know whether or not listening to the radio can help our divided communities to recover the art of conversation, but I know it has taught me quite about about becoming someone with whom others want to talk.

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!

Asking for money

Disclaimer #1: Please remember this as you read what is to follow. The Salvation Army is a a service organization that has has done and continues to do a great deal of good in our community and around the world. The people of Rapid City remember with fondness the generosity and service of Salvation Army disaster services when our city was inundated by a devastating flash flood in 1972. The Salvation Army feeds many hungry people in our community. They provide essentials for a lot of people who might not otherwise find help.

Disclaimer #2: The Salvation Army is a reputable charitable organization. They do not waste the donations they receive. They do the work that they promise to do without high overhead. They enlist volunteers as well as paid staff to do the mission to which they are called.

Request: Please do not read what follows as an attack on the Salvation Army or as a request that you not support their charities. Please do not use it as an excuse not to give.


Having said all of that, a bit of history.

First Congregational United Church of Christ in Rapid City is the city’s oldest Christian church. We were organized in 1878, before Rapid City was even called Rapid City. We have grown up with this town and we continue to be a vibrant part of our community. Over the years we have engaged in a lot of service to our community. We were founding partners in Church Response. We were founding partners in United Campus Ministries. We were active in Habitat for Humanity from its beginning in our city. There are a lot of other places of mission and outreach where our church has been and continues to be active. This December we will reach the milestone of 140 years of mission and ministry in Rapid City. That is a significant milestone and we are the first congregation in our town to reach it.

In that 140 years of mission and service we have not turned to those who are not members and friends of our church and asked them to fund our mission and outreach. We have been a self-funding organization from our beginning. We did receive loans from the Congregational Church when we were engaged in building some of our previous church buildings. We repaid those loans. We have hosted community events including dinners, dramatic productions and musical concerts in which the public has been asked to donate. But we have paid our own bills and continue to invest a significant portion of our annual budget in mission and outreach in our community, in the State of South Dakota, across the United States and around the world. We have partnerships through the United Church of Christ that enable our investments of money and time and talent to be multiplied by being combined with the gifts of others.

In that 140 years we have never stood outside of the grocery store begging for change.

There have been some times when we have felt like it, I suspect. At least there have been times when we have wanted to appeal to the wider community to support what we do.

Next week a proposal will be considered by our Church Board that suggests appealing to groups outside of our church who use our building for contributions to help us install fire suppression sprinklers in our building. The expense comes after a five-year period of capital fund raising to make necessary building improvements. It seems to those of us who are behind the proposal that it makes sense to us to say to the parents of children in Cinnamon Hill Preschool that we are adding sprinklers to improve the safety of the nearly 100 preschool children who attend regular classes in our building and to ask those parents if they would be able to invest in the project. It makes sense to us that we say to the Black Hills Chamber Music Society that we have committed to installing air conditioning in our building and raised the money ourselves to add comfort to their concerts. We have replaced the roof and upgraded the heating system. Now we are asking them to consider contributing to building improvements designed to enhance the safety of concert goers. It makes sense to us to ask the Rapid City Retired School Personnel and the Watercolor Society to participate in the cost of making their meeting place safer. It makes sense to us to ask the people who will benefit from enhanced safety to participate in the costs of installing the system.

It is not like we intend to stand in the doorway of the grocery store as people are coming and going with their holiday meal supplies and begging for their spare change to further our mission.

I don’t think we need to apologize for making a reasonable request.

I don’t know how the Church Board will react to our proposal. I know that the members and friends of the church have been and continue to be very generous people. I know that they have given freely of their resources to keep our church strong and growing. I know that if we do not receive any money from those outside of our congregation that we will find a way to provide the sprinkler system. But I also know that our people are finite. We are not a large congregation. We have limited resources. Some of the money we invest in our building could reduce the amount of money we have to support mission and outreach in our community. We feed hungry people. We support housing efforts for homeless folks and those who live in substandard housing. We provide warm clothing to children with need. We support those living with disabilities. We do a lot of good in the community. The less we spend on our building the more we have to invest in outreach.

We don’t intend to beg. We don’t intend to pressure. We do intend to invite people to participate and to make an investment in the future of our community. Suppressing fires before they get out of control just makes sense. Protecting the investment in our people, building, fixtures, equipment and musical instruments seems to make sense.

At least I’ve convinced myself. I intend to make an investment in the sprinkler system. It seems like a good idea to 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!

Life in Yellowstone Park

If you drive on the highway it is roughly 90 miles from the home where I grew up to the northwest gate of Yellowstone National Park on the edge of Gardiner, Montana. The drive takes you southwest following the Yellowstone River through Livingston and up Paradise Valley. It is a drive that is very familiar to me. We had lots of visitors to our home that wanted to see Yellowstone. Some, especially those from smaller countries such as Japan or countries in Europe, thought that Yellowstone could be seen in an afternoon. They didn’t really understand the scope and the scale of the park. We did, however, devise a way to show the park to visitors in a day.

We would depart our home at 6 am. Breakfast was in Gardiner around 7:30. We’d be on the terrace at Mammoth between 8:30 and 9 am. Then we’d head east across the northern part of the park, stopping to view buffalo in the Lamar Valley, Tower Falls, and take short hikes at the lower and upper falls of the Yellowstone. A late lunch at Fishing Bridge or Yellowstone Lake would get us to Old Faithful in the mid afternoon. A stop at the Norris Geyser Basin and a bathroom break at Gardiner on our way out would get us back to Livingston for a late dinner and we’d be back at home by 8 pm or so. It was a long day with a lot of driving and there was a lot to the park that we didn’t get to show our visitors, but they at least got a flavor of the park. I could almost guarantee that we would see deer, big horn sheep, antelope, elk, buffalo, black bears and usually a moose. Sometimes we’d get lucky and I could show them a grizzly bear or mountain goat, usually from quite a distance.

In the winter, however, things were different. Once the snow began to fly, we felt more like the park was our own. The road from Mammoth to Cook City was kept open, but the other roads in the park weren’t plowed. Snowmobile and snow coach travel was allowed down the west side of the park from Mammoth to Old Faithful. The east side of the park from Tower junction to the lake was non-motorized travel only. We’d go to Chico Hot Springs north of Gardiner and take a day trip into the park, usually with a picnic lunch. We’d see the elk and buffalo and big horn sheep and usually coyotes. We’d marvel at the steam coming up out of the snow and enjoy having the place to ourselves. We might take a short journey on cross country skis, but our tours were mostly car trips.

I’ve lived long enough to see a lot of changes in Yellowstone. The reintroduction of grey wolves remains controversial among the people who live near the park, but there is something special about viewing a pack of wolves work a treelike with buffalo in the open areas below. The wolves reduced the elk population, which allowed the willows to come back on the edges of the rivers and that encouraged the beaver population to grow making for broader stream flows in places.

Perhaps the most dramatic change occurred in the 1988 fires. Things really got hot that summer, due, in a large part to the success of decades for fire suppression. Without a full understanding of the nature of fire overly aggressive fire fighting operations allowed for excessive fuel loads to build up and when things got going in ’88, the fires could only be stopped by winter. We drove through the park in ’89 and there were places where it seemed as if the ground was scorched so badly that it would never recover. That wasn’t the case. The park had its own way of coming back from the fires. In fact there is a place near the Madison River that burned in 1988 that had large trees and enough fuel for another big wildfire to sweep through in 2016.

2016 was another year where the changes were very evident, even though we didn’t enter the park that year. They completely closed the Yellowstone River for almost 200 miles downstream from the park for all fishing and boating activity. Kidney disease killed thousands of fish. Lower water flows and warmer water were factors in the outbreak. We drove through Montana that summer and just before the ban, played with a couple of kayaks in the Boulder River. We had our boats inspected twice driving out of the Yellowstone Valley. People were afraid of losing the blue ribbon trout fishing that has long been a hallmark of the river.

The weather station at Mammoth is one of the oldest in the nation, which means that they have more data on what is happening there than many other places. These days there are about 60 fear days that fall below freezing than was the case 30 years ago. The average temperature in the park has risen two degrees in my lifetime. That doesn’t sound like much, but the effects are dramatic. On average winter in Yellowstone is 10 days shorter. The park is dryer, even when it rains because the water evaporates more quickly. Cheatgrass has invaded the Lamar Valley, brought in by cars from outside the park. The grass sucks more moisture out of the soil earlier in the spring and turns brown more quickly. The elk move north of the park in search of better feed and the wolves follow. When a wolf pack takes a calf or a few lambs, the locals get up in arms. “This didn’t used to happen!” they declare. They are right.

Back in 1988, we thought the hot dry summer was an anomaly. It was abnormal and wouldn’t happen again. But now that weather is normal. And fires are happening more often. And the forest burns before it has had a chance to recover from the last fire.

Yellowstone is still a good place to take visitors to show them a bit of what the great intermountain wilderness was once like. But like the rest of the mountains of the region, things are changing rapidly and one wonders how much longer we will be able to recognize the place we have loved for all 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!

A gorcery store rant

a short while ago I removed the cap from a gallon of milk to pour some to steam for a late. I noticed an old smell and took a closer look. The milk had turned sour. I was sad because there was more than a couple of quarts of milk in the container. It hadn’t been long since I had purchased the milk so I took a look at the stamped date label. Sure enough the milk was well beyond its “sell by” date. The milk could have been used for baking and might even have made acceptable yogurt, but given the busyness of my day I sighted and poured out the milk. My wife was doing the shopping that day and she came home with a gallon of milk with a fairly close “sell by” date. She said it was the most distant “sell by” date available in the store. She noted that every gallon of milk in the front row of the store’s dairy case was past its “sell by” date.

We consume a fair amount of milk, though less than was the case when we had children at home. It generally pays us to purchase milk by the gallon because we don’t like to go to the grocery store very often and the price of milk is considerably lower when purchased by the gallon instead of by the half gallon.

The two incidents got me to looking at the sell by dates on the milk in the store. It is not something that I have ever paid attention to. Milk doesn’t sit around our house very long, but there have been occasions in the past where we have kept milk for more than a week without any problems. Sour milk doesn’t happen very often at our house.

We do our primary shopping at three different grocery stores representing two different distribution chains. We have noticed milk within one or two days of their “sell by” dates as well as milk beyond its “sell by” date in the diary cases of all three stores. I don’t know for sure if this is a recent phenomena, but it seems strange that we have been buying milk for decades without before encountering this problem.

It wouldn’t surprise me if there had been some obvious disruption in the supply chain such as a major storm or bad roads. The fall has been mild in South Dakota so far, so that isn’t the explanation.

I suspect that the real problem lies within the stores themselves. Employees are not paying attention to the “sell by” dates and are not rotating the stock properly. On once occasion I checked the dates on the milk in a store and found that all of the dates were later than the milk I had bought in that same store two days earlier. That would indicate that the stock was not being properly rotated in the store’s cooler.

If the issue was just milk, we could become more vigilant. We have already adopted a new discipline of checking the dates before making a purchase. We are not ashamed of rummaging through the store’s cooler to find a more suitable date. But the issue is not limited to dairy products.

It seems to me that a lack of well trained employees is an increasing phenomena in a lot of retail stores. Not only are stores struggling to fill positions and retain employees because of low wages, they now are not investing in proper training of the employees that they do have. I realize that high turnover makes employee training more difficult and costly for businesses, but there are things that businesses can do to protect their training investments and retain employees. The bottom line is that a 40 hour per week job stocking groceries doesn’t produce enough income to make rent and groceries for an individual let alone a family. I can’t blame employees for seeking new jobs as soon as he possibility presents itself. The result is that it seems like stores are constantly breaking in new employees.

Ask a clerk in a grocery store where the peanut butter is located, or which aisle holds tea and you are likely to encounter someone who does not know the location of an item outside of the department where they are working. A produce clerk may not have any awareness of the stock in the deli and a bakery clerk won’t know anything about what the store does or does not stock. It is frustrating to be a customer.

I stoped by a grocery store on Monday to pick up a few items. It was a holiday. Many people had the day off because of Veteran’s Day observances. The store had a lot of customers. The aisles were crowded with stacks of boxes of items that had not yet ben put onto the shelves. When you add to that the many impulse bins that regularly block passage down the store’s aisles and the somewhat higher than normal number of customers, it was a challenge just to get to the parts of the store where the items I needed were located. At the checkout lines, chaos reigned. Lines were extending into the aisles. The store clearly did not have enough checkers to handle the volume of customers. It was confusing to know where to stand to wait without being in someone else’s way. I wasn’t in a particular hurry, so I tried to be patient and to smile at other customers, many of whom seemed more harried and upset than I. A store employee was trying to clear an aisle and get customers to move a line from one place to another. The employee clearly lacked the skill required and was speaking harshly to customers. I saw two who gave up in frustration and simply left their carts and walked out of the store without making purchases. The abandoned carts were in the way of other customers and may have contained perishable items that belong in freezers of refrigerators.

I wondered if the store was willing to accept the losses simply because they cost the store less than paying for properly trained employees.

Then again, I remembered that the store didn’t seem to be bothered by selling dairy products after their “sell by” dates. They probably just got someone to empty the carts back on the the shelves and waited for another customer to come along.

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!

Now we are four

There is a young mother in our congregation who has two daughters. She is expecting and not long ago she informed me that they had learned that their third child is also a daughter. I joked with her and told her that it worked for my family. “My folks had three girls. Then they had four boys.” She stated that there was no plan for their family to become larger than three girls. I told her that I think that three daughters is a fine configuration for a family as well. My wife is the oldest of three daughters and I have deep admiration for her parents and for her family.

I’v always enjoyed telling people that I come from a large family. When asked how may brothers and sisters I have I am quick to respond, “Three of each!” We had a nine passenger car and could fill all the seats.

Actually, our family was a bit more complex than that. It is true that there were seven of us but we became a family through a unique set of circumstances. My parents adopted two daughters, who were sisters. Then they had three children born to them. Then they adopted two sons, who were brothers. All of this happened over a wide span of time. We only had five children in the house at a time. I was only three when my oldest sister moved out of the house. She had her first child a couple of months before my fourth birthday. The brother who is nearest to me in age became an uncle when he was four months old. Myth youngest brothers became uncles by virtue of being adopted into our family.

I don’t have clear memories of my oldest sister living at home. I remember her as an adult who lived on a ranch north of town with children of her own. I was only 16 when she died. She was dancing with her husband. The bullet that tore her aorta when through her and injured her husband. The man who fired the shot received a life sentence and died in the Montana State Penitentiary.

So we were six. But I usually told people that we were seven. I still do, when asked. I don’t hide the fact that there have been deaths in our family, I just enjoy the distinction of being a part of a large family.

Our father died a decade after our sister. He had a brain cancer that was treated with surgery and radiation, but the illness overcame him. It was a tough loss for our mother and for all of us, but we picked up the pieces and went on with our lives.

Then, eight years ago, my brother suffered a fatal heart attack as he got in his van to make his deliveries. The van went off the road and into the Missouri River and it was several hours before we learned the cause of his death. He was the second youngest of us and in his early fifties.

We were five, but I still speak about growing up in a family of seven children.

My mother died less than a year after my brother. As she moved into her late eighties, she suffered from congestive heart failure as well as having become a brittle diabetic. Her eyesight was beginning to fail and she had not recovered from the layers of grief. Perhaps one never recovers from grief. She was alert and of a sound mind when faced with a serious condition that would have required surgery had she been strong enough to be a candidate for surgery. As it was she followed her advance directive and died peacefully after a brief stay in the hospital. My sister was with her and I was just a couple of blocks away when she passed.

In the way of all families, our count was going down.

Now another sister has died. She suffered a very serious aortic aneurism a year ago and was in the intensive care unit for quite a while recovering from emergency surgery. She never fully recovered her normal pace of life after that event. She got well enough to be active on FaceBook and keep up with her grandchildren. She downsized to an apartment in the city to be close to medical care. Then on Halloween night she suffered a stroke. When she was stabilized her body began to shut down. Hospice care was ordered and her children were summoned. I spoke to her on the phone, but she couldn’t get many words out. And now she is gone.

Her children are having trouble getting along with each other. There have been quite a few angry words. She said that she didn’t want a funeral and they are honoring her wishes. It feels very, very strange to me. I didn’t rush to her bedside when she was sick and now there is no funeral to attend. I spent a long time talking to my other sister on the phone and we will be together in a little over a week. There are cousins to inform and chores to be completed.

We are now four. We’ve no need for a nine passenger car.

And we are four living in three different states. My two sisters were just 19 miles apart before the elder suffered her aneurism. Even after she was in the apartment they were just 80 miles apart. Now the closest any of us lives to another is 270 miles. My sister lives 400 miles from where we live. The older of my brothers lives on the West Coast, 1200 miles away. and it is 560 miles from my home to the house of my youngest brother.

It doesn’t look like we will all get together to share our grief over the death of our sister. It will be different than the other deaths in our family. Grief stirs memory and memories remind us of each other. The phone calls and emails will increase for a while as we sift and sort out our new way of being family. For now I’m just sad and I am not ready to not be sad.

Someday I’ll write a journal entry with good memories of our sister and our growing up years.

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!

Making connections

I went to a potluck supper last night. I knew of a couple of people who normally attend who wouldn’t be there, so in addition to the salad I made, I picked up some bread to bring as well. It was a modest offering. As people began to arrive, it was clear that I wasn’t the only one who had decided to bring a little bit extra. The lineup of food on the table grew and grew until a true feast had been spread. There was an abundance of food and when the meal was finished everyone was packing up leftovers to take home.

The irony of the scene was that earlier in the day - between our morning service and a service at an area retirement center that I was leading - I had taken a sack of food to a family that was staying in an area motel. They had been involved in a car accident and though their injuries didn’t require hospitalization, they had no transportation and were remaining in town for follow-up medical appointments. They had called the church to see if we could offer assistance with paying for their motel room and noted that they were out of food. While we don’t have funds to support motel rooms we could offer food, so I packed up a bag of food and delivered it.

I always wonder what I might have done - what other decisions I might have made - when I come to a situation where I feel like I can offer help but not provide a solution. I am a problem solver by nature and am often left pondering when a problem is left unsolved. I wondered what might have happened if I had simply invited the people to join us for our meal. We clearly had plenty to offer and had they been invited to the buffet, they could have chosen what they ate instead of being handed a bag of food with limited choices. There were even two different kinds of apple crisp available at the potluck. The problem is that I compartmentalized my day. With three different services and a limited amount of unscheduled time, I wasn’t making the connection between the people who needed food and the potluck feast later in the day. Theres was an item that I had to get checked off from my list before I got to the meal at the end of the afternoon.

It is our instinct to feed hungry people.And that is a good instinct. I’ve been to many meetings where we have discussed nutritional insufficiency in our community. We have a lot of people who occasionally don’t have enough food. Children come to school hungry. And we have put in place a number of programs to feed hungry people. We have a large community food pantry and several smaller pantries that distribute food. There are feeding programs in place in public schools and backpack programs to send food home with hungry children. There are community gardens that produce abundantly for a few weeks each summer. It is a good thing to feed hungry people.

However, when we do so we don’t decrease the number of hungry people. In many cases we contribute to an increase in the number of people who need food assistance. We develop dependencies. Worse yet, we take away from parents and grandparents a basic instinct and responsibility - that of feeing their own children. We say to parents and grandparents, “Don’t worry. We’ll feed your child.” And while we are doing that we take away from parents and grandparents the choices about what their children will eat.

It is the old adage: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” Feeding hungry people is a short term solution and often necessary. However the long term solution is teaching them how to obtain food for themselves. While we persist in offering food we fail to offer the means to provide food. In our community it is relatively easy to find food, but it is much harder to find shelter. Yesterday, I offered food, but did not have a solution to the desire for another night in the motel. I don’t even know if the family found the money to pay for another night.

In classes on backcountry survival, we are taught to prioritize our needs. In inclement weather, shelter is the first priority. They teach that without shelter you will survive for only one hour. You can go a day without water and a week without food, so while those things are important, you must focus on shelter first. When that problem is solved, you can turn to hydration and only when those two are solved do you look for food. People who live on the edge of survival learn those facts by instinct. So when the gap between wages and rent is so severe as it is in our town they skimp on food. They invest so much energy trying to find a place to live that they run out of food by the end of the month. It seems a bit counterintuitive, but we could reduce the number of hungry children in our town more effectively by providing affordable housing than by inventing another feeding program. Travelers who find themselves stranded in our town would have cash to buy food if there was temporary housing available at low cost.

Faithful people often quote Jesus words in the gospels, “The poor you will always have with you.” The implication is that we will never solve the problem of poverty and unequal distribution of resources. Jesus never implied that we shouldn’t invest time and energy in solving the problems of poverty. Jesus words were not offered as an excuse and we ought not to use them as an excuse for not helping when we are able.

The reality is that we have abundance at some tables while others lack the bare necessities. The two phenomena are connected. The family requesting help and the potluck are not two separate realities, but part of a larger reality. Next time, perhaps, I will remember to think of the connections. I may even find the grace to invite others to share the meal.

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!

Armistice Centennial

The allied military commanders were interested in symbolism and poetry. It was clear by the end of September 1918 that the German army was in a hopeless situation. The victory by the allies was not only clear, but the German command was aware that this was the case. On September 29 the German Supreme Army Command informed Kaiser Wilhelm II and Chancellor Count Georg von Hertling at Imperial Army Headquarters that the defeat of Germany was inevitable. But the war didn’t end suddenly. The allied commanders liked the symmetry of the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month and set that day and time as the place for the cessation of fighting.

President Wilson of the United States had demanded the retreat of Germany from all occupied territories, the cessation of submarine activities and the Kaiser’s abdication. In addition to his insistence on complete surrender, he outlined fourteen philosophical commitments. His carefully thought-thought-through position was less popular among the leaders of Europe. The entire social structure of many areas of Europe was seriously crumbled. People were hungry and systems of food distribution had been destroyed. Winter was approaching and there was a general weariness of a war that, when started four years earlier has been seen as a six-month enterprise.

The armistice calling for the end of the war to take place at 11 am was signed at 5 am. Actually the signatures were made between 5:12 and 5:20 am Paris time. The fighting continued and was especially brutal in the six hours that followed. The actual negotiation of the Armistice was hurried and desperate. There was no real negotiation, though it took three days to draft the document. The Germans had no ability to make demands.

It has been reported that there were more casualties on both sides during the hours between the signing and the actual cease fire than occurred during the D Day Normandy invasion. It is a bit hard to know for sure because when the fighting ceased, many combatants simply walked away from the lines. The number who went missing and were presumed dead skyrocketed on both sides that day. Nonetheless actual casualties were exceedingly high.

There are reports of German gunners emptying the last belts of ammunition as the hour approached. Battery 4 of the US Navy’s long-range 14-inch railways guns fired its last shot at 10:57:30 from the Verdun area, timed to land far behind the German front line just before the scheduled Armistice.

American Henry Gunther is generally recognized as the last soldier killed in action in World War I. He was killed 60 seconds before the armistice came into force while charging German troops who were aware that the armistice was nearly upon them. He had been despondent over his recent reduction in rank and was apparently trying to redeem his reputation. His death brought the US casualties to 116,516 deaths and approximately 320,000 sick and wounded out of the 4.7 million Americans who served. During the war the USA lost more personnel to disease than combat largely due to the influenza epidemic.

The 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month was the end of active hostilities, but it took quite a while for the official treaty to be negotiated and signed. Troops were kept on the ready in case fighting resumed until the official treaty. The Treaty of Versailles, negotiated in Paris and Versailles was the results of talks that needed to be extended three times. It was finally signed on June 28, 1919 and took effect on January 10, 1920.

Today, however, we take note of the centennial of the end of the war. Since that war, November 11 has been recognized as a national holiday in the United States, first as Armistice Day and later as Veteran’s Day. It is a day to pause and recognize the high cost of war, the sacrifice of soldiers and their families, and to honor all who have served in the military. The risks and sacrifices of veterans deserves a life-long commitment from the entire nation. We have all benefited from their service and sacrifice.

In the spring of 1915, while the War was still raging, a Canadian doctor, Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae was driving the loss of a friend in Ypres. He was inspired by the sight of poppies growing in the battle-scarred fields. His now famous poem is called “In Flanders Fields.”

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place, and in the sky,
The larks, still bravely singing, fly,
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the dead; short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe!
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high!
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

The poppy has become a symbol of remembrance for this day. But a century has passed and the pain of the losses is not felt with the same intensity as was the case in the early years following the war. In the years that have passed there have been so many other wars. It didn’t take long before Europe erupted in a second World War, this one with much broader involvement as the attack of the Japanese on Pearl Harbor resulted in the United States fighting on two fronts at once. For the United States Korea, Vietnam and the Balkans were added before the end of the century. Iraq and Afghanistan have followed. War continues. Young people continue to die. Grief continues to unfold us.

The paper poppies that are distributed for Veterans Day fade and are thrown away. In Flanders the poppies wither and die and reappear the following spring. Life goes on.

But today we pause. We remember. We try to comprehend the size of the loss. And we offer our prayers for peace to combine with the prayers of generations who have gone before. May we learn the true cost of war and discover alternative ways of setting our conflicts

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!

We've all got PTSD

Stories of psychological injuries go back well into prehistoric times - long before these was such a field as psychology - long before there were formal names for many of the maladies suffered by people. One of the most ancient epic tales, the Gilgamesh Tale, gives descriptions of love and also of grief and panic, suggesting that these emotions are fundamental to human experience. After Gilgamesh loses his friend Enkidu, he feels grief. the grief causes him to race from place to place in panic with the realization that he, too, is mortal. The confrontation with death changes his personality. There is an account of chronic mental symptoms in Herodotus’ account of the battle of Marathon, written in 440 BCE.

Humans have long known that real symptoms can come from sources other than a physical wound. Fright and the vision of a fallen comrade can persist for years and change the course of a life.

In World War I, which ended 100 years ago tomorrow, they called it “Shell Shock.” The term was coined by Charles Myers in 1915 to describe soldiers who were involuntarily shivering, crying, fearful and had constant intrusions of memory.

By World War II, the name had changed to “Battle Fatigue.” In that war, long tours of duty combined with sustained surges increased the exhaustion of soldiers and psychological symptoms appeared in those who were not physically wounded.

During the Korean War the term “Combat Neurosis” was coined.

In the Vietnam War, they called it “Combat Stress Reaction” (CSR).

These days the condition is commonly known as “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder” (PTSD). The contemporary understanding includes intense psychological reactions to stress or trauma that occur in war situations, but are not limited to actual combat. Those who have suffered a sudden loss, who have witnessed traumatic death, or experienced a variety of other situations can also suffer from PTSD. It is about as common among those who suffer natural disasters as among those who face combat.

A trained psychologist can identify consistent symptoms of PTSD. Modern textbooks and diagnostic guides group the symptoms into three groups: 1) recurring and distressing re-experiencing of the event in dreams, thoughts or flashbacks; 2) emotional numbing and avoidance of stimuli reminiscent of the trauma; and 3) a permanent state of increased arousal. The first two symptoms are often delayed and separated from the experience of trauma by a period of latency. Once they begin to occur, however, they do not abate with time. Untreated PTSD continues to present symptoms that are chronic and persistent.

The condition is serious and it is dangerous. According to a study by the Veterans Administration, more active duty veterans die by suicide than combat. During the period from 1999 through 2010, vert’s were dying by suicide at a rate of 22 per day or one every 65 minutes. That rate has continued to increase with slight dips in 2015 and 2016, despite the fact that there are fewer veterans each year. Not all suicides are directly linked to the symptoms of PTSD, but in an overwhelming majority of cases the person who died by suicide exhibited PTSD symptoms.

A related condition, also noted in the literature is compassion fatigue. Caregivers, including chaplains, medical personnel, counselors and family members can experience psychological symptoms from constant day in, day out, working with those who suffer. The condition is also observed in veterinarians and others who help animals in distress. One of the symptoms of compassion fatigue is a seeming indifference to the suffering of others. The literature makes a slight distinction between compassion fatigue that is caused by a cumulative level of witnessing trauma and actual PTSD which is caused by vicarious or secondary trauma. It is well documented that those who have witnessed PTSD in others also suffer from its symptoms.

I don’t know if it is compassion fatigue, but I worry about the desensitization of our nation to multiple victim shootings. Incidents in which four or more people were shot are becoming so frequent, that we haven’t finished reacting to one before another occurs. It is just two weeks since the bloodbath at the Synagogue in Pittsburgh that left 11 dead and 4 first responders wounded. We have only just begun to come to terms with that violence, but the news cycle has moved on.

I was especially struck with the alarming frequency of such events in our country when it was reported that there were people present at the Borderline Bar and Grill where 13 died in Thousand Oaks, CA who had also been present at the Las Vegas shooting that left 58 dead. To have survived on mass shooting is trauma rough to last a lifetime. It is hard to imagine what it would be like to have survived two shooting events.

The Borderline Bar and Grill shootings marked the 307th shooting with four or more victims in 2018. It was the 311th day of the year. That means nearly one such event a day. Four of the biggest mass shootings in 5 decades have happened this year. We know them by the names of their locations: Parkland, Santa Fe High School, Tree of Life Synagogue, Borderline Bar and Grill. Those four events combined took the lives of 50 people. We are becoming numbed to the experience.

I don’t want to become numb. I don’t want to lose my outrage. I don’t want to not be affected by the sorrow and grief of parents and children and family members. I don’t want this experience to become normal for our society.

I admit that I am not a politician. I am not a policy maker. I spend enough time hanging out with deputies and police officers to know that each incident is studied for clues of how to make a better response. The officer who died at the Borderline Bar and Grill made a textbook response - exactly as he was trained. That response was very different from the way officers were trained prior to Columbine. Well trained response, however, is not prevention.

Prevention is what we need.

In the meantime, I refuse to become numb. I refuse to go silent in the face of such horror. I refuse to lose my outrage.

We've all got PTSD. Our entire nation is sick.

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

Chairs

We have some artists and craftspeople in our church who meet regularly. There is a stained glass group that has a weekly meeting and makes beautiful creations. A watercolor group meets to pain together. There is a general crafts group that includes quilters, card makers and those who do a host of different crafts who meet at the church. There are boxes and bins and cabinets full of craft supplies in several different locations around the church. On room is now commonly referred to as the “craft room.” Those artists are generous not only with their time, but they also sell some of the things they make and make donations to the church. This week I placed an order for new chairs for our church fellowship hall. The current chairs are metal folding chairs that have been around for a long time. Some folks report that those chairs, or at least some of them, were moved from a previous church building in 1959, making them 60 or more years old.

The new chairs will be upholstered stack chairs. We have a few and they are quite comfortable. Some of the new chairs will have arms that will make it easier for some folks to stand after they have been seated. It will be a nice addition to our church and the purchase was made without using any of the funds from the operating budget of the church.

One thing that our church has in short supply is storage space, so there has been considerable conversation about what is to be done with the old chairs. We already have more chairs than we use. Most of the time we have two racks of chairs that sit unused in a storage room. I tis nice to have a few extra chairs for occasions when we have extra guests for an especially large dinner or event, but the addition of the new chairs will mean that we should probably figure out how to get rid of at least as many chairs as we are acquiring. We have sold a few of the metal folding chairs on rummage sales, but they don’t sell very quickly. The number sold is small. We are hoping to find another church or institution that could use the chairs. We’d be glad to give them away.

For the record, there are no reports of chairs in the Bible. Nor are there any chairs in Homer or the play Hamlet. Chairs do start to turn up in literature, but only in the middle of the 19th century. The novel Bleak House by Charles Dickens mentions chairs 187 times. The author Vybarr Cregan-Reid has written a book about how the world is changing quality of human life. It reports a surprising fact that chairs used to be very rare. Public buildings such as churches didn’t have chairs. People came to the buildings and stood for worship, for meetings and for events. The book estimates that today, however, there are 60 billion chairs on the planet, which would be 8 to 10 per person. There are just two of us in our house and it has at last 15 chairs and that is not counting the ones that we have in our storage unit. My office has five chairs in it and most of the time I work in that space alone.

napoleon at versailles
A famous painting of Napoleon in the Chatequx of Versailles in 1809 shows the emperor seated while all around remain standing. For much of human history the throne of kings and emperors were exclusive pieces of furniture. People in power sat while others stood. In academia the highest attainment is called a “chair.” The one who runs a meeting is called the chairperson. The head of a company is a chairman or chairwoman. And in most modern buildings, the best chair in the building is in the boss’ office.

According to Cregan-Reid, the use of chairs changed dramatically after the French Revolution and the 1832 Great Reform Acts in the United Kingdom. By the end of the 19th century, with the technological revolution that brought the typewriter, telegraphy and expanding uses of electricity, a new category of labor began to emerge in which workers were seated. Office clerks became common and administrative work became a profession where people sat to do their work. Sometimes when I make a visit in a hospital or another location someone will offer me a chair and I’ll decline, saying, “I sit for a living. It feels good to stand for a while.” Unlike the generation of my grandfather, most workers have jobs where they sit to perform their work these days.

It isn’t just working where we sit. Theaters often have very comfortable chairs. Home theaters are becoming more common and comfortable seating is a must. We sit for media streaming and searching for information on our computers. I’m sitting in a comfortable office chair as I write this journal entry. I’ll sit for breakfast and the seats in my car are quite comfortable. I have good friends who consider the comfort or lack thereof of seats in a vehicle to be a very important factor when making a purchase decision.

All of this sitting, of course, has health consequences. The health of our tissues is, in part, a matter of “use it or lose it.” Muscle and bone respond to increased load and to inactivity. If we don’t get enough exercise bones become thinner and muscles grow weaker. I recently read that back pain is the number one cause of disability in the world. The muscles in our backs are not being used as we recline in chairs, and we spend a lot of time with our backs supported by furniture.

I’m pretty sure that it wouldn’t go over well to simply remove the chairs from the fellowship hall at the church. People wouldn’t stand around for very long after worship. It is a good idea to have comfortable chairs in the room and I am grateful for the generosity of the crafts and arts people. However, I think I need to make a plan to sit less and stand more as I continue to age. My phone now reports to me how much time each day I’ve been watching the screens of my computer, tablet and phone. Maybe I need to keep track of my sitting time as well. Better yet, maybe I just need to go for a walk.

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!

An idea I don't understand

With all of the election coverage in the headlines in the past couple of days, you might have missed the story of Emile Ratelband, a Dutch pensioner. He has petitioned a court in his hometown of Arnhem, southeast of Amsterdam, to change his birth certificate so that it says he took his first breath on March 11, 1969, rather than on March 11, 1949. The judges heard his case on Monday and have promised they will render a verdict in the next several weeks.

I guess the case sort of raises the question of what establishes age. According to his current birth certificate, he is 69 years old. He wants to be 49 years old. And he says that he doesn’t want to lie about his age, so he wants the courts to give him a new birth date. I’m not sure that the certificate changes the reality, but I do know that courts can order changes to birth certificates. I was unaware that this was the case, but when we adopted our daughter, the court ordered her original birth certificate to be sealed and a new one issued that showed us as her parents. It has always seemed a bit strange and we have never concealed the fact that she is adopted from our daughter. I was told by the judge that the action was taken because her birth mother was a minor at the time the original certificate was issued. I don’t know if similar laws exist in other states, but it certainly creates a barrier to genealogy research. As far as I know it has created no problem for our family. We know some of the story of our daughter’s birth and we’ve shared with her what we know.

But a twenty year adjustment in age seems like a pretty good stretch. One thing that I couldn’t find in the article is how it would affect Mr. Ratelband’s pension. Would the new birth certificate mean that he isn’t old enough to collect his pension? It certainly won’t change his life expectancy. Since he feels like he is 49, perhaps his health is such that he will live to be a bit older than average. But I guess that means that he’ll be really old when he reaches his eighties and the chances of him living to be 90 would be slim, if the court grants his request.

It turns out that this isn’t the first time Mr. Ratelband has appeared in front of the magistrates in his home town. Many years ago they refused to let him name his twins, Rolls and Royce, after the carmaker. He continues to call them by those names, but their legal names are France and Minou.

He sys that the change in age will help him in many areas of his life. He works as a trainer and life coach and says potential clients ask him if he can “speak the language of young people” when he tells them his age. He assures hem that he’s well-versed in the ways of the youth, but the clients remain skeptical and tell him that they would prefer a younger person. I guess his clients aren’t looking for experience, wisdom and knowledge in their life coaches. Not ever having hired a life coach my self, I’m not sure what would be the ideal age for such a person. It seems that he believes that a life coach who is in the 50’s is more desirable than one in the 70u’s.

He also said to the court that having a younger age would help his dating prospects. “If you’re 69 on Tinder, you’re outdated,” he said. He is the father of seven children and although he is currently without a partner, it seems to me that when he gets into conversations with a potential new partner, the ages of his children and his newly reassigned age might create more than a bit of confusion. Furthermore, I have been led to believe that not being truthful on Tinder is common. I’ve never looked at the site, but I remain very skeptical at its value in helping people find the love of their lives. But then I met my wife a church camp before I ever thought about having a computer.

Mr. Ratelband says that his desire to remake himself is influenced by the American, Tony Robbins. Robbins, who is a motivational guru who has written and spoken to inspire people to set and achieve goals and to make changes in their lives. Ratelband lived and traveled with Robbins for about six months in the late 1980;s and says he came to believe that, “You have to make your dreams come true from visualization.” Apparently it is his dream to have connected with Robbins when he was in his teens rather than when he was in his thirties.

I just don’t get it.

I have joked that I have never been the right age for anything. I went directly from being too young to being too old, but it really is a joke. I have enjoyed my life and each decade has been unique and interesting. I am interested in keeping my health and more focused on making healthy decisions than I have been at other stages of my life and I certainly don’t want to rush the process of aging, but I’m happy to be in my mid-sixties and enjoy my life and work. I seem to be an appropriate age to be the father of my children and the grandfather of my grandchildren. And I’m blessed to have a spouse who is in my age category. I have no interest in looking for one who is 20 years younger. I know that there are some men who have that interest, but I’m not one of them.

I guess it will be interesting to find out what the judges decide, but I know what I would think if I were the judge: “Let’s just leave the birth certificate as it is and encourage you to find more creative ways of talking about age and its impact on your life.” I’m thinking that if they start altering birth dates on birth certificates it could create some real confusion for researchers and historians in the future.

I’m sticking with the date on my birth certificate, which matches the date on my driver’s license and the date on my passport.

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 work of my hands

Over the years I have worked my hands hard. They have turned wrenches, guided planes, worked saws and screwdrivers and pliers. And they have typed and typed and typed. I started out with a manual typewriter that got two of us through bachelor’s degree and graduate school. these days my fingers dance on the keys enough that I have external keyboards for my laptops at work and at home. It is far less expensive to replace just the keyboard than to have the keyboard in the laptop replaced and yes, I have had to have keyboards replaced because I wore them out before the computer had reached the end of its life. The keyboard I’m using to write this journal entry as several keys with letters that you can’t read, which is not a problem because I don’t look at the keys when writing. it does, however show how often those keys have been depressed. I’ve been told that such motion is hard on hands. Repetitive motion can lead to carpal tunnel problems. I’ve been fortunate. My wrists are working well.

Over the years I’ve abused my hands from time to time. They once had a few more scars on them, each with a story of why it is a bad idea to use your thumb as a guide for a saw blade, or how not to handle a knife, or why you look for protruding nails before picking up boards at a construction site. In 2001, however, I burned my hands in an accident and when the new skin grew and my hands returned to their normal some of the old scars were gone. I don’t however, recommend this method of getting rid of scars. Besides, the scars tell a story of where my hands have been and what they have done.

We have a joke in our family about the lid on a peanut butter jar. We both like peanut butter and often buy it in rather large jars. I can often get the lid off of the jar when Susan cannot. I claim that it is my one point of usefulness. She keeps me around because I can open the peanut butter. If I were to use the skill she might not have a reason to keep me. It is, of course, a joke, but I admit to a bit of pride when it comes to opening jars.

A few years ago I developed a trigger thumb. The tendon that pulls the thumb toward the palm became inflamed and would not slide smoothly through the tissue at the base of my thumb. The initial treatment was a steroid injection that worked very well for about six months. A second injection gave relief for just a few weeks. A third injection was not recommended so I opted for a simple surgical procedure. The surgeon opened up the tendon sheath to give the tendon more room to move. The procedure took only seven minutes. After a brief recovery, I was in good shape and the problem has not returned. Then about 16 months ago the problem appeared in my other hand. I got the first steroid injection and it took it about a week before I got relief. However, once it kicked in I had no problems at all for more than a year. The pain and lack of mobility have, however, returned. I’m hoping that since a I got longer relief on this side from the first injection a second injection might buy me a year. As long as the injections are good for a year I think they will continue them. It is possible that I eventually will need to have surgery on this hand as well. I’m not worried about it because I had such success with the other hand.

It is true, however, that I am dependent upon my hands and I really notice when I have a problem with one of them.

Our son has a mild hemiparesis in one of his hands. It is the way he was born and although he has had therapy and exercises, one of his hands doesn’t function as well as the other. The affected hand is on his right side. In practical life it is mostly that he is really strongly left-handed. The right hand can do all sorts of things and is a good helper to the left one, but there are some tasks that he has learned to do one-handed because it is more practical for him. It doesn’t really rise to the level of disability, but rather just a need to adapt to his circumstances. It hasn’t inhibited his ability to work.

My father lost the ends of two of his fingers in an accident when I was six years old. He leaned to live and work and function with the shortened fingers. They were far more sensitive to cold than the rest of his hands and he had to be careful to wear gloves and mittens whenever it got cold, but the injuries didn’t seem to limit his ability to do the things he wanted to do.

These experiences have made me very aware of hands. I notice when others are experiencing pain in their hands or when they have limited motion in a finger or in an entire hand. I pay attention to others. I am well aware that there are many who struggle with their hands. There are arthritic hands that ache with a pain that will not subside and must be endured. There are hands that have been injured.

One of my favorite Psalms is number 90 which ends: “an establish thou the work of our hands upon us; yea, the work of our hands establish thou it.”

The work of my hands has not only been manipulating tools. My hands are also called upon to hold babies and baptize them, to shake hands with strangers and welcome them, to touch and administer oil to those who are sick, to comfort those who are grieving and to reassure the uncertain. Gentle touch is a skill I never want to lose.

Psalm 139 gives praise because “I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” Certainly my hands are reason for wonder. How fortunate 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!

Reinventing the toilet

During our trip to Japan last summer we encountered some interesting toilets. We hd herd that in Japan there were squatting toilets that were little more than a hole in the floor. We didn’t see that type of toilet in the early days of our visit, but did encounter them as we traveled. Most of the public restrooms that had that style also had the choice of a toilet where you sat as is common in our country. What impressed us was the number of toilets with all kinds of technology. Many toilets had water sprayers to clean where we use tissue. Others had heated seats. Quite a few had both. There were toilets that would weigh you as you sat on them. Some had elaborate control panels with multiple buttons that were a challenge to learn which to push for the various functions. For us, being used to the plumbing in our country, it was a bit strange to see toilets that were plugged into wall outlets. In general, it makes me a bit nervous to have electricity and plumbing mixed. and the plugs on most toilets had only two prongs, so I am confident that they didn’t have ground fault interrupt circuits as is not common in bathrooms and kitchens in the US.

Toilets are not something about which I’ve given much thought so I was a bit surprised at how much engineering and thought had been invested in the fixtures.

Several years ago my brother wrote an article about composting toilets and suggested that there were relatively simple solutions to disposal of human waste in locations that don’t have communal sewer systems. In most American cities we have systems that use a fair amount of clean water to flush waste and bacteria into treatment plants where the water is treated and cleaned. Sewer systems, however are expensive and as more and more people are living in urban areas without sewer and sanitation systems, the spread of disease from untreated sewage is a major world problem.

Thoughts of toilets came to my mind recently when I read an article about Billionaire philanthropist and founder of Microsoft, Bill Gates, who was a keynote speaker at the Reinvented Toilet Expo event in Beijing, China. I didn’t even know there was such a conference, but apparently it was a big deal. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has invested more than $200 million on researching toilets over the last seven years. It is part of the foundation’s work to combat preventable disease.

The event was focused on technologies that were quite a bit different from the ultra-modern toilets we encountered in Japan. The twenty cutting-edge sanitation products on display at the Beijing conference focused on off-grid solutions. According to the World Health Organization, 2.3 billion people around the world still don’t have access to basic sanitation facilities. This can cause diseases such a cholera, diarrhea and dysentery. These diseases kill hundreds of thousands of people each year. The challenge is to design systems that process human waste without sewer systems.

One of the things that has been a part of my experience in the ministry is that congregations that I have served have needed new or remodeled bathrooms. Church buildings designed and built in the 1950’s mostly had what at the time was considered to be modern plumbing, but bathrooms were not designed with space for wheelchairs and walkers and created barriers for some people. In addition to the newer accessible bathrooms that were installed in the church we serve early in our tenure, we now have completed a family assist bathroom that includes a larger area for changing diapers, room and privacy for a person to assist another and even a shower that is installed without a lift to be accessible to those with mobility challenges. As a result of these projects, I have a fairly clear idea of how much money it costs to install new bathrooms in public buildings. We have averaged over $10,000 per stool in bathrooms in remodeled space. New construction is probably higher than that. And that cost doesn’t include the municipal infrastructure of water pipes, sewer lines, treatment plant, maintenance and other associated costs.

Many of the world’s people live in places where sewers hav not bee built and may not ever be built due to the lack of money to build them. The reinvented toilets demonstrated at the Beijing conference are projected to cost much less. Initially the cost will be around $500 per toilet, but it is hoped that mass production will result in decreasing costs as the number produced increases. The idea is to start with installations in public buildings and as more and more are installed and costs decline installation in private homes will follow.

What is being proposed is a bit more sophisticated, and a bit more expensive, than the simple composting toilets that are essentially a 5-gallon container with some peat moss that can be buried. The problem with that system is that most urban dwellers don’t have space to deal with the compost produced. At the Beijing conference toilets that used water in a closed system with filtration and recirculation and result in waste that is treated and free of harmful bacteria were showcased. These are the appliances that are being proposed for mass production.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is a good organization to have behind the project. They are already operating in 130 countries around the world. They have huge financial resources. They are dedicated to helping to reduce human suffering and treat and prevent disease. It is god that they are working for solutions to these large problems.

Of course bathroom waste isn’t the only toxic stuff that humans release. Now if we could get some interest and investors lined up to come up with a solutions to toxic language such as hate speech and toxic actions such as violent crime. We could certainly use some inexpensive solutions to those problems as well.

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 format and the message

One of the magazines that I enjoy reading is called “Paddling Magazine.” Receiving the magazine is one of the benefits of membership in the American Canoe Association. The magazine is a combination of what once were three different magazines: Canoeroots, Advnture Kayak and Rapid. Canoeroots was the official magazine of both Canadian and USA canoeing, Adventure Kayak was devoted to sea kayaks and Rapid was devoted to whitewater paddling. The new magazine has a fourth section, about paddle boarding as well. Along with the combined magazines, the new magazine has a much more compact format in terms of articles. There are lots of pictures and articles generally run from 150 -500 words. That is not very much text. Part of the format is designed around the fact that the magazine is both a print magazine and a digital magazine. In fact, I now find myself reading the magazine’s online format more and more even though I still receive the print magazine. I know it won’t be long before I switch to digital only delivery as I have with a few other publications.

The problem with the format is the short articles. It is hard to tell much of a story in such a format. It works well for equipment reviews, but when I read about expeditions and long trips, I wish for longer articles. There is so much that gets edited out of the magazine to meet the requirements of the format.

I’m familiar with the problem because I write this journal. Although my daily journal entry is well over double the length of the average article in Paddling Magazine, I find that I cannot fully discuss many complex subjects. I present ideas and at times I want to wrestle with complex ideas, but I have to limit the amount of rhetoric I write to meet the expectation of writing a somewhat finished article each day. The next day i switch subjects and go on. I will occasionally write a series, but for the most part, I try to come up with words that fulfill the essay format.

More and more I am noticing books that are written in a similar manner. If I were to take a series of the best of my journal entries and edit them into a book, something I have considered doing, it would be a fairly big job, but not impossible. A kind of “best of the blog” effort would produce something that is engaging and would be easy to read because one could pick it up and put it down without having to stop in the middle of an idea.

I was pondering the phenomenon of this type of writing recently as I was reading book reviews. I’ve been searching for some recreational reading. For the most part this fall I’ve been doing more professional reading of theology and related subjects and a bit less recreational reading. Much of my recreational reading has been done in magazines. We didn’t have our magazines forwarded during our sabbatical, so I had a neat pile of catch up reading, which has now been completed and the magazines have moved to the recycle bin. Since Susan and I enjoyed a circle tour of Lake Superior in 2007 and I sometimes dream of making another visit to the Great Lakes region, I found myself reading online reviews of books about the Great lakes. I found titles like “Late Great Lakes,” “Water Wars,” “Lake Invaders,” “Death and life of the Great Lakes,” “Graveyard of the Lakes,” “Saving the Beautiful Lake,” and “Uncharted Waters.” It seemed in my brief review that books about the great lakes were either about shipwrecks or the deteriorating health of the region’s environment. I don’t mind reading about either subject, but both types of books are heavy on explaining the problem and short on the solution. In the case of shipwreck books, there is lots of information on what caused the wreck and the events of the accident itself, but very little on what has been learned from the wreck and how to avoid wrecks in the future. Environmental books are even worse. They are big on describing the problem and short on solutions. Books about invasive species are among the worst. They tell all about the potential devastating effects of invading species, but rarely present solutions. I did read one review that suggested getting people to eat Asian Carp and developing a fishing industry around the invasive species, but fishermen tend to get engaged in sustaining the fishery and preserving the species, so I don’t know how well that would work.

It can be a bit depressing tor read about problems without solutions. I began to wonder if that kind of book is the result of the style of reading and writing to which we have become accustomed. Short articles don’t allow for full discussion of complex ideas. A series of essays never get all the way around a very complex concept. So we raise problems without solutions. I know that I do it in my journal articles and, at times, in my preaching. I raise an issue and even hint at its complexity then go on to another subject. The discipline of really buckling down and tacking a complex subject is becoming more and more uncommon. I find the same phenomenon in theological writing. There are more and more books that are fairly eloquent at deconstruction - taking apart an existing argument or institution and completely void of reconstruction - offering fresh ideas and solutions to multi-generational problems.

Our world still has big ideas and big problems. There are concepts that are worthy of multiple books and big discussions - some requiring several generations to forge. However, we are losing the discipline of group study. Universities are becoming centers of online learning rather than communities that tackle problems that are too big for an individual. Books are becoming collections of essays. And this, being an essay is just long enough to spell out the problem, but will be posted without a solution.

I know how to play the game, but I long for a different format. Perhaps it is time to write a book.

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!

Turn that music down!

When I was in high school, I had fantasies about being a rock star. I played the guitar a little bit. I managed to save up for an electric guitar and an amplifier, and we spent some time making a lot of noise and occasionally playing some popular songs, albeit rather poorly. We played a couple of dances, but there were a lot of repeated songs, as we didn’t really know enough to make a whole evening’s performance. My brother was a drummer with some talent and went on to play in several different bands over the years. He has made efforts, from time to time, to become a full-time professional drummer, but never has succeeded in making he income from playing in bands go far enough to cover rent and groceries. I’ve done quite a bit of hauling equipment around, helping my brother with his drums and others with their amplifiers and equipment.

through those years, we wanted to be loud and tried to use our equipment to produce as much sound as possible. We learned about feedback and turned things up as much as we could.

I’ve never owned high end stereo equipment, but there was a time, when I was a young pastor, when I bought several pieces of used equipment when youth in my youth group were upgrading to more expensive items and want to sell their speakers and amplifiers. At one point we had a pair of speakers that were large enough to almost be furniture.

Of course technology has changed and a lot of sound can come from some very small appliances these days. Even the big arrays of speakers at professional concerts aren’t as big as once was the case.

But there is technology for bone jarring bass all around.

Last night we attended the annual gala for a local nonprofit whose work we support. I enjoy the people who support that nonprofit and I really enjoy the awards section of the evening when they honor the outstanding achievement of some pretty incredible folks. The evening includes a big dinner. Last night they had chicken and prime rib along with all the trimmings and a great big cake on every table for dessert.

For what I think is the third year in a row, however, we were seated at a table that was in front of a bank of speakers. Throughout the evening, whenever there wasn’t a speaker on the stage or a video being projected, there was music blaring from the speakers. I’m not talking about background music. I’m talking about booming bass and music loud enough to make it difficult to speak with the other people at your table. By the end of the evening I was experiencing a mild headache and very glad to get out of the room. I had hardly spoken to the others at our table. It was just too much effort to shout over the music. Whenever there was a speaker, there was a sense of relief that the music had finally been turned off.

I suppose that there were some present who liked the music and who were not bothered by it. Surely the planners had invested a lot of time and energy in making the evening into a genuine celebration. They must have noticed the music. I assume that it was that loud on purpose.

The only conclusion that I can draw is that I’ve become one of those old codgers who used to yell at us when we were teenagers: “You kids turn down that music!”

I didn’t yell at the people running the sound system at the back of the room. I didn’t even ask them to turn down the music. I probably won’t say much of anything about it, though I might mention it to one of the planners the next time I see her at a meeting.

I have been reading about Americans living in political bubbles, talking only to those who agree with them. The theory is that there is less dialogue with those with whom we disagree. We surround ourselves with news and information that agrees with our point of view and we only discuss politics with those whose opinions are similar to our own. I don’t think that is really true of me. I have the luxury of being surrounded by a very diverse group of friends, some of whom have very different opinions and positions than my own. The church is a powerful collection of very different opinions and positions. Sometimes there are a few tense moments when disagreement is evident, but most of the time we interact with respect.

Last night would have been a good time for people to hear opinions that are different from their own. The mayor of our city was at a neighboring table. I spoke briefly with people whom I know to be Democrats and Republicans. There were members of the state legislature and candidates for office present at the gathering. But we didn’t talk to each other very much. Other than a few greetings, it was just too hard to talk. The music was too loud.

I’m pretty sure that my hearing is not as good as once was the case. I sometime struggle to understand when I am in a crowded location. The pa announcements on an airplane are not as clear as I remember them being in the past. When I am listening for announcements in a waiting room, I have to focus my attention. I turn the sound down on televisions in waiting areas whenever I can do so without bothering others. And in addition to my medical, dental and prescription cards, my insurance company has sent me a hearing aid insurance card as well. The years do take their toll. On the other hand, I have not yet needed hearing aids and I am able to function well as a pastor and counselor without the need for anything special.

Furthermore, I like certain loud sounds. I enjoy being in the choir loft when our organist is playing dramatic pieces. Those big pipes produce a lot of sound.

Every once in a while, however, I am tempted to ask those who control the sound to turn the music down. I probably won’t, however. They might not be able to hear or understand what I’m saying. The music is too loud.

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

At the Synagogue

The Synagogue of the Hills is a small congregation, a member of the Union for Reform Judaism. Its members have repeatedly demonstrated warm hospitality when we have visited, most frequently as a part of teaching the children of our church about Judaism. Because our Christian faith grew out of Judaism and because our roots involve a long discussion preserved in our scriptures about whether or not all Christians should be required to become Jews, it is important to understand Judaism in order to understand Christianity. We also make a visit to the synagogue a part of our Christian education programs because of the horrors of anti-semitism that scarred the 20th century. The Holocaust was the earth’s most brutal and awful display of attempted genocide. Over six million precious lives were taken because of hatred and fear. The Nazi regime arose in a Christian nation and the world witnessed the worst of humanity. When we visited Dachau concentration camp in Germany, walked its parade grounds, peered into the barracks, and looked at the crematorium ovens we joined with others to pledge our lives that this should never happen again. We promised that we would never forget. Again, when we took our children to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum we promised to never forget the horrors of anti-semitism.

Last night the Synagogue was packed with and extended community of people who gathered to stand with our Jewish brothers and sisters as we mourned the deaths of eleven who were slain at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh a week ago. I was drawn to the Synagogue and the Shabbat Service as a small way of rededicating myself to stand with all who are oppressed.

The service began with a gracious welcome and a time of reflection as the names of the slain were read and candles were lit. We listened as a pair of cellos played a traditional song and allowed to music to inspire our prayers. After the memorial, we participated in the traditional Shabbat service, which is a celebration of the sabbath and a time of prayer and praise to God. In place of the traditional reading and session from the Torah there was an informal discussion of the importance of our gathering. Although I do not read Hebrew well and there were parts of the service that are not familiar to me, I felt at home in the gathering. The Hebrew Scriptures that Christians claim as our “Old Testament” are shared between our faiths and I have studied Hebrew enough to be able to follow along when the service is read. But even if this were the first visit to a Synagogue, which it was for some who attended, it would be clear that the service is one of reverence and joy and community. Like being invited into any other private family celebration, there may be some elements that are unfamiliar, but the tone and the mood is warm and welcoming.

It was an amazing gathering. As we looked around the room, we could recognize friends who were Jewish, Christian, Muslim and Buddhist. I know that members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints that are commonly called Mormons consider themselves to be Christian, but at times our separation from that community has been deep enough that it functions as a separate religion. There was a young Mormon friend present as well. We had all gathered, without any formal organization or invitation simply because we wanted to show our unity with the families of the Synagogue.

According to the Anti-Defamation League, anti-Semitic incidents increased 57% in the US in 2017, compared to the previous year. There were cases reported in every state of the US for the first time since 2010. With alarming frequency, swastikas and messages like “Hitler was not wrong,” “Kill all Jews” and “No Jews” have appeared on synagogues, Jewish graves and homes and school campuses. “Anti-Semitism is a complicated, stubborn phenomenon,” said Jonathan Greenblatt, the chief executive of the Anti-Defamation League. “[The cases] are disturbing and upsetting, and they demonstrate that we live in a nation where bigots still foment fear and hate.”

The attack last week was the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in recent history, and perhaps the deadliest in all of US history. The gunman reportedly said “All Jews must die,” as he shot indiscriminately against worshipers gathered for Shabbat at the Tree of Life synagogue. Eleven people, aged between 54 and 97 were killed.

Our witness is important. If those who hate turn their venom against Jews, they need to know that I stand with my Jewish brothers and sisters.

Last night I found that I am not alone. We are a rich and diverse community of people. Not only did the gathering last night include people of many different faiths, it included people of different perspectives. I recognized a prominent Republican leader in our community and a Democratic candidate for the State Legislature. We didn’t speak of politics. We spoke of grief and unity and community. Anti-Semitism is not just a political problem. It is a human problem. And last night we were not in search of political solutions, but rather of human solutions.

In the midst of the Shabbat service there is a time when prayers for healing are recited. Before the prayers, worshipers are invited to call out the names of those who are ill and in need of prayer. One of the leaders of the synagogue, called out the name of one of the members of my congregation, a dear friend of mine who is afflicted with cancer that can no longer be treated. I felt a tear in the corner of my eye as i realized that they have been praying for us all along.

We have our differences. But we are one community. When hatred rears its ugly head, whether in the form of harsh and unthinking words or in deeds of violence we are all victims. We must resist hatred in whatever form it presents itself.

I am not one for taking up signs and marching in the streets. But I know the power of worship. I am grateful to be so warmly welcomed to the worship of our Jewish sisters and brothers.

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 words of my friends

Last summer, when I was on Sabbatical, i read Parker Palmer’s latest book, “On the Brink of Everything: Grace, Gravity, and Getting Old.” Parker has been an inspiration for me for many years and his book, “The Courage to Teach” was very instrumental in my style of pastoral ministry. He is one of those people who I consider to be a friend even though we’ve never met face to face. He will probably never know how important his words have been to my formation and how much I appreciate his essays and books and other writings. I have many friends who I know only through their writings: Thomas Merton, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Elie Wiesel, Henri Nouwen, and many, many others. Their influence and companionship on my life’s journey are as important to me as are the face-to-face friendships that I treasure.

I consider Parker Palmer to be a mentor. He is 15 years older than I and for all of the time that I have been reading his writing he seems to be a bit out ahead of me, exploring territory that I will one day need to face, but am not quite ready.

It is encouraging to read his latest collection of essays because he is not facing aging and the end of his life with fear. This is not to say that he doesn’t experience fears. He is honest and says that he has fears - always have and always will - but he is not conquered by his fear. Nothing characterizes his writings as much as his gratitude for the gift of life.

He speaks frankly of his diminishments, but also of the benefits of aging. “I’ve lost the capacity for multitasking, but I’ve rediscovered the joy of doing one thing at a time. My thinking has slowed a bit, but experience has made it deeper and richer. I’m done with big and complex projects, but more aware of the loveliness of simple things: a talk with a friend, a walk in the woods, sunsets and sunrises, a night of good sleep.”

He has reminded me of something that I have noticed. As I said, I’m not his age, but being 65 is an age where there are more than a few people who consider me to be over the hill. Well, if indeed I am over the hill, one thing I have to say is that the view from here is pretty good and the angle of descent isn’t very frightening. Parker quotes one of Kurt Vonnegut’s characters in “Player Piano:” “out on the edge you can see all kinds of things you can’t see from the center.” Parkere says that the view from the brink is striking, “a full panorama of my life - and a bracing breeze awakens me to new ways of understanding my own past, present, and future.”

One of the things that I deeply appreciate about the friends I have is that they have found ways to embody courage. Parker Palmer has wrestled with clinical depression, he has resisted the urge to end his life by suicide. He has been hospitalized for bouts of mental illness. And he has been frank and honest when discussing these life challenges. My life has given me different experiences, but I am grateful for his frankness, honesty and courage. Courage is a quality that is not very common in our day. Courage is difference from brashness or over confidence or combativeness. Courage is the ability to remain true to your core character and values even in the face of fear. As I said, it is a very uncommon quality these days, one that political leaders rarely can find. In a climate of ruling by fear, courage is a rare gem.

One of the things I deeply appreciate about Parker is his continuing ability to draw around him people of all ages. He does not confine his relationships to those who are his age. He is effusive in his thanks for Mariah Helgeson, who helped edit his book. He goes on to say, “I will not mention the fact that she’s less than one-third of my age. Given her level of expertise, this seems extremely unfair!”

I’m not sure how you can “not mention” something that you are mentioning. Not everything he writes makes sense to me. Certainly the result is that by his not mentioning her, we all know and appreciate her contributions to his book. Parker has dynamic friends who are at many different stages of life. He appreciates the diversity of opinion and approach and he knows how to cultivate relationships. It is a quality that I hope to emulate. It is one of the things that I like best about my job. I get to work with babies and parents and schoolchildren and teens and elders and mid-career people. The church is one of the few remaining true intergenerational institutions left in our society and nearly everyone I talk to in the church wants it to be that way. Elders speak of how important it is to have children. Teens speak of the value of seniors. We don’t always behave in the right way to attract and retain members of all ages, but we all at least give lip service to the goal of being an intergenerational institution. And there are times when we succeed handily. I’ve taken enough mission trips with people in their teens, twenties, thirties, forties, fifties, sixties and seventies to know that the best youth ministry doesn’t come from youth mission trips, but rather from intergenerational mission trips. Parker has and continues to give me inspiration to pursue relationships with people of all ages.

I am grateful for the friends I have met face-to-face and those I have known through their writings. And there are a few other good friends. One I know through his music. Leonard Cohen sings, “Well, my friends are gone and my hair is grey / I ache in the places where I used to play.”

My friends are not all gone, though some have gone before me. And my hair is more white than grey these days. But I ache in the places where I used to play. And I laugh at the joy that the words of my friends bring 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!

A creed at the heart of our story

Stephen J. Patterson is a scholar, teacher and writer. Born in South Dakota he was, for more than 20 years, professor of New Testament at Eden Theological Seminary, a United Church of Christ closely-related seminary in St. Louis. He comes back to his home state from time to time and on a couple of occasions I have had the opportunity to hear him speak and to talk to him about his research and writing. So when I found out that he has a new book, his tenth, I rushed to pick up a copy. Trying not to collect more physical books, I had to wait a while for the electronic version to be available. amazon.com offered a preview that contained the introduction and part of the first chapter, which I downloaded and read. Yesterday, when I checked, he entire book was available and though it was a busy day, I managed to read the first three chapters. I’m fairly sure I will have read the entire book in a week or so.

The basic thesis of the book is that Paul’s formula in Galatians 3:28, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female,” is part of an ancient baptismal creed that gives a particular insight into the earliest communities of the Jesus movement, before there was an organized church, formal theology or doctrine. Patterson is a very accomplished scholar and an insightful translator of Greek and he has offered a compelling argument that the words did not originate with Paul, but were part of a then well-known liturgy used by those in the Jesus movement and employed by Paul in his letter to make his argument, which focused mostly on his assertion that Gentiles should be accepted as full members of the movement without circumcision, an idea that was not universally accepted among the faithful, many of whom assumed that to be a follower of Jesus one must accept the law and disciplines of Jewish life and faith.

If Patterson is right, there is, at the very core of the Christian faith, a deep assertion that race, class and gender are human constructs, not recognized by God. We humans are quick to fear that which is different and to make distinctions between us and the other. And, in our fear, we set up all kinds of barriers that separate people from one another. Certainly the world of the early church was one in which racism, classism and patriarchy were the rule, not the exception. For the earliest followers of Jesus to declare at the time of baptism that these distinctions disappeared in the eyes of God was a radical statement.

Patterson’s book raises a disturbing question. If this lies at the core and the foundations of Christian faith, how did the Christian church grow into an institution that is Gentile where anti-semitism and hatred of Jews has been common, where slavery was condoned by many Christian congregations and members and where patriarchy is still commonly practiced? There are many who claim the title of Christian who openly practice anti-semitism. There are many who have claimed a relationship between their Christian faith and their racist views. And, you may have noticed that it isn’t just the Roman Catholic Church that is unlikely to ordain women soon. Many fundamentalist congregations cite other comments in the letters of Paul and in letters by others that claim to be letters of Paul as reasons to deny the leadership of women.

Race, class and gender have been championed inside the church as much as outside of it. Those distinctions, however, have been drawn from the surrounding culture and not from the core of the Christian faith. Patterson eloquently argues that despite the way that Paul has been portrayed, he accepted this ancient creed. It is clear that there were women in the early churches that Paul founded and that he was dependent upon the leadership of women as he extended the reach of Christianity. It is also clear that Paul embraced Jesus’ rejection of class distinctions and associated with those on the margins of society. But it was on the issue of race that Paul was most outspoken. He became the champion of arguing that Gentiles as well as Jews were essential to the Jesus movement and to the churches that followed. He argued that conformity to Jewish dietary laws was no longer the mark of faith in God. People could, through Jesus Christ, come into relationship with God and not be bound by the traditions and practices of Judaism. His argument clearly extended to circumcision. Without getting into the ancient practice of genital mutilation, it is clear that circumcision was a barrier for many early believers in Jesus when it came to embracing the movement. If, as Patterson argues, the distinction between Jew and Gentile was not only discarded by Paul, but also a part of an even more ancient creed of baptism, the rejection of race as a category comes not from some attempt at political correctness or drive to extend the impact of the church, but from God’s rejection of the human construct of race made evident in the ministries of Jesus and the practices of the most ancient communities of his disciples.

Clearly issues of class, race and gender continue to be divisive in our society and in the contemporary church. Open any news media and stories of racism, classism and patriarchy dominate the headlines. Today’s New York Times has stories about sexual harassment at Google, about the funerals for the victims of the worst anti-anti-Semitic attack in the history of our country, and about the ways money is manipulated to give political advantage to some while denying power to others. Issues of race, class and gender are at the core of the upcoming election and the deep divides that scar our nation.

Patterson’s call to return to the creed of “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female,” is poignant in today’ world. His book has already provided me with much upon which to think. And I haven’t even finished reading it yet.

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